Inaugural Stanford Global Energy Forum - November 1-2, 2018

The pragmatism of hope
Inaugural Stanford Global Energy Forum - November 1-2, 2018

The security was surprisingly low key for an event that was being hosted by four former United States Secretaries and attended by the Governor of California. Later I would notice this attitude of chaste focus on the problems at hand inform not just the networking activity at the forum but the on-stage talks and discussions. Everyone was there to discuss the important task of making the energy transition to a more sustainable future a reality and there was no one who hadn’t engaged with energy issues both at the highest and deepest levels. But for all its focus on the nitty-gritties of technology, finance and international and national politics integral to the transformation of energy systems, I couldn’t help but leave the conference with a renewed hope in the potential for real change.

The conference started with a welcome from the president of Stanford University and an introduction and welcome from the co-director of the Stanford Precourt Institute for Technology, professor Arun Majumdar. He introduced various initiatives that would go on to be discussed in greater detail in later sessions. The Storage-X initiative focusing on finding the missing piece of the puzzle that storage has become, the Bits and Watts initiative exploring the linkages and opportunities between the information technology revolution and the energy transformation, the Schultz-Stephenson energy task force looking at the policy and economics of energy systems and the Sustainable Finance initiative exploring how finance in energy systems can be optimized for sustainability.

Sprinkled through the agenda were ‘Gamechanger’ talks focusing on specific technologies that were seen as having potentially large impacts on the future of energy. In the first of these Mark Zoback director of the Natural Gas Initiative talked about the natural gas revolution that has seen US become the biggest natural gas producer in the world over the last decade and identified potential for even greater growth. The following session focused on the eventuality of peak oil from the perspective of producers and consumers.

In her fascinating dialogue with Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the United Nations His Excellency Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice candidly explored the various dimensions of Saudi-US relations and Saudi relations with its neighbors in the Middle-East. The focus was on identifying avenues for increasing the resilience of global energy trade and minimizing dependence on fossil fuels.

President Obama’s Energy Secretary, Honorable Steven Chu lead a fascinating session on the transformations that may be coming in the energy sector talking to Lisa Davis from Seimens AG and Isabelle Kocher from Engie.

One of the most informative sessions, even for energy insiders was the presentation by Tao Zhang, vice president at Chinese Academy of Sciences. He detailed an agenda of revolutionary change that the Chinese government is engaging in to facilitate energy transitions. The revolutionary agenda was made all the more exciting by description of plans that had already been set in motion and achievements in the area of renewable energy technologies.

In another one of the Gamechanger sessions Jeff Dean from Google gave a primer on artificial intelligence (AI) and how the technology can be used to solve energy system problems. In a follow-up wide ranging debate between him, Ashok Belani of Schlumberger and Patricia Poppe of CMS Energy several areas were identified where AI is already having a major impact and will potentially be revolutionary in the not so distant future.

Perhaps one of the most inspirational sessions was the dialogue between former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Governor of California Jerry Brown where Brown highlighted the achievements while spelling out the pitfalls of politics. “I don’t want you to feel too good”, he said at one point to roaring laughter from the crowd indicating that there is much work still that needs to be done. And while the focus of the Forum has been on the exciting developments in tech and policy we must not forget that wide scale transformations take time.

At the dinner attended by Senator Lisa Murkowski Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the discussion between herself, former Secretary of Labor George Schultz, President of the university Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Co-Director of Precourt Institute Arun Majumdar was lively and engaging and fleshed out some of the key elements of the energy transition debate in the United States.

The second day of the Forum was just as exciting with dialogues and talks on issues of contention and compatibility ranging from the future of mobility to climate change. The highlight of the day was indeed the conversation between Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Arun Majumdar, where Bill described his ambitions in launching the Breakthrough Energy Ventures; a billion dollar fund investing in transformation of the energy sector. Bill emphasized the need for revolutionary technological developments to meet the twin energy challenges of access and sustainability.

To me the most exciting aspect of the Forum was the innovation showcase where remarkable new companies presented their ideas for pushing the energy systems in the right direction just that little bit. Many of the ideas appeared to be working examples of nudge in action where minor changes were leading to massive improvements. 

In summary one came out of the Forum with the impression that even grounded, pragmatic conversations about the energy transformation can be hopeful. Not only that but perhaps they need to be hopeful because in a time of increasing challenges hope is not only needed but necessary and the only pragmatic feeling. 

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