Climate change threatens this and future generations. The solution is a clean-energy future, and Bill Gates is showing the way.
BILL Gates is positioned to remake the energy landscape, corralling 28 billionaire investors to advance clean-energy research. In his announcement, Gates distilled the wonky jargon of the Paris climate conference into something tangible: money for new clean-energy technology.
Gates’ project has teeth. And once the diplomatic chatter at the conference begins to quiet, it may end up as the last, best hope to address the existential threat of climate change.
Simply put, Gates is relying on the genius of human innovation to head off planetary climate change.
On the first day of the United Nations climate summit outside Paris, Gates revealed the creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a clean-energy investing initiative that includes entrepreneurs emblematic of disruptive leadership, from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma. The coalition will link with 20 countries, each promising to substantially boost its funding for clean-energy research. Participants include carbon-emitting heavyweights, such as the United States, China, India and Saudi Arabia.
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The mission is as technical as it is ambitious. Gates wants to springboard from the fossil-fuel economy to zero-carbon sources, which excludes natural gas, considered a transition fuel. He aims for a “eureka!” moment propelled by science and innovation. As Gates put it, “We need to move faster than the energy sector ever has.”
It’s a plan that demands focus, not just a grab-bag of wind, geothermal and solar power. Some technologies have nearly come to fruition. These include solar paints to turn surfaces into generators of electricity, along with flow batteries for energy storage. The latter is a key challenge for the Pacific Northwest, where wind energy is plentiful, but storage is inadequate.
Gates provides clues about the plan’s scaffolding, but funding will be the foundation. He told the Financial Times earlier this year that he would double his $1 billion investment in clean energy. That level of wealth needs to be matched and then some by his fellow billionaires.
Gates notes, “A key part of the solution is to attract investors who can afford to be patient, and whose goal is as much to accelerate innovation as it is to turn a profit.”
Many questions remain, however. How much money will Gates pull in from his billionaire partners? They haven’t said yet. Gates estimates it could be as much as several billion dollars. Still to be sorted out, too, is how the investment fund would be managed and how it would collaborate with governments from around the world.
It’s equally important to remember that America’s last meaningful public investment in renewables was in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. It was short-lived. Neither patience nor profit were hallmarks.
Unlike the 1970s, when energy strategy revolved around petroleum dollars, the world doesn’t have a choice. We must produce a new post-carbon economy or we suffer. It’s that simple.