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Mini turbines, robot farmers, and more: On the show floor at the ARPA-E summit

Enlarge / A crop monitoring robot: Like a Roomba, but with more sensors and responsibility. (credit: Megan Geuss)

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—Last week's ARPA-E summit was full of big ideas about the future of energy, and nowhere was that more evident than on the summit's show floor. In the basement of the sprawling Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center, dozens of academic institutions and companies set up booths to show off what they had been working on with their grant money.

From cars to recycling to electricity-generating turbines to biofuels, the warehouse temporarily turned into a montage of early-stage ideas. Most importantly, it also showed off the breadth of ARPA-E's work: though the Department of Energy's early-stage grant program has at times been cast as an accelerator for renewable energy exclusively, ARPA-E projects span a variety of fuels and even include some non-energy projects whose application could save industry a significant amount of energy.

Flip through the gallery below to see what we mean.

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New York power companies can now charge Bitcoin miners more

Enlarge / Cryptocurrency mining in operation. (credit: Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) ruled that municipal power companies could charge higher electricity rates to cryptocurrency miners who try to benefit from the state's abundance of cheap hydroelectric power.

Over the years, Bitcoin's soaring price has drawn entrepreneurs to mining. Bitcoin mining enterprises have become massive endeavors, consuming megawatts of power on some grids. To minimize the cost of that considerable power draw, mining companies have tried to site their operations in towns with cheap electricity, both in the US and around the world. In the US, regions with the cheapest energy tend to be small towns with hydroelectric power. (Politico recently wrote extensively about the Bitcoin mining boom in Washington state's mid-Columbia valley, a hotspot for cheap hydro.)

But mining booms in small US towns are not always met with approval. A group of 36 municipal power authorities in northern and western New York petitioned the PSC for permission to raise electricity rates for cryptocurrency miners because their excessive power use has been taxing very small local grids and causing rates to rise for other customers.

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Declaring the internal combustion engine dead? You’re speaking too soon

Enlarge / DETROIT, USA - JANUARY 15: Model of a Saudi Aramco internal combustion engine is on display during the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan, on January 15, 2018. (Photo by David Graff/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) (credit: Getty Images)

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD—A Wednesday morning panel at the ARPA-E summit provocatively asked if the auto industry is about to see ”The End of the Road for the Internal Combustion Engine?”

Though all the panel members agreed that gas- and diesel-based systems are on a path to losing market share, none would admit that the internal combustion engine (ICE) would be completely replaced by the electric vehicle (EV). At least before 2050. So what do industry leaders think will happen or should happen to the evolution of drivetrains in the future?

Perhaps the most interesting perspective came from Amitai Bin-Nun, a vice president in charge of autonomous vehicle innovation for the nonprofit Securing America’s Future Energy, or SAFE. Bin-Nun argued that, without a transition to autonomous vehicles, EVs would not see the mass-market adoption that boosters have been hoping for.

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Trump really wants to kill ARPA-E; federal agency says that’s folly

Enlarge / The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy annual summit opens. (credit: Megan Geuss)

WASHINGTON, DC—Ten years ago, a bipartisan group of lawmakers created ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. Today, the agency may be living on borrowed time. Or maybe not.

The Trump administration has, for two years in a row, recommended that ARPA-E be defunded and mothballed. But last year, a Republican-led Congress actually voted to increase the agency's budget from its 2016 levels.

But until Congress passes a new budget, the fate of ARPA-E is uncertain. In the face of that uncertainty, the agency's annual summit still convened in Washington, DC, this week, and its leaders addressed the crowd of scientists and entrepreneurs with words that seemed to be more for administration higher-ups than for the choir to whom they preached.

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New York commits $1.4 billion to renewable energy projects

Enlarge / MADISON, New York - 2015/10/11: Wind farm with autumn color. (credit: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On Friday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his state would commit $1.4 billion to 26 renewable projects, including 22 solar farms, three wind farms, and one hydroelectric project. The outlay is a huge sum compared to what most states spend on renewable energy.

At the same time, the governor denounced the Trump administration's plan to open nearly 90 percent of offshore federal waters to oil drilling. Cuomo asked that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exclude two areas off the New York coast from lease sales, citing concerns about oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. Cuomo noted that Florida has been able to obtain verbal approval that lease sales won't be held in waters adjacent to the Florida coast (although some officials in the administration have contradicted that exemption).

The renewable projects will be sited throughout the state and were chosen by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) based on the proposed cost of each project, the project's ability to create local jobs, and developer experience in building renewable projects in New York.

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