It was inevitable. Cleantech as a category is so gigantic that no one could possibly be an expert in everything. So its gratifying to see the market start to mature and various players start to narrow their focus. This is certainly true in the VC world. XPV Capital, for example, is a firm that is focused exclusively on water. Smart, when you realize that according to Booz Allen, $40 trillion will have to be spent on urban infrastructure over the next 25 years, with much of that headed to water. One Earth Capital is focusing on agriculture and distributed energy. Clean-ag also gets too little attention, so good to see someone raising their hand. Many others are also honing their thesis into one or two areas. But even those areas seem daunting in scope, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see further layers being added as focus narrows even more. Media seems to be moving in that direction too – you now see Biofuels Digest and many others. Events as well are starting to diversify and get more specific. I’m personally far less interested in the broader events at this point, which seem to have the usual suspects in attendance and are more about being seen than being heard. Apparently I am not the only one who feels that way. I was recently contacted by a friend who now pretty much passes on the general Cleantech events. He is headed to Concentrated Solar Power Summit US instead. Another new CSP event is also happening in Europe a month later. Makes sense, and there is specialization happening in other areas under the Cleantech umbrella. Why would the CEO of Verdiem, an energy efficiency play involving PC power management (and client), want to go to a conference to hear about biofuels and coal-bed methane? (Rhetorical question).
It’s an unenviable position to have to prioritize the world’s problems and solutions. First, there are too many. Second, there is an inter-relatedness to all of the problems that makes it difficult to pinpoint a chief culprit. Increasingly, however, it is clear that one issue trumps them all: energy. Plenty of other smart people have explained this, so I will just quote one – Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, who said “It is impossible to imagine bringing the lower half of the economic ladder of human civilization – about three billion people – up to a modern lifestyle without abundant, lowcost, clean energy”. He made a strong case that energy touches everything – disease, water, poverty, terrorism, malnutrition, etc. As you might guess, I’m no Bjorn Lomborn booster. From where I sit he’s advocating buying a dinghy to save those stranded on a desert isle when we need to marshal resources for an Armada to save the island’s inhabitants… and everyone else.
At any rate, it is encouraging to see a shift in public, business and government urgency that recognizes the energy calculus, some for energy security reasons, others for economic prosperity reasons and still others for climate change reasons. Support, happily, is getting stronger every day. Unhappily, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes, even with drastic action, we are still in big trouble.
Yet curiously, from a non-descript building on Lake Union here in Seattle, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the Fort
Knox of the NGO world with funds north of $30 billion and Warren Buffett’s still to come – is so far nearly quiet on the issue of energy. And dare I say that Mr. Gates, a technology revolutionary himself, seems nonplussed that he is missing a revolution that badly needs him.
It almost goes without saying that the Foundation is doing incredible work to alleviate suffering of the world’s poor. That work must continue and is testament to the size of Bill Gates’ heart and his commitment to activism and witness. But there are two sides to the coin. He is addressing the symptomatic and saving millions of lives, but oddly there is still nothing on the systemic issues surrounding energy that threaten billions. Even odder since technology – Mr. Gates’ playground – has a key role to play in reducing poverty through the production of clean, distributed energy.
Gates has clearly thought about energy. He has made two public pronouncements that I could find. One a 2006 interview with Newsweek, in which he stated that he was “already reading some books on energy and the environment… But I will read a lot more two years from now and think whether there’s something the foundation should do in those areas,” he said. “The angle I’ll have when I’ll look at most things is, What about the 4 billion poorest people? What about energy and environmental issues for them?”
In November 2007, he added for Rolling Stone: “Between now and 2100, how many people in Africa are going to die of malaria? Just do the numbers. Helping them avoid an eleven-inch rise in the water in 2100, we could do it and we should do it, we will do it. But in terms of relative priorities, if you want to help the poor, this is not the issue to be focused on.” For a genius who started one of the most successful companies in human history, Gates appears to be unwilling to fully accept that energy affects the global commons, not discriminating based on income. While he’s reading up on the issues, China put 90,000 megawatts of coal-fired power online in 2006 alone (about the equivalent of two Californias in capacity). All dirty coal, some of which finds its way to our lungs here in the Pacific Northwest. In Beijing last week for the Cleantech Forum, the Chinese government’s cleantech guy, Shi Dinghuan, said that even by 2050, coal would still account for 50% of China’s power generation (it’s 70% now).
So far, the Foundation appears to be hedging on energy/climate change. In August, it made its first investment, with a 100 million Euro commitment to Peony Capital Ltd., a Beijing-based company that is using investment in technology to lower GHG emissions through the UN CDM process. But we are all fooling ourselves if we think the market will take care of introducing the technologies to deal with GHG quickly enough to make a dent. Nor is the slow churn of policy going to get us there fast enough. Where Mr. Gates could make a difference, for example, is using his financial leverage to advocate for the creation of a public/private fund that works to provide financing for clean technologies that are already out there but not being implemented because of cost. Coal plants in China are a great example. They don’t spend the money on cleaner technology, but if a powerful enough fund was created to drive the cost of the gasification/sequestration technology down and provide favorable financing (or even give it away), things could be greatly accelerated.
It is certainly just a coincidence that the Gates Foundation is moving its offices from the lakeside to higher ground over the next two years. But maybe not. Maybe they are preparing to add their important voices to the campaign against dirty energy – from dry ground as the world’s waters continue their eleven foot rise. One only hopes.