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Precourt Institute for Energy Annual Report 2018-2019

Annual Report 2018-2019 SEQ Image
Annual Report 2018-2019

Message from Co-Directors

DECEMBER 11, 2019 | Sally Benson & Arun Majumdar

Realizing the vision of sustainable, affordable and secure energy for everyone will take decades of hard work from countless people around the world. To keep ourselves invigorated and committed, it is important to take stock occasionally of contributions within that large, shared mission.
In looking back over the 2018-19 fiscal year, we are filled with appreciation for the remarkable achievements of the faculty, students, post-doctoral fellows, staff, industrial collaborators and supporters, all of whom comprise the Precourt Institute for Energy and its Stanfordwide programs. We entered the year with these stated top objectives:

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2018-2019 Research Highlights Image
2018-2019 Research Highlights

The past fiscal year – September 1, 2018 through August 31, 2019 – produced a wide range of important research advances among Precourt Institute programs, from capturing energy in brackish waters to the impact of a U.S. carbon tax on households by income. 

Hydrogen from water image

Advance in hydrogen from water

Solar water splitting using photoelectrochemical cells has long been considered a potential way to store renewable energy.  In April 2019, a team led by Paul McIntyre, professor in Materials Science & Engineering, developed an integrated solar water splitting device using efficient silicon heterojunction photovoltaic cells that avoids such losses. 

Stanford SESI

Improving and extending Stanford’s energy makeover

The multi-year Stanford Energy System Innovations project cut the campus’s total greenhouse gas emissions 68 percent and is lowering the system’s operating costs by $425 million over 35 years. In May, a new study laid out how to increase those benefits at Stanford, as well as how other campuses and communities could adopt some of the innovations. 

Carbon tax on U.S. Households Image

Impacts of a U.S. carbon tax on households

Would a carbon tax hurt America’s poor disproportionately to other income groups? Many earlier studies found that it would. A new study led by Lawrence Goulder, economics professor and director of the Stanford Environmental & Energy Policy Analysis Center, found that, on average, low-income households would not be disproportionately affected. 

Sustainable Finance Initiative launches

The global transition to low-carbon economies is transforming the investment landscape, especially in the energy, agriculture and transportation sectors. For the energy sector alone, global investment needs to triple from its current level to $2.3 trillion annually through 2040 to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency. To help unlock the massive amount of capital needed, the Precourt Institute launched the Sustainable Finance Initiative in October 2018. 

Sustainable Finance Initiative Image
Mixing seawater and freshwater

Energy from mixing seawater and freshwater

Every cubic meter of freshwater that mixes with seawater produces about .65 kilowatt-hours of energy from the difference in salinity of the two types of water. Stanford researchers developed an affordable, durable technology that could harness and store the energy created wherever ocean water and freshwater mingle. 

Catalyst enzyme

Artificial catalysts inspired by living enzymes

Scientists have spent decades trying to create artificial enzymes capable of cranking out important chemicals and fuels at an industrial scale with performance rivaling their natural counterparts. A research team led by Matteo Cargnello, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, succeeded in doing so, according to their study published in August. 

Drone detecting methane leaks

New mobile technologies find methane leaks

On trucks, drones and airplanes, 10 promising technologies for finding natural gas leaks quickly and cheaply competed in the Mobile Monitoring Challenge, the first independent assessment of moving gas leak detectors at well sites. One startup’s drone-based system detected 100 percent of leaks and had no false positives.

$1.3 million for new energy research projects

The Precourt Institute, TomKat Center and Bits & Watts initiative awarded $1.3 million to 11 new energy research projects on campus in the summer of 2019 for projects set to start in the fall. The research will explore multiple technologies and policies. Five of the project teams are interdisciplinary. The competitively awarded seed grants enable researchers to pursue concepts very early in development, but with the potential to produce major benefits. The Precourt Institute and the TomKat Center have made such awards annually since 2010. Bits & Watts has done so since 2017. 

Geothermal power station

New Faces

Jennifer Dionne and Matthew Kanan

Dionne and Kanan become TomKat Co-Directors

Jennifer Dionne and Matthew Kanan were announced in August as the new co-directors of the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. TomKat Center founding director Stacey Bent stepped down from her TomKat role to fulfill her new responsibilities as Stanford’s vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs.

Yi Cui and Will Chueh

Cui and Chueh named co-directors of the new Stanford StorageX Initiative

Yi Cui and Will Chueh agreed to take the helm of the new StorageX Initiative, which tackles the complex, interdisciplinary challenges in creating modern energy storage systems. The initiative funds research to prove new energy storage technologies and concepts. Working closely with industrial partners, the StorageX Initiative develops in-depth technical and commercial understanding of the emerging challenges in the sector.

Alicia Seiger and Tom Heller

Heller and Seiger picked to lead the Sustainable Finance Initiative

Emeritus law professor Thomas Heller became the faculty director of the Sustainable Finance Initiative at its launch in October 2018, and Alicia Seiger became its managing director. 

Sarah Saltzer

Sarah Saltzer becomes managing director of SCCS

In May, Sarah Saltzer became the new managing director of the Stanford Center for Carbon Storage. Saltzer worked for 25 years at Chevron, where she held a series of scientific, managerial and executive roles in more than ten countries. She earned a PhD in geology from Stanford in 1992. Under the direction of professors Sally Benson, Mark Zobak and Anthony Kovscek, SCCS studies flow physics, monitoring, geochemistry, and simulation of the transport and fate of stored CO2.

Liang Min

Liang Min named managing director, Bits & Watts Initiative

The Precourt Institute appointed Liang Min as the managing director of the Bits & Watts Initiative in June. Since 2011, Min had worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, most recently as the associate program leader for the national lab’s Cyber & Infrastructure Resilience program. He was also Livermore’s founding group leader on energy delivery and utilization. Min earned a PhD in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University in 2007.

Naomi Boness

Naomi Boness named managing director of the Natural Gas Initiative

In January (2019), Naomi Boness became the new Managing Director of the Natural Gas Initiative. Prior to joining Stanford in 2019, Dr. Boness has held a variety of technical and management positions at Chevron. She is an invited member of the United Nations Expert Group on Resource Classification and a past Chair of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists Oil and Gas Reserves Committee. She earned a PhD in geophysics from Stanford in 2005. 

Educating Future Leaders Student Image
Educating Future Leaders

Stanford’s only energy entrepreneurship course

• 30 projects have resulted in 16 startups

• $33.2 million raised ($27.9 private investment; $5.3 in philanthropic awards)

• 85 employees

• Four countries: United States, Uganda, Kenya and India

Joel Moxley (far left) with Stuart MacMillan (second from right) and Dave Danielson (far right) working with Stanford Energy Ventures students.
TomKat innovation transfer funding image

Translating Stanford discoveries into products

The TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy’s Innovation Transfer Program assists Stanford students and recent alumni in advancing technologies developed in their laboratories toward commercialization. The program is educational, requiring all applicants to have a committed faculty advisor. Grants are awarded to develop prototypes, refine business plans, and conduct customer trials and market research.

Two energy bootcamp students

Energy bootcamp for new graduate students

In September 2018 about 5 percent of all incoming graduate students began their Stanford careers in a week-long boot camp to learn about the breadth and depth of energy research at Stanford. Energy@Stanford & SLAC is one of 12 courses in the Vice Provost for Graduate Education’s Stanford Graduate Summer Institute and by far its largest. New graduate students begin to grow networks of interdisciplinary peers, meet Stanford energy faculty and alumni, and experience a team challenge.

Stanford Energy clubs inaugural hackathon winners

Stanford Energy Club's inaugural hackathon

In April, the Stanford Energy Club launched its first-ever hackathon: the Stanford Cleantech Challenge. In this 36-hour event, 20 student teams developed solutions to business and technology challenges posed by Google, Total, Silicon Valley Clean Energy and the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas.


True cost calculator for electric vehicles

by Gabriela augustina uribe, '21

As an intern at the California Air Resources Board this summer, I researched the total cost of ownership of zero-emission vehicles. First, I studied different models for figuring out lifetime costs of owning an electric car. Then, with the help of CARB staff members and other energy experts, I created a calculator designed for car buyers to determine how certain zero-emission vehicle models compare to conventional vehicles on total cost.

A major misconception in the public is that electric vehicles are much more expensive than conventional cars. In reality, they can save you money in the long run. With the calculator, consumers can tailor the estimate based on their specific details and see how much money they could save by driving an electric car. The board will improve the calculator and plans to post a version of it to their clean vehicle website so people can make well-informed, environmentally conscious car purchases.

Stanford grad student Gabrela Austina Uribe

Summer internships in public service

Stanford undergraduate and graduate students interested in possibly pursuing a career in energy policy making – or who just want to learn how the sector is governed – can discover much about energy policy making in a summer. The Stanford Energy Internships in California & the West is a Precourt Institute program that offers paid summer work at a suite of energy agencies, like the California Public Utilities Commission and Western Interstate Energy Board.

Solving security issues with lean launchpad

Solving national security issues with the Lean LaunchPad

The course Hacking for Defense is about missiondriven entrepreneurship. Instead of students learning and applying Steve Blank’s “Lean LaunchPad” to form startups, they apply the methods to solve societal challenges. Topics can be about defense or about national security more broadly—like energy or the environment—or anything for which student teams can find a government sponsor.

Energy week policy panel

Stanford Energy Club's Energy Week

More than 300 students, faculty and energy professionals attended Stanford Energy Club’s premier annual event – Stanford Energy Week, where senior executives at Facebook, Anadarko Petroleum and Sunrun advocated for a clean energy future.

Tomkat fellowships

TomKat fellowships, internships and postdocs

Since 2014, the TomKat Center has supported 150 primarily undergraduate students through its two summer programs, the Energy Impact Fellowships and the energyStartup Summer Internships.

Smart grid seminar

Smart Grid Seminar

Many diverse issues need to be tackled if the electric grid is to be modernized using a holistic approach. Bits & Watts’ monthly Smart Grid Seminar provides experts from startups, research institutes and large corporations to familiarize seminar participants with the challenges and advances in grid data analytics, economics, market design, battery storage, electrified transportation, power electronics, renewable energy integration, and system operations and resiliency.

Sophomore college

Sophomore College: Energy in Hawaii

Due to a lack of conventional energy resources, Hawaii is at the forefront of technical changes in the electric grid and the uses of electricity. This summer, the Precourt Institute and the Bill Lane Center for the American West’s sophomore college course was Energy in Hawaii: Forefront of Clean Energy Technology and Policy. The immersive experience was led by Sally Benson and Terry Surles, a senior advisor at the California Institute for Energy & Environment who works extensively in Hawaii.

Engagement Image with Bill Gates and Arun Majumdar
GEF crowd shot

Global Energy Forum’s remarkable debut

With the help of energy programs across campus, the university administration and more than two dozen sponsors, the Precourt Institute organized the first Stanford Global Energy Forum in November 2018.

Team from California high speed rail wins SVES debate

Stanford Energy communication channels flourish

Team for California high-speed rail wins SVES debate California should continue to build its high-speed rail system despite soaring costs and lengthening delays, according to the audience at the annual debate of Stanford’s Silicon Valley Energy Summit in June.

Power station pollution

Huge investment needed to fix energy’s pollution problem

Three major trends are disrupting the $10-trillion a year global energy sector, Arun Majumdar wrote in a December 2018 opinion piece in the Financial Times. These are: an expanding natural gas supply from fracking shale formations, electrifying transportation, and generating carbon-free electricity from wind and solar. 

Communicating Stanford contributions to energy

The Precourt Institute raises the visibility of Stanford contributions to energy research and education through conferences, press releases, social media, a newsletter and our website. During the fiscal year, growth in engagements on Facebook (@StanfordEnergy) and in subscriptions to the Stanford ENERGY YouTube channel was excellent. Media articles principally about Stanford energy research and followers on Twitter (@StanfordEnergy) made solid gains.

Also, the Precourt Institute for the first time produced Stanford Energy Research Year in Review, which includes a directory of energy researchers across campus with links to their Google scholar pages.

Stanford energy communication chart
Sally Benson speaking on climate change

Another way companies can fight climate change

The world is not yet ready to rely solely on renewable energy, Sally Benson wrote in a CNN Business perspective in April, but companies have other opportunities to combat climate change now.

California's 2050 climate goals

California’s 2050 climate goals look very challenging

California will need to change all sectors of its economy extensively to reach its ambitious climate goals, but the right portfolio of technologies can help the state meet them – at least in the near term – according to a report by Energy Futures Initiative, a non-profit led by former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.

Arun Majumdar testifies to Congress

Majumdar testifies to Congress twice on energy R&D

The Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources examined opportunities for energy innovation to address global climate change in April. A diverse set of experts, including Arun Majumdar, told the committee that to address climate change the federal government should play a bigger role in both energy policy innovation, and energy research and development.

“Carbon capture isn’t a moonshot solution, nor is it a silver bullet for decarbonization. It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves solution. It can create new jobs, new clean energy products and protect public health.” 

– Sally Benson CNN Business

Stanford at CERAWeek

Stanford at one of energy’s biggest conferences

A major advance of late in the Precourt Institute’s efforts to elevate the visibility of Stanford’s energy research and education is its role as a partner organization of CERAWeek, one of the world’s premier annual energy conferences.

Celebrating women champions at C3E

Celebrating women champions of clean energy

In December 2018, the Precourt Institute hosted the annual Clean Energy Education & Empowerment (C3E) symposium and awards. Kathryn Moler, physicist and Stanford’s dean of research, presented the lifetime achievement award to her aunt, Elizabeth “Betsy” Moler, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

SFI assists New York State on $210B fund

Sustainable Finance Initiative’s Seiger assists New York State on $210B fund

In June, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released a Climate Action Plan to protect and invest portfolio assets of the $210 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, with the goal of addressing climate risk.

20 million in free legal services

$20 million in free legal services for startups

In September 2018, the Global Climate Action Summit announced the launch of the Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy initiative. Thirteen major private U.S. law firms have committed to delivering $20 million worth of free services by the end of 2020 to advance sustainability in energy, transportation and land use. 

Re-emergence of a hydrogen economy

Re-emergence of a hydrogen economy

Based on very high interest in hydrogen’s capacity to possibly transform the global energy landscape, the Stanford Energy Corporate Affiliates program, the Natural Gas Initiative and SUNCAT Center for Interface Science & Catalysis formed Stanford’s Hydrogen Focus Group.

Global council group image

Stanford Energy Global Council on transportation

The Precourt Institute created the new Stanford Energy Global Council to create a deep dialogue on the trends in technology, business, investments and policy, and their complex interplay that is shaping and likely to shape the energy landscape in different parts of the world. Its first topic: the future of transportation.

Precourt Institute for Energy Research Centers and Programs

Global Climate and Energy Project

Stanford Center for Carbon Storage

Stanford Energy Corporate Affiliates

Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center

Natural Gas Initiative

TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy