Stanford launches $100M energy institute for cleantech research, teaching

Stanford University just upped the ante on its green technology efforts, announcing today that it is founding a new energy institute on campus with an initial price tag of $100 million. The staggering sum — considering the very visible downturn in the university’s endowment — will go toward bringing new faculty and even more graduate students on board to investigate alternative and sustainable sources of energy.

Christened the Precourt Institute for Energy, the facility is designed to absorb and bolster the activities of Stanford’s existing Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP), which already manages 40 initiatives aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions. In the six years GCEP has been active, the university has increased its cleantech research spending seven-fold, but as its president, John Hennessy, put it today, that amount has still proved “simply inadequate.”

The institute’s funding, received in several large chunks from alumni donors, will go toward five new endowed professorships (six to eight faculty posts in all), 20 new interdisciplinary fellowships for graduate students, several post-doctoral fellowships, seed grants for commercially promising energy conversion research projects, and a $2 million competition for projects this spring. Overall, the institute will cover the estimated $30 million the university spends annually on green technology.

As always, Stanford made a splash with its news, drafting headliners Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and Kleiner Perkins partner/cleantech enthusiast John Doerr for a panel discussion accompanying the announcement — a discussion not so much focused on the institute as energy initiatives in progress on and off campus.

Schmidt kicked things off talking about the success Google has seen with its own green technology implementations in Mountain View, Calif. ($18 million that has rapidly paid for itself in the span of a year and a half). The unexpected highlight was actually the brief spiel given by GCEP director Sally Benson who listed some of the ideas being pursued in different departments:

  • Nanoscience applications with the potential to make solar cells 45 percent efficient (the average solar cell is about 15 percent efficient)
  • Solar cells that can be stamped out by an ink-jet printer
  • Conversion of solar energy into liquid fuel
  • Splitting water and harnessing hydrogen
  • High-volume storage of energy generated by wind mechanisms
  • Efficiently and sustainably deriving biofuels from woody plants
  • Large-scale carbon dioxide sequestration for coal-burning operations

These are just a few. More detailed information can be found here.

Doerr spoke on his role advising the Obama campaign on its cleantech goals — explaining, that the country needs to give the brilliant minds tackling these issues incentive to stay in he U.S. Many (including those who come to study at Stanford from all over the world) are being trained and then returning to their countries of origin, he said.

He was also asked to highlight some of the most promising (perhaps capital-worthy) ideas he’s seen in his line of work. Gracefully dodging specifics, he mentioned efforts to convert gallons of municipal waste into natural gas and fertilizer using anaerobic digestion, to dramatically up the efficiency of solar cells (“in a few years we might be calling it Solar Valley instead of Silicon Valley”), and to reintegrate trapped carbon dioxide into products like copper rooftops and cement.

A few other issues the presentation covered include:

  • The need for the new Precourt Institute to work with China in mind, perhaps through partnerships with Chinese researchers and organizations.
  • Transportation and public transit pose perhaps the stickiest questions in the green technology dialog. The mayor of Menlo Park, Calif. asked how Silicon Valley can and will rally to improve transit in the Bay, largely stumping the panelists.
  • The necessity for research dedicated to the radical overhaul of the American power grid to take full advantage of new energy sources.
  • The importance of an interdisciplinary approach to green technology that includes an emphasis on policy and communications strategies (not just hard science).
  • In response to an audience question regarding marine environments, Schmidt compared the damage being done to oceans to “destroying the Amazon without really noticing it,” underscoring the ramifications of the death of coral reefs and the mini-ecosystems they support.

The $100 million has already raised, according to Hennessy. Lead contributor was Jay Precourt, an alumnus and former chief executive of Hamilton Oil Company. Other contributions came from Stanford trustee and Farallon Capital Management partner Thomas Steyer and his wife, philanthropist Kat Taylor, Energy Capital Partners partner Douglas Kimmelman, and North American Power Group president Michael Ruffatto.