Bill Gates thinks it may take a miracle to find the kind of cheap, clean energy source needed to safely power the planet through the next century. But he believes governments and businesses aren’t doing nearly enough to discover one.
“The challenge we face is big, perhaps bigger than many people imagine. But so is the opportunity,” Gates writes in an annual missive posted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “If the world can find a source of cheap, clean energy, it will do more than halt climate change. It will transform the lives of millions of the poorest families.”
The appeal for a global surge in basic research comes three months after Gates announced the creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a private investment initiative that includes 28 of the world’s richest private investors. The group, whose members include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma, with a collective worth estimated at $350 billion, pledged to funnel billions of dollars into efforts to develop new sources of energy and energy storage. A parallel effort announced by the United States, China and 17 other countries seeks to double government spending on energy research and development in the next five years.
Gates, in an interview, said the private initiative will be expanded later this year to include institutional investors such as university endowments and corporations. And still, he says, he worries that the effort so far is not equal to the challenge the planet faces in the coming decades. Even if all countries honor carbon-cutting commitments made in December’s historic climate agreement in Paris, global temperatures are projected to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
“In short, we need an energy miracle,” Gates writes in the letter. “When I say ‘miracle,’ I don’t mean something that’s impossible. I’ve seen miracles happen before. The personal computer. The Internet. The polio vaccine. None of them happened by chance. They are the result of research and development and the human capacity to innovate.
“In this case, however, time is not on our side,” he says.
Gates said he was encouraged by the dramatic growth in solar and wind energy around the world, but he said new technology is needed to solve the “intermittency” problem — how to make electricity when the wind is still and the sun isn’t shining — and to find cost-effective ways to store energy. Moreover, developing countries urgently need cheap alternatives to fossil fuels that will allow them to provide electricity to billions of their citizens without increasing air pollution or contributing to climate change.
“We need a massive amount of research into thousands of new ideas — even ones that might sound a little crazy — if we want to get to zero emissions by the end of this century,” he said.
Gates applauded the Obama administration’s decision to lead the 19-nation Mission Innovation initiative to increase government spending on basic R&D. But he said energy research should be a bipartisan issue for the United States, despite partisan differences over climate change.
“Innovation has always been a mix of government funding and private-sector risk taking, and you really want to activate both,” Gates told The Washington Post. “What we haven’t seen [in the United States] is an increase in energy R&D — it’s stayed at basically the same level since [former President Ronald] Reagan.
“We need the United States to set a good example,” he said, “because the best energy R&D institutions are here — the national labs, the top universities and a startup culture that allows technology to come out of the labs and into the private sector.”
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