The man who helped launch the personal computer revolution says the nations of the world aren’t doing nearly enough to boost the search for new energy sources that could help humans avoid a global-warming calamity.
Bill Gates, in Paris for the start of the international climate talks, faulted governments and private industry alike for stinting on basic research into new technologies for generating, storing and transmitting energy. He warned that the climate threat is too serious to allow technology to evolve at the usual slow pace.
“Historically, it takes more than 50 years before you have a substantial shift in energy generation, but we need to do it more quickly,” Gates told The Washington Post. “We need to move faster than the energy sector ever has.”
Gates made the comments before the formal unveiling of a private investment initiative that is expected to raise billions of dollars for research and development into new energy technologies. The “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” organized by Gates, includes 28 of the world’s wealthiest private investors, with collective holdings of $350 billion. In a parallel effort, the United States, China and 17 other countries announced plans to double government spending on energy research in the next five years.
President Obama hailed both programs at a Paris news conference, with Gates at his side. Obama, echoing Gates, said fighting climate change would require not only cuts in emissions but “some entirely new technologies.”
“The truth is, if we adapt existing technologies and make them cheaper and faster and more readily available– if we improve energy efficiency–we’re still only going to get part of the way there and there’s still going to be a big gap to fill,” Obama told reporters. “And that’s where these research dollars become so important. Because we don’t yet know exactly what’s going to work best.”
Gates said he began exploring the idea of a private investment group over the summer in response to his own frustrations over the faltering pace of energy research. In the United States, years of budget cuts have eroded programs that traditionally support basic research, and private companies have been reluctant to risk capital on promising but untested technologies. As a result, many promising inventions are allowed to wither without ever being developed to commercial scale.
“It was surprising to me that the R&D piece had not been part of the discussion,” Gates said. The Microsoft founder approached U.S. and European officials as well as investment partners about ways to increase support for energy research, and “all of them were very enthused.”
Gates said he initially hoped that five countries and perhaps 10 entrepreneurs would sign up for the investment initiatives. Instead, 19 countries and 28 individuals — including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma — quickly agreed to join.
“It’s a cause that each of them cares about,” Gates said. “I talked about some of the cool technologies that would get funded that otherwise wouldn’t be. And I was amazed at the positive response I got.”
On Gates’s list of “cool” innovations: solar-chemical technology, which converts the sun’s energy into hydrocarbons that can be stored and used as fuel. “There are about 20 different things like that,” he said. “They could give us a solution in which the premium you pay for clean, reliable energy is actually gone, so rich countries can go to zero [emissions], and countries such as India that want to provide electricity to their citizens can go at full speed, without having to choose between development and being green.”
Gates acknowledged political resistance in the United States to action on climate change, but said both major political parties have traditionally supported a strong government role in fostering energy innovation.
“There are always questions about the role of government in different sectors, but you get more agreement on whether basic research is an appropriate role for government,” Gates said. “I think we can get a bipartisan backing for this priority.”