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Stanford launches new energy research program in collaboration with industry

March 1, 2018
Precourt Institute

By Mark Golden

Stanford University is launching a new research program to accelerate the transformation of the world’s energy infrastructure to make it more sustainable, affordable and secure – and to extend modern energy services to developing economies.

The Stanford Strategic Energy Alliance will match industry alliance members and Stanford professors who share common research objectives across the spectrum of energy topics from science and engineering to policy and business. The alliance will also fund some early-stage research at the direction of its faculty leadership. Founding members ExxonMobil and Bank of America have committed $20 million and $7.5 million respectively. Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, which will manage the program, is in advanced discussions with other select leading companies to join the alliance.

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)

“Throughout human history, fundamental changes in the way we use energy have unleashed the next level of society’s growth. Born of necessity and opportunity, now is one of those moments,” said Sally Benson, co-director of the Precourt Institute. “Stanford innovators value the support and expertise of companies like ExxonMobil and Bank of America as we all try to help create this next era in energy.”

Building on GCEP

The Strategic Energy Alliance will build on the success of Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project, which will wrap up this year. Some 15 years ago, GCEP sparked a resurgence in low-carbon energy research. The program, sponsors of which include both of the founding members of the Strategic Energy Alliance, finances work at research institutions around the world. At Stanford alone, since 2003 the number of faculty members involved in energy research has grown from about 50 to 200.

GCEP focused on the biggest needs when it started: fundamental energy science and radical new ideas for potentially breakthrough technologies. Having funded 100 major research projects, GCEP was a creativity engine that explored many approaches to low-carbon energy. Its researchers discovered the science and invented technologies to advance solar power, batteries, hydrogen production, biofuels and electricity-free cooling. More important, scientists in GCEP and beyond learned which avenues hold the most promise.

Today, while many scientific questions must still be answered, a brighter energy future also requires major improvements in energy policy, business and finance. The Strategic Energy Alliance will support the work of Stanford’s professors in energy research from engineering to economics. For example, one major area of research will be to create new financial vehicles that reduce the costs and financial risks of building sustainable energy projects, especially in the developing world.

Former Stanford graduate student Haotian Wang
Former Stanford graduate student Haotian Wang led a study sponsored
by GCEP that could lead to better fuel cells and other clean energy
technologies. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Improving how we produce and consume energy is one of the most pressing problems we face today,” said Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research at Stanford. “I expect this new program will hasten further advances. It will attract even more faculty and students to answer the call, and they will find answers that might otherwise be missed.”

Benefits of collaboration

The Strategic Energy Alliance will work closely with its industry collaborators, helping Stanford faculty identify the avenues most likely to benefit society in a big way. There is no silver bullet for energy. The world needs a portfolio of solutions designed to progress from laboratories to large-scale use. Industry researchers and executives can provide university researchers with insights on these pathways, which are very complex in the enormous, fast-changing sector.

“As the world undergoes a major transformation in the way that energy is sourced, distributed and used, there are enormous opportunities to innovate and strategically shape the landscape of the global energy system,” said Arun Majumdar, co-director with Benson of the Precourt Institute. “Collaboration with companies that have a long-term strategic outlook enables Stanford to create technologies, policies and business models that we expect to be deployed in the coming years and decades.”

The benefits of such interaction are equally important to education. The vast majority of university research funding – whether from donors, government or corporations –supports students. This helps build the workforce and leadership needed for our future energy systems.

“One of the underappreciated benefits of academic-industrial collaboration is that students learn both the importance and difficulties of solving problems at scale for practical, meaningful impact,” said Arvin. “That’s an experience that may not be obtained in a purely academic setting.”

Most of the Strategic Energy Alliance’s research will be projects based on mutual interests between a member and one or more Stanford faculty members.  In addition, a significant part of each member’s contributions will be pooled to fund early research into new ideas with potentially far-reaching impact.

Alliance members, in addition to helping improve energy systems, gain insights on the latest trends in energy science, engineering, economics and law. The knowledge gained can inform strategies for managing an energy sector in transition.

As with all research at Stanford, results of the Strategic Energy Alliance’s work will be published and the university will retain ownership of any resulting intellectual property.