Energy Week 2015: Energizing Innovation

Energizing Innovation

“Energizing Innovation”  panel was one of the events that made up the Stanford Energy Club “Energy Week 2015”, a mini-conference promoting the SEC’s goals of sharing knowledge, building careers, and fostering a meaningful, energy-focused community. A video of the moderated portion of the event is available here:

Stanford scientists Steven Chu and Arun Majumdar discuss energy innovation: where we are, where we need to be, and how to get there

Last Wednesday evening, the Stanford Energy Club brought two eminent Stanford professors together in an informal conversation about the current state of energy innovation. Steven Chu, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, and Arun Majumdar, former director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and former Vice President of Energy at Google, talked about their time in Washington and shared insights into the forces driving innovation in the United States. Jeffrey Ball, Stanford scholar-in-residence and former environment editor for the Wall Street Journal, moderated the discussion.

Ball framed the issue. Oil, natural gas, and coal are less expensive than they have been in years. Prices for renewables are also falling—there are places in the world where wind is competitive, and solar is on the brink of hitting that point. These cost cuts are the result of decades of innovation in the energy sector. As Ball put it, we are in an “era of energy abundance”. However, the situation is complicated by soaring global energy consumption on the one hand, and the need to reduce global carbon emissions on the other. Hence, the role of energy innovation must be threefold: bring prices down, increase availability, and move towards a “de-carbonized” energy system. Taking a look at the structure of energy innovation today, asked Ball, “What’s right, what’s wrong, and how can we improve it?”

First, Ball asked Chu and Majumdar to imagine that they were on the short list for Secretary of Energy in a new administration. “Sketch a vision, not a pie-in-the-sky vision, but hopefully a realistic vision,” said Bell, of the energy landscape in eight years, and what a new administration should prioritize in order to get there.

“We are in fundamentally different times… The Pope is talking about decarbonizing.”

“We are in fundamentally different times,” said Majumdar, “The Pope is talking about decarbonizing.” In order to capitalize on that momentum, though, “We need the best minds—that requires support.” That support needs to come in the form of funding for research and development, according to Majumdar, and also in the form of coaching and mentorship programs within the energy sector. On the other hand, said Chu, you don’t want to attract the best and the brightest to an industry where there are no jobs. “You’ve got to stimulate the private sector,” he said.

Radical changes to energy production and consumption have historically come as the result of dramatic events or changes within societies, said Ball. “Is climate change perceived as a bad enough problem that it will push or pull the world to do something?”

Climate change happens slowly, said Chu, “It comes out of the noise of weather.” While politicians are looking to the polls to determine what kinds of change are possible, businesses are preparing. Many large companies, including energy companies and utilities, have already assigned an internal price to carbon in anticipation of coming legislation. Moreover, a growing number are calling for that legislation sooner rather than later.

“The reviewers have to be as good as the people they’re giving money to.”

Ball then asked Chu and Majumdar to talk about their work with ARPA-E. What was the problem, he asked, that the agency was intended to solve? ARPA-E, said Chu, was envisioned as a “new brand that was comfortable with failure”. Industry can fund incremental progress, he said, ARPA-E was looking for “game-changing home runs instead of singles.” In order to make that a reality, though, the agency needed the best people. If you’re going to take huge risks with who you fund, said Chu, “The reviewers have to be as good as the people they’re giving money to.”

Majumdar agreed. “We hired the right people,” he said.

Both expressed regrets about their time in Washington. Chu wanted to solve the nuclear waste issue. He also wanted to put more authority in the hands of the national labs and scientists, and to prevent bureaucratic micromanaging in their areas. “That was a failure.”

Majumdar said that, while ARPA-E did a great job funding proof-of-concept, they didn’t have the dollars to take things as far as he would have liked. “If you want the private sector to invest, you need proof of system.”

When asked which country in the world does the best job with energy innovation, though, neither scientist hesitated. “The U.S.,” they agreed.

-Sophie Meyer