Bill Gates thinks big, spends big in push for energy innovation

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is investing more of his own time and money in the search for clean energy and solutions to climate change.

Gates is moving into a third arena, after software and philanthropy, and is using his Kirkland-based incubator, BGC3, to fund related science.

"The more I learn about this problem, the more I see it as super critical," he said. "We need a breakthrough; we need multiple breakthroughs."

Gates spoke Tuesday to a sold-out audience at a fundraising breakfast in Seattle for the nonprofit Climate Solutions.

Gates said he has been meeting with energy experts, reading up on the latest science and investing in startups, such as Bellevue-based TerraPower, which is designing a new kind of nuclear reactor intended to run for decades on depleted uranium.

He also started the American Energy Innovation Council with a group of senior corporate executives, which has tried unsuccessfully to persuade U.S. political leaders to double government funding for basic research.
Science and market-based technology solutions have the potential for huge advances, Gates said.

"The capitalistic format ... is the main area where energy innovation is going to take place," he said.

Gates is unlikely to make energy a focus of the philanthropic work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which concentrates on needs of the poor, but certain things like biofuels for small farms in Africa or Asia might play a role.

His growing involvement in clean energy hasn't been without controversy.

He rankled some with comments that appeared dismissive of small-scale renewable energy at a conference last week in New York.

"If you're interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go," he said in an interview with Wired Magazine. "If you're interested in solving the world's energy problems, it's things like big [solar projects] in the desert."

Gates might not give adequate emphasis to less exciting options, such as improving energy efficiency or rapidly deploying existing solutions, said KC Golden, policy director at Climate Solutions, but his focus on technology innovation is badly needed.

"Not surprisingly given his background, that's his primary emphasis," Golden said in an online conversation after the event. "It's not everything that needs doing, but it's great he's doing it."

Golden appreciates Gates' ability to think big.

"I want to participate in a real revolution, not make futile gestures," Golden said. "That's why retreating back to just private and local action alone won't work."

In his own speech, Golden acknowledged that even if the U.S. reduced carbon emissions to zero, the world would still be "swamped by just a few months of growth in the Asian economy."

Profitable solutions that can be applied globally are needed.

"What we can do is pioneer a new path to prosperity that works for us and billions of people across the world," Golden said.

Gates had some critical jabs at politicians, saying the optimism he feels when meeting with scientists fades when he thinks about "the political elements that should be in place" by now, such as pricing for carbon.

"The lip service that has been paid to energy innovation over the last few decades has been disappointing," he said.

The Energy Innovation Council's recommendations include establishing a national energy plan with concrete and measurable energy targets that various technologies and companies could compete to reach.

In making the case for increased government support for basic research and development, Gates said he and other business leaders met with President Obama.

"He said nice things, and I think he meant them," Gates said. "In a normal fiscal environment we probably would have been successful."

Still, Gates added that "I'm kind of stunned we can't get more bipartisan view on this R&D piece. It's about jobs and innovation."

While China has surged ahead in some areas, such as solar-panel production, the U.S. remains dominant in the power to innovate in the sciences, Gates said.

Innovation thrives where the top universities and best environments for high-risk startups are.

"I know of 100 great new energy ideas," Gates said. "I'd say 70 percent of them are based in the United States, even if they are looking at doing some manufacturing [in China]."

China is a necessary part of the solution because it's a much bigger market for energy than the U.S., he said.
Yet scientific innovation is an area where "the world counts on America to do well."

At the same time, it's important to take advantage of "practical, real-time solutions where we live," said McKinstry CEO Dean Allen, another speaker. About 70 percent of electricity produced in America goes to buildings and other physical infrastructure, Allen said. "What we've learned is 50 percent of the energy our customers use in their facilities is pure waste."

Eliminating energy waste from commercial and government buildings alone could cut emissions at a level equivalent to eliminating 200 coal-fired power plants, he said.

Allen raised a note of caution about too much reliance on "spectacular breakthrough technologies" as silver bullets. Much like reform in education, he said, "it's often not best to wait for Superman."

Seattle Times business reporter

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