Sam Altman invests $20 million in clean energy startup Exowatt to meet energy demands of AI data centers

In a strategic move towards a sustainable future for artificial intelligence (AI) infrastructure, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, alongside venture capital heavyweight Andreessen Horowitz, is backing a $20 million investment in clean energy startup Exowatt, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. The investment signals a concerted effort to address the growing energy demands of AI data centers while championing sustainability.

Per the report,  Altman’s backing underscores the voracious appetite for electricity within the AI landscape. Notably, this move follows Altman’s previous forays into alternative energy solutions, including investments in nuclear power technology aimed at bolstering America’s clean energy portfolio.

Sustainable AI Data Centers

While Exowatt remains tight-lipped about the intricacies of its technology, The Wall Street Journal provides a glimpse into its innovative approach. Unlike conventional solar panel installations, Exowatt deploys modular units resembling shipping containers, housing solar lenses that convert sunlight into heat. This thermal energy, akin to the heat in a toaster, is stored within basic materials, enabling round-the-clock energy storage.

“Instead of solar panels arrayed across a field, Exowatt has developed modules roughly the size of shipping containers that contain solar lenses. The lenses convert energy from the sun into heat. That heat can then be used to warm up cheap, basic materials much like electricity heats up a toaster, allowing the modules to store energy for up to 24 hours a day.

The goal is to take advantage of the cost reductions from storing energy as heat. To produce electricity, the module passes the heat through an engine. Many other companies are working on different approaches to solar and low-cost heat batteries, but Exowatt says it is unique because it combines them in one unit,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

The secret of Exowatt’s solution lies in its cost-effective energy storage mechanism. By leveraging heat-based batteries, the company aims to capitalize on cost efficiencies while streamlining energy production. This integration of solar and heat battery technologies distinguishes Exowatt in a crowded field of renewable energy innovators.

Acknowledging the intermittent nature of solar power generation, Altman emphasizes the pivotal role of nuclear energy in ensuring grid stability. His support for nuclear power startups like Oklo and Helion underscores a broader commitment to diversifying America’s energy mix.

In a statement to CNBC in 2021, Altman underscored the symbiotic relationship between intelligence and energy, positioning both as crucial commodities shaping the future. With the burgeoning demand for AI data centers and the electrification of industries, the inadequacies of the aging U.S. power grid come to the fore.

“Fundamentally today in the world, the two limiting commodities you see everywhere are intelligence, which we’re trying to work on with AI, and energy,” Altman said.

The pressing reality of an aging US power grid ill-equipped to support the burgeoning demands of AI data centers and the broader electrification trend in the economy is evident. In our exposé, “The Next AI Trade,” we elucidated investment avenues conducive to America’s energy empowerment.

Simultaneously, the escalating upfront costs associated with grid modernization exacerbate the plight of households grappling with soaring power bills. As households across the nation struggle to foot their monthly energy expenses, the urgency for sustainable, scalable solutions becomes even more pronounced.

In navigating the intersection of technology and sustainability, Altman and Andreessen Horowitz’s bet on Exowatt not only addresses the energy demands of AI but also heralds a paradigm shift towards cleaner, more resilient energy solutions.

Sam Altman is the co-founder of OpenAI, an AI startup he co-founded with Elon Musk in 2015. OpenAI started as a non-profit research institution aimed to pave the way for safe and beneficial artificial general intelligence (AGI). However, in 2020, it transitioned into a commercial entity, marking a significant shift in its trajectory. Despite internal disruptions in November, including Altman’s temporary departure and subsequent return, the company remains at the forefront of the burgeoning AI market, spurred by the successful launch of ChatGPT in 2022.