Bill Gates: I support lots of energy sources, not just nuclear
Bill Gates – Microsoft co-founder, billionaire philanthropist (you’ve heard of him, right?) – gave a much-anticipated talk on his latest thinking on climate change and energy in Seattle on Tuesday morning at the annual fundraiser for Climate Solutions, a regional non-profit.
The real news was what he didn’t say. I’ll give three examples.
1. He made no big announcement about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation getting into climate advocacy. It will stay focused on global health, although Gates has many personal investments in energy companies. He spoke about meeting yesterday with venture capitalist extraordinaire Vinod Khosla to get a briefing on clean energy and energy storage startups. While Gates has drawn more attention for supporting nuclear energy, he wanted it known that he’s invested in a lot of alternative energy sources.
“My key interest is that we get a solution that provides cheap energy that emits no CO2,” he said. “There are many paths it could go down. Anybody who thinks it will be easy is overlooking the difficulties.”
But he sees energy as a problem for the capitalist marketplace. The foundation will remained focused on malaria vaccines and other poverty and health problems, things for which there is “no market.”
2. He gave no indication that he’d be wading further into the messy politics of climate and energy, although he acknowledged that political barriers to clean energy are as problematic as technological barriers. He spoke of work over the past year with the American Energy Innovation Council – a group of high-profile business leaders such as GE chief executive Jeff Immelt – to lobby the federal government to double or triple energy R&D funding. The push failed. Gates said it might have succeeded in most years, but he suggested he’s much more at home working with scientists and investors than playing the lobbying game.
"President Obama did see us. He said nice things, and I think he meant them," he said, drawing a few laughs.
One of the thorniest questions about Gates’ techno-centric approach to energy is whether it’s even possible to separate technology from politics, human behavior or entrenched structures like our utility system. Grist’s David Roberts has done some good thinking about this (“Why Bill Gates is wrong”) and KPLU’s Tom Paulson grapples with the same issue.
3. Gates also gave no dismissive lines about rooftop solar being “cute” but inadequate, as he said in a New York talk last week -– a line that infuriated the (often infuriated) climate blogger Joe Romm. In the past, Gates has said energy efficiency and current low-carbon technologies are insufficient and we’d do better to focus on moon-shot changes of the sort that the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program pursues. Tuesday morning, though, he was more diplomatic to the crowd of climate advocates.
“Given the uncertainty [of all new low-carbon technologies], I think we have to go full-speed ahead on every one of them,” he said.
He was also bullish on the U.S.’s role in innovation (surely one of his favorite words): “China is very important and can be part of the solution here,” he said. “But as for the power to innovate in sciences, the U.S. still has the dominant position.”
It’s tempting to do the bloggerly thing here and quibble with what Gates didn’t say about my pet themes: More talk about cities and walkable neighborhoods! More efficiency! Behavior psychology!
But my overarching impression was how much the world’s second-richest man sounded like any other smart businessman: evincing sincere enthusiasm at science and tech research, scratching his head over political dysfunction, wondering how his reach could have the most influence in the world. He made it clear he didn’t want to be superman to the climate movement, although he could prove to be one of its most important allies.