In the world of Bill Gates, many — maybe most? — of the world’s big challenges rely on innovation if they’re to be solved. Eight years ago he began applying that strategy to an existential threat facing humanity: climate change.
Breakthrough Energy, a climate-focused initiated launched by Gates, published an inaugural annual report Monday on the progress being made in climate tech.
In a forward by the Microsoft co-founder, Gates calls out three technologies that he dubs “decarbonization fast-forward buttons” worthy of bigger investments and more attention. They are:
- hydrogen fuel, which is making strides in production, but lacks a sufficient market for users of the fuel;
- carbon removal and storage, which will be essential for reaching carbon goals, but is costly and slow to deploy. Gates sees promise in using an approach that combines nature- and tech-based solutions — such as those used by Graphyte, a company backed by Breakthrough Energy;
- electrical grids that move electricity need to get smarter with better technology, and the world needs to keep building more capacity.
The report’s tone was hopeful and solutions-oriented while still acknowledging the tremendous difficulties being faced and that conditions will continue getting worse. It’s a message that in broad strokes aligns with the annual reports issued by the global health-centered Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Climate innovators should be given a stellar grade for their work in the lab,” Gates wrote, “but in future years, we’ll all face a much harder practical exam — getting those innovations out into the real world.”
Breakthrough Energy kicked off in 2015 with a coalition of more than two-dozen industry leaders including Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma who all pledged to contribute to a climate investment fund.
The effort has since invested nearly $2 billion into more than 100 companies, some of which are featured in the report. It has also expanded into a suite of programs that supports early stage companies and researchers, businesses ready to deploy their technologies, and climate public policy. Different aspects of the effort are funded by private capital and philanthropic donations.
Last year Breakthrough Energy hosted a three-day event in Seattle that featured discussions with climate leaders including Gates, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, and Microsoft President Brad Smith.
The report, titled “State of the Transition 2023,” ticks through the five areas that need zero-carbon solutions — which also happen to include every aspect of the economy: electricity production; manufacturing, including steel and concrete; agriculture; transportation; and heating and cooling buildings.
Threaded through the document are examples of how software technologies grow and evolve into companies, and the ways that Breakthrough Energy is trying to support a parallel process for innovators in climate tech. It even harkened back to Gates and Paul Allen co-founding Microsoft in 1975.
“[W]hen Bill founded Breakthrough Energy, he wondered: ‘Where were the climate tech equivalents of him and Paul Allen? Where were the garages and laboratories populated by young innovators with big ideas?’” states the report.
Breakthrough Energy, the document suggests, is trying to support climate tech’s version of Gates and Allen.
“[W]e try to identify great ideas,” it states, “long before they are associated with a company, founder, or even a catchy name — and long before they have attracted serious funding.”
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