Feb. 22, 2016

By Mark Golden

Reuben Sarkar, EERE deputy assistant secretary for transportation. PHOTO: Mark Shwartz

A renewed optimism about building a clean-energy economy pervaded a standing-room-only conference for managers of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), and Stanford University faculty, research staff and students.

The two entities met Feb. 18 and 19 to discuss EERE’s research and development priorities for the next five years, and how scientists and other scholars at Stanford and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory can help meet these objectives. EERE leads U.S. government efforts to develop and deliver economic solutions for sustainable transportation, renewable electricity generation, and energy-efficient homes, buildings and manufacturing.

“We are on the cusp of greatness. The clean-energy revolution is real—it’s happening,” said Reuben Sarkar, who leads EERE’s $600-million-a-year research and development of cleaner transportation technology. “In Paris this past November, President Obama and other world leaders pledged to double their investment in clean energy research and innovation.”

In his remarks to open the meeting, Sarkar noted that the number of large, solar power plants grew by 68 percent in 2014, and the next generation of technology for geothermal power may be a lot further along than people think. The techniques used in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas are being applied to geothermal generation at a new, commercial-size project supported by EERE. If enhanced geothermal systems become commercially viable, they will not have some of the negative environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.

Arun Majumdar and Sally Benson, co-directors of the Precourt Institute for Energy. PHOTO: Mark Shwartz

Arun Majumdar, co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, also expressed optimism, though slightly more restrained. While the Paris climate change negotiations produced a global agreement to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, it took 21 annual meetings to finally reach a deal, said Majumdar, professor of mechanical engineering.

“But there’s no question in my mind where the vector is pointing. It’s toward decarbonization,” he said. That big challenge will require producing energy that is not only sustainable, but reliable, secure and affordable for people all over the world, according to Majumdar.

Stanford and SLAC are developing a research thrust on how the different parts necessary for cleaner energy systems will fit together, said Sally Benson, the Precourt Institute’s other co-director. Electricity use will no longer be met by just ramping up central power plants that usually burn fossil fuels. Instead, the system will dynamically balance intermittent supplies of wind and solar power with energy storage and financial incentives for consumers to cut use when supplies are tight. Some of those factors are already in play, though at a much smaller measure than will be required.

“We hope to de-risk new technologies so companies can feel comfortable scaling them up,” said Benson, a professor of energy resource engineering and also director of Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project. “We are cultivating an energy innovation ecosystem in Silicon Valley.”

Tien Duong, senior technical advisor and manager of the Advanced Battery Materials Research Program, talks with students during a networking break. PHOTO: Mark Shwartz

EERE, too, works closely with businesses large and small, as well as with universities and other research organizations. The approximately 160 participants in the meeting discussed EERE’s priorities in renewable energy, sustainable transportation, energy efficiency and advanced manufacturing. Stanford faculty, in turn, reviewed their research efforts in solar power, carbon-neutral fuels for transportation, efficient combustion, modernizing the electric grid, better batteries, financing clean energy and consumer decision making.

Stanford students learned about internship and job opportunities at the agency, and they were able to meet with relevant EERE staff. “President Obama has made it a priority to encourage students in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Sarkar, “and we’re here to recruit the best at Stanford.”

As for young entrepreneurs, the Department of Energy has successfully piloted a relatively inexpensive program where inventors can work at a national lab to continue to develop their devices toward commercialization.

“The idea is to keep them fed, keep the rain off their head and give them a desk. It’s a human capital development program,” said Mark Johnson, director of EERE’s work on advanced manufacturing.

From left: James Sweeney, director of the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center; Bryan Hannegan, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) associate laboratory director - energy systems integration; and Daniel Arvizu, Stanford consulting professor and former NREL director. PHOTO: Mark Shwartz

Much of the conversation was about modernizing the electric grid, and several speakers noted that the vision of Stanford and SLAC in this area complements that of the DOE.

“It’s very important for the government and universities, neither of which have a financial stake in the business of modernizing the grid, to provide an ecosystem for people to develop solutions,” said Stanford’s Majumdar. “I call it a demilitarized zone. This ecosystem is where all these businesses can come together and engage with universities, national labs and governments.”

Other Department of Energy speakers included Sunita Satyapal on fuel cells, Roland Risser on technology for energy efficient buildings, Doug Hollett on renewable power, Kevin Lynn and Bryan Hannegan on grid modernization, and Joe Stekli on carbon-neutral fuels. Other Stanford speakers included Ram Rajagopal on grid modernization and Will Chueh on carbon-neutral fuels.

Watch videos of the talks:

Internship opportunities for students: