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$100MM Stanford Research Institute Tackles Big Energy Issues

Stanford University announced that it's establishing a $100 million research institute to focus on energy issues. In addition to $30 million already spent yearly on energy research, new funding will enable the hiring of additional faculty and support new graduate students. The new institute is to be known as the Precourt Institute for Energy, after Jay Precourt, an energy executive and Stanford alumnus who donated $50 million to Stanford.

"The biggest renewable resource is the sun," said Lynn Orr, who has been named overall director of the new institute, which will function as an independent laboratory reporting to the dean of research. "But we need to lower the cost of converting sunlight into electricity and supplying it through a much improved electric grid. The new center will allow us to expand significantly our effort to develop new nanostructured materials for solar energy and energy storage and to work on the host of social, market, and policy issues involved in the needed transition to energy systems with significant fractions of renewables."

Orr, a professor in energy resources engineering, has been the director of Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), where researchers are involved in 40 research projects to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy. GCEP's research portfolio includes the science of materials used to convert solar energy to electricity, biomass energy conversions, advanced batteries, fuel cells, advanced combustion, and carbon capture and storage.

GCEP, launched in 2002, will become a part of the new institute, as will the two-year-old Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency (renamed the Precourt Center for Energy Efficiency), an organization dedicated to finding ways to gain more energy savings out of buildings, cars, the electricity grid, and basic human behavior.

The Precourt Institute for Energy will be housed in the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building, commonly known as Y2E2, a structure that showcases green construction. "It uses about half the energy of a typical Stanford lab building and 90 percent less water," Orr said. The Precourt researchers will share the building with Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, a campus-wide hub for interdisciplinary research, education and action on the environment and sustainability.

Seed funding to push forward research into new ideas will be available. "Stanford faculty and students are brimming with ideas that, with some initial support, can be brought to the point that external support can be obtained," Orr said.

Precourt said he was drawn to the project for a number of reasons, including the chance to help reduce carbon emissions and their negative effects on global climate. But he is interested in energy security as well. "I'm quite concerned, having been in the energy business my whole life, with the fact that we are importing energy from insecure, unreliable sources who are, in many cases, not friends of the United States," he said.

A $40 million gift from husband and wife Thomas Steyer and Kat Taylor, also Stanford graduates, will create a new research center as part of the institute, the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy.

"[Tom] does not believe we will transform our economy and also address serious foreign policy and national security issues, as well as obvious environmental concerns, unless we address energy," Taylor said. "We really need a new paradigm about energy."

Part of that paradigm, she said, is finding a way to change energy policy while avoiding the political distortion created by campaign contributions. "If the real cost of gas were included in our market--for example, environmental damage, foreign policy implications, foreign wars--if all of those things were fully included into the price of a gallon of gas, it would have already made alternative fuels more attractive," she said.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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