Bill Gates Leads New Fund as Fears of U.S. Retreat on Climate Grow

Source: By HIROKO TABUCHI, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bill Gates has teamed up with the University of California system, led by Janet Napolitano, left, for his new investment fund. Christophe Ena/Associated Press 

President-elect Donald J. Trump has bred fears that the United States will take a back seat in global efforts to tackle climate change.

Could a billion-dollar investment fund led by Bill Gates and his fellow technology titans fill the void?

Mr. Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, announced on Monday the start of a fund to invest in transformative energy research and development to reduce the emissions that cause climate change. The work would supplement and build on basic research already underway at government labs that may be threatened by the incoming administration.

Despite Mr. Trump’s expressed skepticism about climate change and his appointment of fossil fuel advocates to his cabinet, Mr. Gates said he expected the president-elect to recognize that government funding of basic research would eventually be good for business, jobs, infrastructure and other economic elements that Mr. Trump campaigned on.

“It’s a good deal,” Mr. Gates said.

Mr. Gates’s new investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is intended to capitalize on the government-backed research through partnerships with the University of California system and other institutions.

Mr. Trump has not talked extensively about his views on energy research to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But he has named people who reject established climate science to some crucial administration positions, including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those being considered to head the Department of Energy, which coordinates and funds a lot of advanced energy research, have backgrounds in the fossil fuel industry. And a recent questionnaire circulated at the department by Mr. Trump’s transition team included requests for the names of employees shaping United States climate policy — raising concerns that the administration is looking to cut back on efforts to control planet-warming emissions.

“We don’t have any inside knowledge of what the energy policies of this administration will look like,” said Mr. Gates, who said he had a brief telephone call with Mr. Trump several weeks ago but declined to describe it further. “It’s possible they will reduce energy research. But it’s also significantly possible they would increase energy research.”

Mr. Gates’s remarks came during a telephone interview in which he described details of the investment fund. The backers include Mr. Gates and 19 other investors, including Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and the venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla. The fund will have a life span of 15 to 20 years.

The fund will consider investing in electricity generation and storage, transportation, agriculture and energy-system efficiency. Seed money for start-ups and projects ready for commercialization, among other efforts, will be considered, fund officials said.

Solar panels in the Palm Springs area of California. Bill Gates backs a string of clean-energy projects, including a nuclear reactor start-up and a company developing batteries made from nontoxic materials.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters, via Reuters 

Mr. Gates’s plans to establish a fund were first announced at the United Nations climate talks in Paris in November 2015. At the same meeting, the United States and about 20 other nations pledged to double their spending on clean-energy research and development under a plan called Mission Innovation.

Mr. Gates said that in the year since Paris, a number of countries had followed through on the plan. “I do hope the U.S. and other countries continue along the Mission Innovation path,” he said.

Mr. Gates backs a string of clean-energy projects, including the nuclear reactor start-up TerraPower, and Aquion Energy, a company developing batteries made from nontoxic materials like saltwater. Mr. Gates also provided seed money for Carbon Engineering, a start-up led by the Harvard University physicist David Keith that is testing a process to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But those projects have yet to yield real-world results. Eight years after it was founded, TerraPower has not built a working prototype. Last year, it said that it was shifting some of its focus away from what had appeared to be a promising “traveling-wave reactor” design that burns fuel made from depleted uranium. The start-up is now exploring a different nuclear concept based on molten chloride reactor technology, which uses a molten salt mixture, instead of water, as the primary reactor coolant.

And while scientists see carbon-capture methods as a potential game changer in efforts to stabilize the global climate, they fear the technology would remain prohibitively expensive.

The elusiveness of concrete breakthroughs — and the long time frames and significant capital required for energy start-ups to develop materials, hardware and technology — have underscored the difficulty venture capitalists have faced so far in funding breakthroughs, as well as in generating returns for investors.

One oft-cited study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found venture capital investors lost over half of the $25 billion they plowed into the clean-technology sector from 2006 to 2011; it declared the venture capital model for the sector “broken.”

Mr. Gates said that his new fund would tap into scientific expertise “way more than any venture fund would have.” He said the fund would announce a management team within three months.

“We’re going to have a very deep scientific team both at the companies itself and as our advisers,” he said.

A powerful ally, he said, is the University of California system, which is a partner in the fund.

Janet Napolitano, president of the system, said the schools had “hundreds of scientists working on the issue of how do you create an affordable, reliable energy supply that doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse gas problem.”

Another major difference, Mr. Gates said, was that the fund’s investors were in it for the long haul. They saw the value of waiting decades for a big reward.

“And once you can make cheap electricity reliably,” he said, “there’s a huge market for it.”