The U.S. government is "crazy" when it comes to funding for energy research and development, according to high-tech titan Bill Gates. "It's crazy how little we are funding this energy stuff," Gates today told an audience at a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) conference near Washington, D.C. "Funding for energy [research] in the U.S. is underfunded by a factor of two."
Gates, a founder of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, was a featured speaker at the DOE's Energy Innovation Summit, designed to highlight the work of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which aims to move new energy technologies from the lab bench to the market. For nearly an hour, Gates discussed energy challenges with DOE Secretary Steven Chu in an informal "fireside chat" moderated by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and now chair of the Center for American Progress, in Washington, D.C .
Gates's call for increased spending on energy R&D echoed recommendations he made late last year as a member of a blue-ribbon panel of U.S. business leaders convened by the Washington-based American Energy Innovation Council. That group noted that the U.S. government spent about $5 billion on energy research in 2010, compared with about $30 billion for medical research and over $80 billion for defense R&D.
It is "likely that underfunding is delaying the rate of progress," in developing new, cleaner energy technologies, Gates argued. And he isn't discouraged by the idea that some taxpayer money may go to ventures that don't pan out. "The failure rate is going to be very high," perhaps even 90%, he predicted. But "this is a very complex set of technologies, [and] we need literally thousands of companies trying these things so we will get the 10 or 20 approaches we need to make progress."
New, cheaper energy sources are also key to improving the lives of the world's poorest 2 billion people, Gates added: "Without advances in energy, they stay stuck where they are." He also called for the U.S. government to tax or put a price on carbon emissions in order to encourage private investment in clean energy and curb climate change. "If you look at who will be the victims of climate change, it will be small holder farmers [in equatorial nations] … and that brings you back to energy."
Not surprisingly, Chu didn't disagree with Gates. But "I'm not going to use the 'T' word," he joked, referring to Gates' call for using tax policy to create incentives for investments in clean energy. But Chu said the government does need to send clear signals to the private sector, such as those sent by setting high goals for improving vehicle fuel efficiency. "When that went through, the auto companies said: 'OK, now we need to have a game plan,' " Chu noted, adding that "the signal doesn't have to be big, but it needs to be clear."