Solar & Energy Efficiency are "Cute" But Not the Answer, Bill Gates Says. Nuclear Power Is.


Photo credit: World Economic Forum via Flickr/CC BY-SA

Bill Gates is keen on the notion that we can invent our way out of climate change. This isn't such a terrible thing, and there are many others who more or less push for this approach -- that is, focusing on dumping huge sums of cash into research and development in hopes of striking it gold on a viable clean energy solution that could displace coal, gas and oil. But when these folks start making light of the other crucial elements necessary to addressing climate -- reducing carbon emissions, improving energy efficiency, etc -- that's when the knives come out. Gates was addressing a packed room at a high-profile WIRED conference when he called measures like solar power and energy efficiency 'cute', but ineffective, and suggested that resources would be better spent on funding nuclear power. Here's a snippet of Digital Journal's report:

Speaking to a sold-out audience at WIRED's third annual conference, Disruptive by Design, held Tuesday in New York City, Gates warned that "cute" technologies related to energy efficiency, such as solar panels, LED lights and energy efficient buildings are economic, but do not deal with the bigger issue of climate change.

"Can we, by increasing efficiency [technologies], deal with our climate problem?" he asked, according to PC Magazine. "The answer there is basically no, because the climate problem requires more than 90 percent reduction of CO2 emitted, and no amount of efficiency improvement is enough," he added.

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with one of the two prongs of Gates' argument -- that we should be dedicating a crapload more resources to energy research. Of course we should -- the amount we have allocated to energy R&D; is pitiful, and has been for decades. Given the scale of the climate problem, we should be pouring money into energy research -- not only because we've got to find a way to get our butts off coal, but because the innovations engendered therein will certainly yield a hell of an economic advantage as well.

But let's not underestimate how important energy efficiency measures and clean energy deployment right now are as well -- remember, energy efficiency measures could reduce energy use in the US 20% in ten years. And we could have hit the emissions reduction target outlined in the now-defunct climate bill with efficiency measures alone. And it goes without saying that building efficient communities and infrastructure will be crucial in the future.

Let's not discount solar and wind either -- both, if deployed to scale, could get us a long ways towards towards a a truly clean energy mix using technologies we have right now. And that's why it's a little weird that Gates has chosen nuclear power as his pet project to tout -- nuclear power plants are extremely expensive, unpopular, and, of course, hazardous.

And yet:

Gates has, in recent years, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in innovative nuclear energy start-ups, such as TerraPower, based in Bellevue, Washington. TerraPower has created a prototype nuclear reactor that supposedly runs for 50 years without refueling. Gates defended nuclear energy, claiming nuclear waste is "tiny" compared with coal plants. "The good news about nuclear is that there's hardly been any innovation, so the room to do things differently has been quite dramatic," he said, PCMag reports.
Yet the roadblocks to nuclear power remain much higher than cleaner energy sources that are increasingly viable -- analysts predict solar will hit grid parity with coal by the end of the decade, and wind turbines are already battle-proven. Perhaps his hundreds of millions would be better spent in one of those arenas. I mean, it'd be pretty "cute" indeed if we could build a world that was powered by 100% clean energy, without nuke plants, wouldn't it? Sure it would -- and we can.

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