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May/June 2010

Energy’s Sputnik Moment

Maryann Gorman,  Standardization News' Editor in ChiefOnce a year on Capitol Hill, the engineering community and public officials share information about legislative priorities for energy, the environment and R&D at the Engineering Public Policy Symposium. This year, on the slate of dynamic and energetic speakers was Arun Majumdar, director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. Funded in 2009, ARPA-E is modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was formed in 1958 to be a quick-response entity that could fund highly specific and innovative projects that might otherwise never see the light of day.

Majumdar noted that the establishment of DARPA came in response to the Soviet launch of the first orbiting spacecraft, Sputnik — a game-changing event that sparked reflection about U.S. science and technology programs. He went on to say that the challenges we now face in creating and maintaining a sustainable energy infrastructure makes this the “Sputnik moment” for ARPA-E, the energy industry and policymakers.

In the first year of its existence, ARPA-E has so far funded 37 projects. Six of these are investigating how to use the sun to generate energy. With 37 percent growth in 2009, solar technology has “hit the point on the curve where it’s way bigger than it was even a few years ago,” in the words of George Kelly, an ASTM International member quoted in the feature beginning on page 20. With the industry’s almost exponential growth has come an increased understanding that standards are going to be critical to popularizing the technology.

Starting in late 2008, ASTM International Committee E44 on Solar, Geothermal and Other Alternative Energy Sources undertook a concerted effort to answer the solar industry’s need for more standards. After conducting research on existing and necessary standards and reaching out to key stakeholders, Committee E44’s more than 200 members are now developing documents in several areas, such as roof-mounted photovoltaic arrays, the weathering and life-testing of photovoltaic modules, and glass for solar applications.

The global drive toward effectively employing sustainable energy sources is indeed creating a new Sputnik moment in our culture. With the help of standards developing groups like Committee E44, research being done through initiatives such as ARPA-E is all the more likely to make its way from the drawing board to our homes and offices.

Maryann Gorman
Editor in Chief