Bill Gates’ superpower: More (and cheaper) energy

USA Today February 23, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Gates, the tech entrepreneur turned global philanthropist, says it’s not enough to use “lots of crazy-seeming ideas” to solve climate change. The cost of such clean energy must be lower than today’s options.

Bill and Melinda Gates want young people to get involved in not only finding innovative solutions to problems like the need for clean energy, but changing norms about how unpaid work at home is distributed between men and women. (Feb. 23) AP

“If we just got energy that costs what it does today but doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, that’s a very good thing but it’s not nearly as exciting as getting energy that’s even cheaper,” Gates told USA TODAY ahead of the release of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation letter Monday. “Because for poor people, things like fertilizer, lighting, materials to build their housing, their budgets are in the physical world. So cutting the price of energy is very progressive and increasing it is very regressive.”

(Gates was interviewed by phone for this story last week, before Apple was asked by the FBI to provide assistance in getting into the locked iPhone of a San Bernardino shooter; in a more recent interview with the Financial Times, Gates made statements that seemed to support the FBI request. He later said his stance was misrepresented and that he felt Congress should step in.)

The Microsoft co-founder is adamant that scientific solutions to our warming planet must come from a partnership between government agencies and the private sector, a plan he feels would have bipartisan support given that in the past, such collaborations landed humans on the moon and created the Internet.

“I think government research is probably the least controversial of all government spending programs, which is saying a lot nowadays,” Gates says. “If you look at the Department of Energy’s research and development budget, you’re asking to increase by a doubling, which would be an additional $6 billion. It’s not a huge thing, and if that really is letting America have cheaper energy and be the lead in these breakthroughs, I don’t think you’d be much of a partisan divide on that.”

Tech companies such as Google and Facebook, with their increasingly huge valuations and extensive global reach, can’t necessarily be counted on to solve issues related to climate change, Gates says.

“Through their own use of energy and materials, their data centers, their employees flying around, the physical products that they create, they can be exemplars in investing in breakthrough approaches,” he says. “But whether they go beyond that in terms of their research budget and fund other things, that’s really up to them, if they think it’s an area of competence for them.”

He notes that his company, Microsoft, recently “was talking about doing a data center under water (for heat reduction), which is being prototyped. I don’ t know how well that will work” but it is reflective of the kind of outside-the-box thinking that is critical to solving the world’s various challenges.

Gates says that because public utility companies spend less than 3% of their budgets on R and D, it is all the more imperative that clean-tech innovations receive private funding. While he is personally investing funds in such research, the Foundation’s efforts remain keenly focused on helping alleviate the suffering of poor people in Africa by curing diseases such as malaria and developing drought-resistant crops.

The Seattle-based foundation, which was founded in 2000 with funds provided by both Gates and his longtime friend, investor Warren Buffett, is the world’s largest private philanthropy with $43.5 billion in assets. To date, the foundation has distributed more than $34 billion, including a recent $1.5 billion grant to bolster child immunizations globally.

Next gen energy must not only be carbon free, but also cheaper, says Bill Gates. (Photo: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)

The latest foundation letter got its inspiration from a meeting the Gates’ had last year with Kentucky students, who asked the couple what superpowers they would want. Bill said “more energy” and Melinda said “more time.”

In his portion of the letter, which includes handwritten asides scrawled in the margins by each, Gates admits that to get carbon dioxide emissions to zero “we need an energy miracle,” but adds, “I’ve seen miracles happen before. The personal computer. The Internet.” Although Gates feels “time is not on our side,” he notes that he’s excited about outlier ideas that include using solar energy to produce fuel and “batteries the size of swimming pools.”

In her part of the letter, Melinda gates tackles the unfair burden of unpaid labor on women globally. “Unless things change,” she writes, “girls will spend hundreds of thousands more hours than boys doing unpaid work simply because society assumes it’s their responsibility.” While this is common in first world countries, it’s especially egregious in regions such as the Middle East and Africa, where women spend up to five times more time on chores than men, as compared to nearly double in North America.

“It’s not just about fairness,” Melinda writes. “Assigning most unpaid work to women harms everyone: men, women, boys and girls.”

Gates says his wife is particularly active on issues such as improving paternity leave time, which companies such as Facebook have recently improved (in light of founder Mark Zuckerberg becoming a father). The letter notes that in Canada, fathers who got and took paid leave spent 23% more time on household chores even after returning to their jobs.

Women do a large percentage of unpaid chores in households around the world, with the biggest gap happening in the Middle East and North Africa. (Photo: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation)

On less serious matters, the letter reveals the couple’s favorite cereals (Bill: Cocoa Puffs, Melinda: Wheat Chex), mentions Bill Sr.’s extensive mint-condition Superman comic books (“I read them all,” notes son Bill) and Melinda’s experience living with an African family (the days started at 5 a.m. making fires, and ended at 10 p.m. washing dishes).

In the most amusing margin-written note, Melinda writes in red ink opposite a long paragraph in which Bill muses about how much life has gotten better over the centuries thanks to science and technology. Referencing a line from Bill’s favorite movie of 2015, The Martian, Melinda scribbles: “What Bill’s saying is, ‘We’re going to science the $#!% out of this.’ ”

After focusing nearly two decades and prodigious resources on a range of often vexing global issues, Gates says he remains optimistic about the state of the world.

“Because the news lens is more on the setbacks than the gradual improvements, I think the world at large has not seen where a combination of innovation and generosity is actually having this huge positive effect,” he says. “I wouldn’t enjoy the foundation work if I wasn’t seeing a lot of progress on all the things that we work on.”