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Stanford Report, December 4, 2002

Lynn Orr on the origins and future of G-CEP


After serving for eight years as dean of the School of Earth Sciences, Lynn Orr took on a new challenge this week -- becoming the first director of the Global Climate and Energy Project (G-CEP). In an interview with Stanford Report writer Mark Shwartz, Orr discusses the origins of G-CEP and lays out his vision for the project in the coming years.

Q: How did G-CEP get started?

A: About a year and a half ago, we were talking to Schlumberger about a project that was aimed more narrowly at CO2 sequestration. They suggested that at least one more partner would be useful. Then we talked to ExxonMobil about that idea, but they said they were actually interested in a broader project that would look at the larger question of energy systems that would lead to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. That led to a series of discussions amongst us and them and Schlumberger, so it came about because of common interest.

Q: And then General Electric came on board?

A: Yes, GE and E.ON came on board. ExxonMobil made it possible to discuss this project at the highest level with those companies.

Q: What is your vision for the project once it's up and running full speed?

A: What we will do is try to ask ourselves at every turn, "How can we choose research projects that will give us the possibility of providing energy and reducing greenhouse emissions substantially?"

We're thinking going well beyond what's envisioned, for example, in the Kyoto agreement [a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2012]. That's a big challenge considering how we do business today. We'll need new technologies. We'll need some of the most creative minds we can put to work to help us work on these things.

Q: Will you have a call for proposals at some point?

A: We're still working out how that exactly is going to play out. The idea is that we will look for areas where we think we can use the funding to have an impact, and then look for the best players. Sometimes that will be here at Stanford, sometimes it will be at other institutions.

Geographic distribution will be important as well, because we'll need to have at least one institution in Europe, and we'll probably need one in China and maybe India, because we need to have a connection with the developing world.

Q: Do you get the sense that the company sponsors have specific goals?

A: We will certainly have to demonstrate some progress. In the first year [or two], we will do very intense research planning, where we propose a set of areas, and the companies will say, "OK, fine," or "No," depending on whether we've made the case.

Once an area is approved, then our job is to put in place the research projects both here and elsewhere. Each year we'll be preparing a budget that looks another year out, so we'll have a set of commitments that are always running at least three years ahead.

Q: Ultimately, is it going to be up to you, Chris Edwards, your staff and whomever to decide which projects will get funded?

A: We will undoubtedly internally use some kind of committee of faculty to advise on all that. The exact details haven't been sorted out yet. We'll do something where we take advantage of faculty expertise in addition to me and Chris. Bio-X is another example of the same kind of thing.

What we're intending to do is establish a separate center under the independent lab status that runs the project. Assuming that all goes through, I'll report to Charles Kruger [dean of research], and the project will involve faculty all across the university.

Q: There will be an independent G-CEP advisory committee. Who will be on it?

A: They are not selected yet, but we will look for broad points of view that are independent of us or the institutions that are working with us -- or the sponsors. The idea is to provide an outside view, some quality control: Are we on the right track? Are we missing opportunities?

Q: Stanford will hold title to everything developed through G-CEP. Is that going to include technologies developed in collaboration with other institutions?

A: We'll have to deal with that by negotiation with the other institutions.

Q: Are the sponsors going to have first crack at the technology?

A: Here's how it works: Suppose now we patent this wonderful, superconducting whiz-bang widget that stores solar power. Then there is a five-year period where the companies have the right to royalty-free license. Then they are free to sublicense it, we are free sublicense it outside -- and actually they can all agree ahead of time if none of the companies wants to pursue that.

There is a bit of a head start, although in the time scale of energy transitions, these are many-decade deals, so it's not a long time.

Q: But you're also supposed to go public?

A: Yes, all of the work is open, published -- that's just basic Stanford rules. What students work on has to be publicly available, so it all gets published in the usual way.

Q: It still would be licensed here?

A: Yes, and what that means is that some other outfit out there that wants to go ahead and do research in that area could do that. When they're ready to go to market, then they'd have to worry about licenses, but the five-year timeframe is not likely to influence that very much.

Q: What is the reaction you've had on campus to the project?

A: Lots of cheers, lots of questions about how will it work, and where do I line up for the money -- I've heard that a few times, usually with a chuckle! Lots of inquiries from students about how to get involved; some questions about how the relationships will work with the sponsors.

Q: It seems the media have raised the question about "no strings attached," or, "Will you be influenced by the sponsors?"

A: I know the companies would say this, too: One of the reasons that it's useful to have a place like Stanford work on something like this is because of the independence. That's something they support fully.

There's likely a set of energy transitions that are going to happen in this century. These are companies with global reach that have been around for a long time and expect to be playing in that. They're interested in knowing what the future is going to look like, and they are the kinds of companies that will be supplying services that people will need globally in the future. Understanding where that's going to go and what the opportunities are to meet the needs of all those people -- that's of interest to them.

Q: So ExxonMobil could be involved if there is a market for hydrogen or something like that?

A: Sure. Huge quantities of hydrogen are now made in oil refineries, so that's where a lot of technological expertise exists already.

Q: And Schlumberger and GE also have other interests?

A: These companies all have different suites of interests. That's what makes this an interesting group, because they will come at it from various points of view. They will all have viewpoints about the way you meet various kinds of energy needs that will help illuminate what we do.

We've been given an incredible opportunity here to work on a very important set of issues that are important to people around the whole planet. If we do a good job with this we can really have an impact, and I'm just very excited that we have the opportunity to unleash our talented and creative faculty and students to work on things that matter.

Lynn Orr

Photo: L.A. Cicero