Microsoft’s cofounder vows to change the “supply side” for breakthrough energy technologies by investing billions of his and his friends’ dollars

He writes about civilizational challenge of climate change and the imperative to develop what he has for some years been calling “energy miracles.”

This year, inspired by a question from high school students—“What superpower do you wish you had?”—they wrote separate letters to students, with rather charming annotations in the letters’ margins. Melinda answered, “More time!” and wrote about recognizing, redistributing, and reducing the unpaid work that women do, especially in the poor world. Bill said, “More energy!” and wrote about the civilizational challenge of climate change and the imperative to develop what he has for some years been calling “energy miracles.”

By “miracles” Gates doesn’t mean unanticipated gifts that appear undeserved from nowhere but, rather, technological breakthroughs “that are the result of research and development and the human capacity to innovate,” such as the personal computer, the Internet, and the polio vaccine. He called upon students to “work extra hard in your math and sciences,” because the world needs “crazy-sounding ideas to solve our energy challenge.

Gates is animated by an equation he claims to have come up with (although it resembles another equation, called the Kaya Identity, well known to climate scientists) that considers total carbon dioxide emissions as the product of the factors P (population), S (services consumed per person), E (the energy used to supply those services), and C (the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy). If total carbon emissions are to be zero, Gates reasons, and P, S, and E are either going to increase or not go down much, then C must be zero. For C to be zero, we need a miracle or many miracles.

Gates doesn’t blame the paucity of miracle technologies on the absence of a price on carbon (which means energy companies have no incentive to develop and deploy carbon-neutral technologies), or on other bad policies. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on what he calls the “demand side” of the energy challenge. Instead, he argues, the fault is underinvestment by governments and private investors in the “supply side,” which funds basic government research and resulting startups. In November, Gates decided to do something about that, announcing the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. It brings together more than 20 billionaires, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who have promised to invest at least $2 billion in breakthroughs.

Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, spoke to Bill Gates about how to make C zero and simultaneously satisfy the poor world’s legitimate desire to lift billions out of poverty, and about where the coalition will invest its money.

Read the interview

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement
No 637016.

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