The European Commission, the European Investment Bank, and the private Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, part of Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures investment firm, have signed a deal to invest as much as €820 million, or about $1 billion, into long-shot ideas that, at best, will take a long time to pay off.
Under the agreement, Gates and Breakthrough have taken on the task of finding partners willing to add three additional euros into the kitty for each one the three partners have agreed to put up.
The fund will focus first on backing research and start-ups in energy storage, carbon capture, sustainable aviation fuel, and sustainable hydrogen production, and also in exploring ways for those technologies to integrate.
Energy storage has been a point of interest for Gates’s private fund for some time, having funded the U.S. firm ESS, which recently has commercialized its grid-scale flow battery.
On the other hand, carbon capture is controversial at best: the idea is to use human technology to suck excess carbon from the air and find something to do with it.
Again, repurposing excess carbon is part of Gates’s efforts; his foundation has put money into Canadian firm Carbon Engineering, which is part of a group designing a project in British Columbia that will draw carbon from air and turn it into “clean hydrogen” (“GREEN HYDROGEN FOR YOUR GREEN CAR,” 29 Jun 2021).
Most pure hydrogen is “blue,” meaning it’s extracted from natural gas. “Green” hydrogen is distilled from air using renewable fuels.
Gates has peddled the term “clean hydrogen,” partly because his venture fund is deeply invested in a research firm named TerraPower, which is developing a new design of nuclear power plant.
Gates may see his nuclear baby as a way to produce fossil-fuel-free “clean” hydrogen, which would be available as an alternative, non-polluting aviation fuel (“AIRBUS ACCEPTS THE CHALLENGE: IS A HYDROGEN-POWERED AIRLINER POSSIBLE?” 12 Oct 2021), a use that hydrogen produced by Carbon Engineering and other capture firms also have targeted.
TRENDPOST: The European agreement models a novel public-private partnership to explore blue-sky technologies that can enrich private investors while meeting public needs—in this case, needs for grid-scale storage of renewable energy, carbon reduction, cleaner aviation fuel, and industrial hydrogen produced without fossil fuels.
Under the arrangement, the public agencies bear the least risk but gain public benefits; venture funders take a greater risk but also take the biggest share of the profits.
Instead of joyriding in space or building half-billion-dollar yachts, other zillionaires may notice Gates’s creative collaboration and launch similar ventures.