Bill Gates’ Clean Energy Plan Isn’t Ready for Primetime

December 1, 2015, 9:21 PM UTC
Photographs by Getty Images

Bill Gates generated a lot of buzz during the Paris climate conference by announcing a clean energy investing initiative that has the financial support of fellow billionaires like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, CEO Marc Benioff, Alibaba executive chairman Jack Ma, hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, financier George Soros and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

It’s called the Energy Breakthrough Coalition (EBC), and is being launched in partnership with Mission Innovation — a promise by 20 nations to double their commitments to early-stage, clean energy research and development. Basically, EBC would provide early-stage financing to begin commercializing the government R&D.

Despite the grandiose announcement, and accompanying media coverage, this is very much a work in progress.

First, EBC has not yet hired any investment staff or other professionals who would manage the money, conduct due diligence or provide operational expertise to the startups, according to Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spokesman Jonah Goldman. Nor has it identified any such individuals.

Second, while Gates has publicly pledged $1 billion of his own money, none of the other named investors have made, or been asked to make, specific financial commitments. Goldman said that Gates has determined via personal conversations that the named investors are good for “more than $1 billion,” and that he expects the total to increase as others sign on. But, again, no contracts have been signed, which maybe isn’t surprising since Zuckerberg et al don’t yet know who’ll actually be investing the money — or how.

Third, the financial structure is not yet settled. Gates has evolved in his thinking on this — particularly as Mission Innovation added more countries than originally anticipated — and now favors either a single fund or a series of funds. But those are two different things, particularly if the series of funds would include some sort of later-stage investment vehicle that could support promising companies past their early stages (which often is when the biggest checks are required). EBC also is open to investing alongside venture capital firms, although it is unclear how its “flexible” time horizons would coexist with established, shorter-term VC fund structures.

Goldman says that all of these issues are expected to be worked out over the next year, with EBC not planning to make its first investments until late 2016.

To be sure, EBC could become a vital innovation engine as the world seeks to reduce carbon from its energy input. And Gates was smart to piggyback on the Paris talks to amplify his plans. For right now, however, it’s still all talk. We’ll check back in a year to see if the money has begun to flow.

For More of Fortune’s coverage of COP21 see:

Obama Woos Climate Activists But ‘Once Bitten, Twice Shy’

India’s Modi Demands ‘Climate Justice’ at Paris Summit

Majority of Americans Support International Climate Treaty

Government is Stalling Clean Energy Innovations

9 Numbers to Know From the Paris Climate Change Summit

GOP Has Few Options to Block Obama in Paris Climate Talks

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