Stanford gets $100 million for alternative energy

STANFORD, California Tue Jan 13, 2009 8:23am EST

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STANFORD, California (Reuters) - Stanford University on Monday said it had received $100 million to build a new energy institute from donors who want environmentally friendly energy sources that also improve U.S. security.

Stanford President John Hennessy said the donations, $90 million of it from two families, will be for an institute that has "the simple goal of making renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels."

Cutting U.S. dependence on imported oil is seen as a way to cut carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and to cut U.S. dependence on the Persian Gulf. Solar and wind energy are growing rapidly and their production costs are approaching that of traditional electricity, thanks in part to tax breaks.

But many other forms of alternative energy are only in the idea stage.

Further, the weakening economy, dropping oil prices and shrinking pools of credit have left many big alternative energy projects on hold.

The new Precourt Institute for Energy is named after Jay Precourt, an oil executive who donated $50 million. Another $40 million came from Thomas Steyer and his wife Kat Taylor. Steyer is a Stanford trustee and managing partner of Farallon Capital Management.

The remaining $10 million was donated by Douglas Kimmelman, of Energy Capital Partners, Michael Ruffatto, the president of North American Power Group, Ltd, and Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, through the Schmidt Family Foundation.

The institute will create seven to eight new faculty positions, fellowships for graduate students and postdocs, and improve undergraduate and graduate energy curricula. The institute will also operate as a sort of venture capitalist, making seed money available for new ideas.

Precourt said in a statement he was concerned "we are importing energy from insecure, unreliable sources who are, in many cases, not friends of the United States." The United States imports 70 percent of the oil it consumes.

Part of the problem is economics. Taylor said that alternative fuels would be more attractive if the "real price of gas were included in our market, for example environmental damage, foreign policy implications (and) foreign wars."

Stanford said it already spends $30 million annually on energy research. The new institute will roll in the existing Stanford Global Climate and Energy project, which works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

Lynn Orr, a professor in energy resources engineering who heads the existing project, will be in charge of the new institute. Orr said the institute will "work on the host of social, market and policy issues involved in the needed transition to energy systems with significant fractions of renewables."

(Reporting by David Lawsky; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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