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Summary:

To solve the world’s energy problems and combat a rise in global warming, the solutions need to be dramatic and powerful. And definitely not cute. That’s the blunt assessment of Bill Gates, who dismissed smaller scale technologies like residential solar installations as being “cute” but ineffective.

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To solve the world’s energy problems and combat a rise in global warming, the solutions need to be dramatic and powerful. And definitely not cute. That’s the blunt assessment of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who dismissed smaller scale technologies like residential solar installations as being “cute” but ineffective.

Speaking at the Wired Business Conference in New York, Gates sounded a now familiar call for innovation in clean energy production. But he said the challenge of meeting the world’s growing energy needs while reducing the rise of carbon emissions won’t be handled by smaller deployments of technology. For example, he said solar panels attached to homes and connected to smart grids is no match for the real impact of large remote solar installations.

“If you’re going for cuteness, the stuff on homes is where to go but if you’re interested in solving energy problems, it’s those big ones in the desert,” that matter, said Gates, who is tackling humanitarian causes with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates’ sentiments echo those of greentech investor Vinod Khosla, who often times has said if an energy technology can’t scale to sell to India and China it won’t make a difference. Gates is a limited partner investor in Khosla’s greentech fund Khosla Ventures.

Gates downplayed the significance of energy efficiency efforts to make a difference on a global scale. He said while cutting back on power use can provide a good economic benefit, he said it can’t keep pace with the growing energy demands of emerging nations. To make a difference, he said a 90 percent drop in CO2 is needed to be impactful.

“We should do the efficiency stuff. It’s a great thing. It has economic benefit. But we shouldn’t think of that as making much of a dent in the environmental challenge,” he said.

Gates’ envisions bigger energy solutions like nuclear, which he has a big interest in as an investor in TerraPower, a next generation nuclear reactor design start-up. Even with the recent disaster in Japan with the Fukushima plant, Gates said nuclear is still one of the most promising answers because it’s so clean and efficient compared to other energy options. While there are concerns about safety with nuclear plants, he said next generation reactor designs are capable of being much more safe and automated and don’t leave the same kind of nuclear waste. In fact, it’s a reliance on aging designs like the Fukushima plant that open the door for more innovation in nuclear power, said Gates.

“There’s hardly been any innovation in nuclear; the room to do things differently is pretty dramatic,” Gates said.

Gates said there’s still big opportunities for the U.S. to innovate in nuclear energy and battery technology. But it takes thinking on a large scale, similar to how China is throwing massive resources and engineers at large projects. Creating innovation also requires a smarter use of money by the government, with a shift from funding clean tech deployments to the bigger need of accelerating research and development. Gates said losing the clean energy innovation race is part of a larger problem in rich countries, which drop the ball on leadership at times in pursuit of distractions like ethanol that don’t reduce CO2 emissions instead of large-scale solutions.

“It’s great to have rich countries.  We can think about long-term problem but we get sloppy because we’re rich,” Gates said.

  1. Odd that one of the people instrumental in introducing the PC and the distributed computing model that broke apart the mainframe monolith wouldn’t see the parallels to distributed power generation.

    Not to say that it is the solution to all problems, but distributed solar installations are relatively easy and cheap and can be done on a far larger scale if properly subsidized (due to the large number of purchasers / installers and simplicity of design) than large scale solar installations that require huge planning and budget efforts and frequently get bogged down by NIMBY issues.

  2. It’s counterproductive to disparage a given solution just because it can’t solve all problems. The search for the silver bullet is one impediment to progress we now face.

    For instance, efficiency improvements are generally recognized as capable of reducing demand by 30% (depending of where one starts from). Distributed solar can eliminate the need for a coal plant here and there, and so on.

    On a different note, it’s worth debating if we wish to continue to funnel the large energy revenue streams into a few hands (large oil companies, large power utilities) since it’s obvious that these organizations are distorting the political decision-making in this country. As distributed generation grows, more democracy may prevail in the energy debate.

  3. Charles E. Campbell Wednesday, May 4, 2011

    I appreciate Bill Gates perspective, but it is out dated and misplaced. Bill Gates, nor Microsoft has innovated much over the past few years in technology. Nuclear Energy is an example of old technology that lacks innovation and after Japan, few people want a Nuclear Power Plant in their backyard. Even investors like Vinod Khosla probably would not recognize innovation in the 21st Century, if it sat down next to him. Both Gates and Khosla have proven themselves as leaders and investors without question, but success breeds complacency, caution and fear. Those innovators and inventors like myself are fearless and smile at the opportunity to prove the nay sayers wrong. Anyone who thinks that Nuclear Energy is a good investment or a viable source of clean energy for the future, clearly have not heard about alternative clean energy companies like Allen Hydro Energy Corporation (AHEC)’s ( http://www.ahecEnergy.com ). AHEC’s Innovation in Large-Scale Hydroelectric Generation that doesn’t require a river, lake or dam is renewable, scalable, portable, global, cost effective and not grid dependent. It’s the next Google, Facebook and Apple for the CleanTech Industry. Those serious investors should visit AHEC’s updated website.

    Charles E. Campbell, Founder & CEO
    Allen Hydro Energy Corporation (AHEC)
    http://www.ahecEnergy.com

  4. Gates is correct. Wind and solar schemes won’t make a difference – we need “clean, affordable and scaleable electricity.”

    One way to get there would be to offer a $1 billion prize and have an Energy Summit. If there was a verified breakthrough it would be worth the $1 billion prize.

    DOE has wasted more than $20 billion (in the past two years) on wind and solar developments that will never provide affordable electricity.

  5. Larry Davis Thursday, May 5, 2011

    It’s a traveling wave reactor…

    A few claims and falsehoods:

    1) Zero emissions – not true if you consider routine gaseous radioisotope emissions and the complete nuclear fuel cycle;

    2) Nuclear waste – it produces the same types of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear wastes as the boiling water reactors do today – it’s the same nuclear reaction as fast breeder reactors only engineered differently;

    3) It produces the same byproducts that can be diverted for either dirty bomb or atomic bomb production (i.e. Plutonium, etc.).

    If Bill Gates is keen on solving the climate change issue then he had better realize that, even ignoring all the problems of the current state of nuclear power, the cost and time to develop and build these reactors doesn’t make the cut when compared to what he belittles as “cute.”

    Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) when ask if we can solve the problem of climate change without nuclear power responds:

    “Of course! Not only that, but we could do so more effectively and more cheaply. It is quite true that if a nuclear plant displaces a coal plant that would replace carbon emissions. But if you spent the same money on efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power, you would reduce the carbon emissions by about two to ten times more and about 20 to 40 times faster. So nuclear is such a slow and costly climate solution, it actually reduces and retards climate protection, compared with a best buys first approach.”

    So Bill Gates how about an equal chance for clean renewable energy too? If he was sincere about the energy issue he would support the alternatives equally and let the best technologies win!

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