Bill Gates calls for new federal energy agency

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 6, 2020

The federal government’s work on next-generation clean energy is too spread out across agencies and should be centralized in a single new agency for energy innovation, Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates said in a statement yesterday.

The “National Institutes of Energy Innovation,” as Gates dubbed the idea, would bring together all the clean energy research and development work that is currently housed in the departments of Energy, Transportation and Defense as well as NASA.

Separate sub-institutes, located across the country in the manner of national laboratories, would concentrate on specific low-carbon technologies or sectors of the economy and would gear all of their work toward getting new inventions out of the lab and into widespread commercialization, under the plan.

The effect, Gates wrote on his personal blog, would be to reduce duplication and create a central office for “evaluating and nurturing great ideas.” He compared the concept to the National Institutes of Health, where research has translated into hundreds of new vaccines, drugs and successful treatments.

That success is attributable to its “apolitical leaders who let independent researchers follow the science, rather than political staff who change priorities every few years,” along with its strong bipartisan support and organizational structure, he said.

A fivefold increase in clean energy spending, which would bring federal investment on par with the $35 billion dedicated to medical research, would mark an important and necessary step, as well, according to Gates.

“But merely funneling more money into research won’t be enough,” Gates added. “This is the most important thing the U.S. can do to lead the world in innovations that will solve climate change.”

The proposal may not fall on deaf ears in the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, which wants to fund R&D to the tune of $400 billion over 10 years. That amount could prove comparable to what the technology billionaire has suggested.

Biden’s team has also indicated that it is looking to pursue a dramatic restructuring in order to grease the wheels of clean energy innovation. Biden’s clean energy plan outlines the creation of an “ARPA-C” — a cross-agency initiative for climate similar to the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

The idea — and the push for more government research funding — has prompted pushback from conservatives who say the market should play the central role in energy innovation (Energywire, May 28). Supporters say the government is the best tool for many technology breakthroughs, considering energy innovation can move more slowly than other sectors.

The president-elect and Gates also have in common at least one top adviser: former ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar. Long a technical adviser for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a Gates-founded investment fund for early-stage clean tech, Majumdar is now the Biden transition team’s lead for energy and is reportedly in the running for a top position at the Energy Department. The transition team did not answer inquiries from E&E News.