For a Tech Billionaire Worried About Energy Efficiency, the Key Is Smarter Infrastructure

We've written before about tech philanthropist Thomas M. Siebel, whose Siebel Systems pioneered customer relationship management software in the 1990s. Siebel started giving big soon after, and so far the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation has given more than $260 million for the homeless and poor, education and research, public health, and the environment. Siebel has established several institutes and campaigns, including the Meth Project, the Siebel Scholars program and the Siebel Stem Cell Institute.

Now the Siebel philanthropy family has a new member: the Siebel Energy Institute, funded with a $10 million check from Thomas Siebel himself.

The energy institute is a consortium of eight universities in the U.S. and other countries: UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Ecole Polytechnique, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, MIT, Politecnico di Torino, Princeton, and University of Tokyo.

Upon its launch, the new institute also announced its first round of giving, pledging 24 research grants to investigators at the consortium schools, totaling $1 million. They're supporting work to make our nationwide energy infrastructure smarter.

Before saying more, we're always interested to see where funders in the climate and energy space choose to focus. On the one hand, more cash is urgently needed in these fights, with just two percent of all philanthropic dollars directed toward a climate challenge that arguably poses an existential threat to civilization as we know it. On the other hand, it can feel like a crowded arena, with many funders already working important angles in a big way. What's a billionaire to do who really wants to make a unique difference?

Related: Where the Hell Is All the Climate Funding?

Siebel's focus on energy, which now goes back a number of years, seems wise, and particularly this new effort on infrastracture, as we can't think of many other philanthropists who are on top of this important challenge. The focus is also in sync with his own background and expertise, which is always smart. 

The new institute wants to develop engineering and computer solutions that could revolutionize real-time and efficient management of the country's energy infrastructureeverything from power plants to distribution systems. This is all possible because the energy industry is investing a fortune to install millions of distributed sensors and computers that can collect massive amounts of data about the workings of the energy grid itself.

But you need software to make sense out of all this data. The Siebel Institute scientists and engineers are developing smart energy solutions to improve grid safety, cyber security, reliability, efficiency, and environmental integrity.

“Leading universities are beginning to dedicate research teams to this area, but we have the opportunity to accelerate innovation,” said S. Shankar Sastry, dean of the College of Engineering at Berkeley, and director of the Siebel Energy Institute. “The grants we announced today are a catalyst for research that could ultimately break new ground in energy systems analytics.” 

Going forward, the institute said it plans to award 40 to 50 research awards annually, as well as to continue financial support to ongoing projects. 

We expected that Siebel would delve further into clean energy technology, and this focus on smart grid technology makes sense coming from a guy who identified early on the vast potential of computers and data to improve something as fundamental yet complicated as the business-customer relationship. And improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the energy grid is one of the greenest possible ways to reduce the overall cost of energy -- to people and to the planet. 

Siebel, whose net worth is estimated at $2.3 billion, sold Siebel Systems to Oracle in 2006.