The thing is we don't know. This is what the president talked about: an all-of-the-above approach. We look at biofuels, we're taking a portfolio approach because we don't know which one is going to scale in cost and volume and be competitive with petroleum-based fuels. At the end of the day, I think everyone's goal is the same: it's to reduce our oil imports.
According to Bill Gates, the nuclear industry hasn't had any innovation since the 1970s. Is there room for ARPA–E-style breakthroughs in nuclear power?
We are open to everything. We are looking at everything. We have considered nuclear before. Nuclear is always considered base load [the type of power plant that consistently pumps out electricity], but if you can store the nuclear heat, you can use it as peaking, [or only when the electricity is needed]. This is the reverse of solar and wind because they are intermittent, and people want solar and wind to be base load. We want nuclear to be peaking because you get more revenue that way. The price of electricity goes up when demand is high. Those are the kinds of things we are considering.
We have a nuclear energy program in DoE and we work very closely with them to identify where ARPA–E can provide value in a sector where if ARPA–E puts in $30 [million] to 40 million, the typical program size, it can really move the needle significantly. That's what we'd like to see. We are exploring that. So nuclear certainly is on the table.
One of the big issues in the energy sector is water—whether it's water used to cool a nuclear power plant or water used to produce biofuels. Does ARPA–E plan to do any work in the area of the energy–water nexus?
We had projects on water and desalinization. It didn't quite work out. We had a workshop on water. It didn't quite create a program. We're actively looking at people who might be interested in water to recruit them. We have an internal ARPA–E fellow who has looked into water as to what the opportunities are. So yes, we are very interested in water, especially where ARPA–E can go in and really move the needle on something.
The way we work is that we hire really smart people, technically savvy, who have one foot in science and engineering and the other foot in business, [and] who can translate science to technology to business. And we empower them: Go figure out what's the best opportunity. If you're so smart, go figure it out. And they'll tell us and have to explain it to us. That's how we are going to work.
What's next for ARPA–E?
We are putting a great team together. At the end of the day it's the people. And we are recruiting some of the top-notch people in the technical community to come to ARPA–E and serve the nation.
And you, you presently have two jobs. How's that going?
Let me use the words that Senator [Lisa] Murkowski used in my confirmation hearing: Everyone's wondering when do you sleep? I'll just leave it at that. She may be right.
I'm going to guess that you sleep on the plane back to Berkeley, Calif., where your family is, and that's about it.
I do. I am asleep before the plane takes off. When the plane hits the runway I'm gone. And I try not to answer phone calls or e-mails when I'm home.