Global leaders from the energy industry, policy and research fields met at the Hoover Institution Wednesday to showcase advancements in clean energy and the implications of a historic climate stimulus package, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which passed earlier this year.
Wednesday marked the second day of the Precourt Institute for Energy’s Innovation Day & Global Energy Forum. On Tuesday, the Innovation Day, entrepreneurs, financiers and University leaders shared innovations in the energy space at Stanford and in Silicon Valley. Some highlights of the Forum included events to showcase younger entrepreneurs, a panel on energy security and a fireside chat with Exxon Chairman and CEO Darren Woods on Thursday.
Among the guests on Wednesday was Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who held the final vote to pass the legislation, after a commitment from Democratic leadership that Congress would pass a separate bill to ease the permitting process for natural gas pipelines in his state.
In conversation with applied physics and energy science and engineering professor and former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Manchin said that the version of the IRA that he voted for represented a holistic solution to the climate crisis.
“It is a false narrative that we have to choose between combating global climate change, affordability or American energy security,” Manchin said.
Incentives for the localization of mineral extraction and made-in-USA manufacturing supply chains are why Manchin said he is optimistic about the bill.
“We have the ability to be totally self-sufficient, but we have to have the incentive,” Manchin said.
Manchin said the IRA incentivizes carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies that will allow the United States to transition towards a clean energy future. Despite Manchin’s optimism, the incentives concern some researchers, who see the cost of retrofitting CCS technology as prolonging dependence on petroleum-based energy.
Manchin imagines that the early investment to refine American CCS technology can be adopted abroad. “Other countries are still relying on fossil,” Manchin said. “If [they] want to be able to trade with the United States of America, [they’re] going to have to use the [CCS] technology that we perfected and commercialized.”
Beyond coal and the “ocean of [natural] gas under our feet,” Manchin’s West Virginia is shifting. He anticipated emerging energy infrastructure in green hydrogen production and storage, green ammonia and iron-air batteries starting to take root in the state due to the incentives generated by the IRA.
The future of oil companies
An afternoon panel concentrated on the fossil fuel industry’s transition to a net-zero world, featuring Ladislas Paszkiewicz, senior vice president of investor relations at TotalEnergies; Harry Brekelmans, director of projects and technology at Shell and Alexander Karsner, who is on the board of directors at ExxonMobil.
The panelists were optimistic about their companies’ abilities to meet climate goals and expressed hope that the petroleum firms could expand their relationships with academia.
When asked how they hope their companies can interact with Stanford, Brekelmans responded, “Embrace us. Make it a bear hug, and be very clear what you expect from us.”
The executives also called on governments to adopt a carbon pricing system, a stance which their firms have publicized before, and told the audience that their firms work internally with assumed prices on carbon. According to Paszkiewicz, Total uses a carbon price of $100 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, while Shell, according to Brekelmans, works with a varying price.
The future of transportation
Many of the conference sessions on Wednesday focused on technical solutions to cleaning energy systems, particularly in transportation. Drew Baglino, senior vice president of powertrain & energy engineering at Tesla; Tom Stricker, group vice president of sustainability & regulatory affairs at Toyota Motor North America and Amanda Simpson, the vice president of research & technology at Airbus America, agreed the challenges of vehicle electrification, while constrained by resources, can give rise to ingenious solutions.
Baglino was optimistic about how rare-earth minerals mined for batteries could be recycled and repurposed in the circular economy. “You only have to extract materials, assemble and refine them out of the ground once.”
However, Stricker pointed to limited resources and the high cost of lithium-ion batteries as reasons to pursue hybrid vehicles. “As we think about the full system approach to reducing carbon, we need to really not close our eyes to other options,” said Stricker. “And doing it in vehicles that people can afford.”
As hybrid vehicles are more affordable, more drivers can use them, reducing overall carbon emissions, despite the fact that each driver may still rely on fossil fuels from time to time, Stricker said.
According to Simpson, the aviation industry is much more enthusiastic about biofuels, synthetic fuels and hydrogen than batteries. “[Batteries are] not very density intensive, they’re heavy. They take a long time to recharge,” Simpson said.
However, aviation companies’ demand for sustainable fuels is unmet. “We’re at [0.01%] of production for today’s demand,” Simpson said. She expected that the sustainable aviation tax credits from the IRA budget will help bridge this gap.
The future of Stanford
The event began with an opening speech from University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who emphasized the importance of a transition to clean energy and celebrated the University’s work to advance clean energy and reduce campus emissions.
Following Tessier-Lavigne, Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy Yi Cui gave an overview of energy initiatives at Stanford and highlighted some of the most important areas of research to reduce emissions — among these was nuclear energy.
“We don’t have a lot here at Stanford with nuclear, but this is a very, very important topic,” Cui told the audience. Doerr School Dean Arun Majumdar echoed this sentiment, referencing small modular nuclear energy as a strong candidate for a future source of clean energy. He advocated for nuclear power as a source of heat at the Innovation Day on Tuesday.
The day closed with a fireside chat with the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy founder Tom Steyer, moderated by Majumdar. Steyer said American people and businesses were willing to transition to clean energy and told the audience that climate change will reorient business practices.
They also discussed partnerships at Stanford. “If it’s an all of society transition, that means we all have to participate,” Steyer said. He did not explicitly mention oil and gas companies but cautioned that Stanford needs to avoid partners that are not actually working to meet decarbonization goals.
“Their reputation is going to make it seem like we’re not sincere. And we are sincere.”
Steyer compared current levels of greenhouse gas emissions to bad grades. “We’re getting very low grades, but the semester is not over.”
Majumdar used the metaphor to stress that transitioning to a sustainable energy system will be challenging. “We need some all-nighters,” he joked.