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Gates, Zuckerberg and other billionaires to back clean energy

Philanthropist's Bill Gates has teamed up with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to bring internet to everyone in the world by 2020 (AFP Photo/Dominick Reuter) (AFP/File)

Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and another two dozen billionaires are hoping to speed up research into clean energy with a new investing initiative to back promising technologies.

The group, dubbed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, plans to invest in everything from electricity generation and storage to transportation and energy system efficiency. But the group, which also includes Alibaba (BABA) CEO Jack Ma, Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) CEO Meg Whitman, and SAP (SAP) Chairman Hasso Plattner, hasn't yet disclosed how much capital they'll be contributing or many details about their investment selection process. Other prominent investors in the group include venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla along with hedge fund titans Ray Dalio and Julian Robertson.

Zuckerberg unveiled the effort in a blog post on Facebook (FB) on Sunday timed to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris this week. The group's aim is to fund promising but risky ideas that governments and venture capitalists don't currently support, the Facebook founder said.

"Progress towards a sustainable energy system is too slow, and the current system doesn't encourage the kind of innovation that will get us there faster," Zuckerberg wrote. "The Breakthrough Energy Coalition will invest in ideas that have the potential to transform the way we all produce and consume energy."

Overall investment in solutions such as solar and geothermal energy production that do not create carbon emissions has bounced up and down in recent years, hurt by cutbacks in tax breaks in some countries and the low price of oil. Last year, governments, corporations and private investors spent about $15 billion on research and development, according to data from the United Nations Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That was down from $17 billion in 2008 and still only a relative pittance compared to the trillions of dollars spent on energy needs worldwide.

Gates, who has been investing in clean energy efforts for years, also posted about the new group on his blog. He said the effort would work in concert with a pledge from 20 countries including the United States, China and  Germany to double their spending on clean energy research and development over the next five years. Among the aims: help create clean energy solutions that poorer countries can afford, too.

"The renewable technologies we have today, like wind and solar, have made a lot of progress and could be one path to a zero-carbon energy future," Gates wrote. "But given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths—and that means we also need to invent new approaches. Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs, but their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund. Both have a role to play."