Gates: Renewable energy can't do the job. Gov should switch green subsidies into R&D

'Only way to a positive scenario is innovation'


Opinion Retired software kingpin and richest man in the world Bill Gates has given his opinion that today's renewable-energy technologies aren't a viable solution for reducing CO2 levels, and governments should divert their green subsidies into R&D aimed at better answers.

Gates expressed his views in an interview given to the Financial Times yesterday, saying that the cost of using current renewables such as solar panels and windfarms to produce all or most power would be "beyond astronomical". At present very little power comes from renewables: in the UK just 5.2 per cent, the majority of which is dubiously-green biofuel burning1 rather than renewable 'leccy - and even so, energy bills have surged and will surge further as a result.

In Bill Gates' view, the answer is for governments to divert the massive sums of money which are currently funnelled to renewables owners to R&D instead. This would offer a chance of developing low-carbon technologies which actually can keep the lights on in the real world.

“The only way you can get to the very positive scenario is by great innovation,” he told the pink 'un. “Innovation really does bend the curve.”

Gates says he'll personally put his money where his mouth is. He's apparently invested $1bn of his own cash in low-carbon energy R&D already, and “over the next five years, there’s a good chance that will double,” he said.

The ex-software overlord stated that the Guardian's scheme of everyone refusing to invest in oil and gas companies would have "little impact". He also poured scorn on another notion oft-touted as a way of making renewable energy more feasible, that of using batteries to store intermittent supplies from solar or wind.

“There’s no battery technology that’s even close to allowing us to take all of our energy from renewables," he said, pointing out - as we've noted on these pages before - that it's necessary "to deal not only with the 24-hour cycle but also with long periods of time where it’s cloudy and you don’t have sun or you don’t have wind."

So what are the possible answers, in Gates' view?

Gates is already well known as a proponent of improved nuclear power tech, and it seems he still is. He mentioned the travelling-wave reactors under development by his firm TerraPower, which are intended to run on depleted uranium stockpiled after use in conventional reactors. He also spoke of methods of using solar power to produce liquid hydrocarbons, which, unlike electricity, can be stored practicably in useful amounts: "one of the few energy storage things that works at scale", as he put it.

Gates also spoke of the radical plan of high-altitude wind farming using kite-balloons flying high up in the jet stream - though he admitted that that one was something of a long shot.

In Gates' view, decades from now a few of today's new-energy companies will have become massive and early investors will have reaped the sort of rewards that he, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer have from Microsoft. But many others won't be so lucky.

"Now there’s a tonne of software companies whose names will never be remembered," he told the FT interviewers.

Comment

Gates has said a lot of this before. The main new thing is the firm assertion that renewable energy technology as it now is has no chance of powering a reasonably numerous and well-off human race. This is actually a very simple thing to work out, and just about anybody numerate who thinks about the subject honestly comes to the same conclusion - examples include your correspondent, Google renewables experts, global-warming daddy James Hansen, even your more honest hardline greens (they typically think that the answer is for the human race to become a lot less numerous and well-off).

Unfortunately a lot of people aren't numerate and/or aren't honest, so it's far from sure that the colossal subsidies pumped into today's useless renewables will get diverted into R&D which could produce something worthwhile. In the UK at least this would be quite difficult, as the subsidies are not actually subsidies as such - no tax money is paid out to windfarmers and solar-panellists from the Treasury.

Rather, the system works by artificially pumping up the price of 'leccy and gas and channelling the extra cash - minus various margins for various people involved - to the windfarmers and panel people, such that they get paid vastly more than the market price of the power they produce.

A lot of people - including the government at times - prefer to pretend that this isn't happening at all: that prices are going up because of the gas market, or corporate profiteering, or something, and that green policy is actually saving people money in some way.

So given that officially nobody is paying any more money and therefore there aren't any subsidies, they probably can't be diverted to anywhere. The newly-reelected Chancellor is trying to stop them getting bigger, but he probably won't manage to seriously reduce them overall, let alone re-purpose them. ®

Bootnote

1DUKES chapter 1 (pdf page 1) and chapter 6 (pdf page 4)


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