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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman Backs $20M Funding for Solar Startup Exowatt to Tackle AI’s Massive Energy Demands

The insatiable energy appetite of artificial intelligence has caught the attention of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who recently participated in a $20 million investment round for Exowatt, a renewable energy startup aiming to provide sustainable power solutions for data centers. Altman co-invested alongside venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in the funding for Exowatt.

As generative AI models like OpenAI’s own ChatGPT skyrocket in popularity and utilization, the staggering computational resources and electricity required to train and run these AI systems has become a looming challenge. Data centers already account for 1 to 1.5 percent of global electricity usage according to the International Energy Agency, with power-hungry GPUs consuming nearly four times more energy than typical cloud server hardware.

Exowatt is taking a novel approach to tackling AI’s energy needs through modular solar units the size of shipping containers equipped with solar lenses. These lenses concentrate solar rays to generate heat, which can then be stored in affordable materials for up to 24 hours. The stored thermal energy is subsequently converted into electricity via an engine within each module.

“You don’t have to go back to fossil fuels to solve the data center energy problem…That’s counterproductive,” Exowatt CEO Hannan Parvizian told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on Altman’s investment. Parvizian emphasized Exowatt’s mission of “Enabling decarbonization through electrification” by prioritizing US-made components and sustainable energy sources for its products aimed at powering AI utilities.

Altman, who has been vocal about the critical importance of breakthroughs in AI and energy technology, is also an investor in nuclear startup Oklo through his personal investment vehicle. In a prior CNBC interview, the OpenAI chief highlighted how “the two limiting commodities you see everywhere are intelligence, which we’re trying to work on with AI, and energy.”

His statement aligns with warnings from scientists that the next generation of even more advanced generative AI systems will consume vastly greater amounts of power, potentially straining current energy grids. While the full environmental toll of large language models remains difficult to quantify, there is growing urgency around developing sustainable solutions as AI adoption explodes.

By backing startups like Exowatt, Altman and other tech leaders are signaling AI’s dependency on ready access to renewable energy sources to minimize its carbon footprint. As generative AI capabilities expand rapidly, ensuring a resilient, green power supply through innovative alternatives could prove crucial to realizing the technology’s full potential responsibly.