Bill Gates: Boost federal funds for energy research to fight climate change

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There’s an urgent need – recognized by leaders of such venerable corporate giants as Xerox, GE and Lockheed Martin – for the American government to inject a lot of cash in a big hurry into alternative energy research, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told 1,200 climate activists and business people in Seattle on Tuesday.

To head off climate catastrophe, “the innovation piece is so important,” Gates said at a fundraising breakfast for the Seattle-based non-profit Climate Solutions. “The lip service that has been paid to energy innovation over the last few decades is disappointing.”

Gates and others from the upper echelons of the corporate world banded together as the American Energy Innovation Council and pushed hard for a boost in federal energy research spending from $5 billion to $16 billion annually.

“President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them,” Gates joked during an on-stage interview by Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who is co-president of Climate Solutions.

Nevertheless, the CEOs’ bid ultimately was shot down. Gates said that at a less dire time financially, it’s likely the group would have succeeded, and that the executives must keep trying.

Gates advocated research into many different energy sources, including nuclear, solar and wind power, that do not produce the gases scientists say are unnaturally heating the earth’s atmosphere, chiefly carbon dioxide. Many research projects won’t get very far but lots of them should be tried, said Gates, who is known widely for his philanthropy as well as his success at Redmond-based Microsoft.

After government-funded pilot projects prove successful, industry must be ready to deploy the technologies very quickly, Gates suggested.

He said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would not be wading into the field of energy and climate, although Gates noted he has private investments in alternative-energy companies.  

Gates focused on China, whose fast-growing energy demand represents a large piece of predicted greenhouse gas emissions under a business-as-usual scenario. While the Chinese are investing heavily in alternative energy, the country also is building lots of coal-fired power plants that emit CO2.

Despite China’s apparent openness to alternative energy, it doesn’t have the universities and startup-friendly business infrastructure found on this side of the Pacific, Gates said.

“The United States has a completely gigantic share of that,” he said. “China can be part of the solution. We need to be involved with China.”

Gates’ pronouncements are the latest in several high-profile public appearances where he has endorsed the need for rapid innovation – “energy miracles” as he said in one speech. He charted a course in which the government makes massive investments in research now, which the private sector fleshes out on a for-profit basis.

Energy is what has led to vast improvements in the human condition over the last three centuries, Gates said, emphasizing the need for new technologies to solve the energy conundrum and bring poor people to prosperity without wrecking the climate.

In contrast to Gates’ focus on new energy development, the CEO of Seattle-based McKinstry industries said in a talk at the same meeting that existing energy efficiency technologies can greatly reduce the growth in the demand for power. McKinstry,  which continued hiring even at the lowest point in the recession, specializes in boosting the energy efficiency of buildings.

“It’s a trillion-dollar opportunity for companies like us all around the country,” McKinstry CEO Dean Allen told the 1,200 people assembled at the Westin hotel.

Some 70 percent of electricity is used in buildings, he said, accounting for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

About half the electricity used in buildings – one-fifth of U.S. CO2 output – is waste that can be fixed  “on a revenue-neutral basis,” Allen said. That’s the equivalent of 200 coal-fired power plants.

Climate Solutions Policy Director KC Golden, reflecting on Gates’ remarks, noted that the energy industry spends a smaller percentage of its revenue on research than the dog food industry.

Gates, Golden and others spoke of the daunting political challenges that have so far prevented a serious national effort to rein in climate change.  Golden said he is convinced events will at some point move the public to wholeheartedly support such a program.

“I think the trajectory of this issue is going to be very non-linear,” Golden said in a briefing for journalists. “This issue isn’t going away.”