Bill Gates dropped by for breakfast in Seattle the other day - with 1,200 people gathered at a fund-raiser for the Northwest non-profit Climate Solutions.
In a Q&A session, Gates talked about his growing interest in finding "breakthrough" energy solutions that will enable everyone in the world to enjoy a decent life without tipping the global climate system into a danger zone. "My key interest is that we get a solution that's cheap energy that emits no CO2."
He likes scientists who study problems and come up with answers. He doesn't care much for politicians who ignore problems and don't help implement answers. For better and for worse, the latter are responsible for making the key decisions that must be made. "Some days, like yesterday, when I'm meeting with scientists, I get very optimistic. Then I step back and I look at the political elements that should be in place, for example pricing carbon, funding more R&D."
Gates, whose philanthropic interests include global health, agriculture, and education, started making a name for himself in the energy world when he teamed up with CEOs from GE, Xerox, and others to form the American Energy Innovation Council, which issued a report last year pressing the federal government to step up spending on energy research and development. Congress did nothing. In fact, some in Congress, like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, want to cut energy R&D to the bone.
"I'm kind of stunned that we can't get a bipartisan view on this R&D piece, because it's about jobs and innovation," Gates said. Yeah, Bill, so are a lot of people.
R&D is critical in Gates' mind because getting to a point at which people worldwide have the energy services that deliver a decent life - clean water, healthy food, mobility, for example - will require R&D to discover and commercialize "cheap energy that emits no CO2." Pressure on the global climate system is a function of people demanding energy services that today result in CO2 emissions. Population won't go down and neither will demand for energy services. The only way to lower the pressure is to cut the CO2. That means everyone especially Americans and Europeans.
"So, for the power sector in rich countries, we had better do more than our 80 percent part. We'd better almost take that to zero." One magic bullet won't do and nothing should be prematurely voted off the table. "You've got to either do carbon sequestration from coal and natural gas, got to do nuclear, got to do renewable. Fortunately, there are different approaches -- none of which is economic, none of which is clear will be economic today. So, you ought to pursue all of those things."
Gates has taken some heat for what critics say is his failure to apply the Moore's law lesson of the computer industry to energy. All you need is a price on carbon, and the market would take it from there. Apples and oranges, Gates said. Energy is hugely capital intensive with long payback periods. Risks are high, regulation is complex. In IT, product cycles are measured in years. In energy, they're measured in decades. Apple can design and market an iPad without a Title V permit from EPA. Apple doesn't have to justify its pricing decisions in a utilities commission rate case.
"The R&D won't be done as well unless the government comes in and encourages people, both with money and by making the policy clear that they will permit certain kinds of things."
Stop fretting about China, Gates said. If an energy innovation comes from China, so what? "If I have a disease and the thing that saves my life happens to come from China, I'm not going to complain." More importantly, the U.S. is still the center of innovation and China will need our help as it scales up its electricity generation in the next 20 years by a factor of four. "Any solution that turns the energy game into a nationalistic one-upmanship thing isn't going to get us to where we need to go."
Gates correctly fingered getting cheap energy with zero carbon as the most important enterprise facing humanity in the 21st century. Keep your eye on the ball, he counseled activists who despair of the mendacity and obtuseness that emanates from Washington, DC. Innovation in the past 300 years has doubled lifespans, cut childhood mortality by a factor of 10, raised literacy 80-fold. Not because we picked the right politicians, but we picked the right ways to innovate.
"You've got to persevere. It's the same political system that somehow got us into the wonderful situation we are in today. I mean that seriously. The United States is in, basically, a good situation. So when you despair and think, how can it move forward on this problem, you have to think, well it did in the past. Maybe we're not being creative enough or patient enough. So even that piece, I think, we may get what we need, but only because people like the people here are keeping that message clearly in front of all the politicians."
(See video and the full transcript of Gates' remarks here.)
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