Bill Gates at TED conferenceBill Gates speaking at the TED conference.Photo: jurvetson via Flickr“If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years,” declared the world’s wealthiest man during last week’s TED 2010 conference, “I can pick who is president, I can pick a vaccine … or I can pick that [an energy technology] at half the cost with no CO2 emissions gets invented, this is the wish I would pick. This is the one with the greatest impact.”

Bill Gates is right. And he is not just talking about the impact on climate change, which does of course present a major threat. He is also talking about one of the most critical global imperatives to make poverty history: making clean energy cheap.

“If you could pick just one thing to lower the price of to reduce poverty, by far you would pick energy,” said Gates in his introduction. Gates should know as well as any development expert, since the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the world’s largest transparent private foundation — has invested billions of dollars in extreme poverty alleviation since 1994.

Nearly 1.6 billion of our fellow human beings have no access to electricity, and around 2.4 billion people — over one third of global population — meet their basic cooking and heating needs by burning biomass, such as wood, crop waste, and dung. “Without access to modern, commercial energy, poor countries can be trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, social instability, and underdevelopment,” concludes the International Energy Agency.

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The direct health consequences of using primitive solid fuels like biomass and coal are severe. According to the World Health Organization, solid fuel use causes 1.6 million excess deaths per year globally, especially among women and children — the fourth largest risk factor in developing countries after malnutrition, waterborne disease, and unsafe sex, and the second greatest environmental cause of disease overall.

These numbers are staggering. Energy poverty is an extreme and dangerous condition, and its elimination must be one of the highest development priorities for the 21st century. Nobody on this planet should be forced to burn dung to feed their family and heat their home, and access to modern energy sources should be considered a basic human right.

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The implication is that energy technology innovation today should be considered one of the world’s most important social and economic justice movements. The growing movement to make clean energy cheap, and to deliver that energy globally, has the potential to alleviate as much human suffering and injustice as some of the largest, concerted social movements in history.

Of course, driving down the price of clean energy technologies is also essential for reducing global carbon emissions. Until the price gap between low-carbon and high-carbon energy is bridged, poor and rich nations alike will continue relying upon coal and other fossil fuels to power their development. This would virtually assure climate destabilization.

The task is clear: to eliminate energy poverty and avoid climate catastrophe, we must unleash our forces of innovation — namely, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs — to develop a portfolio of truly scalable clean energy technologies, bring these technologies to market, and ensure they are affordable enough to deploy throughout the world.

If you gave me only one wish, then, it would be for the United States to launch a major public-private project to make clean energy cheap (or as Google puts it, “renewable energy cheaper than coal“). This requires the development of a comprehensive, strategic roadmap for technology development and deployment, including the identification of specific technical hurdles and the various financial and human resources needed to overcome them. It will then require large-scale public-private investment in each stage of the energy innovation pipeline — from basic research and development, to applied R&D, demonstration, direct deployment, infrastructure, and education — eventually on the scale of $50-80 billion per year of federal investment.

The clean energy investments in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were an important first step. Congress should take the next step today with a bipartisan plan to increase the federal energy R&D budget to $15-30 billion per year, on par with the National Institutes of Health, and to develop a comprehensive federal energy education program. If these investments are funded by a modest carbon price, then all the better, but we can no longer make energy technology policy dependent on the carbon pricing agenda. Clean energy innovation is an economic, national security, and human development imperative, and these public investments should be made with or without cap-and-trade.

The United States was a driving force behind the worldwide expansion of prosperity and security in the 20th century. Today, a new American project to make clean energy cheap can alleviate untold human suffering and injustice, develop the world’s strongest clean energy industry, and help save the world from climate destabilization. In short, it may be our generation’s single greatest opportunity to advance global prosperity in the 21st century and secure the lives of future generations. As Bill Gates put it, “This is the one with the greatest impact.”