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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Strong Corporate Influence in Energy-Efficiency Research at UC Davis

This week UC Davis announced that the Chevron Corporation has given UC Davis $2.5 million to create a permanent leadership position for the campus's Energy Efficiency Center.

According to a January 13, 2009 release from the University:
"The person appointed to the Chevron Chair in Energy Efficiency will direct the center, which was established in 2006. The world's first university center of excellence in energy efficiency, its primary objective is to speed the transfer of energy-saving products and services into the homes, businesses and lives of Californians.

The new Chevron gift brings the center's funding total to more than $7.5 million. The center's start-up funding of $1 million came from the California Clean Energy Fund, a public benefit corporation dedicated to making equity investments in clean energy companies. UC Davis matched the CalCEF grant with $1.3 million in operating and research funds, faculty time, and office and laboratory space. Other key funders include Pacific Gas and Electric Corp., Edison International, Sempra Energy, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Goldman Sachs."

Speaking today at an event announcing the new Chevron gift, UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef said: "Chevron's endowment will ensure long-term strategic leadership for the Energy Efficiency Center. By bridging long-term research with real-world applications, the director will guide the center in its goal of commercializing groundbreaking technologies, powering economic progress and helping to conserve resources."

The campus will conduct a national search for the person to hold the Chevron Chair, who will expand the impact of the center's research programs through interdisciplinary collaboration, education, outreach and commercialization of technologies. He or she also will continue developing strong links with state and federal government, as well as with international programs.

"Advancing energy efficiency, which is the cheapest, cleanest and most abundant form of new energy, is critical to the challenge of meeting the world's growing energy needs," said John McDonald, Chevron vice president and chief technology officer.

"California has been a pacesetter in energy efficiency, so it's fitting that one of the state's leading universities and California's largest company should partner on the next generation of energy efficiency."

The endowment for the Chevron Chair complements Chevron's ongoing support for UC Davis, which includes a $500,000 gift in 2008 for the Energy Efficiency Center and a $25 million biofuels research collaboration begun in 2006 to develop technology to convert nonfood agricultural waste into next-generation transportation fuels.

Sounds good right? The university getting millions of money from a large variety of huge corporations to fund research on energy-efficiency. One question that immediately arose was a seeming contradiction in a company like Chevron, that makes the bulk of its money selling oil, funding research for energy efficiency, a rising new field that would eventually imperil oil sales.
Indeed, as the background on the press stated:
"Chevron explores for, produces and transports crude oil and natural gas; refines, markets and distributes transportation fuels and other energy products; manufactures and sells petrochemical products; generates power and produces geothermal energy; provides energy efficiency solutions; and develops the energy resources of the future, including biofuels and other renewables."
The Vanguard spoke with Ben Finkelor of the Energy Efficiency Center. He strongly defended the contribution. First he explained that Chevron has created a separate endowment specifically to support energy efficiency. He believes that Chevron and other large companies have as much to gain by energy efficiency as any one else.

He also suggested that such donations have never come with any strings attached. They have never been told what to do by Chevron or any other company. This is simply a new market for the future.

While Ben Finkelor certainly gave an impassioned defense of the reliance on corporate funding for academic research, there still seems to be glaring contradictions in such policies. After all the development of fuel efficient technologies would seem to inherently need to focus on the reduction of the use of oil companies. Is this simply a way for Chevron to earn positive process? Is there a hope that they can somehow make these research centers beholden to their interests among many corporate interests? Or is it as Ben Finkelor suggests, a matter that Chevron has a separate wing devoted to the development of new fuels and fuel efficiency?

It is hard to know for certain. It will be interesting to see who is eventually hired as Chair as the result of this gift. However, one does have to question companies particularly like PG&E and Edison pumping money into fuel efficiency programs.

---David M. Greenwald reporting