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Summary:

We need “energy miracles,” in at least five areas, and in each of these areas “we need at least two hundred crazy people who think their idea alone can solve this,” said Bill Gates at the Wall Street Journal’s Eco:nomics conference on Thursday night.

Bill Gates at WSJ Eco:nomics conference

We need “energy miracles,” or break through innovation, in at least five areas, and in each of these areas “we need at least two hundred crazy people who think their idea alone can solve this,” said Bill Gates at the Wall Street Journal’s Eco:nomics conference on Thursday night. In a 30-minute interview on the second night of the three day event, Gates discussed innovation in carbon capture, nuclear, biofuels, and clean power like solar and wind, and provided his thoughts on carbon taxes, politics and government funding.

Gates said that it is particularly important to make sure that the “rewards are there,” for these crazy energy entrepreneurs, and “that is very unclear right now,” for grid-related generation technologies. You have to think why don’t we have more people doing things like that — what is holding these people back? said Gates.

Gates himself has invested in a variety of energy-related startups, including nuclear company TerraPower, and battery company Liquid Metal Battery. In his talk he also said he is backing a startup doing gravity energy storage, which he referred to as “gravel on ski lifts.” He’s also a limited partner in Khosla Ventures, Vinod Khosla’s fund, and Gates jokingly referred to Khosla as “the pay master of crazy people — some of whom we’ll declare sane,” in the future. That’s what venture capital is all about, said Gates.

Gates also had a word of encouragement for the energy entrepreneurs:

“I would encourage people who work in this area that the importance of this is right at the top.” The reason I spend time on it is because I think it is so critical to the environmental challenge and for helping the poorest. Cheap energy is like a vaccine.

While Gates has long said that the U.S. government needs to at least double its funding of energy research, he is heartened that the U.S. owns the majority share of the world’s energy startup portfolio companies, he said. But to help these entrepreneurs out we need to help make it possible for them to get capital, to scale up, to have access to China, and we need to create a framework that is very favorable to them, said Gates.

This not going to be as easy as the IT revolution, said Gates, energy miracles are fundamental breakthroughs in science and engineering.

  1. Jonathan Gebauer Friday, March 23, 2012

    All true, especially the part where he says that this is not going to be as easy as the IT revolution. The problem is that you do not need a single entrepreneur to have a crazy idea in the energy field.

    What you really need is teams: A crazy scientist with a breakthrough and a crazy entrepreneur who turns that breakthrough into a business. And all that in a sector where you have to compete and cooperate with large, ruthless and very traditional companies. Thats gonna be tough (but also very rewarding for some).

    Jonathan, exploreB2B

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    1. Agree with Jonathan for the most part. This space of energy and environment has room for many players, this is not going to be a situation where the playing field can only accommodate, for example, one Microsoft or one Apple.

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    2. GreenBizBASECAMP Wednesday, March 28, 2012

      I agree that green entrepreneurs face difficult and unique challenges, which is why we are trying to create a program that will help entrepreneurs with the transition from a great cleantech idea into a viable business. http://greenbusinessbasecamp.com/

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  2. michael kanellos Friday, March 23, 2012

    I forget the name of the ski lift company, but will look it up. They’ve presented at a bunch of storage conferences in the recent past. There’s actually a whole subdivision of macro storage. Plastic bags underwater, waterfalls etc.

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  3. Lets hope his advice is heard!

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  4. He would be so much more credible if he got out of bed with Monsanto, who is trying to monopolize the world by owning the seeds of the planet and the genes of life.

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    1. @Susan, would you care to provide proof that Gates is in bed with Monsanto? This is an outrageous statement to make without evidence.

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      1. Are you not aware of the purchase, made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, of 500,000 shares in Monsanto back in 2010 valued at more than $23 million? And, if you didn’t know, Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and wellbeing of small farmers around the world. And now with the Foundation’s strong connections to Monsanto, it cast serious doubt on the Foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa and with the goal of alleviating poverty and hunger among small-scale farmers. Do you think that all these philanthropic collaborations are designed to solve any problem besides how to help Monsanto monopolize the world’s food supply with expensive patented GM seeds, and the herbicides to go with them? Mr Gates claims the seeds would be donated to the impoverished areas in question. And, how long would the seeds remain free? There’s rarely such a thing as a free lunch anymore, and how likely is it that Monsanto is poised to “feed Africa” indefinitely? And since Monsanto’s seeds cannot be saved from year to year, they will literally own the areas and the people they temporarily donate their seeds to. And, once one owns the rights to the food being grown, one will literally rule the world. GM is not the way to go. It is already causing big problems. Evolution. Resistant bugs and weeds from all the insecticides and herbicides. I suppose this is probably not the venue for this kind of response. However, I’m just disappointed in the direction that he has chosen. http://www.organicconsumers.org/monsanto/index.cfm

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  5. Katie, This is a good mind grabbing piece. I am one of those entrepreneurs with solutions to civilization’s energy imperatives: slowing global warming and consumption of liquid hydrocarbons. One solution is a 300 mph 2nd generation superconducting magnetic levitated transport for freight trucks and passengers. The capability of our inventions to carry trucks in roll-on, roll-off Maglev vehicles is a real revenue earner that can pay for a 300 mph. Interstate Maglev network without taxpayer subsidy for construction or operation. The National guideway sytem can massively improve the conditions on our Interstate Highways much cheaper than paving more lanes. This system, invented by Drs. James Powell and Gordon Danby, the renowned inventors of Japan’s superconducting passenger only system, only needs a modest investment by a heavy weight like Bill Gates for a demonstration of its safety, performance and costs. The payoff is tremendous. We calculate that the system will save every person in the US over 1 thousand dollars per year in travel and cost of goods, not to mention the savings in lives, injuries, and health by the hugh reduction of tailpipe emissions. Our only problem is the opposition of other transport interests, like airlines and now the high speed steel wheel organizations who were fired up by the Obama High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail initiative funded in the 2009 stimulus bill. Ironically, at the April 16 announcement of the HSR program the President praised the Japanese superconducting Maglev system, saying “There’s no reason why we can’t do this. This is America. There is no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders.” Our no rolling friction, no emissions, no oil system operates at less than 5 cents a passenger mile compared to 15 cents a passenger mile for airlines, and $1 per passenger mile for Amtrak’s Acela and the rumored cost of the TGV at 50 cents a passenger mile. Powell, Danby and I just published on Amazon, The Fight for Maglev: Making America the World Leader in 21st Century Transport. This is the complete story of superconducting maglev written by the inventors. It tells the full story from the idea to the National Maglev Network,to the political headwinds, to other applications like space launch of payload, storing electricity (much more efficient than pumped hydro) and carrying large quatities of water rather than by pipeline. More about the 2nd generation superconducting Maglev at http://www.magneticglide.com. I am based in Washington and would love to meet with Mr. Gates or his staff. We would be honored by your review of the book. james.jordan@magneticglide.com

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  6. The main reason the energy revolution won’t be as easy as the IT revolution is that IT didn’t have existing players who were trying to retain their position above all else. As long as coal, nuclear and oil are able to resist the emergence of distributed solar and wind farms as viable players, progress will be slow. Time to take the coal, oil and nuclear public funding away and put the money into solar on every roof and a very smart grid.

    Gates is completely correct on one point: Cheap energy is like a vaccine.

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    1. Right, square on targe! There are millions of homes and houses being built. It we just had solar panels on those roofs, I too believe our energy consumptions (coal, oil, and nuclear) would be substantially reduced. If you wish to go further, berm homes with passive solar. We came from the cave, maybe we need to go back. However, those coal, oil, and nuclear guys are the big players at the table.

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  7. It’s fab that Gates is putting his Billions to good use. Too bad he’s not a badass though; where are the hookers? Where’s the Willy Fog-esque grand balloon trip around the World?

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  8. Vassilis Nikolopoulos Monday, March 26, 2012

    Great input…energy-based entrepreneurship in the next decade’s trend…we are here ;-)

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  9. Giant solar chimney man. Plonk a few down in the desert. Maybe have a huge greenhouse with food growing underneath. Or cows on grassland! Could even scrub the methane out of the air at the outlet and sell it on the natural gas market.

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  10. FREE Webinar training: https://www3.gotomeeting.com/register/287208430 for Entrepreneurs

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    1. Talk, talk, talk…nothing ever gets done. The country needs a long term energy strategy that enables next generation technologies to mature and coexist with current sources. Gas powered cars will go away when electric or hydrogen-hybrids cost less and deliver more. Same for solar panels or fuel cells replacing oil or natural gas. We need leaders who can stop bs’ing us with rhertoric and create incentive based plans that outlive their tenures in office.

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