In his offices overlooking Lake Washington, just east of Seattle, Bill Gates grabbed a legal pad recently and began covering it in his left-handed scrawl. He scribbled arrows by each margin of the pad, both pointing inward. The arrow near the left margin, he said, represented how governments worldwide could stimulate ingenuity to combat climate change by dramatically increasing spending on research and development. “The push is the R&D,” he said, before indicating the arrow on the right. “The pull is the carbon tax.” Between the arrows he sketched boxes to represent areas, such as deployment of new technology, where, he argued, private investors should foot the bill. He has pledged to commit $2 billion himself.
“Yes, the government will be somewhat inept,” he said brusquely, swatting aside one objection as a trivial statement of the obvious. “But the private sector is in general inept. How many companies do venture capitalists invest in that go poorly? By far most of them.”
Gates is on a solo global lobbying campaign to press his species to accomplish something on a scale it has never attempted before. He wants human beings to invent their way out of the coming collision with planetary climate change, accelerating a transition to new forms of energy that might normally take a century or more. To head off a rise in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels—the goal set by international agreement—Gates believes that by 2050, wealthy nations like China and the United States, the most prodigious belchers of greenhouse gases, must be adding no more carbon to the skies.
Those who study energy patterns say we are in a gradual transition from oil and coal to natural gas, a fuel that emits far less carbon but still contributes to global warming. Gates thinks that we can’t accept this outcome, and that our best chance to vault over natural gas to a globally applicable, carbon-free source of energy is to drive innovation “at an unnaturally high pace.”
And one of the interesting things about this problem is, if you have a country that says, “Okay, we’re going to get on a pathway for an 80 percent reduction in CO2 by 2050,” it might make a commitment that “Hey, by 2030, we’ll be at 30 percent reduction.” But that first 30 percent is dramatically, dramatically easier than getting to 80 percent. So everything that’s hard has been saved for post-2030—and even these 2030 commitments aren’t enough. And many of them won’t be achieved.
And for energy as a whole, the incentive to invest is quite limited, because unlike digital products—where you get very rapid adoption and so, within the period that your trade secret stays secret or your patent gives you a 20-year exclusive, you can reap incredible returns—almost everything that’s been invented in energy was invented more than 20 years before it got scaled usage. So if you go back to various energy innovators, actually, they didn’t do that well financially. The rewards to society of these energy advances—not much of that is captured by the individual innovator, because it’s a very conservative market. So the R&D amount in energy is surprisingly low compared with medicine or digital stuff, where both the government spending and the private-sector spending is huge.
An Interview With Bill Gates
They have this statement that the cost of solar photovoltaic is the same as hydrocarbon’s. And that’s one of those misleadingly meaningless statements. What they mean is that at noon in Arizona, the cost of that kilowatt-hour is the same as a hydrocarbon kilowatt-hour. But it doesn’t come at night, it doesn’t come after the sun hasn’t shone, so the fact that in that one moment you reach parity, so what? The reading public, when they see things like that, they underestimate how hard this thing is. So false solutions like divestment or “Oh, it’s easy to do” hurt our ability to fix the problems. Distinguishing a real solution from a false solution is actually very complicated.
On the role of private investors:
I think dozens and dozens of approaches should be funded at the R&D level, and then people like myself, who can afford to take big risks with start-up companies, should—because of climate change—be willing to put some number of billions into the spin-offs that will come out of that government-funded activity.
You can’t expect that it will be like a digital thing. So you do have to bring a more patient investor, and even a lower return threshold, to this than to other things. People often talk about, “Well, the solution that gets us beyond the CO2-based energy economy will be a mix of things.” And it will be a mix—but a few will be very big. And so the companies that find whatever turns out to be the mainstream, they will do super, super well. But there won’t be as many successes here as there are in an area like software, where there’s a lot more variety.
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When I first got into this I thought, How well does the Department of Energy spend its R&D budget? And I was worried: Gosh, if I’m going to be saying it should double its budget, if it turns out it’s not very well spent, how am I going to feel about that? But as I’ve really dug into it, the DARPA money is very well spent, and the basic-science money is very well spent. The government has these “Centers of Excellence.” They should have twice as many of those things, and those things should get about four times as much money as they do.
On why he thinks Congress may not be hopeless:
The U.S. Congress does support solar and wind subsidies, which have been quite generous. So Congress isn’t completely absent on this. The House actually passed a climate-change bill [in 2009], when it was a Democratic Congress. There’s a class of voters who care about this, that I think both parties should want to compete for. So I don’t think it’s hopeless, because it’s about American innovation, American jobs, American leadership, and there are examples where this has gone very, very well.
On the centrality of government to progress on energy, historically:
Everyone likes to argue about how much the shale-gas boom was driven by the private sector versus government; there was some of both. Nuclear: huge amount of government. Hydropower: mind-blowingly government—because permitting those things, those big reservoirs and everything, you can’t be a private-sector guy betting that you’re going to get permitted. People think energy is more of a private-sector thing than it is. If you go back to Edison’s time, there wasn’t much government funding. There were rich people funding him. Since World War II, U.S.-government R&D has defined the state of the art in almost every area.
But energy moves really slowly. There’s this thing Vaclav Smil says: If Edison were reborn today, he would find our batteries completely understandable, because it’s just chemistry. He would say, “Oh, cool, you found lithium, that was nice.” Nuclear-power plants, he would go, “What the hell is that?” That, he would be impressed with. And chips, which we can use for managing data and stuff, he’d be impressed with. But he could visit a coal plant and say, “Okay, you scaled it up.” He would visit a natural-gas plant and that would look pretty normal to him; he would look at an internal-combustion engine and he wouldn’t be that surprised.