Bill Gates’ energy innovation fund commits to $1 billion in investment

As the team of president-elect Donald Trump makes plans to dismantle clean energy research at the U.S. Department of Energy, a coalition of billionaires which has pledged to address the global climate crisis through funding energy innovation has announced a commitment to invest $1 billion in a new fund for research.

Yesterday the Breakthrough Energy Coalition formally launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures. A press statement by the group long on quotes and short on details states that the members of the coalition have committed to invest $1 billion in the fund, but have not stated over what timeframe.

Along with this large but somewhat vague commitment, the group released an online document to guide investment focus. In line with Gates’ previous claims that a breakthrough in technology is needed to combat Climate Change and his interest in nuclear technologies, the first item that is listed under the electricity section is “next-generation nuclear fusion”.

The document mentions ultra-low-cost solar power as its fourth item, however here it shows that Gates and those working for him do not clearly understand the current technology and market status of solar.

The document states that thanks to technology improvement there is a “clear path for solar power to achieve electricity costs of $0.05 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) or less”, when power contracts have been signed in Dubai for less than $0.03/kWh, and according to GTM Research are regularly signed in the United States for $0.035 – 0.06/kWh.

It also states that cost reductions significantly below these levels will be required to “allow large penetrations of solar power onto the grid to be competitive from a system-wide perspective” including the additional costs of energy storage.

The section on solar then concludes that:

“A new generation of transformational solar power technologies, beyond what we have today, will need to be developed to achieve these dramatic continued reductions in the cost of solar power”

The section on “Ultra-Low-Cost Energy Storage” likewise insists that some sort of breakthrough is necessary for wide-scale deployment.

“In order for power grids with large amounts of grid-scale energy storage, solar, and wind power to be cost competitive with more traditional power systems, a wide array of ultra-low cost new transformational energy storage technologies will need to be developed and perfected in the years and decades ahead."

Such statements suggest that the authors do not understand either the penetrations of renewable energy that are possible without adding energy storage, or the current cost reduction trajectory of battery storage.

More fundamentally, the analysis that wide-scale deployment of renewable energy will be dependent upon fundamentally new technologies is contrary to the actual experience of nations which are decarbonizing their electricity supplies through the use of wind and solar. It is also in line with mythology and bad predictions made by Bill Gates’ chief energy advisor, Vaclav Smil.