Jun 25, 2019

Bill Gates' next climate moves

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A Bill Gates-led venture fund that invests in next-wave climate technologies wants to get bigger.

The big picture: Gates, chair of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, said Monday that the $1 billion fund that began investing in 2017 plans to raise another $1 billion to $1.5 billion late next year.

Why it matters: The billionaire Microsoft co-founder has long argued that deeply decarbonizing economies will require major innovations beyond existing clean technologies.

  • The fund's investments include startups working on fusion, solid-state batteries, carbon-free steel production, sustainable proteins and much more.

What's next: “We have plenty of money to invest through 2020 and the way we do it is, we leave a lot of money aside for follow-on investments in the current companies,” Gates told me and Axios' Amy Harder in an interview Monday.

  • “By the end of 2020 we will want to have more funds to make new investments. So we will start in late 2020 to raise fund two,” he said of BEV after also discussing the fund onstage at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.
  • The fund includes corporate heavyweights and Silicon Valley VC players on its board, such as Richard Branson and John Doerr.

The intrigue: BEV is exploring hydrogen, which has not lived up to the expectations that advocates had earlier this century. "Hydrogen is very expensive," Gates said.

  • "There’s a ton you can do with cheap hydrogen," Gates said, citing both transportation and clean manufacturing applications.
  • “BEV is looking at companies who have some ideas,” he said, noting at one point, “Is there a way to make hydrogen super cheap? It’s very unknown.”
  • While BEV is eyeing new capital, a spokesperson said they would invest in hydrogen with existing funds "if they find the right opportunity."

The big picture: He's a deep-pocketed and sometimes controversial player in the climate world.

  • BEV is just one avenue, along with big personal investments in companies like Impossible Foods and Carbon Engineering, and his foundation that works to help poor countries address climate.
  • Gates is also a vocal advocate of major increases in federal R&D spending.
  • He's drawn criticism from advocates who say his emphasis on next-generation tech can sap focus from rapidly scaling existing solutions.

Yes, but: Gates said his policy goals, including a carbon tax, encompass innovation and deployment.

  • “We have 30 years left to get to what really needs to be, by the developed countries, net-zero [emissions],” he said.
  • “If the U.S. can’t do a carbon tax right away, at least it could do some things that are in the tens of billions that help with R&D, innovation and scaled deployment.”

Also, Gates is fine with Big Tech oil services

Gates tells Axios he has no problem with large tech players — including Microsoft — offering business lines tailored specifically to oil industry clients.

Why it matters: Those products — such as Amazon's cloud computing services for oil companies and Microsoft's partnership with ExxonMobil — are coming under increasing criticism.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders went on the attack against those two and Google last month, accusing them of "fueling the climate crisis."
  • An open letter from thousands of Amazon employees to CEO Jeff Bezos in April urging tougher steps on climate took aim at their work with the oil industry.

But, but, but: Gates told Axios that he doesn't see a problem with it, arguing that tech players should not be instruments of energy policy, and also said U.S. oil production helps energy security.

  • “I don’t think the tech companies should stop working with oil companies. If there’s a carbon tax, which I think would be a great thing, then fine, then the industry would have to adjust to that,” Gates said, who is on Microsoft's board.

Go deeper: The yin and yang of Big Tech and climate

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