Bill Gates and Steve Chu chat about energy

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When asked why he’s doing here at the ARPA-E Summit, Bill Gates replied, “If you want to improve livelihoods of poorest 1 billion people, can they afford transportation, lighting, etc?…Cheaper energy is certainly on the list of 3 or 4 things you most want for the poorest in the world.”

“It’s crazy how little we’re funding this energy stuff,” said Gates, referring to ARPA-E and other energy funding. He’s bullish on a wide variety of clean technologies, including nuclear, and says that it is up to public sector funding to drive energy innovation. “Venture capitalists will follow what they think is profitable.”

“If you need humans to do something, that’s not a good design.” Gates said nuclear isn’t dead. Next-gen nuclear plants will no doubt have safety procedures that don’t need people figuring out which switch to flip to stop a meltdown.

On batteries and energy storage, “You need thousands of companies trying these things that will increase the chance of the magic solution for batteries.” Sounds like there’s a common theme: see pg 37 of Vinod Khosla‘s paper.

Why isn’t cleantech as booming as the Internet and high-tech sector? For one, energy is highly regulated. (In a speaker panel later today, Stefan Heck, McKinsey’s Global Cleantech Head, gave an anecdote on how escalators in Europe slow down when there isn’t anyone on it. Those escalators don’t exist in the US because companies would risk getting sued if someone got hurt on a slowing escalator.)

Just as difficult, the IT revolution has “warped people’s minds” so they underestimate the difficulty of breakthroughs and how long they take. You can’t create a clean fuel for your car overnight, but you can create a tech startup in six months and sell it to Google for a handsome sum.

Cool: Bill Gates’ favorite energy writer seems to be Vaclav Smil. In this brief fireside chat, Gates mentioned him four times.

ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit Preview

ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, is hosting their annual Energy Innovation Summit Monday, February 27 through Wednesday 29 in Washington, DC. They have a lineup of amazing keynotes from the nation’s most influential leaders in energy, and breakout panels that promise to spark provoking discussions about how to propel America towards a sustainable energy future.

ARPA-E is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. Their mission is to fund projects that will develop transformational technologies that reduce America’s dependence on foreign energy imports; reduce U.S. energy related emissions (including greenhouse gasses); improve energy efficiency across all sectors of the U.S. economy and ensure that the U.S. maintains its leadership in developing and deploying advanced energy technologies.

It would be impossible to write everything I’m looking forward to in the next three days, but here are a couple things I’m stoked for:

Fireside chat with Bill Gates and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (Tuesday 10:15AM)

Who wouldn’t be excited about these two having a conversation? The Summit is enabling Q&A via Twitter, so I hope either Chu or Gates will answer my question, “What’s a specific example where bureaucracy or politics hindered you from supporting an innovative energy idea?”

I’ve seen them both speak on separate occasions, Gates in Berkeley and Chu at the Berkeley-Stanford Cleantech Conference, but I would love to hear their current perspectives on energy innovation.

CEO of Envia Systems, Atul Kapadia, on the “Barriers to Domestic Manufacturing” Panel (Tuesday 1:45pm)

Given the recent announcement of Envia’s “world record” battery, I’m curious to learn how domestic manufacturing, or a lack thereof, factors into the steep price of their battery, the sustainability of their business, and America’s foreign dependence on energy.

Envia’s battery currently boasts 400 watt-hrs/kg, at a price of $125 / kwh, enabling EV’s to have a 300 mile range for EV’s, compared to the average battery, enabling 80-100 mile ranges.

Tesla Motors, which has recently received a lot of press for their electric SUV launch, and their “bricking scandal” last week, currently manufacturers only in the US. However, is this sustainable if their electric sedan and SUV become ubiquitous (A better question: will “affordable luxury EV’s go mainstream?)?

Spontaneous conversations

With a press pass, I have an even better excuse for asking intrusive questions! One of the foremost reasons I love going to cleantech conferences is chatting with people that aren’t keynote speakers or panelists. I am sure everyone attending the Summit is coming from some highly interesting background or working on cool projects I’d love to hear about (email me at ingachen.berkeley@gmail.com, send me a tweet or comment on this post if you want to chat!) In an ideal world, I would have conversations with all 20,000 attendees.

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I am stoked for tomorrow. Starting at 8am with the ARPA-E Student Program, a couple interviews in the afternoon, and dozens more spontaneous conversations, I will have plenty to learn, digest, and write. In the next three days, send me a tweet, email me (ingachen.berkeley@gmail.com), and comment here to contribute to the discussion on the coolest topic ever: energy & cleantech innovation!