Outside of the large picture windows of the Bell Harbor International Conference Center on Seattle’s waterfront, the view of Elliott Bay was obscured Tuesday by haze from the fires that have been a persistent presence deep into an October of extreme heat and scarce rainfall.

Inside, some 700 people gathered for the inaugural Breakthrough Energy Summit. They included entrepreneurs, scientists, politicians and other “climate change trailblazers” who are trying to help move the world to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And posters on pillars outlined what needs to be done to limit climate change by way of big shifts in the way we build, make things, grow food, generate power and move about.

“Anybody who thinks it’s not important, you got to be tough on that person. Anyone who thinks it’s impossible, you have to bring them along because we need this big participation,” Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a Tuesday morning talk. “We can’t have people giving up. I really believe it’s possible.”

Gates founded Breakthrough Energy, which he rolled out during the 2015 Paris climate accord as a coalition to help develop promising technologies to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Today, Breakthrough Energy’s venture fund has investments in more than 100 companies, and $2 billion in committed capital from more than 30 investors that include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Alibaba Group executive chair Jack Ma. The organization also is involved in philanthropy, as well as policy advocacy and other activities.

Most of the companies funded by Breakthrough Energy have sent representatives to this week’s gathering in Seattle. Some of them spoke in conference sessions, and booths set up around the building showcased some of the technologies.


Speakers on Tuesday included U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who spoke about the massive boost in federal spending for clean energy that will result from legislation passed by Congress. She was joined by John Kerry, the former secretary of state, who as President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate is trying to persuade more global leaders to accelerate a shift away from fossil fuels to avert the most severe impacts of climate change.

“I’m convinced we will get to a low-carbon or no-carbon economy,” Kerry said. “What I’m not convinced about is that will do it in the time the scientists have told us to do it to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis.”

Kerry says that there is an urgent need for investment by international lending agencies, such as the World Bank, in financing the transition to clean energy.

Gates, in a written dispatch released Tuesday, called climate change an “existential crisis” that represents “the hardest challenges people have ever faced.”

Some 30% of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from manufacturing, and one of the biggest hurdles is developing cost-competitive clean technologies for industries.

The venture fund portfolio includes California-based Antora Energy, which is developing an energy storage system that can soak up surplus solar- and wind-generated electricity and deliver it to industrial customers who need to produce heat of up to 1,500 degrees Celsius.


Another company, Boulder, Colorado-based Electra, has developed technology to use electricity in iron and steel production. The process operates at temperatures lower than a cup of freshly brewed coffee, replacing the intense heat generated by coking coal, according to Kevin Galloway, Electra’s director of engineering.

Breakthrough Energy also is focused on finding ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.

Air conditioning is expected to become even more vital in a warming world, and that could potentially mean a growth in energy consumption to cool buildings. Earlier this year, the fund invested $20 million in Blue Frontier, a Boca Raton, Florida-based company that is developing new technology to slash use of refrigerants in air-conditioning systems. The process includes energy storage so that abundant solar power produced in the middle of the day could be used later.

“What’s unique about Breakthrough Energy is the rigor that they go through to vet your company,” said Greg Tropsa, Blue Frontier’s executive vice president of business development. “They’re looking for things that are transformative.”

Gates said Tuesday that one clean energy success has been the dramatic expansion of solar energy amid declining costs of production. Some of the fund’s investments look at ways to improve on current technology. Bedford, Massachusetts-based CubicPV, for example, is developing technologies to “dramatically boost the energy harvests” of solar installations.

Expansive solar farms, new transmission lines and other development required to move away from fossil fuels are receiving strong pushback in some of the Northwest and elsewhere in the nation. Gates, in his Tuesday statement, said those who experience disruption “must have a voice” but he also noted that the biggest disruptions will come from rising temperatures.


For years, Gates’ personal investment portfolio has included dozens of energy companies seeking to lower carbon emissions. Gates also has been an outspoken proponent of the potential for a new generation of nuclear power plants to play a role in the 21st century energy transition.

Gates is chair of Bellevue-based TerraPower, a company that has announced plans to build a Natrium reactor — cooled by liquid sodium — at the site of a coal plant near Kemmerer, Wyoming, that’s scheduled to close.

TerraPower’s Wyoming project is projected to cost nearly $4 billion. It will be supported by the U.S. Energy Department. Taxpayers, under contract terms, will pick up half the costs, matching private sector spending dollar for dollar.

Gates’ advocacy has earned him praise — and criticism — amid a global debate about nuclear power’s role in the decades ahead.

Gates’ vision for Breakthrough Energy includes helping people find ways to adapt to climate change. In his dispatch Tuesday, he said there is need for making ports more resistant to floods, producing more heat-tolerant crops and establishing technologies like desalinization to ensure access to clean water.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that Mark Zuckerberg was an investor in Breakthrough Energy’s venture fund. He is not.