Bill Gates actually gets it

It seems that at every UN Conference on Climate Change, the conversation is always about reaching a global deal for emissions cuts. And while that’s all well and good, these theoretical deals are often unenforceable and rely on truthful reporting of carbon emissions (Hey, China!).
So I was thrilled that this year’s conference opened not with arguments about emissions cuts but with Bill Gates’ plan to address climate change, which has nothing to do with with making cuts and everything to do with how to empower markets to make those cuts themselves.
Gates’ announcement does two things. First, it leads a 28 person investment team to provide capital to help promising energy companies get products to market, crossing the so called investing valley of death where many great clean energy innovations die. Second, he appears to have convinced 20 governments to double their energy budgets for basic research. No mention of emissions cuts in any of these announcements.
It’s not that I don’t believe that market interventions like cap and trade and subsidies can help the process. And in terms of fairness, I’ve long argued and shown that fossil fuels have been subsidized for the last 100 years. It’s just that what Gates truly gets is that taxing carbon is not enough. 
What the world needs to address climate change is a Manhattan Project like effort to figure out clean energy solutions that are cheaper than fossil fuels. When that happens the market will expedite deployment of renewables quickly and efficiently. And the only way to get those clean energy solutions to market is to heavily invest in the basic scientific breakthroughs that will be required to cleanly meet growing energy demand.
The reality is that doubling countries’ commitments to energy R&D isn’t nearly enough. What’s actually needed is closer to a 10X increase, which isn’t that crazy when you consider the U.S. only spends $5.3 billion on energy research. Taking that up to $50 billion would put the budget where it should be–more than what we spend on health care R&D but in the same ballpark. Think of it as health care for the earth.
Gates authored a paper that he released Monday, that more or less outlines his thinking on climate change and clean energy technology and investment. It’s a concise, intelligent read and I’d point out two tables Gates presents.

The data tells the story and it’s not that complicated. The federal government is a massive underinvestor in energy research and development. The only one that’s really worse is the energy industry itself, which spends a minuscule 0.23 percent on research.
In my time as a cleantech analyst, people sometimes have asked me what I think the world needs to address climate change. And while a carbon tax would be nice or a breakthrough in energy storage would be even nicer, what always sprang to mind as I stared at the 300 plus billion market cap for Exxon Mobil was a 300 billion dollar clean energy company. In fact, I’d take 3 or 4 of them for good measure.
Commitments to emissions cuts aren’t going to give me my dreamed of competitors for Exxon Mobil and Occidental. But Gates’ plan just might.

With a $20M incentive, Carbon XPRIZE takes aim at climate change

Unless you’ve been camping out under a rock for the last decade, you probably know that we’re totally destroying the Earth. We of wanton use of fossil fuels and reluctance to buy into change en masse are driving the single biggest crisis that faces our planet, and the folks behind the just-announced NRG COSIA Carbon Xprize are looking to help save us from ourselves.

The Carbon Xprize will challenge teams to harness carbon dioxide output from coal and natural gas power plants and transform it into something that is valuable, effectively incentivizing governments and the open market to become invested in solutions that make a big and necessary step towards cutting carbon emissions. That’s the legacy of Xprize, really. For the better part of twenty years, Xprize has been putting up money and calling upon global thinkers to solve global problems.

“Xprize, in a nutshell, is about looking at the world’s grand challenges…the big, thorny problems,” says Dr. Paul Bunje, Xprize Program Director for Energy and the Environment. “There are few challenges on the planet more urgent than CO2-driven climate change…If you look at the science of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, you get his exponential curve of warming,” says Bunje. “So, as much as you can do as soon as possible reduces by a similar exponent the amount of impact that we might expect to see…that’s the urgency: it’s quite literally ‘do everything you can, as soon as you can.'”

As the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in late November approaches, the stage seems to be set for an increase of focus on the global issue, and that’s exactly what the Carbon Xprize aims to do. The problem is hulking, growing and urgent, and by effectively crowd sourcing the research and development process, Xprize hopes to expedite change. “We want to accelerate the coming of different carbon solutions as rapidly as we possibly can,” says Bunje.

Participants will vie for one of ten finalists spots and the opportunity to “bench-test” their solutions at coal and natural gas power plants in competition for two $7.5 million prizes–one in each of the coal and natural gas tracks. All ten of the finalists will receive $500,000, rounding out the prize’s $20 million bottom line. This approach differs slightly from the structure of previous Xprize competitions, and was implemented with the intention of facilitating more solutions and projects.

“In an Xprize competition, though there are only a couple of teams that will share in the money, there are way more winners,” says Bunje. “And we want to see as many teams as possible going into the marketplace as quickly as possible…We want to give them a chance to accelerate the deployment of their technology because that’s the kind of thing that’s really going to drive the ultimate impact of the prize.”

The Carbon Xprize joins the lineage the Google Lunar Xprize, the Adult Literacy Xprize, and the legendary Ansari Xprize, which helped develop the foundation of the private space exploration industry. Beginning today, anyone looking to participate can register and get to work. The competition will span nine months and, with any luck, will produce some profoundly world-changing solutions to our rock’s little warming problem.

“We have to find a way to limit these carbon emissions,” says Bunje. “When somebody wins that prize, having that technology in the world is going to be transformative. It’s a clear demonstration of technology that can begin taking CO2 out of power plants instead of putting it into the immediately.”

Though the prize is the raison d’être for the competition, Bunje is hopeful that the effects of the Carbon Xprize will be felt far and wide, and will resonate in other industries with different problems.

“Just by showcasing the fact that it’s possible to solve a really hard problem,” says Bunje, “others become inspired to do something even greater.”

People trust the internet but lie to it anyway

Data from the Internet Society’s Global Internet User Survey shows that we’re contradictory when it comes to our feelings and actions taken online. This won’t come as a surprise to most, but we think the Internet is a source of good, yet we don’t trust it.

Net neutrality could be a victim under an ITU Internet takeover

Network neutrality, the idea that ISPs can’t discriminate against traffic on its network, is an enshrined right in some areas and a hotly contested regulatory fight in others. But it may become moot if the ITU succeeds in take over the management of the Internet.

Today in Cleantech

The 17th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change wrapped up in Durban, South Africa over the weekend. Not surprisingly, there was not much great news. Yes, the Kyoto Protocol was extended beyond 2012 and there is a pledge to create a $100 billion climate fund to help developing nations cope with the impacts of global warming and to move to clean energy. But there were noticeably no commitments from the major greenhouse gas polluters, like the U.S., China, India and Brazil, about actual carbon reductions. China, which is now the largest carbon emitter in the world, still insists that it be classified as a developing nation, exempting it from any responsibility to cut its emissions. There remains the goal of stopping global warming from going beyond 2 degrees Celsius and thinking about that $100 billion dollar fund, I can’t help but wonder if the best use of that money wouldn’t be investing it in renewable energy technology that could lessen the developed world’s dependence on fossil fuels, which would ultimately have a larger impact on the CO2 emissions that are hurting the developing world.

Staying Just Slightly Ahead of Our Customers: How We Survived Tough Times

My three-person web development company is celebrating. We’ve survived 2009 — a very tough year — thanks to some good planning, and a bit of luck.

As I look back, I realize that our success was based not just on our technical skills. After all, anything technical can be done, and done well, by lots of people. Our products and services aren’t that different than those offered by our competitors. So what did we do right? Read More about Staying Just Slightly Ahead of Our Customers: How We Survived Tough Times