Skip to main content

Stanford’s Arun Majumdar, Yi Cui talk energy innovation

During a fireside chat Tuesday, Arun Majumdar, dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, and Yi Cui, director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, discussed Stanford’s role in developing clean energy solutions.

As more countries and organizations around the world commit to sustainability goals in the face of increasingly detrimental impacts of climate change, Stanford, and the academy at large, must play an active role in the transition to clean energy, according to Arun Majumdar, dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Yi Cui, director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, and Arun Majumdar, dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, engage in a fireside chat at Stanford Energy Innovation Day. (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

“Academia has to step up in that mix and help and enable that global ecosystem [that] wants to go in the right direction,” he said during a fireside discussion with Yi Cui, director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, Tuesday morning in McCaw Hall at the Stanford Alumni Center.

Majumdar noted that while universities can provide education, ideas, and talent, they cannot act alone. “Partnership is absolutely critical.”

The talk was part of Stanford Energy Innovation Day, which convenes research faculty, startups, venture capital firms, angel investors, corporate ventures, and others to discuss deploying energy solutions at speed and scale. Topics included innovation and entrepreneurship, digitization and AI integration, batteries, charging infrastructure, grid transformation, energy storage, transportation, and carbon removal.

The event included a startup showcase, presentations, and a networking reception. It kicks off the Stanford Global Energy Forum, a three-day gathering of global leaders engaging in strategic dialogue about the future of energy.

Energy innovation at Stanford

The fireside chat opened with a discussion on how innovating for energy differs from innovating for information technology. Majumdar noted that there are infrastructure challenges associated with the former. For example, the fiber-optic infrastructure for communications was only developed in the last few decades, but the infrastructure for energy, such as the electricity grid, has been around for over a century and, therefore, is harder to change.

“That grid has spread around the world,” he said, adding that business markets are framed around that architecture. “In many ways, [innovating for] the energy space is different because that infrastructure already exists.”

When the discussion turned to business, Cui recounted the challenges he faced when starting a company years ago. “It turned out to take 14 years to produce something that was scalable to bring to market,” he said. “This is a long journey. Technology is hard. Scaling is hard.”

Majumdar agreed and noted the importance of combining scalable ideas with research. To help address this problem, the Doerr School of Sustainability has created the Sustainability Accelerator, which is a launch pad for leveraging knowledge and expertise at Stanford and co-developing potentially scalable sustainability technology and policy solutions with external partners worldwide.

“If you can align the research that we do … to something that we know can scale easier, [then] I think the job gets [done] faster,” he said.

Continuing on the subject of collaboration, Majumdar noted the importance of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, which are now part of the Doerr School of Sustainability.

“What the institutes did was to create a connective tissue across the whole campus, bring faculty and students together from different parts to solve some problems, and step out of their comfort zones,” he said. “That was a very important step, and we are the beneficiaries of now 15, 20 years of that.”

Cui noted that energy research and innovation is happening across the country and the world, and asked how Stanford will interact with potential partners beyond Silicon Valley.

“Our goal and vision is to form a global network of partners to educate us [about] what the real issues are on the ground,” Majumdar said. “Not what people are seeing in Silicon Valley, [but] what the real issues are – the water crisis going on in India, the droughts going on in Africa. Our job is to find out and listen, number one, to what the real issues are [and] secondly, to co-create solutions.”

Majumdar said that as the world transitions to clean energy, learning from past mistakes will be key.

“This is a massive global transition of the economies around the world that we’ve never seen before, and in this transition, we want to make sure that we don’t make the mistakes that we made in the 20th century,” he said, adding that we are living with the unintended consequences of the past. “So this is about people, at the end of the day, as well. Making sure that this transition engages all the people is [just] as important as the technology.”

Global Energy Forum

The 2022 Stanford Global Energy Forum will continue Wednesday and Thursday with several discussions on such topics as sustainable transportation, hydrogen fuel, corporate climate pledges, and government energy investments, as well as panel talks with Stanford faculty.

The Vail Global Energy Forum, a vision of founder Jay Precourt, was started in 2011 with the goal of advancing the public understanding of global energy via fact-based balanced dialogue. Each year, over 300 stakeholders convened in Colorado where, in later years, the forum focused on North America as a rising power in energy. The Global Energy Forum moved to its permanent home at Stanford University in the fall of 2018, where it explores the rapidly changing worldwide energy ecosystem and addresses the implications of these changes.

Further information is available on the Global Energy Forum website.