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.