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Uncle Sam's early stage energy investment program sees results

a photo illustration of  ARPA-E director Evelyn Wang surrounded by colorful rectangles

Evelyn Wang. Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

The U.S. Department of Energy's early stage investment program continues to take risks and is starting to see deployments from portfolio companies, says Director Evelyn Wang.

Why it matters: The government's moonshot energy program has helped provide seed funding for over 1,500 early stage projects, and 230 of those have gone on to attract follow-on financing.

Driving the news: The program, named ARPA-E, celebrated its 15th birthday last week, a major milestone for a bipartisan program that's managed to survive and grow across consecutive administrations.

Zoom in: Wang, who's been in the role about a year, says the new ecosystem of support from the Biden administration, including the IRA, is helping more ARPA-E-backed companies advance and install projects.

  • At the same time, ARPA-E is "still a teenager," says Wang, noting that hard tech energy technologies can take a decade or two to mature.
  • ARPA-E portfolio companies that are moving toward installations and/or commercial products include battery materials company Sila, thermal battery company Antora Energy and rare earth-free magnet company Niron Magnetics.

Axios sat down with Wang last week at SF Climate Week to chat about how the program has evolved, the importance of private investors and the looming election:

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On the role of VC and private investors for ARPA-E:

  • "The genesis of ARPA-E was about how do you de-risk technologies in a way, such as the private sector will then pick it up and invest.
  • Investors play such a critical role because the hope is that they will be the follow-on funding to these projects that can be truly transformational in the energy space."

On how the program has evolved:

  • "In the early days, the question was, should ARPA-E exist? I think things have evolved so people realize the important role that we play in the ecosystem.
  • The companies that we started supporting in 2012, we are just starting to see those actually become commercial products.
  • The next step is really getting to those gigafactories and actually getting to the scale that you need. I think that's what's really exciting."

On the IRA:

  • "It helps innovators and ultimately investors take more risks, given the tax incentives that help facilitate the cost when it's first of a kind [project].
  • A lot of our companies are benefiting from the fact that IRA has also put in a lot of resources for deployment projects. Now they're actually getting follow on funding from the government."

On ARPA-E still taking risks:

  • "We believe that we're always pushing the needle about what's next.
  • I think the landscape has changed in the sense that it is much more crowded.
  • It's always going to be something we have to challenge ourselves on."

On the looming election:

  • "It's top of mind for a lot of people.
  • We're a technology agency so we've garnered a lot of bipartisan support through the years.
  • We expect that we'll just keep on going and do what we believe is necessary to help with the energy transition."
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