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Gates on energy: IT revolution has warped our minds

Forget a Moore's Law for energy tech, says Bill Gates. Moving the energy system away from fossil fuels takes decades of work and multiple scientific breakthroughs.

Peas in a pod: Bill Gates and Steven Chu discuss the pathways to a cleaner energy system.
Peas in a pod: Bill Gates and Steven Chu discuss the pathways to a cleaner energy system.
Martin LaMonica/CNET

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.--Even with the exciting work being done on energy at countless labs and startups, Bill Gates isn't counting on a repeat of what happened with info tech.

Speaking at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit here today, Gates argued that the amount of government funding for energy research and development should be doubled to speed the pace of innovation.

Even with a massive increase in research and other policy mechanisms, such as a tax on carbon emissions, Gates said energy moves slowly just by its nature. Unlike IT, the energy industry is capital-intensive and heavily regulated, and its underlying hardware, such as power plants, takes decades to swap out.

"The IT revolution is the exception that has warped people's minds in how quickly things work," Gates said. "It's very different than having a software company--or even a chip factory, where your innovation cycles are two or three years, and your dependence on government policy is very low."

The problem with using IT and telecommunications as models for innovating in clean energy is that people underestimate the difficulty of the scientific work needed and how much time is needed for innovations to become adopted, Gates said. "It's crazy how little we're funding this energy stuff," he said.

Since leaving Microsoft, Gates has focused his attention on philanthropy, specifically on improving the health and lives of poor people in developing countries. He has also become an advocate for energy innovation, joining the American Energy Innovation Council, a group of business leaders who have made policy recommendations such as increasing funding for energy research.

His philanthropic work is closely related to developing cleaner energy systems, he said. Making renewable energy more affordable is critical to raising the standard of living of poor people. Small-scale farmers in equatorial zones around the world are the most susceptible to climate change, he said.

"Cheaper energy would certainly be on the list of the three or four things that you would most want for the poorest people in the world," Gates said. "If you won't get it, it reverses the idea that you eventually empower those people. In fact, we're making their lives more difficult."

Interviewed on stage alongside Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Gates offered his views on which technologies have the most potential to compete with fossil fuel power generation and transportation fuels. Gates and Chu agreed that public and private investors should invest in a broad portfolio of technologies to increase the odds of a technological breakthrough.

On the question of the electricity grid, Chu said the DOE is focused on coupling wind and solar energy with storage to reduce the cost of fossil fuel power generation. Gates argued that such efforts are quite far off from implementation, given the cost of batteries. He is investing in a fourth-generation nuclear startup called TerraPower, which uses fuel spent by existing plants to generate electricity. Nuclear plants can provide base-load power or steady power at all times.

"People underestimate how far away we are," Gates said. "That's partly why we can end up underfunding the innovative work that needs to go on."

Boosting funding for research doesn't guarantee that there will be a technological breakthrough, but it does improve the chances of speeding up progress. Still, Gates said, the failure rates of green-technology startups will be well over 90 percent.

"This is a very complex set of technologies, and so we need thousands of companies to be trying these things to increase the odds that 10 or 20 companies will get to that magic solution," he said.