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The Energy Fixers

"The Energy Fixers," a documentary on two pathbreaking projects kickstarted by ARPA-e, the Dept. of Energy's advanced projects funder: a biofuel derived from seaweed and a wind power system that's dramatically more efficient than conventional turbines.
“The Energy Fixers,” a documentary on two pathbreaking projects kickstarted by ARPA-e, the Dept. of Energy’s advanced projects funder: a biofuel derived from seaweed and a wind power system that’s dramatically more efficient than conventional turbines. Presented by GE.

The rising cost of fuel isn’t just about how much you pay at the pump. For decades, science has been drawing links between the use of carbon-based fuels and changes to the world’s climate. Now Americans are starting to connect the dots too. Two recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans link the extreme weather of recent years – an unusually mild winter, freak heat waves, and other weather disasters – to the climate-changing effects of burning tons of carbon.

While emissions are speeding ahead, the outlook isn’t all gloomy: thanks to heavy investments in recent years, and a rush to compete with China, renewable energy use is on the rise in the U.S. In 2010, renewables accounted for only eight percent of all domestic power production; through the first six months of 2011, that number had climbed to about 14.3 percent. Still, considering the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of energy, we’re still using an enormous amount of not-so-pretty fossil fuels: Coal power plants, which provide nearly half of America’s energy needs, burned through 860 million tons of fuel through the first half of 2011, while natural gas plants accounted for another fifth of our needs.


The human costs of fossil fuels are immense, and as we continue to drill, mine, and frack deeper and deeper, the environmental risks — even aside from the pollution created by production — are increasingly threatening our wallets. As it stands right now, there’s no perfect solution to our energy needs. But the Energy Department has already signaled that it’s pushing for clean tech; of the $37.2 billion in energy subsidies in 2010, $14.7 billion went to renewables. the wealth of new energy IPOs over the past few years suggests people are ready and willing to bet on green tech.

One of those bettors is ARPA-E, the DoE’s incubator for solutions to the energy crisis. Following in the footsteps of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which kickstarted the Internet and all sorts of mind-bending technologies, ARPA-E is shooting to make low-cost bets on ideas that could change the energy landscape.

Those projects from university labs and startups include BAL, which received an $8.9 million grant to develop biofuels from seaweed, and Makani Power, which received $3 million to build airborne wind turbines. Sure, those numbers seem small in the context of a global green-tech energy industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars and an economy desperate for smarter energy. But in the interest of spurring breakthroughs large and small – and competing with China’s own push for renewables, which makes it the world leader in wind – programs like ARPA-E’s are helping U.S. researchers keep up with the worldwide march towards clean energy.