On the first day of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), or Paris Climate Conference, Bill Gates unveiled the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
This coalition is a group of 28 high net worth private investors who pledge to contribute funds to support the advancement of clean tech innovations. While Gates has said that he plans on investing $1 billion of his personal fortune, the others have not yet given specific numbers. A few of the other business leaders in this coalition include Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Mission Innovation is the governmental counterpart to Gates’ organization. This is a pact of 20 major governments who pledge to double their investments in clean energy by 2020. This would see the U.S. spending $10 billion over the next five years. In total, this would amount to over $20 billion in new clean tech spending.
Gates has the numbers to back up any potential criticisms of his plan. For example, he has pointed out that the U.S Department of Energy invested $17.5 billion between 1978 and 2000 on research and benefited $41 billion from those efforts. However, as a percentage of total spending budget, investments in energy research have been well less than 1 percent. His argument is that increased governmental and private investments in clean energy will both pay off well and have many other beneficial societal impacts.
An interesting thing to note about Gates, in particular, is that he was fairly recently a big proponent of nuclear energy. He seemed dismissive of the potential of wind and solar power. Fortunately, he has changed his viewpoint on clean energy.
Gates is now hopeful about three potentially breakthrough technologies; Solar Paint, Solar Chemical, and Flow Batteries.
Solar Paint is the idea that any surface can be covered in a type of paint that can conduct electricity. Three layers are involved – the conductive layer, a white base layer, and a light-sensitive dye on top to generate electricity. However, there’s currently no non-toxic and durable materials that can be utilized for this idea.
Solar Chemical holds much promise in utilizing solar energy to create fuel. This is technology uses sunlight to split water molecules creating oxygen and hydrogen gas. The hydrogen can be used as fuel or to help in other processes like making fertilizer. This is another technology that is in early stages and may not be commercially available for some time.
Flow Batteries involve a new type of energy storage technology that utilizes a rechargeable liquid electrolyte inside two pairs of tanks. Energy is created when sets of radiator like fins charge the liquid as it travels between the tanks. This technology can be seen as superior to lithium ion because it can conceivably used for decades without experiencing loss in charge capacity. However, a commercially viable electrolyte has yet to be discovered.
Bill Gates is discovering what many leaders around the world are – it is possible to do the right thing and make money as well. This is the opportunity that clean energy now represents. There is no longer a trade off for being environmentally minded. In fact, we can no longer settle for the status quo as it has brought an increasing amount of pollution and ecological damage along with it. The time for energy industry disruption is now.
Hopefully the talk in Paris will lead to concerted action in the years to come.