Bill Gates: Spike in clean energy R&D needed

The software tycoon cum philanthropist talks turkey on clean energy tech, arguing that much bigger public investments in R&D are needed.

Bill Gates has done some big thinking on energy and wants you to know: this is not an easy problem to solve.

Technology Review on Tuesday published an interview with the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist on multiple topics, including energy--a subject that Gates spends a considerable amount of time thinking about. The energy portion of the interview is here; a longer version touching on philanthropy is here. Both are worth reading in full.

In the energy discussion, Gates adds color to the main point he continues to make, which is that many significant energy tech advances are needed to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

Bill Gates Microsoft

"It is disappointing that some people have painted this problem as easy to solve. It's not easy, and it's bad for society if we think it is, because then funding for R&D doesn't happen," he said.

Gates is a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, a high-powered set of seven business leaders who lobby for an increase from $5 billion a year to $16 billion a year in research and development for clean energy and efficiency. The starting point of its plan is that the current American energy system causes harm to the economy, national security, and environment.

Gates offers a global perspective on energy, with an understanding of the energy needs of both rich and poor countries as well as the technical savvy to evaluate different approaches.

In the interview, he argued that a Manhattan Project approach isn't the right model to bringing carbon dioxide emissions down to zero. Instead, multiple paths need to be pursued because "you really don't want to rule anything out."

Technologies that show promise include algae fuel (he's an investor in Sapphire Energy ), large-scale solar thermal, making liquid fuels from solar energy, and nuclear power. Gates is an investor in TerraPower , a company that is designing a traveling-wave nuclear reactor that uses spent nuclear fuel. He also invests in other green technology companies through Khosla Ventures .

When Gates first publicly promoted his thoughts on energy earlier this year , he caught flak from environmentalists who said he downplayed the importance of efficiency. But even if Americans reduced per-capita energy use to be in line with Europeans or the Japanese (Americans' use is about twice that of Europeans), the developing world still needs more energy, not less, said Gates.

"If X or Y or Z gets you a 20 percent reduction in CO2, then you've just got the planet, what, another three years? Congratulations! I mean, is that what we have in mind: to delay Armageddon for three years? Is that really it?" he told Technology Review.

On the question of policy, Gates said that putting a direct price on carbon emissions with a tax is preferable to a cap-and-trade approach, which is much more uncertain for people in industry.

 

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