Bill Gates sees the transformative potential of low-cost energy. “Cheaper energy would be on the list of the three or four things you would want for the poorest people in the world,” he said Tuesday at the 2012 Energy Innovation Summit, sponsored by ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s three-year-old advanced energy research agency.

Cheaper energy with no new greenhouse gases would allow for improvements in other parts of these people’s lives, freeing up money for fertilizer, lighting, and other significant investments. “Without advances in energy,” Gates said, “they stay stuck where they are.”

But energy innovation is hard and requires more investment. Gates called energy research “greatly underfunded,” saying we should be spending twice as much. “It’s crazy how little we are funding this energy stuff,” he added.

Gates admitted that the rapid pace of innovation in the computer industry may have warped people’s views about the difficulty of the energy challenges and may partly explain the low levels of investment. In contrast with personal electronics, he pointed out that gigantic capital investments will be needed to change the way we generate energy.

The mandate for ARPA-E is to identify and fund potential breakthrough technologies that are at a very early stage of development, just beyond the level of laboratory work. Gates noted that failure is part of the process of innovation.  “It’s a very complex set of technologies,” he said, “We need literally thousands of companies doing these things to get the ten or so who are going to get it right.”

In Gates’s view, the prospect of failure does not preclude tackling ambitious projects. For example, Terrapower, a startup company Gates has supported, is exploring advanced nuclear designs, making use of the modeling power of supercomputers.

He has even provided some funding for research into geoengineering, something he characterized as a drastic step that might one day have to be considered if our energy practices don’t change fast enough. Drawing an analogy, he asked, “Is heart surgery preferable to a good diet? Of course not. Let’s go for the good diet.”

To the hundreds of scientists in the room, each working to develop the next breakthrough energy idea, that sounded pretty appetizing.


  1. jdk
    Pleasant Gap
    March 8, 2012, 2:09 pm

    Love how some people think that the government should be involved in everything, until it comes out of their pocket. But since 50% of eligible taxpayers don’t pay any federal income taxes, that eliminates a bunch right there. How about the liberal rich take charge of funding projects like this – say Soros, Michael Moore, the Hollywood crowd, etc. I would love for an alternative to oil be developed, so get to it rich liberals. Put your money where your mouth is.

  2. Pye
    March 8, 2012, 11:40 am

    Hmmm…so, a BILLIONAIRE is saying not enough money is being spent on energy research? Well, why don’t you and Branson and Buffet get together and THROW SOME MONEY IN! That’s like Bono saying “just $2 will feed an African child for a month, please help!” Well, for the amount of money you spent on this PSA, you could’ve fed a quarter of all the starving kids in Africa, money well spent. I can see it now, Virgin and Microsoft brand cars running on compost,and wanting people to pay $275,000 each for them…Actual Microsoft Windows, that absorb solar radiation and pump it back into the energy grid….Virgin Mobile phones that recharge from the motion of you walking instead of needing a plug…

  3. Mike
    March 6, 2012, 11:12 pm

    Hey all you nanny staters!! Bill wasn’t talking about government funding of alternate energy. He was pointing out that private investment is lacking in energy research considering the potential for such a huge payoff.


  4. Scott
    March 3, 2012, 7:47 pm

    Years ago I worked for Exxon. At the time, oil prices were so low ($13-14 per bbl*, and falling) that many domestic producers were shutting in wells that were no longer economical to maintain. My idea was to set a minimum level for a barrel of oil (e.g. $20) primarily to encourage domestic producers to keep wells active, to encourage conservation (take a wild guess as to when GM and then other mfrs really started pushing fuel-inefficient large trucks and SUVs?), and to encourage energy research. The difference between the international price and the minimum price would have funded a national energy research center, preferably located somewhere in the middle of the country. A research campus helps produce rapid cross-fertilization of ideas and cooperative research.

    Unfortunately, Exxon, GM and other large U.S. corporations have little interest in making changes that might negatively impact their bottom lines. They have such a large stake in international business that a strong U.S. dollar can actually hurt their profits, and the officers and directors care far more about making money than protecting the environment and ensuring a better future for all humans.

    * bbl = barrel; U.S. prices generally refer to the West Texas Intermediate grade.

  5. Nancy Swan
    Mobile, AL
    March 1, 2012, 3:06 am

    US investment in low cost renewable fuel sources and mass transit would put Americans to back to work and revitalize a depressed nation and economy.

    Devices for solar and other low cost energy sources have been put on the back burner by politicians more influenced by big oil lobbyists than by history.

    The sewing machine? Yes, the lowly sewing machine – which took a hundred years to come to manufacture. But when the sewing machine finally came to market, it transformed the industrial revolution – more fabric, more farming, more workers, etc.

    Like present day oil barens and those who profit from them, nineteenth century tailors had a profitable business hand sewing clothing. Tailors threatened, harmed, destroyed early inventions of the sewing machine and prevented anyone attempting to market it. Tailors enlisted the populace through fear, fear that it will cost jobs, hurt the industry and the nation’s economy which depended on the tailoring business and its many workers.

    Marketing devices for renewable and cheaper energy sources, like marketing the sewing machine will put more Americans to work and revitalize the economy by making options and industry available to all people instead the privileged few.

    Thanks, Bill. We need your support to break the dependency on oil for our energy needs and to give our nation a chance to rebuild our transit systems to match those of other countries and to accept change that will benefit our children and their future.

  6. sandra binion
    New Hampshire
    February 29, 2012, 2:43 pm

    Bill is on the right track! I just hope that others listen and act. We have to find alternate sources of energy and get over our oil addiction!
    Thanks, Bill!