Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stanford announces $100 million energy institute

Original Article - San Jose Mercury News

Stanford University has received $100 million to create a new energy institute where scholars can study everything from solar cells to energy markets and economics.

The institute will expand Stanford's role in energy research and national energy policy. It will consolidate Stanford's existing energy-focused efforts onto one site — and allow the hiring of new faculty, support additional graduate students and offer seed money for major research projects.

The donations came from three alumni who said they were motivated by the desire to protect the environment from greenhouse gases, improve energy efficiency and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

Oil and gas executive Jay Precourt donated $50 million to create what will be called the Precourt Institute for Energy. Farallon Capital Management partner Thomas Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, gave $40 million to create a new research center within that institute, the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. The final $10 million came from other donors.

"These generous gifts will help us overcome the enormous challenges that we are facing in energy research," Stanford President John Hennessy said at a Monday news conference. "It will create an independent institute for researchers on campus and around the world."

While commending the role that Silicon Valley has played in supporting alternative energy companies, "it needs some new discoveries," Hennessy said. "We need to be working on new technologies."

The new institute will be directed by Lynn Orr, professor of energy resources engineering and director of Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project. He plans to pull together 136 faculty members in 21 departments to create interdisciplinary projects.

Orr will start recruiting new professors almost immediately, he said. He will also encourage graduate students to apply for the 20 new fellowships available at the institute.

An even larger $500 million energy institute supports work at the University of California-Berkeley, but it is controversial because it's supported by international energy company BP and industry scientists collaborate on research.

When asked about Stanford donor Precourt's résumé, Hennessy said the new program is an "independent institute."

Stanford's new gifts are among the largest ever received by the university to support academic and research programs, Hennessy said. Because of the downturn in the economy and Stanford's shrinking endowment, it could have taken a decade to create the program using existing funds, he said.

Other recent gifts from alumni include a $75 million pledge in 2007 by Jerry Yang, co-founder and a director of the Internet search engine Yahoo and his wife, Akiko Yamazaki. Of that, $50 million was used to build the Environment and Energy Building, which will house the new Precourt Institute for Energy. In 2006, Stanford University trustee Ward Woods and his wife, Priscilla, committed $30 million for what is now named the Woods Institute for the Environment. The energy institute will work in tandem with Woods' environmental researchers.

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