Bingaman and Gates Back Chu on Energy R&D

January 22, 2010 | Breakthrough Staff,

After receiving no help from the White House to secure the $15 billion in annual energy R&D investment Obama promised during the campaign, Energy Secretary Steven Chu is speaking out for R&D -- with the help of Sen. Jeff Bingaman and high tech billionaire Bill Gates.

The push by these three powerful figures comes in the wake of Republican Senator Scott Brown's upset victory for Edward Kennedy's seat and a series of high profile Democratic Senators, most recently Diane Feinstein, saying cap and trade can't be passed this year.

Neinstein: Senator Diane Feinstein is the latest senior Democratic Senator to politely but increasingly loudly say, cap and trade "isn't going to go ahead at this time."

Gates's writings appear a week before the release of his "Annual Letter" as the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a letter which in past years has generated national controversy and news. The 2010 Letter, Gates says, will be about innovation.

The message from all three men is that R&D has gotten short shrift for too long from those pushing cap and trade and other regulations to reduce carbon emissions. And it comes a few days after Chu leaked a public letter to OMB head Peter Orzag, who was seeking to cut the DOE's budget even further.

Gates Emerges: Bill Gates is the latest in a string of liberal public figures to say that emissions trading and efficiency won't cut it, and that R&D is critical to making clean energy cheap.

Chu, Bingaman, and Gates all say that cap and trade climate legislation (Waxman-Markey in the House, Kerry-Boxer in the Senate) would invest far too little in R&D, just $1.5 billion annually as compared to the $5 billion currently invested, and the $15 billion Obama has called for.

Gates is the latest in a string of liberal public figures, from economist Jeffrey Sachs to George Soros to Google's founders, who have said that R&D must be a high priority in dealing with climate change.

Chu, in particular, is widely viewed has having been sidelined by the Administration -- a perception fed by the OMB's effort to cut DOE's budget for R&D into next generation nuclear power plants, which aim to be proliferation-resistant and much safer.

Here's Chu fighting for R&D -- and faulting cap and trade advocates for abandoning it:

For the past several months, Congress has considered various energy bills, including comprehensive energy and climate legislation. As part of that process, industries and groups have spoken up to promote and defend their interests. I am concerned, however, that an important part of this discussion has been missing. I am concerned that we have not adequately focused on the importance of research and development of new energy technologies. Today, I am here to speak up for clean energy R&D.

Here's Bingaman holding President Obama to his promise of $15 billion a year for R&D:

"The discovery of new science and the invention of new technologies is the major engine of economic growth in our time. Yet, our investments in new energy technologies, and the science underlying them, have been surprisingly deficient over the last 20 years. ... President Obama addressed the need to stimulate new technology across a variety of sectors by proposing that $15 billion annually, for each of the next 10 years, be devoted to research and development to meet these reduction targets... With all this as background, it is troubling that current legislative proposals before Congress to address climate change give relatively low emphasis to providing funding for the needed science and technology.

Bam!: "I am here to speak up for energy R&D," Chu announced. Lack of R&D funding in climate bills is "troubling," says Sen. Bingaman

And then, as if on cue, the world's most famous billionaire, Bill Gates, announced that having taken a deep dive into the energy and climate issue -- reading eminent energy expert Vaclav Smil's books, and talking with outspoken climate and energy scientists Ken Caldeira (Stanford) and Nate Lewis (Cal-Tech) -- he's come to believe that the world has been wasting time by focusing on energy efficiency.

The key, Gates said, is technology innovation to make clean energy cheap -- the goal shared by Google, which has called for Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal (RE < C), and by the Breakthrough Institute.

In one of four audio dialogues, which he posted on his new website, Gates Notes, Gates was blunt:

I looked at Waxman Markey [cap and trade climate legislation] and the research thing was miniscule. Getting CO2 to zero -- I've never seen something more clear that has 'breakthrough' all over it... This ARPA-E thing is good but is too small....To get to zero carbon it's a question of using technologies that don't exist today.

Gates went on to call the lack of private sector funding for R&D to be a market failure, adding that it was especially low in energy. He connected it to his Foundation's public health investments:

You think about how to help the poorest people, if they can have cheap energy where they are, it means they can have fertilizer, transport, clean water... places to keep medicines refrigerated.