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.