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Gates: “Innovation, Not Insulation”

So now Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire, has weighed in, capping a week in which Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Energy Secretary Steven Chu did, too. Their timely warning: Congress--and the nation--are stiffing energy innovation research and need to get serious as the year’s budget struggles near.

Gates’ remarks are the most noteworthy--and pointed. Writing on his personal blog under the title “Why We Need Innovation, Not Insulation,” Gates says energy innovation has been on his mind lately, and he has posted an angular, politically incorrect complaint about the extent to which the country is missing the point on the appropriate goals and means for carbon reduction.

Very much in line with posts like this one and this one here, Gates declares that the carbon emission goal that really matters is getting to an 80 percent world cut by 2050 (rather than to just a 30 percent by 2025 cut), and says that that dictates certain priorities. Says Gates: If that massive 2050 goal is the challenge, then “we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to zero.” Continues the technologist: To get to zero, we are going to need to focus on the right things:

If addressing climate change only requires us to get to the 2025 goal, then efficiency would be the key thing. But you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. [And so] innovation in transportation and electricity will be the key factor.

Gates’ policy prescription: “A distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key. There just isn’t enough work going on today to get us where we need go.” All of which sounds a lot like the distributed network of energy discovery-innovation institutes (e-DIIs) we have been urging the nation create as part of an increase of federal energy innovation investment to the neighborhood of $20 to $30 billion a year. So far, Congress has funded just three of a proposed network of 20 to 30 such innovation centers.

And yet, here too Gates is refreshingly blunt on the insufficiency of current federal energy innovation stances. In the same week the genteel Sen. Bingaman deemed “troubling” the low funding levels being offered in current Congressional proposals, Gates was ruder in an audio chat:

I looked at Waxman Markey [the House-passed cap-and-trade bill] and the research thing was minuscule. Getting CO2 to zero--I’ve never seen something more clear that has `breakthough’ all over it…This ARPA-E thing is good but is too small…. To get to zero carbon it’s a question of using technologies that don’t exist today.

Coming in a month when a plaintive-sounding Energy Sec. Chu felt he had to “speak up” for clean energy R&D before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Gates’ plain talk is highly welcome. That there will soon be more of it, as Gates posted his annual letter as the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today, is a good thing. This year’s letter will be about innovation, Gates says, which he sees as the factor that will make the difference “between [our] having a bleak future and a bright one.”

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