Q&A with Tom Steyer ’83, trustee and keynote speaker for Stanford Energy Week

Oct. 27, 2016, 12:31 a.m.

Youth involvement is crucial to solving energy issues in the United States, according to Stanford trustee Tom Steyer MBA ’83, who gave the keynote speech for Stanford’s Energy Week this past Tuesday. Energy Week is an initiative by the Stanford Energy Club (SEC) that is aimed to encourage Stanford students to find innovative solutions to environmental issues such as global warming, energy shortages and alternate sources of energy.  

Steyer is the founder of NextGen Climate, an organization that aims to use politics to prevent climate disaster. NextGen, along with four national unions such as the AFL and CIO, went to 2.2 million homes in order to educate citizens about environmental justice, economic justice, racial justice and schooling. NextGen has also worked in California to register 790,000 ballots for this election.

Steyer was also on the trustee committee that oversaw the implementation of Stanford’s new energy program, specifically the design of the new Central Energy Facility (CEF) two years ago. CEF aims to meet 90 percent of campus heating demands by capturing almost two-thirds of the waste heat generated by the campus cooling system to produce hot water for the heating system.

The Daily spoke to Steyer on his work as a trustee and on Stanford’s Energy Initiatives.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You have worked in the field of finance for a very long time. What was the driving force behind you switching fields to start NextGen, One Roof and your other initiatives?

Tom Steyer (TS): I think that the main cause was a growing awareness that we were not dealing with climate change. I had a chance to see this was a huge global problem and that the U.S.A., politically, was not moving nearly as fast enough to take a leadership position on this issue. I felt that there was a huge need that no one seemed inclined to fill. I felt that it was a great opportunity for me to work with people, to try and make the country more progressive in terms of thinking about energy and acting to produce a clean energy economy.

TSD: What role have you played in Stanford’s attempts to become more sustainable, like its Solar Expansion Project?

TS: I was the head of the committee that saw the change in its energy program. Stanford’s new energy program was very closely supervised by then-President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy. [The Central Energy Facility] building’s design was handled by the Head[s] of Land Buildings and Real Estate, Bob Reidy and Joe Stanger, and won the award for the “Best Engineering Project in America” for the year. I don’t think I deserve more than 99 percent credit — just kidding — but I did have a chance to supervise and observe it.

[The Central Energy Facility] did reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent, it did save us hundreds of millions of dollars compared to natural gas and saved us a lot of water. Stanford has done a lot of work in energy and has outstanding people working here. What we’ve done as a campus, I think, is as good or better than any other campus in the United States. The ability to reduce greenhouse gases by 68 percent, not including transport, in such a short span of time is amazing — while saving cash. California said that it will reduce its greenhouse gas footprint 40 percent from 1990 to 2030, while Stanford has already achieved this!

TSD:  You had mentioned previously mentioned that transportation is an issue that still needs to be fixed. One thing I’ve noticed around Palo Alto is that public transport is limited and erratic. Do you think Hillary Clinton’s plan regarding climate change and infrastructure development is a sustainable plan?

TS: There are many levels of government. She’s talking a lot about infrastructure, but we haven’t seen the details of that plan. What I do know is that in California, we’re supporting 11 public transportation propositions, including one in the Santa Clara County. We’re supporting groups as they try to pass measures to both fund and build public transportation to reduce congestion on the roads, to reduce greenhouse gases and to make it possible for people to get around in a cheaper and efficient way. We know that such projects are on their way, regardless of whether they come from DC, Sacramento or a local place.

TSD:  Switching focus to the Energy Club, what has been your association with it?

TS: My son was the former president of the Energy Club, and he said … “It is the lowest job in the U.S.A. that includes the word ‘president.’ My actual job as president was to purchase pizza for other members of the energy club.” I’ve had a chance, by watching him, to see what it did. It took me to a bunch of people that were very concerned about energy. So yes, I have been involved with energy policies at Stanford for a while, and through my son, I was able to see the activities of the Energy Club.  

TSD:  Why do SESI and CEF matter to you?

TS: It’s really important to me that people in your generation believe that the people of our generation are sincerely trying to do the right thing. I don’t want younger people to believe that the older people in our society are selfish or not trying to create at a better future. The reason why I liked the programs are that they were statements by the University saying that it is going to hone its technology, skills and values to put them together and answer the question in a progressive, smart way that shows the University can do something that lives up to its value. It is also smart from a monetary standpoint and can also show people on campus and around the world that we’re technologists with a heart and deep values.

Correction: A previous version of this article suggested Tom Steyer received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford in 1983. Steyer received his MBA from Stanford in 1983. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Vibhav Mariwala at vibhavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Vibhav is a senior staff writer from Mumbai, India. He is a history major writing an honor’s thesis on the Indian Constitution and Indian economic policy from 1947-60. When he’s not reading history books, Vibhav enjoys sailing, kayaking and hiking.

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