Gates coming to White House to appeal for more energy research dollars

By Steven Mufson
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; 10:01 PM

The man who helped put computers in almost every American household and sold them the software to use them is now turning his gaze toward the U.S. energy conundrum.

Bill Gates, joined by a half-dozen corporate chief executives, will come Thursday to the White House, where they will urge President Obama to sharply increase federal spending on clean energy research and to create centers for energy technology innovation.

The group is calling for government spending of at least $16 billion a year on energy research and development -- a five-fold increase -- and the creation of a National Energy Strategy Board that would help decide where to channel the money.

Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, says he wants the government to do for the energy industry what it did for computer technology decades ago.

"The Internet and the microprocessor, which were very fundamental to Microsoft being able to take the magic of software and having the PC explode, were among many of the elements that came through government research and development," he said in an interview.

The group is arguing that, while the United States spends $80 billion a year on military research and $30 billion a year on health research, it devotes between $2.8 billion and $4.8 billion on energy research, depending on how you count it. This year and last were exceptions, thanks to the roughly $70 billion in grants and loans for energy contained in the 2009 stimulus bill.

"We spend $80 billion a year on military R&D and we're good at shooting people," said Gates. "You get what you pay for."

And when it comes to energy, the United States isn't paying for much, he said.

Energy research and development also seems small when measured as a percentage of industry revenues. According to the group, which is calling itself the American Energy Innovation Council, R&D in energy accounts for a quarter of 1 percent of the industry's revenues, while R&D in technology comes to between 5 percent and 15 percent of tech industry revenues.

Gates said, "the time frames" for energy innovations "are too long for people to be drawn in to the type of radical change that we need."

The emphasis on direct government spending reflects, in part, the group's realization that a climate bill isn't likely to pass Congress this year; there will be no national market for carbon emissions to push companies toward renewable energy. The group argues that the United States is falling behind other nations that spend more on their domestic energy companies.

Other members of the group are Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt, former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norm Augustine, Xerox chief executive Ursula Burns, former DuPont chief executive Charles Holliday and Cummins chief executive Tim Solso.

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