Billionaires Get Behind Cleantech Funding


It’s the fall, and the discontent of American billionaires, like that of New York Mets fans, is rising. Not only has laconic investment guru Warren Buffett demanded that the U.S. levy more taxes on the privileged, i.e., super-wealthy people like him; but also another group of billionaires (or at least hundreds-of-millionaires) has stood up to demand a more active role for government in creating a cleantech energy economy for the 21st century.

In Washington, D.C., a group calling itself the American Energy Innovation Council unveiled a manifesto calling for “energy innovation and proposed reforms of government programs to yield greater economic benefits.” Among other things, the report calls for sharp increases in federal funding for cleantech R&D and a Quadrennial Energy Review that will identify “market failures and technology choke points in order to better orient federal programs and resources.”

The AEIC is headed by Bill Gates, legendary Silicon Valley investor John Doerr, former national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, and other luminaries. “Unfortunately, the country has yet to embark on a clean energy innovation program commensurate with the scale of the national priorities that are at stake,” the group declared in a briefing hosted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “In fact, rather than improve the country’s energy innovation program and invest in strategic national interests, the current political environment is creating strong pressure to pull back from such efforts.”

Another group created by wealthy individuals, called Advanced Energy Economy, is calling on business leaders from the cleantech sector as well as “other industries that are committed to American leadership in advanced energy” to catalyze regional and state efforts to expand clean energy business opportunities and R&D. The group was founded by Tom Steyer, the founder of Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco (disclosure: Steyer was a college classmate of mine and remains an acquaintance), and Hemant Taneja, a managing director of General Catalyst Partners, a tech VC firm in Cambridge, Mass. AEE’s mission is “to usher in an advanced energy economy driven by America’s business leaders and entrepreneurial thinkers.”

Besides the prevalence of billionaires, there’s another common thread to these fledgling efforts: the conviction that the United States, specifically the U.S. government, is not doing enough to promote cleantech innovations and maintain American competitiveness in the clean-energy sector, which will attract $2.3 trillion in investment worldwide by the end of the decade, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. The U.S. government should invest $16 billion a year in clean-energy innovation, the AEIC says—more than three times the level of current funding.

“A group of business leaders came together to say that the investment in energy research is much lower than it needs to be,” Gates told the Marketplace Morning Report. “Whether it’s for getting low-cost energy or securing our energy supply or reducing environmental damage, we need breakthroughs. And the government funds research in a lot of areas, but in the case of energy, it’s very low.”

How realistic a three-fold increase in clean-energy investment is at a time of poisonous showdowns in D.C. over budget deficits is an open question. There’s no question, though, that an increasing number of people at the very pinnacle of capitalism see such investments as not only critical to building a sustainable energy regime, but also fundamental to keeping the United States competitive in the 21st century.

Article by Richard Martin, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.