Bill Gates is looking for an "energy miracle" – but he's not counting on divine intervention.
Instead, the pioneer of the computer age is leading an effort to have government and the private sector work together to find the energy breakthrough needed to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, and then deploy that technology throughout the global economy before it is too late.
The co-founder of Microsoft Corp. has great faith in technology. By dramatically increasing funding for research into myriad approaches, he believes the solution to climate change can be found in the next 15 years, although it will then take decades to have it widely adopted.
"I can't guarantee it, but I'm excited and am willing to put lots of resources behind these efforts," he said on Monday from New York, where he was promoting his "annual letter" from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The missive is aimed at high-school students and lays out his vision for how the world can take on the twin challenges of tackling climate change and addressing energy poverty – 1.3 billion people live without electricity. "In short," he said, "we need an energy miracle."
Listed by Forbes magazine as the world's richest man, Mr. Gates launched his latest campaign at the Paris climate summit. He persuaded 20 countries – including Canada and the United States – to double their energy research and development over five years and collaborate in an effort called Mission Innovation. He also unveiled the Breakthrough Energy Coalition with the backing of more than two dozen of the world's most influential business people, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.
For its part, Canada has committed to investing an additional $300-million in energy R&D, with $100-million going to clean-tech producers and $200-million earmarked to support innovation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the resource sector.
The former Microsoft chief rejected the skeptics' view of climate change, insisting it is an urgent issue that requires an unprecedented effort by the public and private sectors to steer changes in energy economy with unprecedented speed. But he also worries that many in the environmental movement underestimate the challenge of doing so.
For example, renewable energy enthusiasts claim wind and solar – especially solar – are now cost competitive with coal-fired power.
"It is true that when the sun is shining, the capital costs for solar are the same as coal," he said. "So if we only need energy when the sun was shining and we all lived in deserts, then, yes, we'd have our solution." But solar panels don't provide electricity at night and are less efficient on cloudy days, and so it needs to be backed up with coal, or diesel or natural gas.
He said the cost of solar-powered electricity – which has fallen dramatically – still needs to drop by half, while batteries and other electricity storage systems need to be substantially improved if solar and wind are to provide consistent power on which people can rely.
Mr. Gates is backing several battery companies, but said progress has been slower than proponents had hoped. The big breakthrough would come if researchers can find a cost-effective way to use solar energy to create liquid fuels, thereby eliminating the storage conundrum, he added.
He has invested heavily in TerraPower, which is developing a form of nuclear power that aims to be safer, with less waste and lower capital costs. But Mr. Gates said it will be nearly 10 years before a prototype will be built and at least 2030 before such reactors are available for commercial deployment.
Governments and investors are going to have to be patient, however. Venture capitalists won't see the kind of quick returns generated by the information-technology or health-care sectors, while government will face criticism for backing projects that never get off the ground.
"Eventually, there will be the equivalent of a Google- or Apple- or Microsoft-type success story that comes out of a dramatic innovation," he said. "Or, ideally, like in the IT space, two or three companies like that. … But it will require the R&D effort to be supported not just over a few years, but for many."