Gates, venture capitalist Doerr issue warning about America's future

Join GE CEO Immelt in effort to help U.S. gain an innovation edge in the push for clean tech

WASHINGTON -- The ever expanding BP oil spill, in a sense, provides Bill Gates the perfect backdrop for selling Congress and the White House on a proposal to increase annual U.S. spending on clean energy research and development from $5 billion to $16 billion.

Gates, General Electric Co. CEO Jeff Immelt and venture capitalist John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer, are among the well-known business people involved in high-level lobbying effort on clean energy.

The trio discussed the need for clean energy investment at a press conference here today, and are slated to discuss it further with President Barack Obama this afternoon.

Today's message, and a related American Energy Innovation Council report listing a number of energy policy recommendations, didn't cite BP oil spill. It was about which country will lead in what may easily be the world's next big industrial push.

Gates, Immelt and Doerr are all members of the energy innovation council.

This business-driven push for a better energy plan already has some congressional support, principally from U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who heads the House Committee on Science and Technology. He said Thursday that he plans to work with the group on legislation that implements its proposals.

At an earlier meeting with congressional leaders on the BP oil spill, Obama made note of today's planned meeting today with Gates and others.

"We can't keep our eye off the importance of having an energy policy that meets the needs of the next generation and ensures that the United States is the leader when it comes to energy policy," said Obama. "We are not yet that leader, and that's what I want us to do."

The U.S. isn't the worldwide leader in clean technology today, agreed Doerr during the press conference. America is a worldwide leader in biotechnology and information technology, he said, but "that's not the case in today's energy technologies."

Of the top 30 new energy technology companies worldwide that produce batteries, solar technologies and advanced wind energy, only four are headquartered in the United States, Doerr said.

"It's very sad that Americans spend more on potato chips than we do on investment in clean energy R&D," said Doerr.

Gates said more federal research spending is needed to spur investment in clean technologies. "The incentives aren't there to make it happen," said Gates.

"In the same way that the U.S. has led in health care, the same way we have led in IT, it takes an upfront investment," said Gates.

U.S.-based General Electric is one of the top companies on Doerr's list, and Immelt said that its revenue from clean energy products has gone from $5 billion to $20 billion.

"It's created jobs, and it's created competitive advantage," said Immelt, adding that the company plans to increase R&D spending in this area.

The timeline for producing results is years away.

It will take a decade to bring a number of technologies in the pilot stage, and perhaps take 20 years before there is a clear idea what the winning technologies look like, according to those involved in this effort.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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