Energy

Bill Gates On The Future Of American Energy

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For the past 30 years, public spending on research and development for clean energy has declined. It's a situation that some of America's most important business leaders, like Bill Gates, say must change. So they've banded together and formed the American Energy Innovation Council, which released its own energy policy recommendations this past week. Host Guy Raz speaks with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns about the details of the report and their prescription for the future of American energy.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

It's now being estimated that every eight days, a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. If that's accurate, the Gulf oil spill so far is seven times larger than that spill, and it's still flowing.

President Obama will take a two-day trip to visit the Gulf Coast starting Monday. And on Tuesday night, he'll address the nation from the Oval Office.

Meantime, the oil spill has awakened the giants of industry in America. Seven top corporate CEOs are calling on the government to develop a new energy strategy and to do it fast. They've issued a report that says the government needs to step up funding for research and development into new alternative energy sources.

Among the CEOs who've signed on to the report is Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. I sat down with Gates and with Ursula Burns, head of Xerox, at the Newseum here in Washington to find out more.

Bill Gates, you talked about investment and innovation. Why does it have to be a government initiative, as this report suggests, rather than a private sector initiative?

Mr. BILL GATES (Former Chief Executive Officer, Microsoft): Well, the government investment unlocks a huge amount of private sector activity, but the basic research that we put into IT work that led to the Internet and lots of great companies and jobs, the basic work we put into the health care sector, where it's over $30 billion a year in R&D that led the biotech and pharma jobs. Here in energy, we're saying to go up from less than five billion to 16 billion. And it creates jobs and it creates new technologies that will be productized. But the government has to prime the pump here. The basic ideas, as in those other industries, start with government investment.

RAZ: There doesn't seem to be that much daylight between what this report calls for, which is innovation, thinking about the future of America's energy policy, and the White House or many members of Congress. There has been several proposals for an energy bill. That has not got off the ground yet. What do you think the problem is? Is it lack of will, or is it lack of initiative? Why can't these ideas seem to become law?

Ms. URSULA BURNS (Chief Executive Officer, Xerox Corporation): This proposal is not about legislation. It's not even a political discussion. It's a discussion about a problem or challenge or set of opportunities and how you would approach solving those problems or addressing that opportunity.

Behind that, and structurally underneath it, you clearly need congressional support and bills written, et cetera. We're nowhere near there. And that's not what our specialty is - our expertise is, and we've therefore tried to stay away from that.

We are very good at innovation and managing a complex set of innovation problems to solve a problem, and that's what we're trying to talk about here. No matter what happens in any arm of the government, you must have innovation to solve this problem.

RAZ: Bill Gates, turning to the oil spill, what does it tell us about the future of oil consumption in America?

Mr. GATES: American dependence on oil has only gone up as we've gone through various crises and not invested in R&D. We'll be dependent on oil for decades, but only if we start now could you see things like cars run by breakthrough batteries that would change that in a very dramatic way.

Also, this system has more fragilities than just oil spills. We're at risk of a key thing that runs our economy, and this won't be the last time it happens if we don't make a change.

RAZ: You talked about creating a nonpartisan national energy board to talk about energy strategy. Is such a thing possible? I mean, the president had a difficult time getting a nonpartisan debt commission set up. He had to submit an executive order to do that. Can you do something like this and keep it above politics? Is that possible?

Ms. BURNS: I think it is. Since it is based on a clear set of problems, gaps, and those problems can and should be addressed by technical experts, I think this is not one where you debate your side. The only side is: Is it possible to apply the right energies to solve the problem?

RAZ: What are the stakes? What are the consequences?

Ms. BURNS: The consequences is the long-term dependence on a very brittle, very fragile system. And one of the stakes is dependence on foreign innovation to fuel the United States. I mean, it just seems to be backwards. It shouldn't be that way. That's not the way this country was formed.

If we just sit back, somebody's going to solve the problem, obviously. People are investing. And Bill can tell you the statistics of the number of plants in nuclear that are starting and the number are here. It's a scary set of situations. We don't do well following; we do very, very well leading.

RAZ: Bill Gates, I know that you have invested some of your own money into things like algae and small-scale nuclear plants that could power a street or a small town. What is the priority now? If President Obama said to you, okay, Bill Gates, you've got my ear, tell me what I need to do now, where should the U.S. government be focused right now?

Mr. GATES: There's no path to this low-cost clean energy future that should be picked. You really want to back the full set of ideas, even people who have wild ideas. If you back 1,000...

RAZ: Be prepared to fail.

Ms. BURNS: Absolutely.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely because you're going to back 1,000. You know, I'm backing, just myself, over 50 different energy companies.

RAZ: And some of them might fail.

Mr. GATES: I guarantee the majority of them will fail because the one that's the most economic - you know, the prize is very big for the companies that get to play a role in this. It's very similar to the IT revolution or the biotech revolution. It's just that we haven't gotten started.

RAZ: Bill Gates, bottom line: What can the government do tomorrow to address this without passing legislation? What can the president do today?

Mr. GATES: The R&D needs to be funded, and it's a small part of the overall spending on energy, but that's a choice. You know, is this a great investment to solve a large number of problems? And our group's come together to show we're behind that. And, you know, I hope that fairly quickly, some funding comes along that gets us started toward leading the way on clean, low-cost, safe energy.

RAZ: That's Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, and Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox Corporation, speaking about a new proposal by business leaders to tackle America's energy crisis.

Bill Gates, Ursula Burns, thank you so much.

Ms. BURNS: Thank you.

Mr. GATES: Great.

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