With the official opening of the Doerr School of Sustainability on the horizon, the Precourt Institute of Energy held its annual Global Energy Solutions Week from May 2 to 6, during which the institute showcased Stanford’s advancements in energy and sustainable infrastructure research.
Private and public sector partners came together to provide a holistic view of the current energy landscape. Researchers, policymakers and entrepreneurs in attendance emphasized the need to concentrate efforts to solve unaddressed questions, such as the role of research and the private sector in this clean energy transition. The conference also showcased many energy start-ups that came out of the Stanford ecosystems.
This year’s theme was Frontiers in Energy Technology. Five main topics spanned the week: hydrogen for decarbonization, energy storage solutions, research energy showcase, AI for clean energy and climate resilience and electricity grid innovations.
These are some of the takeaways from the forum’s keynote lectures and research presentations.
Hydrogen economy: Stanford Hydrogen Initiative
Professor of materials science and engineering and Co-Director of Stanford Hydrogen Initiative Friedrich Prinz said that Stanford is currently researching the applications of hydrogen for decarbonization and associated supply chains during a presentation on May 2.
Since 2019, Stanford Energy Corporate Affiliates, Stanford Natural Gas Initiative and SUNCAT Center for Interface Science and Catalysis have collaborated on the research, which focuses on the generation, storage, distribution, applications, policies and techno-economics of hydrogen transitions, according to Xiaolin Zheng, professor of mechanical engineering and Co-Faculty Director of Stanford Hydrogen Initiative.
There is a growing interest among businesses and the utilities sector in the use of hydrogen as fuel and as long-term storage for excess renewable energy, as the generated power is not readily dispatchable and can be volatile, according to Prinz. Consequently, there is an expanding need for a long-term form of energy storage to be used as fuel on demand, according to Prinz. One of the main goals of Stanford Hydrogen Initiative is to research pathways to decrease the cost of hydrogen production to make the technology a viable option for energy storage, Prinz added.
How a diesel engine company is adapting to hydrogen transitions
Multinational American diesel engine company Cummins Inc. is making significant investments into the research and development of new engines, such as emerging electrolysis technology, that allows the company to aid in net-zero transitions of the heavy-duty transport sector, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Tom Linebarger ’86 M.S. ’93 M.B.A. ’93 during a keynote presentation on May 2.
Despite the enthusiasm for net-zero transition in recent years, policymakers are putting off significant transitions by only making promises to change in the future, waiting for technology to be fully realized instead of making incremental changes now, according to Linebarger.
The winner of the race between hydrogen-fuel-based vehicles and electrical vehicles (EV) will depend on which types of infrastructure are built first, he added. Hydrogen’s cost will only decline when there is a more developed hydrogen economy that allows the supply chain to benefit from economies of scale and innovation, according to Linebarger. Unlike Prinz, Linebarger predicted that the projected cost of hydrogen required to get the key players in the heavy-duty vehicles industry moving might not have to be as low as predicted.
On the policy side, Linebarger said he observed a lag in government funding for the large-scale industry transition, despite the promises that have been made. The private sector is also still waiting for the establishment of a price on carbon as a key to unlock actions, he added.
“It costs money to [decarbonize] but I have nowhere to put the cost,” Linebarger said.
Department of Energy on Hydrogen
Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office Sunita Satyapal said that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which issued $9.5 billion in funding to the hydrogen space, has the potential to nurture domestic supply chains during a keynote lecture on May 2.
Funding has allowed Department of Energy-funded demos to persuade major companies such as Amazon and Walmart to develop around 115 hydrogen charging stations to date, according to Satyapal.
Russian conflict: Is it time to reconsider energy security?
Director of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Germany and the broader European Union’s dependence on natural gas pipes has allowed Russia to weaponize energy resources and hold the EU hostage during a fireside chat with Dean of Doerr School of Sustainability Arjun Majumbar on May 2.
Rice said that she believes this is a wake-up call for nations to localize their energy sources to prevent political turmoil.
In the short run, Germany has to find alternative sources for its energy supply, which can be difficult given logistical constraints, according to Rice. However, in the mid-term to long-term transition, an energy-efficient and more sustainable energy mix will be vital for national security. Assigning price on carbon is an important vehicle for this transition, as it assigns monetary value to signal to stakeholders that a transition is inevitable, she added.
Energy storage technology transitions
Senior Vice President of Powertrain and Energy Engineering at Tesla Drew Baglino ’04 discussed Tesla’s Gigafactory and the difficulties in scaling up complex manufacturing systems as Tesla aims to produce up to 500,000 electric cars per year during a fireside chat on May 3.
One of the issues with this large-scale production is the limitations of raw materials and supply chains. Baglino said he fears that dependence on external sources of minerals may impact the battery industry in the long run and require a lot of land to extract these resources. The importance of shifting resources to wherever manufacturing happens has become increasingly pressing, Baglino said.
Baglino identified up-and-coming research into the extraction of lithium from brine and oil fields as a possible solution to the exhaustive supply of lithium from mining. Other possibilities include using alternative battery types with elements that are more available, such as sodium, and recycling used batteries for the long-term sustainability of the battery space, he added.
However, Baglino said that the real unexpected challenges arise when simple processes are done at a larger scale, such as water treatment, burning lithium-ion batteries and developing cheaper electrolytes.
Baglino said he believes academia can play an important role in developing new tools for modeling and analysis that will accelerate the production timeline, citing finite element analysis as one tool that came out of such research.
Energy policy and economics: Natural Climate Solution and Sustainable Finance
Managing Director of Sustainable Finance Initiative (SFI) Alicia Seiger said that a lack of good data and widely agreed working framework of who is liable for emissions contribute to the limitations of regulating and developing strategies for net-zero efforts, citing the group’s recent book, during a presentation on Wednesday.
Over the last thirty years of climate action, there have been three turns in how researchers have viewed climate solutions: green finance, risk and net-zero, according to Seiger.
Green finance relies on free-market economies of scale to lower costs and make climate technology deployable, while risk relies on internalizing the potential social costs of not transitioning, Seiger explained. Climate action is currently in the third turn, net-zero, where growth in climate investments is captured by the emissions potential, making it easier for price settlement and accelerating interest in innovation and investment, Seiger added. However, the focus on emissions potential alone may risk climate solutions and lead stakeholders to fixate on climate accounting without handling more complex problems, according to her.
While there has been an increase in announcements of net-zero goals, a lot of focus in investment has been on the technological, more permanent carbon storage solutions that are still being developed, according to biology postdoctoral scholar Connor Nolan. Nolan said that future natural solution-based climate investment should “under-promise and over-deliver.” Nolan’s framework makes nature-based carbon dioxide removal investment more expensive but secures more environmental and developmental benefits from the investments, rather than being a vehicle for firms to emit even more greenhouse gasses, he explained.
SFI’s research initiatives will continue to explore carbon accounting, regulation and compliance of carbon credits; just economic transitions of climate change and the role of blended finance in supporting sustainable public infrastructures in developing countries, Seiger said.
Artificial intelligence in climate
Researchers spoke of numerous climate solutions that are enhanced by the rise in artificial intelligence applications, which allow for more complex computation and data-driven decision-making.
One such project is “MESMERIZE: A Macro-Energy System Model with Equity, Realism and Insight in Zero Emissions,” led by Ines Azevedo, associate professor of energy resources engineering. The project develops complex models and datasets that integrate social equity and human health concerns, intended to help policymakers develop more comprehensive, economy-wide decarbonization solutions for different U.S. regions, according to Azevedo.
Ongoing research by Stanford graduate students also shows the potential of utilizing machine learning to understand complex energy problems. Gege Wen Ph.D. ’22 developed CCSNet.ai to model subsurface carbon dioxide sequestration in saline reservoirs, while fifth-year Ph.D. student Zhecheng Wang M.S. ’18 developed DeepSolar to offer a better understanding of solar adoption for researchers and policymakers.
While the forum has concluded, Stanford plans to continue further developing the research-industry ecosystem in the future. Transition Vice Dean of the School of Sustainability Stephan Graham referenced the School of Sustainability’s opening next year as an example of such development.
“This ecosystem will provide funding opportunities for research teams that want to take action and address problems with time-bound urgency,” Graham said.