UC joins Bill Gates' clean-energy coalition with $1-billion investment

The University of California is looking to play a prominent role as Bill Gates and other billionaires from around the world form a new private fund that will invest in the development of large-scale carbon-free energy solutions.

The fund, announced Monday in connection with the climate change talks that opened in Paris, will be staffed by scientists and financial experts and will consider a wide array of investments -- including biofuels, solar and wind power and efforts to capture carbon emissions from fossil fuels, Gates said in a conference call with reporters.

“We’re unbiased, but it has to be clean and it has to have a chance of scaling up at a cost lower than today’s hydrocarbon-based energy sources,” the Microsoft co-founder said.

Called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the initial 28 investors also include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, Hewlett Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, investor and philanthropist George Soros, hedge fund manager and philanthropist Tom Steyer, Indian businessman Ratan Tata and Al-Waleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family -- and just one institution, the University of California.

Gates was joined in the Monday call by Janet Napolitano, the president of the UC system, and Jagdeep Singh Bachher, who oversees the management of its approximately $100 billion in investments.

Napolitano said the decision to join the Gates group to address what she called the “climate crisis” was a reflection of the university’s mission as a public institution and would help align its investments with its research and environmental goals. UC has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025.

Bachher said the university system will invest $1 billion through the fund over the next five years, an amount he said was relatively modest given UC’s holdings but would help position it in a clean energy economy.

Gates said joining with the university was appealing because of its mission and broad reach and because it had offered to help fund the endeavor as it develops in the coming months. He said he expects other institutions to become involved in the coming months.

The announcement of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition is linked to the effort announced by 20 governments, including the United States, to double their spending on new energy technology, to $20 billion, by 2020.

Gates did not specify how much money the fund would have to start, but suggested that it would be several billion dollars. Earlier this year, he said the world needed “an energy miracle,” and he emphasized on Monday that the fund would be “very open-minded.” Among the more radical ideas he mentioned it might consider: turning solar energy directly into the equivalent of gasoline.

He also urged patience among investors. “This is not the IT space, where you write software in nine months and put it out in the Web,” he said.

“Moving fast in the energy space, you would hope that a number of these breakthroughs are ready for scale up within a decade. And then, if they get scaled up over the next two decades after that, become a significant part of the world’s energy system, then you make a very dramatic contribution to climate change,” he said.

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