Bill Gates pens advice column for next president

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 7, 2016

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates is urging the next president to prioritize affordable energy for “everyone on Earth” without contributing to climate change.

In a new blog post this titled “Accelerating Innovation With Leadership,” Gates focuses on the government’s role in technological discovery, considering past U.S. achievements like sending a man to the moon.

He did not mention Republican nominee Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by name. But he pressed the next president to focus on four pillars: clean energy, health epidemics, HIV and education.

“In the next eight years, we could start the transition to a new type of clean fuel that doesn’t emit carbon, deploy batteries that let electric cars run far longer on a single charge, and produce dramatic drops in the total cost of renewables,” Gates wrote.

A moonshot challenge like that achieved by President Kennedy in the 1960s required “marshaling the resources and intellect of both the public and private sectors,” Gates said.

Gates’ comments are under close watch by the clean energy community because he has yet to fully outline how he and other billionaires plan to fund projects — or work with the U.S. government — via the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

The group of some of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs pledged last year to work with the global Mission Innovation initiative announced at climate talks in Paris. The initiative, which now includes 21 countries, aims to double spending on clean energy research and development globally within five years, from $15 billion to $30 billion.

“This is only the start. By increasing government support for clean-energy research, presidents and prime ministers could attract more private investors to the field. As early-stage ideas progress, private capital will pour in to build the companies that will deliver those ideas to market,” Gates wrote today in his blog.

His new comments differ somewhat from earlier statements focused more on finding new, cutting-edge technologies, rather than supporting mature ones like solar. Critics pressed for more attention to the latter (ClimateWire, Dec. 4, 2015).

In June, Gates said the coalition was hiring its own staff and doing work behind the scenes (Greenwire, June 2). Since then, he made several public investments in energy companies, including leading a $14 million investment in Renmatix, a maker of cellulosic sugars.

That investment came in conjunction with French energy giant Total SA. Gates also invested in August in Varentec, a startup that oversees power grid electricity.

Gaming Mission Innovation

So far, Congress has denied funding much of the U.S. portion of the Mission Innovation initiative, which would largely be supported by the Department of Energy.

A Senate appropriations bill that passed earlier this year would reduce President Obama’s request for DOE’s renewable energy office by more than $1 billion.

There are proposed increases for programs like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and national labs, but not at the levels proposed by the administration.

Gates’ comments follow the publication of a commentary in Nature this week from three U.K.-based experts saying that countries can “game” Mission Innovation by setting initial baseline funding targets for R&D that are easy to double.

“When countries announced their pledges in June this year, most based them on unreported data or funding statistics that are not clearly defined,” wrote Martyn Poessinouw, director of U.K.-based kMatrix Ltd., and University College London researchers Lucien Georgeson and Mark Maslin.

Some countries picked a single year from which to double funding, while others used an average. There are also wide differences in how various countries define clean energy R&D, with some including nuclear and carbon capture but others not.

“These problems weaken progress towards the goals of the Paris agreement. Global advantages from regional research specialties, such as knowledge from Denmark on designs for wind turbines, will be squandered. And Mission Innovation spending will be spread thinly,” they wrote.

The researchers also found that for every dollar of public R&D funding reported to the International Energy Agency, private companies invest $25 in renewables but 56 cents in carbon capture and sequestration.

Similar analyses would help identify other areas — like fuel cells — that may not have adequate backing from private companies and need more support, the researchers said.

They urged governments to consider more data on what is being funded and what is not to back the neediest industries and form a more symbiotic relationship with the private sector.

Gates’ coalition could help, they said, by making “important, long-term investments, instead of backing companies for the quickest profit.”