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Reflections on Stanford Energy Week 2020: Pathways to a Zero-Carbon Future

22 March 2020

Ilan Gur, CEO of Activate and founder of Cyclotron Road, spoke to a room full of Stanford students on the afternoon of Friday, February 21 and urged those in attendance: “Expose yourself to a diverse range of networks and communities to find what part of climate change resonates with you….You’re likely to have 10-1000x higher of an impact if you’re working on something that resonates with you…Lean into it. Even if you feel like it’s a small part of the problem, there are multiplying factors. You will make a dent”.

Gur began his keynote address by sharing how the theme of Stanford Energy Week “Pathways to a Zero Carbon Future” inspired him to share his own personal pathway to a career in energy and fighting climate change. Gur’s climate journey began in his undergraduate career with a talk by Steven Chu (now former Secretary of Energy), who introduced him to the troubling climate change situation. This revelation provoked Gur to dedicate his life to battling climate change. A material scientist by training, Gur was certain that climate change could be solved by science and science alone: “We’re going to work in the lab, develop new technologies, and that is how we were going to solve climate change.” However, this perspective slowly changed throughout his career as he gained unique experiences working in the energy sector.

Gur’s closing keynote marked the end of a packed Friday of panels and workshops and a week that also included company tours and other sessions. Stanford Energy Week, the largest event hosted by the Stanford Energy Club (SEC) is a tradition that dates back to 2012 (Al Gore was in attendance!). In a typical Silicon Valley fashion, ample focus is given to clean tech, innovation and entrepreneurship. However, the club also made an effort to cater to outside interests, and panels on energy access and shale oil and gas were hosted.

The beginning of this year’s conference, titled “Pathways to a Zero Carbon Future”, was marked by a wide-ranging discussion by Boryana Straubel, executive director of the Straubel Foundation, on Tuesday February 18. Straubel urged students not to focus where they anticipate the biggest impact, but rather in the areas where they are most interested. Citing Project Drawdown, Straubel emphasized how significant emissions reductions necessitate contributions from numerous efforts, and the most impactful technologies aren’t always the sexiest (refrigerant management tops Drawdown’s list). And not only are the technologies and sectors abundant, there are abundant opportunities to innovate as well. Straubel used the example of a Tesla legal intern, Peter, and his discovery of a local incentive program in Spain which saved Tesla millions in job hiring, to demonstrate that everyone has the capacity to innovate and contribute.

Energy Week also included two company tours, including a tour of Telsa’s Fremont factory on Tuesday and a tour of Ford Greenfield EV labs on Thursday. The Ford tour, a new addition to the Energy Week events, was particularly exciting for SEC. Unbeknownst to many of us, Ford has a lab in Palo Alto where they work on high tech developments in electrification and autonomous driving. Kailash Raman, who visited the lab, says “It was fascinating to see how Ford was positioning itself at the intersection of being the classic American car and an important player in the electric vehicle revolution”. The Tesla tour, as always, was Energy Week’s most popular event. Sebastian Schneider visited the factory and was disappointed that there were no cybertrucks, but was still impressed by the Schuler press. Stretching 7 stories tall (with a portion below-ground) the Schuler press, used to cut sheet metal components, is the largest and most powerful press in North America.

Friday capped off Energy Week with a full day session of panels and workshops at Li Ka Shing center. 311 in total attended, including not only students but members of the Bay Area community as well. Some favorite sessions included the global energy access panel, the Green-New-Deal panel, and the climate finance workshop. After the first round of panels, the SEC Project and Poster session was held during lunch. During the poster sessions, audience members were able to have one-on-one discussions with students about their projects and current research (Below, PhD student Anna-Katharina von Krauland shares her work on wind energy potential within the United States with an Energy Week attendee).

 During the Global Energy Access panel, experts in energy access infrastructure, off-grid energy projects, and governmental policies shared their insights into the challenges of establishing affordable and reliable energy access networks. Two case studies in India and one in Ghana were discussed in detail. Riley Zhang, an SEC officer who attended the event, described an especially interesting take-away as how “government and the energy companies shirked their environmental protection responsibilities, … [but] the emerging energy startups could offer inexpensive grid access”.

The energy policy panel explored the Green New Deal and the role of national policies in achieving decarbonization goals.  Some speakers, such as Ali Zaidi who previously served on the Office of Management and Budget under Obama, expressed support for the aggressive vision of the Green New Deal and its comprehensive approach to addressing both energy and social issues.  Others like Dan Reicher at the Steyer-Taylor Center called for more bipartisan policies to make tangible progress.  Speakers also noted the power that individual city and state governments have in pushing forward action on climate goals.

In addition to panel discussions, SEC also hosted workshops to have a more open and interactive dialogue with the audience about the most pressing topics in the energy space. The climate and finance workshop (see picture below), hosted by industry experts Uday Varadarajan, Soh young in, Esther Choi, and Thomas Heller, explored the important role finance plays in solving the climate crisis. The workshop was broken into three groups: transition financing, innovation, and blended finance. The blended finance group, led by Esther Choi, held an insightful discussion about the importance of both private and public investment into new energy technologies, as well as the associated challenges, such as slow rate of return on technological investments and the risks associated with political instabilities in developing countries.

From his graduate research with solar, to developing energy technologies for remote villages in china, to his work as an entrepreneur launching the advanced battery company Seeo, Gur realized that solving climate change would not happen in a technological vacuum. He recalled a significant moment in his climate journey coming from none other than former Vice President and renowned climate activist Al Gore. “Gore was standing at the front of the bus and he told us that we were going to spread the word about the climate crisis so that no politician could walk down the street without someone asking them ‘what are you going to do about climate change.’” At the time, Gur disagreed with Gore: “Science was all we needed. Science was the solution.” It wasn’t until many years later that Gur realized Gore was right all along. Climate change is a complex, multidimensional problem that requires contributions from policy, finance, and technology sectors in order to be solved.

After these reflections, Gur concluded his keynote with two final thoughts. First, just by being at Stanford, your pathway can have a global impact. Stanford is a unique platform that gives each of us a voice, and we should be using it. Second, as many of us start on our own energy journey, it is important to expose ourselves to a diverse range of networks and communities to find what part of climate change resonates with us individually. Finding and pursuing a passion will allow us to have a more meaningful impact on the global energy community.

Thanks to everyone who attended Stanford Energy Week and helped to make it a success!

Banner image by former Digital and Brand VP JK Hunt