Bill Gates’s Clean-Energy Moon Shot

It’s hard to think of a tougher challenge than accelerating humanity’s transition to nonpolluting energy sources and limiting global warming, especially in a world with abundant fossil fuels and fast-growing energy needs.

But that’s the assignment that Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and world’s richest person, has set out to tackle with a new multibillion-dollar fund that will invest in research on potentially breakthrough clean-energy technologies. He expects to double his clean-energy investments to $2 billion over the next five years.

Mr. Gates sat down recently with me to discuss the undertaking in his first extended interview since he announced the effort in December at the Paris climate conference. He called himself an “impatient optimist” but acknowledged that transitions in the field of energy were implicitly harder and slower than in sectors like information technology and medicine, where he has experience.

At the same time, he pushed back against critics who worry that his focus on what he calls “energy miracles” could undermine efforts to deploy today’s rapidly improving solar and wind technologies more swiftly. He said those efforts alone wouldn’t meet the world’s energy needs and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent that is necessary.

Mr. Gates and more than two dozen other wealthy individuals (and the University of California system), known as the Breakthrough Energy Coalition have pledged several billion dollars for the investment fund. At the same time, 20 countries, including the United States, pledged to double long-lagging investments in basic energy research in an effort known as Mission Innovation.

Together, these moves could signal the beginning of the first sustained effort to address the deep underinvestment in basic research and development in energy sciences that has been noted since the late 1990s by researchers concerned about climate risks posed by unabated greenhouse-gas emissions.

“It won’t be as fast, but we do expect to make money out of this thing,” Mr. Gates said of the fund. “If you can drive a new approach, then the energy economy is absolutely gigantic. Now, getting it scaled up fast enough, so that you benefit from your invention or your trade secrets, that is tricky.”

But, he added, “the financial incentive is to get it out and scaled quickly, and the climate benefit requires that same mentality.”

He noted that one of his personal energy investments, in a company called Terrapower that is developing a new nuclear reactor design, is not likely to pay off before 2030 at the earliest, if it ever pays off at all.

“It’s a ridiculously long time period, even for a health care type intervention, to try and think, hey, we’re doing this great work so that we have this tool for 25 years from now,” he said. “But I’m really glad the work is being done. It has some meaningful chance of being able to help us with the climate problem.”

One of the biggest challenges, Mr. Gates noted, is meeting the needs for vastly more energy in urbanizing developing countries like India. He said even the rapid spread of current renewable energy options wouldn’t be able to meet that demand, particularly given the lack of related technologies like cheap, large-scale energy storage systems.

Andrew C. Revkin writes the Dot Earth blog for The New York Times and is the senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University.

Visit Dot Earth to watch and read the complete interview and examine a range of other views on driving a global energy transition.

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