Gates Gets It

by Richard T. Stuebi

A few weeks ago, the American Energy Innovation Council released a report calling for a bipartisan commitment to increased governmental involvement in encouraging more research to spawn the new energy industry of the future.

The five key recommendations of the report are:

  1. Create an independent body to propose a national energy strategy
  2. Triple federal spending on energy research to $16 billion per year
  3. Create centers of excellence in energy research
  4. Fund ARPA-E at $1 billion per year
  5. Establish a New Energy Challenge Program to drive pilot project deployment

Members of the Council represent a “who’s-who” of American business leadership, and they recently met with President Obama upon the report’s release. Quotes from press coverage after the meeting were revealingly strong.

Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric (NYSE: GE): “We have a policy today. Our policy is uncertainty…I’d say status quo for this country is a losing hand.”

Ursula Burns, CEO and Chairwoman of Xerox (NYSE: XRX): “The incident in the Gulf just kind of intensified this discussion – that we have a fragile, brittle system.”

But it is the presence and statements of Bill Gates, the legendary founder and Chairman of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), that are telling. Until now, Gates has been largely silent on energy and environmental matters. However, as you can see in a posted video, Gates is now beginning to speak up on these issues.

Gates said in a news conference after the meeting with Obama that he and his fellow business leaders hoped “that any energy bill, particularly that’s raising revenue, should be heavily influenced by the Council’s report” to put more revenue into energy research.

To the humanitarian Gates, the world’s poor are “going to be the ones, when there are climate change effects, who suffer by far the most. And they need cheap energy. That’s actually something that unites the rich and poor.”

Note that Gates didn’t waffle by saying “if” about climate change. It’s a matter of when and where climate change will start biting.

Of course, the technoscenti don’t view Gates with the same esteem as, for instance, a Steve Jobs of Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL). While not as exalted as Jobs, as the second wealthiest person in the world (who pals around with the world’s third wealthiest person, Warren Buffett), Gates ought to have a lot more impact with those who control the really big dollars (not just public but private and philanthropic).

So, when someone like Gates starts making noises that our current approach to energy and environmental issues is untenable, perhaps it’s a sign of bigger changes afoot in the cleantech realm.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

1 reply
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