Tech titans unite for Breakthrough Energy Coalition

On Sunday, a group of technology veterans including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg announced a massive new program to fund green energy advances.

Christophe Ena/AP
Bill Gates, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, attends the United Nations Climate Change Conference with Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, on November 30, 2015.

Silicon Valley veterans have been trying to address the world’s biggest problems for years. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 with the goals of curing disease, improving access to education, and addressing poverty around the world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to improve public schools and fight disease in Africa. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s foundation donated $30 million for cancer research between 2009 and 2010.

But sometimes big problems are best solved through a single collaborative effort, rather than many individual ones.

On Sunday, Mr. Gates, Mr. Bezos, and Mr. Zuckerberg announced, along with other well-known figures such as Richard Branson and Mark Benioff, that they will cooperate on a massive new program to increase the world’s energy supply without worsening global warming.

“We have to pair [energy research] with people who are willing to fund high-risk, breakthrough energy companies,” Gates says in a video announcing the project.

Energy breakthroughs often fall by the wayside, Gates adds, because there isn’t enough funding for research and implementation.

“Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product,” the group says in a blog post.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition wants to provide lots of funding for promising early-stage green energy technologies, to make sure they have the potential to be successful. Then, once the technologies have matured a bit and companies have been built around them, traditional investors can step in and continue to fund the most promising ventures. 

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition was announced at the same time as Mission Innovation, a commitment made by 20 countries including the US, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and Germany to double their investment in clean energy research by 2020. The two initiatives aren’t formally affiliated with one another, but they play complementary roles. The Mission Innovation countries will provide extra public funding for basic energy research, while the Breakthrough Energy Coalition will help to shepherd promising but potentially risky new concepts across the "Valley of Death" to become successful companies.

In a list of its guiding principles, the Coalition says it wants to invest across lots of different sectors, including electricity generation, transportation, agriculture, and energy efficiency. The group is particularly interested in “innovations which enable current technologies to be dramatically more efficient, scalable, or cheaper” – meaning that more people than before can have access to affordable electricity, without putting too much additional strain on existing power grids or changing land use. 

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