For Bill Gates, reinventing the wheel is unnecessary. His focus is on changing how the wheel runs. Over the last decade and a half, Gates has been one of the largest proponents of energy research and development. In 2000, he and his wife Melinda founded the world’s greatest transparently-run private venture: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. BMGF concerns itself with the health and welfare of the world’s poorest communities. The foundation’s recent work includes the Omni Processor which aims to convert fecal sludge into pure clean water and a source of energy.
In order to meet basic human needs,energy has to be readily available. For centuries, we’ve utilized the carbon-energy sources: coal, oil and, most recently, natural gas. Fossil fuels have powered our homes and means of transportation quite well for decades, but have left behind a stain on Mother Earth. How our energy is obtained has now become the struggle that researchers battle with.
Gates believes that the government can (and will) only do so much, and he stresses the necessary involvement of members of the private sector. And there has been no larger active presence in private sector energy R&D investing than Gates himself. Gates recently pledged $2 billion into energy R&D in an effort to reduce emissions and combat the lurking effects of climate change. Gates’ $2 billion investment holds more significance when you consider that the entire U.S. government only put $6 billion into energy R&D last year. Gates worries that not enough is being done with regard to the change in climate. An impending increase in global temperature by only a few degrees celsius would rapidly melt the ice caps. In the transition to natural gas, there’s hope to reduce overall carbon emissions, but is this enough?
(Spoiler alert: Bill Gates doesn’t think so.)
Gates sat down in an interview with The Atlantic where he gave thorough, captivating and thought-provoking answers to the issues surrounding energy. I urge you to read the article for yourself, but I’ll attempt to summarize Gates’ main points here.
- The largest combatant that energy R&D faces is incompetence. People just don’t know enough about the issues at hand to want to do anything about them.
- New forms of energy, due to their uncertainty against tried-and-true methods, are unappealing to the free market. If money can’t be made, people just aren’t interested. The return on investment may take 20+ years.
- We’ve got to work faster – on the transition away from fossil fuels – than we’ve worked on energy transitions in the past. “Each year, we’ll be emitting more greenhouse gases than the previous year.”
- Electric cars are a double-edged sword. While they emit little to no greenhouse gas themselves, the electricity infrastructure to make the car emits more CO2 than owning a gasoline-powered vehicle.
- R&D funding has to be increased in order to create new energy alternatives, in the same way that pharmaceutical and technology funding became so prevalent. Again, Big-Pharma and tech allow for a relatively quick return on investment: if it works, sell it. Energy requires more testing and trials which increases the time needed for profits to be made.
- Wind and solar energies are great, but intermittent; they can’t provide the type of second-to-second coverage we demand.
- Private sector and rich countries have to work in unison. The majority of the efforts have to come from the largest, wealthiest countries and their investors.
- Necessity is the mother of invention. We have a growing need to combat climate change and emissions. Innovation has saved us more than once, and Gates is certain it will again.
While he by no means has the answer to to every current energy challenge, Gates is confident that a solution will be reached; because it has to. Investors in the private sector play a vital role in the search for energy alternatives. Gates urges the investor and the consumer to be actively involved in funding and utilizing new energy sources.