Mar 2, 2018 - Energy & Environment

Exxon and BofA help launch Stanford energy venture

Exterior of building at Stanford University

Stanford University. Photo: David Butow / Corbis via Getty Images

ExxonMobil and Bank of America (BofA) are pouring a combined $27.5 million into a new Stanford University research program to push low-carbon energy further into the mainstream while seeking new technology breakthroughs. It will link major companies with Stanford scientists as well as experts in engineering, finance, economics and policy.

Why it matters: The Stanford Strategic Energy Alliance’s multidisciplinary focus highlights how clean energy has arrived to a new place — it's now on multiple tracks, spanning mainstream commercial deployment to deep R&D into the next wave of breakthroughs, and a lot of points in between.

"Today, while many scientific questions must still be answered, a brighter energy future also requires major improvements in energy policy, business and finance," the Stanford announcement states.

What's new: The coalition includes a five-year, $20 million commitment from Exxon. The initiative replaces Stanford's 15-year-old Global Climate & Energy Project, which Exxon and BofA also backed, an initiative winding down this year that focused more on basic research.

The big picture: The involvement of policy, business and economics experts is a sign of the mainstreaming of clean energy that enables the focus on deployment. The International Energy Agency expects renewables to meet 40% of global energy demand growth through 2040 (and remember IEA has consistently lowballed renewables' growth for years).

  • For instance, in 2016 solar PV saw more capacity growth than any other power source.

But at the same time, the group will also remain active in financing some early-stage research, Stanford said.

On the record: I chatted with Sally Benson, co-director of Stanford's Precourt Institute for Energy that's managing the new program, about how the initiative might approach some specific technologies.

  • Batteries: “We need to make batteries better still, but we are starting to deploy, so there are lots of issues around business models and policy,” Benson says. “In something like batteries, it makes total sense to have an integrated effort, because there are challenges along all those fronts."
  • But other technologies — such as using solar to create liquid fuels for transport and energy storage — are still nascent applications with more basic R&D.

What's next: Benson says they are looking for more corporate partners. She declines to identify specific companies, but says the new initiative is designed to work with "big companies with significant internal R&D activities."

  • This could include information technology companies, transportation companies, and utilities. “We are casting the net very broadly,” she says.
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