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

5/10/11Follow @xconomy

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about 15 cleantech companies, and went through the science and the business of what each of them is attempting to do. He didn’t go into specifics on which companies he met, but said he thinks there are “incredible energy companies,” being built today in the U.S.

On the political environment:

Gates made reference to his work with the American Energy Council—a group of business leaders that included GE CEO Jeff Immelt, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, the venture capitalist John Doerr, and others—which urged the U.S. government to triple spending on energy R&D, to $16 billion a year. Gates said he supported the Obama Administration’s stated goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, although he reiterated that it’s not possible without breakthroughs in technology and politics compared with where we are today. The American Energy Council also said that government needs to put a price on carbon emissions, although as the New York Times noted last June, it didn’t endorse a specific method like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade plan.

The business group’s proposal didn’t succeed, Gates said, partly because of the political environment which makes it very tough to increase spending, when there is so much pressure to lower taxes and cut spending throughout government. “In a normal environment, we’d probably be successful,” Gates said. He added: “President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them,” Gates said, setting off a few laughs in the audience.

Gates, without singling out Obama, offered some harsher analysis of the nation’s political situation, which has led to inaction on this issue for decades. “The lip service that’s been paid to energy innovation over the past few decades has been disappointing,” Gates said. But he also added that government hasn’t been all bad on this issue—he specifically cited the ARPA-E program, which seeks to invest in potentially groundbreaking ideas for energy, much like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has invested in groundbreaking technologies for decades, which gave rise to the Internet we use today.

On what really needs to happen in technology to fix the problem:

The amount of carbon dioxide emissions that gets put into the atmosphere can be boiled down to a pretty simple formula, Gates said. It’s dictated by four key factors: global population, the amount of services used by each person, the efficient use of energy, and how much carbon gets emitted per unit of energy burned.

The formula, which Gates has discussed before in TED talks, is somewhat sobering. Global population is going up, not down. The amount of services used per person is going up as globalization drives economic growth in China, India, and other parts of the world—meaning they will increase energy usage. Energy efficiency offers some opportunities—like fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs—but there are many important products that can’t … Next Page »

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