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Billionaires Launch A Massive Clean Energy Fund, But Can The World Wait For Its Breakthroughs?

Bill Gates leads a who’s who list of billionaires seeking to speed up development of the most transformative energy research.

Billionaires Launch A Massive Clean Energy Fund, But Can The World Wait For Its Breakthroughs?
[Photos: Sutichak Yachiangkham via Shutterstock]

Here’s some terrific news for early-stage energy entrepreneurs everywhere: a powerful group of investors wants to invest in your ideas.

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Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Coalition, announced from the international climate talks in Paris this morning, is focusing on the “most transformative ideas” that are emerging out of research institutions–the ones that face the greatest “capital gap” between labs and commercialization.

Gates’s coalition reads like a Who’s Who of international billionaires, including Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Chinese business magnate Jack Ma, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Indian businessman Mukesh Ambani, and others. It’s a list of 25 of the richest people in the world, all committed to solving the biggest problem for early stage companies: the “valley of death” between promising idea and marketable product.

That valley is treacherous because most investors want quicker returns than early-stage energy companies have often been able to offer. The mega-investors, therefore, call for “a dramatically scaled-up public research pipeline, linked to a different kind of private investor with a long term commitment to new technologies who is willing to put truly patient flexible risk capital to work.”

Never mind the philanthropic overtones of today’s announcement, the investors could simply be making a good investment. (And nothing wrong with that.) As Gates says in a blog, the world is going to need 50% more energy by 2050 than today. Satisfying the demand should be lucrative, especially as the world starts to move away from the dirtiest energy sources like coal (even if, as Gates hopes, the price of energy actually falls over time).

As well as the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, Gates also announced Mission Innovation, a commitment by 20 countries to spend more on clean energy research (target: to double it) and share technology. The countries include the U.S., India, Japan, Indonesia, and many in Europe. Currently, the U.S. spends about $5 billion on energy research compared to $70 billion on defense research.

Gates hasn’t always endeared himself to the clean energy industry or climate change activists. He’s argued, along with academics like Bjorn Lomborg, that energy access–even if it’s energy produced from fossil fuels–should be the priority. If clean energy is currently more expensive, he hasn’t favored promoting it over coal, oil, or natural gas. He said last year:

[The poor] desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.

Gates wants renewable solutions to succeed because they’re cheaper—because they’re better technology. But, say Gates’s critics, such an argument misses the political context that currently favors fossil fuels, and downplays advances made by solar and other renewables, in spreading energy access to unwired places.

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Even in today’s announcement, there’s a question in Gates’s approach: How quickly do we move on climate change? The focus on long-term technology investment is surely great. But we also have to worry about the next ten years and leaving an even tougher climate change problem to deal with next decade.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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