Thursday, March 01, 2012

Bill Gates Calls for More R&D Funding for Energy Technologies

gates_E_20120229124335This week the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) held its third annual energy innovation summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of energy technologies in the U.S. marketplace. Among the impressive lineup of speakers was a notable nuclear energy advocate Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and of the nuclear startup company TerraPower.

Although I wasn’t able to attend the conference in person (I found out too late—bummer!), I followed along on Twitter using the #eis12 hashtag to see what nuggets were said about the future of energy.
In a panel with Secretary Chu, Gates said that research and development for energy technologies is “greatly underfunded.”

"People underestimate how far away we are," Gates said. "That's partly why we can end up underfunding the innovative work that needs to go on."

Boosting funding for research doesn't guarantee that there will be a technological breakthrough, but it does improve the chances of speeding up progress. Still, Gates said, the failure rates of green-technology startups will be well over 90 percent.
In order to get at least 10 to 20 technologies to succeed in the marketplace, Gates called for at least doubling the current budget for R&D to encourage the thousands of companies that may be needed to try their hands at developing the next big energy innovation.
He also said that it’s important that the United States continue developing cheaper, cleaner sources of energy if we want to help impoverished people around the world:
“If you look at improvement in the human condition, it really does have to do with energy. If you want to improve the livelihoods of the poorest 1 billion people in the world, having cheap energy [is a way to do it]. Can they afford transportation, fertilizer, lighting? The answer is no, without cheap energy, they stay stuck where they are.”
As part of his commitment to developing clean energy, Gates reconfirmed his support for nuclear power as a viable, safe, emission-free energy source. Smart Planet explains:
“Unless you can take hydrocarbons and take extreme [carbon] capture-and-storage, then you’ve got nuclear as the one left [that provides baseload power],” he said. “I think we should bet on all of these, and in each area we should have ideally hundreds of companies betting on them.”
Continuing to improve nuclear energy technologies to make them even safer will still be important, Gates said. Inga’s Live Blog explains:
“If you need humans to do something, that’s not a good design,” [said Gates]. Gates said nuclear isn’t dead. Next-gen nuclear plants will no doubt have safety procedures that don’t need people figuring out which switch to flip to stop a meltdown.
Developing game-changing energy technologies will take time however, Gates explains, due to the necessary research and testing that is involved.
The problem with using IT and telecommunications as models for innovating in clean energy is that people underestimate the difficulty of the scientific work needed and how much time is needed for innovations to become adopted, Gates said.
Beyond the time to research, the energy industry is subject to sometimes burdensome regulatory frameworks, which can also delay progress in the field, Gates said:
“Whatever technology they use and how it’s priced for consumers is determined on a regulatory basis,” he said. “It’s very different than having a software company or even a chip factory where your innovation cycles are every two or three years and your dependence on government policy is very low.”
For more information on some of the current challenges facing the energy industry, watch the panel with Gates and Secretary Chu from the summit. For more information on the ARPA-E summit, check out CNET’s coverage.

Photo: Bill Gates at the ARPA-E 2012 summit. Credits: AFP/Getty Images.

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