U.S. still underfunding energy research — Bill Gates

Source: Gabriel Nelson • E&E  • Posted: Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Energy Secretary Steven Chu spent the afternoon on Capitol Hill defending President Obama’s proposed DOE budget for next year, but his agency’s research programs got firm support earlier in the day from Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates.

Energy development programs deserve twice as much money as they get now, Gates said during a panel discussion with Chu.

The comments came at the annual conference held by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which would get a $75 million bump to $350 million under the White House’s budget plan for the fiscal year that begins in September.

“The secretary has a hard time making extreme statements like that, but I’m more independent and I think it’s crazy how little we’re funding this energy stuff,” said Gates, who now spends much of his time on philanthropy and has invested in energy startups.

ARPA-E, created three years ago, exists to fund high-risk projects that could someday solve problems such as dependence on foreign oil and climate change. Gates said that 90 percent of them are likely to fail, and that is why “we need literally thousands of companies to be trying these things.”

He cautioned against expecting energy to take the same leaps as computer companies, such as his own Microsoft, which grew from a small startup to the world’s dominant software company in about a decade.

Energy relies on more expensive, longer-lasting equipment, and the quick rise of computer companies has “warped people’s minds about how quickly things can work,” he said.

Gates is a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, which recommended in 2010 that energy research and development spending be tripled from $5 billion to about $16 billion.

The Pew Charitable Trusts said yesterday that it will create a new program to push for $15 billion in federal spending on energy research and development. Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s Clean Energy Program, said the group will hire a new director and build a staff from both outside hires and current employees.

While gridlock on Capitol Hill over the budget deficit may make that goal difficult to achieve, the group wants to help stave off cuts to energy technology funding and perhaps increase it to levels “in the ballpark” of what experts from Gates’ group and the National Academy of Sciences have recommended, Cuttino said.

Chu, whose birthday and wedding anniversary are today, celebrated the day by taking tough questions from House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and other lawmakers who disagree with President Obama’s plan to steer funding toward renewable energy and energy efficiency while trimming federal spending on coal and oil research.

Rogers accused the Obama administration of resorting to “political posturing” against fossil fuels, rather than trying to “balance the expansion of conventional fuels — coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear — to provide energy today, with investment into renewable energies to power our future.”

But today’s conference suggested that clean energy research has some support among members of Congress who hold the purse strings.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is the ranking member on the subcommittee that writes DOE’s budget, appeared at the ARPA-E conference today. Rep. Steve Womack, a first-term Arkansas Republican who is second-in-command of the equivalent House Appropriations subcommittee, was also there, and said he counts himself among ARPA-E’s admirers.

If the United States reduces its dependence on foreign oil, cuts emissions, improves efficiency and reclaims leadership in energy technology, “it will be through programs that find their genesis in ARPA-E,” Womack said.