Bill Gates on The Energy Challenge: Optimistic on Science & Business, but Not So Much on Politics

5/10/11Follow @xconomy

When people think of Bill Gates, they probably think one of two things. He’s either a hard-driving software mogul, or warm-hearted billionaire devoted to saving the poor. But what fewer people realize is that Seattle’s most famous son also spends a lot of his time thinking about, and investing in, clean energy technologies that he hopes will have a shot at staving off a global warming catastrophe.

Gates shared some of his thinking on the subject this morning at a breakfast keynote for the nonprofit Climate Solutions, which drew more than 1,000 people downtown to the Westin Seattle. Gates, wearing a maroon baseball cap, was interviewed onstage by Jabe Blumenthal, an early Microsoft employee who now serves on Climate Solutions’ board. Gates spoke for about 30 minutes in front of this high-powered crowd of local business, political, and nonprofit leaders, about the challenge as he sees it with global warming, and what can be done about it. You can see the video here at

Gates used this opportunity to make a few key points. He’s optimistic about the science of lots of different fields of the energy business—wind, solar, biofuels, nuclear, and energy efficiency. He’s optimistic about the business opportunities, and pointed out that he spent yesterday reviewing a number of promising ideas with the prominent venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Gates, however, is less optimistic that governments, here in the U.S. and abroad, are willing to step up, to set mandates on carbon emission reductions, and to finance some of the basic research needed to spark renewable energy technologies.

“My key interest is that we get a solution that provides cheap energy that emits no CO2,” Gates said. “There are many paths it could go down. Anybody who thinks it will be easy is overlooking the difficulties.” It will be extremely hard to get a large percentage of the world’s energy from any one source like wind, nuclear, solar, or biofuels, Gates said. “We need to go full speed ahead on every one of them.”

There’s a lot of food for thought to consider from Gates’s high-density stream of consciousness on the climate change issue. This was the first time I’d seen him speak in person, and as I write this, I’m still processing what I really want to learn from his remarks. (I’m definitely going to let some of this marinate in my mind as I think about questions I want to ask about our upcoming event “Separating Hype from Reality in Alternative Fuels,” which will tackle one important aspect of the energy challenge on May 19).

Here’s a quick wrap of the highlights from what Gates had to say on a wide variety of questions this morning:

On the important role of cheap energy in creating the modern industrial society:

Gates said Vaclav Smil, a distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba, is one of his favorite authors on this subject. One book in particular of Smil’s, “Creating The 20th Century: Technical Innovations Of 1867-1914 And Their Lasting Impact,” has stuck with Gates. “When you look at why our society has done so well the past 300 years, a lot of it has to do with energy,” Gates said. But what worked so well as the U.S. became the world’s industrial superpower won’t work in a globalized world with 7 billion people and counting. In order to maintain the society as we know it, we will need to continue to produce cheap, abundant energy, but without all the CO2 emissions of fossil fuels. “It’s super-critical,” Gates said. “We need a breakthrough. Maybe multiple breakthroughs,” to create new sources of energy that are low-cost, and environmentally friendly.

On how climate change, and clean energy are connected with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to improve global health and development:

The foundation, Gates said, does a lot of work in sustainable agricultural practices, because about 70 percent of the poor people it focuses on have small farms. “Making them more productive is super-important,” Gates said. Clean air, clean water, and good growing conditions are obviously important for people in that situation if they are ever going to lift themselves out of poverty, he said.

On the role of government in the clean energy field:

People need to make a stronger case for more investment in basic research and development of cleantech ideas, Gates said. “You need a portfolio of investment,” he said, and while there appears to be money for “downstream” activities like building new power plants, there’s a lack of investment in the “upstream” creation of new knowledge that can lay the foundation for much better sources of power production. In terms of investment in basic R&D, industry is really nowhere to be found. “Only the government can do that,” Gates said.

On the opportunities for startups:

Yesterday, Gates said he met with Vinod Khosla, the legendary VC who spearheads cleantech investment for Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, CA. Gates got a review of … Next Page »

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