ARPA-E: Real Talk From Bill Gates on Energy

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Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage for WIRED

When Bill Gates speaks about energy, we should listen. Not just because he’s still one of the richest people in the world, or because he did as much as anyone else living to design the world we live and work in. Rather, listen to Gates on energy because he knows what he’s talking about, linking the effort to generate inexpensive but sustainable energy to his quest to improve life in the developing world. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

I had a chance to hear Gates opine on energy issues in person yesterday as he spoke at the second day of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Innovation conference in Washington. And the main takeaway was simple: we’re not taking the scope of the global energy challenge anywhere near as seriously as we need to. “In my view, energy research in the U.S. across the board is greatly funded —I’d say by a factor of two,” Gates said at a session with Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. “It’s crazy how little we’re funding this energy stuff.”

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Gates’s words got a big response from the crowd, which wasn’t too surprising. ARPA-E is the branch of the Energy Department that hands out loans to companies and academics looking to push game-changing research in the energy field—and if there’s one thing a scientist would never say no to, it’s more funding. But Gates—who has made energy research and development a policy hobby horse over the past few years—isn’t pulling figures out of the air. He belongs to the American Energy Innovation Council—along with heavyweights like GE CEO Jeff Immelt and former national security advisor General Jim Jones—which has advocated spending $16 billion a year on energy research, more than twice what the government allocates now. To Gates, the challenge of creating cheap but environmentally friendly energy is as great as our efforts to achieve that goal have been modest. “If we’re actually planning ahead on energy, it’s hard to notice,” he said.

But even if we were to amp up energy research funding, there’s no guarantee that change would happen soon. Gates made a good point: the sheer speed of the IT revolution—from Windows 95 to iPhone in 12 years and beyond—has accustomed us to thinking that all technological change moves that fast. But energy is not the Internet. Energy has massive existing players and sunk infrastructure, while the Internet had…well, nothing really, unless we’re going to count fax machines. The multi-trillion dollar size of the energy industry—from electricity to oil—means that even impressive growth like that registered by renewable power over the past several years barely registers on a global scale.

Gates warned:

There are natural things about the energy sector that are going to make it, because of the gigantic capital involved and the nature of technologies, a lot slower than the IT revolution.

The IT revolution is the exception that’s kind of warped people’s minds about how quickly things can work.

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Gates also pointed out that while renewable energy was improving rapidly—earlier in the session Chu reported that solar power could be competitive with natural gas by 2020, which is remarkable—it couldn’t get the job done alone. Even as solar and wind improves, that kind of power remains intermittent. Greens have placed their hopes in energy storage to make up the difference, but Gates noted that you’d need more batteries than have ever been built in the history of the world to provide enough storage to make up for the lack of baseload power currently provided by coal, nuclear or natural gas.

If you rule out carbon sequestration, Gates said, that leaves you with no baseload power—except for nuclear. Gates has a vested interest in this argument, having put money into the small-scale nuclear startup TerraPower. But his logic works—I just don’t see how you can achieve massive reductions in CO2 while keeping the lights on unless nuclear becomes an even bigger part of the overall energy mix.

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That’s not a popular position—especially as we approach the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, which may not have been as bad as initially feared, but which new Japanese reports show came close to being much, much worse. But it’s one that’s hard to avoid. Gates argued that newer nuclear plants have far better safety systems—which they do—and that better design should be able to minimize the risk of human error. “If you need humans to do things, that’s not good design,” said Gates.

At the very least, that does explains Congress—and maybe Windows NT too.

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