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Summary:

Bill Gates has positioned himself as a champion of energy innovation to solve climate change problems. Still, he’s surprised by how tough it is to get political support for boosting R&D spending and wondered if “perhaps we are not patient enough.”

Bill Gates, John Doerr: We Need $16B Per Year for Energy Innovation

It takes a lot to shock Bill Gates. But at a fundraiser for Climate Solutions on Tuesday, Gates said he’s “stunned” Congress hasn’t been able to boost spending for energy R&D. “Maybe it will be two or three years before we get it done.”

When it comes to climate change, the clock is ticking. Last June, Gates and other well-known American CEOs and venture capitalists called for the federal government to spend $16 billion per year in energy innovation. The spending suggestion caught on with the White House, which issued a report last November on energy innovation and trotted out Energy Secretary Steven Chu to warn that the U.S. was falling behind on science and technology R&D.

But so far, that push for more spending hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, the administration is fighting to continue the same levels of R&D funding as it wrestles with Republicans over spending cuts. It’s a fight that will take us through at least 2012.

At the event on Tuesday, Gates said he’s been surprised at how difficult it has been to convince U.S. politicians they need to increase funding for clean energy R&D, in order to create energy solutions to fight climate change and supply the globe with clean power. “Maybe we are not creative enough or patient enough,” he said toward the end of his talk.

Gates said he understands that asking political leaders to commit to supporting spending over decades is a tough thing. But he also believes the government is the best source of R&D money. The U.S., in particular, is still the hub of innovation that rewards high-risk takers, and that culture is worth preserving, Gates said, adding: Of the “100 great energy ideas, 70 percent of them are based in the United States.”

With such a road block, getting clean energy solutions quickly will be difficult. At last year’s tech conference, TED, Bill Gates said he wanted to see big innovations that can cut energy costs by half and lead to zero carbon emissions by 2050. He said achieving the goal is possible with 20 years of intense innovation followed by 20 years of deployment.

The longer the delay on boosting energy R&D, the bigger the breakthroughs will need to be. Citing his favorite author in energy, Vaclav Smil, Gates said the time it takes to come up with new energy sources and to deploy them widely typically is about 60 years.

During his interview, Gates also reiterated his support of nuclear power, despite the safety problems that have occurred at Japan’s Fukushima reactors. Gates has been putting his money behind nuclear innovation, and backed nuclear startup TerraPower. Another tech titan also has found nuclear attractive: Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos recently took part in a $19.5 million round for General Fusion.

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  1. Louis Sauve Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    About “Maybe it will be two or three years before we get it done”: If State and Federal administrations have failed to develop energy policies for over 50 years, why would that change now that increasing energy prices are funding additional retrograde TV ads, lobbyists, and campaign funding? Will it not be worse in 2-3 years?
    There will be no Apollo program on energy in the U.S. I feel progress can only come from individuals who put money where their convictions are (EVs, plug-in hybrids, distributed solar) and large organizations with deep pockets and no interest in status-quo. Google is trying to help (solar farms, networked lightbulbs even!). I hope Bill Gates would put in a good word at Microsoft and get them to engage their might!

  2. Charles E. Campbell Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    Mind Blowing Comments From Bill Gates

    Why would billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos invest in nuclear energy and not in the best energy ideas? Politicians serve the wealthy and elite, so I’m not sure why Bill Gates is complaining. To get politicians to move an agenda, simply contribute to both national parties, their leadership’s campaigns and pay the lobbyist who have their attention. The wealthy and Elite are able to use their control of the media to make global warming, high oil prices and the lack of a serious energy legislation the news of the week. With a telephone call to Barack, John and Harry, a Global Warming Energy Bill could be introduce within 1 week. This legislation would be voted, passed and signed into law within two weeks. Mr. Gates is a brilliant thinker and I believe that he understands Washington Politics better than anyone.

    Real energy innovation and solutions will not come because of a new political law. That type of government strategy would simply provide more money to the same people who are getting Recovery Energy Funds. Real innovation in renewable energy will come from those of us who are willing to ignore the naysayers and innovate from our basements, garages and small offices, and who get No federal funding, because we lack to financial resources to “Pay To Play”. We have the gift of invention, ideas and innovation and are often ignored by the gatekeepers for people like Gates and Bezos.

    I wonder if they can remember what it was like when they first started, and the investors who took a chance on them and their ideas. Maybe success and fame eliminates their drive and passion to make more money by investing with small startups with nothing more than great ideas. I hope they remember what its like to experience the power of an idea and be that entrepreneur who believes and refuses to give up on their dreams?

    Charles E. Campbell, Founder & CEO
    Allen Hydro Energy Corporation (AHEC)
    http://www.ahecEnergy.com

    AHEC is Innovating Large-Scale Renewable Energy within a 70 Story Building Downtown in any Major Metropolitan City and doesn’t require a river, lake or dam.

    True Innovation @ work!

  3. Steve Heitmann Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    We already have several proven clean-energy technologies that could be implemented now. Please read “Clean Energy Profit Without Nuclear Risk” at http://www.ponderable-possibilities.com This is a working draft, so please read again after May 18th, 2011 for the finished version.

    Re: Congress, etc. I’m also stunned by the (in)actions of Congress; moreover, I’m greatly concerned about their generally destructive effects on America and on 97% of Americans. The right-wing Republicans (rwGOP) are doing more than just impeding progress in climate change science and clean energy innovation: the rwGOP agenda appears to be about returning America to its pre-1930’s condition!

    This isn’t surprising when one realizes these dysfunctional rwGOP politicians would rather reduce the margin of life on Earth than reduce the margin of profit.

    Even more amazing is George Stephanopoulos’ 2009 interview with now Speaker John Boehner, a “significant” rwGOP “leader”, who is among those who claim “climate change” is a hoax:

    http://climateprogress.org/2009/04/20/house-gop-leader-boehner-abc-global-warming-carbon-dioxide-is-a-carcinogen-comical/

    Vote the right-wing Republicans out of political existence. That will have by far the greatest positive impact on America, on our economy, including deficit and debt reduction, on our innovation, and on our multi-cultural and social growth.

    Support recall campaigns across the nation to remove right-wing Republicans from elected office.

    http://www.restore-integrity.info

  4. I don’t think Bill Gates is oblivious to how to use his wealth to influence policy makers. But cleantech alone isn’t such an important agenda sometimes that politicians on both sides would be happy to compromise in order to get the policies they really want. And, just because the political climate is not good now doesn’t mean you should stop pushing for what you think is right. Giving up is worse.

  5. Though I address my rants often to problems and questions specific to the United States – since I was born here and live here I feel I have a responsibility to do so – the deliberation blocking tactics by reactionary politicians beholden to narrow corporate interests hasn’t been a surprise since I was about 16 years old. And that was a very long time ago.

    Will this halt progress? Of course not. Diminishing the size of the pool of talent dedicated to progressive engineering, innovation, invention and design doesn’t bring advances to a full stop. It just means the job, fundamental and ancillary, will go elsewhere.

    Do you actually think Congress, the Republican Party or Blue Dog Democrats care about that? Nothing is more important than the next election and who’s picking up the tab for it.

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