The Oil and the Glory

The energy race, featuring Bill Gates, Steven Chu, and Bill Clinton

The energy race, featuring Bill Gates, Steven Chu, and Bill Clinton

Bill Gates is guilty of one of two things: dating himself as a grouch past his prime, or mere blunt plain-spokenness. This is by way of Gates pouring cold water on some of the dreams of Steven Chu, the Obama administration’s Nobel Laureate wonk-in-chief.

The Microsoft co-founder shared the stage yesterday with Obama’s energy secretary at a conference celebrating the third anniversary of Arpa-E, the U.S. Energy Department’s radical innovation lab. Chu demonstrated again his weighty presence behind the Obama Administration’s attempt to roust Americans, and put them at the forefront of the invention and manufacture of cutting-edge energy technology. The U.S., Chu said, needs a "second Industrial Revolution [to ensure] our prosperity and our posterity."

To which Gates sat as a sort of bemused Buddha, parsing the chances of making the monumental breakthroughs required to challenge hydrocarbons as the world’s fuel-of-choice. Chu is on the right side of the angels, Gates suggested, but his objective is hard, it is grossly underfunded, and — in the unkindest cut — it is not the Internet. "The IT revolution is the exception that’s kind of warped people’s minds about how quickly things can work," Gates said.  

Call Gates the swatter-in-chief.

The Arpa-E function, which concludes today, is a window into how the U.S. has positioned itself in what Arpa-E director Arun Majumdar called "a global race [in which] we must act now." A cavernous room on the lower level of the waterside Gaylord hotel complex is wall-to-wall booths displaying the out-of-the-box solar, wind, vehicle and battery ideas of American startups and national labs. Arpa-E has allocated millions of dollars in grants to these ideas with the aim that a few will succeed and make a big commercial splash.

The context is that China, Japan, South Korea and others have typically dived headlong into the energy technology race, while they meanwhile tinker with already-existing cutting-edge devices, throw up factories to make them, and work around the clock to reach store shelves. Not the United States — when it comes to this sequence of lab-to-market, Americans are renowned for filing at the patent office, then going bowling.

This is the national pastime that Chu and Majumdar are working against. Gates said the effort is not nearly enough — rather than a couple of hundred companies, the U.S. needs "thousands of these companies to try this." Of those, 90 percent will fail, and 10 or 20 may succeed, Gates said.

Another voice mounted the podium today to rouse the gathered inventors and VCs — former President Bill Clinton. The boom under way in the U.S. shale oil patch, Clinton said, could lead Americans "down the primrose path" to believing that the country can and should continue to rely almost solely on fossil fuels for vehicles and electricity. Like Gates, he called for a substantial increase in Arpa-E’s funding (the 2012 budget request is $550 million). Otherwise, Clinton told the audience: "Go get ‘em."