Bill Gates: The lack of energy funding is crazy

Bill Gates told an audience of energy entrepreneurs, scientists and investors at the ARPA-E energy conference on Tuesday that “It’s crazy how little we’re funding energy.” Energy research is underfunded by a factor of two, Gates said, referring to the amount of current U.S. government investment in energy research.

Underfunding energy research means there is a higher risk that we won’t be able to deliver the needed energy breakthroughs, said Gates. Gates pointed out that funding basic research naturally has a high failure rate: Potentially 90 percent of the projects in ARPA-E won’t make a dent in the future of energy technology, he said. “Look at the battery companies [at ARPA-E], and if you can find the one out of ten that will breakthrough, then great, go invest in it,” said Gates.

But the high failure rate is why we “literally need thousands of these companies to try this,” in order to get a dramatic solution, said Gates. Gates also noted that he thought the IT revolution has “morphed people’s minds” about how fast progress can be delivered. The energy revolution will be much slower than the IT revolution, said Gates.

Gates has expressed similar sentiments before. He is part of the American Energy Innovation Council, which about two years ago called for a government investment of $16 billion per year into basic research to deliver energy innovation. Since that foundation launched, he has said that he has been stunned that the government hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion.

Gates, seated next to Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, acknowledged that Chu’s hands have been tied for now, in terms of getting a larger budget for the DOE to spend on energy research. In an election year, clean energy (through Solyndra) has become a political issue. President Obama maintained part of the current levels of funding for clean energy and energy efficiency research in the recent budget proposal, including calling for $350 million for the ARPA-E program.

Photo from previous talk of Bill Gates