Intelligent Energy

Bill Gates to Congress: invest in energy R&D

Posting in Energy

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is asking the U.S. Congress to put aside politics and invest heavily into energy research, presuming that reason will prevail.

Bill Gates reasons that the U.S. Congress should finance significantly more energy research. Image Credit: World Economic Forum

Philanthropist Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates believes that Washington should buck the fiscal austerity trend and considerably expand government energy research.

(I doubt that Congress will act, but more on that in a moment.)

Gates penned a guest editorial in Science suggesting that the U.S. should more than triple its R&D investment to US$16 billion. The federal government currently spends roughly $5 billion annually. Inadequate funding has led to a 75 percent reduction in federal research over the past three decades, he wrote.

He asked that Congress muster political courage and be willing to spend more money even if doing do is unpopular right now. Failure to invest would jeopardize America’s national interest and risk its position in the global clean energy industry, Gates argued.

Bill Gates has invested into nuclear power company TerraPower, Liquid Metal Battery, and is a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, which advocates greater government involvement in energy development to spur technology innovation.

What’s in the national interest doesn’t always spur action from Congress. The politics of Solyndra’s bankruptcy, and the failure of a Congressional “super committee” to compromise on budget cuts, might have Gate’s request fall on unsympathetic ears.

Automatic budget cuts will go into effect across the board starting in 2013, and Congress is still investigating a $535 million Energy Department loan guarantee made to Solyndra. Oversight hearings have just begun, and last week's questioning of Energy Secretary Stephan Chu exceeded the time the chamber spent challenging BP chief executive Tony Hayward on the Gulf oil spill.

Leading political analysts say that Solyndra’s fallout will hamper attempts to renew investments into renewables – especially with the 2012 Presidential election looming just over the horizon. Republicans will call for subsidizing traditional sources of energy and eschew Democratic appeals for green energy R&D spending.

Over the past three years, even issues that once drew a consensus have become party line votes. Congress is unlikely to act in a bipartisan manner, because the politics is now overshadowing reasoned policymaking. Make mention of global warming as inducement to action, and all chances at a compromise are gone.

The days of politics making 'strange bedfellows' and 'grand coalitions' appear to be over. A single party's unwillingness to bend on ideology can interfere with even the basic functions of government. Maybe Gates would be more successful if he wrote out a check.

I’m sorry Mr. Gates, but your reasoned appeal for Congress to make critical investments on behalf of the American people likely won’t survive this dysfunctional, hapless branch of government or specious logic of influential talk radio personalities.

David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure