Bill Gates: Increase Federal Energy R&D to Drive Innovation

Bill Gates, the world’s second richest man and American business magnate, has been using the microphone at several recent events to send a strong and simple message: the U.S. federal government needs to dramatically expand its investment in advanced energy research and development.  As the New York Times reported today via ClimateWire:

At home, the government isn’t doing enough to invest in basic research and development and should more than double it, Gates said. A few good things have been done, including the founding of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E. But even that doesn’t get much money and almost had it all cut, Gates said.

Last year, Gates, venture capitalist John Doerr and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and a few others founded the American Energy Innovation Council, which lobbied the federal government to spend $16 billion a year on renewable energy development. It didn’t pan out and, in face of a conservative House, probably won’t for a while.

Still, Gates was adamant that research and development can only come from government. He said he’s shocked that there’s virtually no current bipartisan support for it… The energy sector is going to be underinvested in unless the government promotes research and encourages investment by making its policy positions on incentives and regulations clear, Gates said.

Over the last year, Gates has significantly ramped up his energy R&D advocacy.  It began with his winter 2010 TED talk, when he declared that if he were granted “one wish” for the next fifty years, it would be to develop low-carbon energy technology at half today’s price, which he claimed would have the “greatest impact” on the world.

Later in the year, he helped organize a group of CEOs under the  American Energy Innovation Council, which released a report calling on the federal government to increase energy R&D up to $16 billion annually.  This week,  Gates said he was “stunned” that more bipartisan developments haven’t happened on energy R&D, but he was hopeful that progress could be made over the next two to three years:

“In my view, you need a portfolio of investments, but the thing I think that’s the most underinvested in is basic R&D. That’s something that only the government, really, is going to do… The innovation piece really is so important, and I do see good things happening, but the federal government should more than double what it’s spending on that piece.

…The amount that you have to tax energy in order to fund this R&D piece is pretty modest. Like, say, a half percent if you go after the entire energy economy, more like a percent if you go after just the electricity part of it… I’m kind of stunned that we can’t get a bipartisan view on this R&D piece, because it’s about jobs and innovation. It’s the kind of thing the world counts on America to do well, and very key to how this country stays unique. Maybe two, three, four years before we get it done.”

Bill Gates’ endorsement of increased federal energy R&D builds on a growing expert consensus spearheaded for years by think tanks like the Breakthrough Institute and dozens of Nobel Laureates, and recently endorsed by groups like the Brookings Institution, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Third Way, and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

As David Leonhardt, the New York Times‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning economics reporter, wrote in late 2010, “[T]he death of cap and trade doesn’t have to mean the death of climate policy. The alternative revolves around much more, and much better organized, financing for clean energy research. It’s an idea with a growing list of supporters, a list that even includes conservatives — most of whom opposed cap and trade.”