While America was focused on the upcoming election, and before Global Warming rendered most of Northern California completely uninhabitable, the leaders in energy production got together on a beautiful day at Stanford to discuss the future of energy. Not just clean energy, but all energy. I’ve covered many cleantech/sustainability/hippie conferences, so I experienced a bit of culture shock witnessing Big Oil getting as much air time as clean energy. The Inaugural Global Energy Forum was packed with rich dialogues from leaders in energy.
The morning began with some opening remarks, and then things got dirty pretty quick. Professor Mark Zobak gave us a presentation on the latest innovations in oil & gas production. As soon as he started talking about making fracking more “productive” I tuned out. Until fracking is actually regulated and those regulations are actually enforced, it’s just another way to render environments uninhabitable for all of us, human and others.
Next was the Global Oil & Gas Dialogue between Sally Benson (Chair), Co-director, Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University, Philippe Sauquet of Total, David Hager of Devon Energy Corporation, and Andrew Swiger of ExxonMobil. It was interesting (terrifying) to hear oil companies talking about how they see the future. For example, ExxonMobil doesn’t think demand or supply will shrink anytime soon, but Total is doing more than any other oil company to diversify into becoming a real energy company. Andrew Swiger from ExxonMobil was asked why they signed on to the Climate Council. (I suspect Benson meant the Paris Accord?) He explained that they would rather have a global accord than a patchwork of local regulations. It was disturbing to hear them talk about how they need to find ways to capture and sequester the equivalent of 30 billion barrels of oil. Of course if they didn’t extract and burn all that oil in the first place, they wouldn’t need to sequester it. But then, oil & gas wouldn’t represent ~5% of global GDP if they did stop pulling it out of the ground. Sigh.
Ah, carbon capture and sequestration, that magical unicorn that will enable the oil industry to keep selling us fuel to burn. Despite proof that it will never be cheap enough or clean enough. Speaking of carbon capture, the next panel featured a promising startup in the field, Opus 12.
The next panel featured a group of talented entrepreneurs: KR Sridhar of Bloom Energy, Richard Swanson of SunPower (and Swanson’s Law), and Etosha Cave of Opus 12, moderated by venture capitalist Ira Ehrenpreis of DBL Partners.
Richard Swanson was the first Rockstar of the day, and it was great to hear him talk about what it was like trying to convince people that solar energy was cool back in 1973. He claims he didn’t create Swanson’s Law, but that he cited it so often it became known as his law. CleanTechnica is honored that he told his story here in 2013.
KR Sridhar spoke about how Bloom Energy is focused on bringing power to the billions of people for whom an electric grid would be a tremendous waste of money. Bloom Energy’s mission is to bring clean, reliable, affordable energy to everyone on the planet. Come to think of it, the way PG&E powerlines are destroying forests here in California, some of our small towns could certainly benefit from micro grids. Read more about the controversial company here (the last comment is the best!). The main points of contention are that it’s expensive, and that it uses natural gas to fuel the cells. But it also works with methane, the gas we most need to capture and utilize, or whatever biogas happens to be handy. He mentioned that many households in developing countries still don’t have a clean source of heat for cooking, even if they have enough clean electricity for light.
Today there are fewer people (twice as many, actually) with electricity than when electricity was invented 135 years ago. This is a moral, economic, and security issue. We are living in a post-climate change world as 100-year hurricanes happen every 3 years and fire season extends from 4 to 8 months. We’re in a war against time and against carbon.
Sridhar asked himself, will your value proposition be enough to help you survive the early days of your company? He started Bloom Energy right after dotcom bust and showed dotcom VCs the market size and potential of their company. But the funding they needed was the size of an entire VC portfolio, not just one company in a portfolio. So they went to institutional investors and convinced them to invest directly in a company, which was not something institutional investors did at the time. Now Bloom Energy is publicly-traded, thanks to those brave investors.
Moderator Ira Ehrenpreis then highlighted Opus 12 as a great example of being creative about how they build their cap tables and find money.
Etosha Cave: We’ve known from the beginning we needed to be very strategic. We started with philanthropic sources. Our first lab was here at Stanford. Next, we received government funding and worked on Cyclatron Road, an Incubator for cleantech companies at Lawrence lab. Then we earned small business grants, then once we had proof of concept, we were able to attract investor funding. We’ve earned $20 million with this mix of funding.
Opus 12 has been able to speed up development as it’s grown. They realized that building the entire reactor would be very costly, so they sought manufacturing partners who had expertise in building the systems they needed. “We found a partner on the east coast, so now we’re the” Intel Inside” chip our manufacturer installs in a system they can already build. It comes down to human capital — we’ve hired experienced executives who want to change and brilliant young minds like the ones on this campus.”
During the lunch break, we were encouraged to visit the Innovation Showcase. There was a great mix of companies ranging from software to hardware, mostly working in clean energy. It’s too much to list here, but everything from yet another car sharing app, to my personal favorite — ohmconnect, an app that pays residential customers to use less electricity. Too bad the LADWP can’t be bothered to join in the fun. Maybe if they did, they’d have fewer blackouts, as we covered here. Stay tuned for a more in-depth story about peace in the Middle East…