Bill Gates on the Five Miracles Needed for Energy and Climate Challenges

Last Thursday, at the Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara, Bill Gates talked with several hundred CEO’s and corporate leaders about why and how he has accelerated his involvement in clean energy solutions.

“My foundation is committed to helping the very poor and to improving education. It is clear that if you want to help humanity, you have to get energy prices down,” he explained.

“Energy is a huge constraint to economic advancement in the developing world.”

Yet this focus extends beyond energy pricing and availability. Gates wants carbon neutral energy sources. Anything that contributes to global warming will be “a disaster.”

“The goal has to be zero emissions,” he said. “The goal is very daunting.”

To this end, Gates is dedicating an increasing amount of time and resources in pursuit of clean energy solutions. His goal is to get the world’s emissions to zero within 75 years. He’s a believer in innovation and in pursuing multiple options.

“We need five miracles to make this happen,” he said. Our efforts must comprehend advancements in carbon capture, nuclear, solar, wind and biofuels.

Notably, coal and natural gas are not in his portfolio because they contribute to warming.

“If you put aside climate change, natural gas is a very good thing,” he explained. “But even a small amount of leakage is a dramatic negative for global warming.”

Gates waxed enthusiastic about ‘fourth generation nuclear’ as an area of great promise. Fourth generation nuclear uses depleted uranium – the 99.3  percent that is not used in current nuclear production – to generate electricity. He admits that although nuclear is “not very popular” that it has terrific potential to meet our energy needs, and claims that fourth generation nuclear provides full, passive (not human dependent) safety.

Because our national government is shy of nuclear investments, he himself has provided financing. Gates is currently invested in TerraPower, a leader in next generation nuclear technology. The company expects to have a demo reactor operating by 2022, and a replicable design available by 2028.

Gates emphasized the need for investment and research in all five areas – and a concurrent focus on efficiency.

“For society’s sake we need to fund energy research much more aggressively,” he said. “We also need a carbon tax. We need policy that drives innovation and conservation.”

Gates is concerned that people are overly optimistic about how quickly and how extensively clean energy technology can help solve our climate and energy challenges.

“People underestimate how hard energy innovation is,” he remarked. “The IT revolution was easy in comparison. The pace of IT innovation was extremely fast. It’s a different thing to generate paradigm shifts in energy.”

Heather King

Heather is President of kingconsulting, a leading strategy consulting practice focused on sustainability, clean tech, and green tech. Heather has over 30 years experience working with pioneering technology, consumer, B2B companies and international non-profits - including Apple, Microsoft, Disney. Oracle, Ogilvy, Waste Management, Stanford Center for Social Innovation, Day in the Life, and multiple start ups. She serves on the boards of Trust for Conservation Innovation, a fiscal sponsor and incubator for over two dozen environmental non-profits, and the Presidio Graduate School, the leading MBA/MPA program focused on sustainability.