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A State-Powered Green Revolution

Better mechanisms for storing and releasing energy – when the sun isn’t shining, the wind isn’t blowing, or when electric cars are on the move – are critical to a green future. And, contrary to popular belief, it is the public sector that is taking the lead in developing them.

LONDON – Discussions about building a green future tend to focus on the need to improve the generation of energy from renewable sources. But that is just the first step. Better mechanisms for storing and releasing that energy – when the sun isn’t shining, the wind isn’t blowing, or when electric cars are on the move – are also critical. And, contrary to popular belief, it is the public sector that is leading the way toward effective solutions.

Since the commercial development of lithium-ion batteries – the rechargeable batteries common in consumer electronics – in the early 1990s, the challenge of storing and releasing power effectively enough to make sustainable energy sources viable alternatives to fossil fuels has been a vexing one. And efforts by entrepreneurial billionaires like Bill Gates and Elon Musk to overcome this challenge have been the focus of much excited media speculation. So how many billionaires does it take to change a battery?

The answer, it turns out, is zero. This week, Ellen Williams, Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, part of the US Department of Energy, announced that her agency had beaten the billionaires to it. ARPA-E, she declared, had attained “some holy grails in batteries,” which will enable us to “create a totally new approach to battery technology, make it work, make it commercially viable.”

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