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International leaders to explore the future of energy at Stanford forum

Nov 1, 2018
Precourt Institute

Thought leaders and decision-makers from the private sector, government, academia and nonprofit groups around the world will discuss shaping the future of energy at the Global Energy Forum at Stanford University on Nov. 1 and 2.

The forum, organized by Stanford Energy’s Precourt Institute for Energy, is hosted by four former U.S. Cabinet members: George Shultz, William Perry, Condoleezza Rice and Steven Chu. Speakers include California Gov. Jerry Brown, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, philanthropist Bill Gates and Bank of America Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan among a diverse group of international leaders discussing how to fulfill the world’s growing energy needs in a sustainable way.

Sally Benson and Arun Majumdar, co-directors of the Precourt Institute, discussed why this summit is taking place now, why here and what they hope it will accomplish.

Why do you think this group of world leaders decided it was important to meet and discuss the future of energy?

Sally Benson: Reconciling our needs for energy and for dealing with climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, maybe the biggest one. Energy use is woven into the entire fabric of modern life – food, water, shelter, heating, cooling, communication, transportation, industry, our well-being and health. Today, over 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Precourt Institute for Energy co-directors Sally Benson and Arun Majumdar
Precourt Institute for Energy co-directors Sally Benson (left) and Arun
Majumdar (Image credit: Carolyn Raider)

We know we must fundamentally change the way we source and use energy, but we need to do this in a way that does not disrupt the global economy.

If you live in the developing world, though, you may mostly just want more energy for income generating opportunities, for lighting so you can study at night or for getting to a hospital when you’re having a baby. Another perspective is economic prosperity. If you live in an oil-exporting nation, the revenues that your country generates from that are essential. I could list additional perspectives on energy, but the point is that they’re all valid.

So, it’s very important for people from around the world to share their different viewpoints. While many of our participants are from industry, this is not an industry conference. Leaders both on-stage and off, with a broad mix of perspectives, are going to spend two days hashing out a vision for the future of energy.

Why is Stanford the right host for this?

Arun Majumdar: A university can be a neutral space for discussion among people who have, as Sally said, very different perspectives. As for Stanford specifically, I like to paraphrase Jane Stanford, who said that she and her husband created the university for the betterment of mankind, not just the betterment of the lucky few who get to study here.

Since the university’s founding, Stanford has become an ideal place to develop transformative technologies, medical advances, economic analyses, public policies and so on. We then partner with other researchers, businesses, financiers and public servants to translate those breakthroughs into real, systemic change. Think of not only IT, but heart transplants, imaging at the atomic scale, preventing the spread of nuclear arms and many other enormous contributions to mankind. Stanford has a unique combination of culture and ability to deliver on a project of this magnitude.

At the federal level, the United States has pulled back from prior commitments on climate change mitigation and the international mood doesn’t seem very cooperative at the moment. Why is now the right time to launch this global dialogue?

Majumdar: Several paradigm shifts are shaking up this $10-trillion-a-year global industry simultaneously and at unprecedented speed. Innovations in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have led to an unconventional oil and gas revolution. In North America, abundant natural gas has reduced the cost of electricity generation and emissions and is reviving the U.S. chemical industry. The global impact will be profound and complex.

Second, the cost of batteries for electric vehicles has shrunk by a factor of five or more within the past decade. Within the next several years, EVs will reach cost and range parity with gasoline cars without any subsidies. Give it another 15 to 20 years, and we will see deep penetration of EVs around the world.

Third, the electricity sector is also facing dramatic changes, like supporting all these EVs. Flexibility in consumption will be key to managing vacillating big supplies of the clean solar and wind power that people want. The grid was never designed for dynamic, two-way interplay. It needs a technological upgrade.

As if that’s not enough, science has now made it abundantly clear that the use of fossil fuels is causing global warming. A new ocean in the Arctic. Sea level rising. Unprecedented high temperatures. The planet will survive, but we can all agree that there is – at the very least – a serious risk of disruption to human lives if we don’t change.

So, all that is why now.

You’ve included 75 students from Stanford and other universities in this conference, out of more than 400 people. Why is that a priority?

Benson: Earlier I mentioned respecting different perspectives. Well, maybe the perspective of today’s youth deserves the most respect. The future belongs to the next generation. Engaging students in this strategic dialogue is paramount, and we hope many of them will become future energy leaders informed by this experience.

Majumdar: I wish I were entering college as a freshman right now! The next 30 to 40 years will be the most exciting period in the field of energy. The transformation will shape the global economy, the environment, international security and geopolitics of the 21st century. Every country, region, business and industry ought to pay close attention to this transformation because it will affect everyone, especially the youth of today.

After the meeting concludes, what will be this group’s next steps?

Benson: The ultimate goal is making sustainable, affordable and secure energy available to every human being in the world. Making this a priority for all of us is a step in the right direction. This forum represents our commitment to creating an ongoing dialogue that will catalyze the understanding and relationships needed to accelerate progress toward this goal.

As Arun said, several fundamental shifts are already underway. Energy companies, the auto industry, banks and government are trying to figure out how to navigate this. They have to sustain current businesses and the economy while pivoting to a world that will look quite different two to three decades from now.

This transformation will require innovations spanning technology, economics, business, markets, finance, policy, law, sociology and human behavior. The key to nurturing innovations is to create a culture of openness to new ideas balanced by constructive dialog within a community.

We expect the dialogue to continue well beyond these two days. People will create better informed business strategies. New partnerships will emerge that will help create an improved future for all of us. We at Stanford Energy are taking several steps to keep this ball rolling and many positive outcomes will move ahead without us being involved. An ecosystem should evolve organically.

Sally Benson is director of the Global Climate & Energy Project and professor of energy resources engineering. Arun Majumdar is the Jay Precourt Provostial Chair and professor of mechanical engineering.

Media Contact

Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy: 650-724-1629,