Tech leaders use money and influence to promote innovation in cleantech

Some of tech's biggest names, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to invest in the innovation behind cleantech.

Energy research and development got a flashy boost from the tech world last week with the announcement of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

The coalition aims to aid energy R&D through private investments, and was founded by Bill Gates. It includes more than 20 billionaires as members, including tech heavyweights Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Benioff (Salesforce), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Meg Whitman (Hewlett Packard), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), and many others.

The announcement coincides with the global climate conference COP21 in Paris.

In a video, Bill Gates gives a basic rundown of the energy crisis. Modern lifestyles are dependent on energy to do everything from make steel to cook food, but the way civilization has gotten that energy is through burning fossil fuels. When those fossil fuels burn, they heat up the atmosphere, and the long-term effects tend to hit the poorest in the world. Think of a small village in Africa suffering because of desertification, or a generations-old village in Alaska forced to move because of rising water levels.

Gates goes on to talk about how in the history of innovation, the government has been there to fund early-stage research and development, as was the case with the internet. Eventually, there are other investments from "people who are willing to fund high-risk, breakthrough energy companies," he said. The idea is to get to a solution that would allow for continued energy usage without harming the environment.

There aren't any figures as to who will invest how much and when. Investments will also be focused on the 20 countries now part of Mission Innovation, a consortium of said 20 countries that have pledged to double their investments in clean energy over the course of the next five years.

This partnership between private investors and governments could prove successful, said Jesse Jenkins, a Ph.D. and energy researcher at MIT's energy initiative.

"You really need both, the public and private sector working together to drive new innovations into the market because neither can do it on their own," Jenkins said. He wrote a report on the history on "Where Good Technologies Come From" in 2010 for, looking at innovation from cell phones to microchips and more, and how they came about through the public/private partnership.

Jenkins also highlighted that part of the goal with something like the coalition is to close the cost gap between clean and dirty energy. "If clean energy cost as much as fossil fuels and performed just as well, why would we ever want to burn coal or oil and have the kinds of health effects and geopolitical instabilities that come along with that?" he said.

Whether the bolstering of private investment will be enough is hard to say. A post from Think Progress outlined a few barriers to usefulness, like how the cost of deploying clean energy technology will be about 100 times more than the cost of R&D, as well as the rareness of finding breakthroughs versus working on already-existing solutions.

"While we certainly believe energy R&D is needed, we don't need to wait for an energy miracle right now to get started on shifting to cleaner sources of energy," said Gary Cook, senior IT policy analyst at Greenpeace.

Jenkins sees the need for investment along a spectrum, including improving the cost and performance of technology that exists and planning for the tech that could be used in the future. He said even the fastest transition to low-carbon energy could take decades to complete.

"Yes, we have to be focused on what we do today, and we have a whole set of technologies to start the de-carbonization process, but we're going to need to improve today's technologies, and develop the next generation that comes after that," he said.

Beyond money, Jenkins said he also hopes that this announcement could help rally more public support for innovation.

Similarly, Cook said he hopes to see broader leadership from those in the coalition.

"Hopefully what we'll see come out of this is not just an investment of personal wealth, but also they'll continue to use their political capital to push for the policy changes that we need," he said.

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