No Bill Gates, we don’t need ‘energy miracles’ to solve climate change

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Climate Progress


For six years, Bill Gates has been arguing that we need “energy miracles” to avoid catastrophic climate change. For six years, he has been wrong.

In fact, Gates is more wrong now than he was in 2010. Why? Because in the last six years, we have seen that aggressive deployment of clean energy technology driven by government policies has — as was predicted — led to precisely the kind of game-changing cost-slashing innovation that Gates mistakenly thinks happens primarily from basic energy research and development (R&D).

For six years, Gates has claimed we were wildly under-investing in basic energy R&D. Yet, somehow the very thing Gates says he wanted — huge price drops in key low-carbon technologies (like renewables and efficiency) and key enabling technologies (like batteries for storage) — kept happening. The fact is that accelerated deployment policies around the world created economies of scale and brought technologies rapidly down the learning curve, as the DOE reported last November:


Again, this isn’t because of technology “breakthroughs.” We still are waiting for those to pan out — for any type of practical and affordable fusion power after decades of research or for high-temperature superconducting to realize its potential decades after the early “breakthroughs” or for next-generation nuclear power that’s too cheap to meter (as opposed to the reality today, which is too expensive to matter much).

What is particularly unfortunate about Gates’ mistaken rhetoric is that it can disempower people and policymakers and pundits into thinking that individual or even government action is not the central weapon needed to win the climate fight and that our only hope is some long-term deus ex machina strategy to avoid catastrophic warming. Nothing could be worse than leaving people with the impression that humanity’s only hope is future miracles — especially since a quarter-century of largely ignoring the warnings of climate scientists has left us with quite literally no time left to dawdle in exponentially ramping up deployment.

Significantly, “the time of break-even [when an energy technology becomes competitive in the marketplace] depends on deployment rates, which the decision-maker can influence through policy,” as the International Energy Agency explained in great detail way back in 2000 in its report, “Experience Curves for Energy Technology Policy.” Here is the key conclusion:

“… for major technologies such as photovoltaics, wind power, biomass, or heat pumps, resources provided through the market dominate the learning investments. Government deployment programmes may still be needed to stimulate these investments.”

What is particularly ironic about Gates’ mistaken energy-miracle-centered strategy, as I’ll discuss at the end, is that it is the exact opposite of the deployment-driven innovation strategy Gates himself used to make Microsoft a software giant and to make personal computers the “miracle” that Gates calls them today.

Where are the experts advisors around Gates who can challenge him on basic mistakes? Consider the latest annual letter he wrote with his wife, Melinda, which is the major hook for his latest media push on “energy miracles.” As leading climatologist Michael Mann points out on Twitter, Gates basically claims credit for coming up with a way to conceptualize the CO2 problem that was in fact developed by someone else two decades ago who has his own Wikipedia entry.

Others have used an even stronger term for what Gates did:

It is remarkable that Gates doesn’t credit the person who first came up with this — and equally problematic that apparently no one who works for Gates on energy/climate issues caught this. Gates’ blunder is characteristic of people who simply don’t put in the time to talk to all of the leading experts in the field: They typically “reinvent the wheel” or propose sub-optimal strategies. Gates has done both.

Indeed, my criticism last year of Gates’ big new breakthrough energy technology fund was not that it was a total waste of money. It isn’t. Rather, it simply isn’t close to the optimal use of his money given his stated goal of avoiding catastrophic warming and getting lower-cost low carbon technologies into the marketplace as fast as possible.

To preempt the standard straw man attack from the vocal miracle-centered minority, let me restate for the record that I remain one of the biggest advocates for clean energy research and development — and demonstration and deployment (RDD&D). In the mid-1990s, I helped run what was then the largest program in the world for low carbon RDD&D — the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — $1 billion in funding aimed at developing and commercializing low carbon technologies like solar photovoltaics, wind power, advanced batteries, and a broad spectrum of super-efficient technologies including LED lighting.

While the “Johnny-come-latelies” to the clean energy arena were nowhere to be seen or heard back in the mid-1990s when we most needed to ramp up RDD&D, I coauthored an article in the April 1996 issue of the Atlantic Monthly on this very subject. The article warned that “Congressional budget-cutters threaten to end America’s leadership in new energy technologies that could generate hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs, reduce damage to the environment…” In recent years, I’ve continued to advocate for ramping up RDD&D funding in books and on this website.

And while it is true that governments still underinvest in basic energy R&D, unlike the 1990s, now corporations and venture capitalists have filled up a significant portion of the gap. Why? Because scientific reality and government policies around the world have made it clear that low carbon and zero carbon technologies would soon become a trillion-dollar industry.

To Gates’ credit he is, at least, going beyond mere talk to actually putting up some money to do the basic energy R&D he thinks is so crucial. Working with other billionaires, Gates has created a new multibillion-dollar “Breakthrough Energy Coalition.” As I wrote at the time, while a boost in cleantech R&D funding is always welcome, what is most needed now is money for accelerated deployment and project financing of technologies that are now market-ready. Low or zero-interest loans and loan guarantees can leverage money 50-to-1 (since default rates are 2 percent or less). With $2 billion, you could create a $100 billion revolving fund for backing clean tech projects — which is getting to the scale of investment we need.

The key points are that:

  • The world needs about 100 times as much money for deployment of carbon-free energy as it does for R&D right now;
  • Key developing countries like India are making decisions about building coal vs. carbon-free power right now that could lock in carbon pollution for decades; and
  • Genuine technology breakthroughs are exceedingly rare in the energy arena and generally take decades and vast resources to deploy once they do make it to market.

A new New York Times opinion piece by another advocate of the miracle strategy (who interviewed Gates) asserts the billionaire “pushed back against critics who worry that his focus on what he calls ‘energy miracles’ could undermine efforts to deploy today’s rapidly improving solar and wind technologies more swiftly. He said those efforts alone wouldn’t meet the world’s energy needs and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent that is necessary.”

Wrong and wrong.

First, the link to one of my posts means the Times is labeling me one of the “critics who worry that his focus on what he calls ‘energy miracles’ could undermine efforts to deploy today’s rapidly improving solar and wind technologies more swiftly.” But I don’t believe that Gates’s personal “focus” or his personal investment in energy miracles will undermine deployment efforts. I do believe that his rhetoric that we can’t solve the problem without “energy miracles” — and his huge media effort to convince the public and policymakers and pundits that he is right — could undermine support for the far-more-necessary deployment efforts, even if that isn’t his intention.

Second, while the Times asserts technology deployment “efforts alone wouldn’t meet the world’s energy needs and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent that is necessary,” neither Gates nor the Times ever offer anything but handwaving to support that claim. Moreover, no one I know of is saying that increased R&D isn’t useful or even very important. We are saying that it isn’t the best use of his money — and that if we don’t vastly expand deployment now, all the R&D in the world is not going to come to fruition in time to avoid catastrophic global warming.

I don’t want to repeat the entire explanation for why Gates is quite wrong that existing technology can’t give us a reliable, practical, and affordable carbon-free grid. I just did a multipart series on that, the final part of which focused specifically on why the so-called “intermittency problem” for renewables is essentially solved — in the sense that the United States and world have developed (or is in the process of introducing to the marketplace right now) the suite of technologies needed to steadily absorb a larger and large fraction of renewables.

Let me quote two people who know a lot more about this than Gates does. According to Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author of a major new NOAA study and recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, “our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years.” Similarly, the lead energy specialist at the World Bank, Morgan Bazilian, told Bloomberg after 20 years studying this issue, “Very high levels of variable renewable energy can be accommodated both technically and at low cost.”

So Gates is just wrong.

Finally, what is particularly ironic about Gates’ “energy miracles” claim is that it is the exact opposite of the strategy Gates himself used to transform the marketplace.

In his new annual letter, after Gates (erroneously) asserts that the variability problem faced by some renewables can’t be solved using existing technologies and strategies, he writes:

In short, we need an energy miracle.

When I say “miracle,” I don’t mean something that’s impossible. I’ve seen miracles happen before. The personal computer. The Internet. The polio vaccine. None of them happened by chance. They are the result of research and development and the human capacity to innovate.

First off, rather than redefine the word “miracle,” Gates should simply stop using it. I presume he is using it because it gets headlines, as in this Bloomberg piece. But it gets headlines precisely by confusing people into thinking that the solution to avoiding catastrophic warming is in fact a technology miracle as that term is normally understood, when in fact it most certainly is not.

Indeed, the only sense in which the “personal computer” is a technology miracle is precisely the opposite sense in which Gates is using the word. The original PCs hardly had any capability whatsoever. They weren’t a game-changing “miracle.” Nor was the first Mac or even the latest one. The figurative “miracle” is how it was all done, which Gates himself explained in a February 2008 speech:

But Paul Allen and I thought, okay, we’ll do software. We’ll build a platform, and encourage other people to write software. Now, there was an assumption there that we could get millions of machines out, because, after all, if you want to make it economic to spend tens of millions developing software, and sell it for $100 or so, you’ve really got to get that base out there.

But because we made that bet, and we got that going, it became a virtuous cycle. That is, as more machines would sell, it created the market for a broader range of software, and that further drove the market for the machines, and in fact that volume allowed the price of the machine to come down. And that’s why from 1975 onward, that personal computer market actually not only became significant, it actually become the center of the entire computer industry.

The large machines we use today, and the big server farms, or corporate data servers, these are all based on the Windows PC architecture which, because of its volume, has come down in price, and improved in performance very, very dramatically. And so we have a large software industry.


As one technologist wrote me six years ago of Gates: “The man built his career on shipping ‘what we have now’ and then improving it, using programmers paid out of the revenues gained from shipping not-quite-yet-ready product…. His business strategy for his entire life was antithetical to the [Bjorn] Lomborg nonsense ‘don’t do anything until the Big Research Lab In The Sky Makes It Perfect’.”

We simply don’t have the time to wait for Energy Miracles, and Gates simply hasn’t proposed the best strategy to achieve his wish — dramatic improvement in performance and a sharp drop in price.

The time to act — to deploy — is now.

Source: Climate Progress. Reproduced with permission.  

  • Rob G

    Meanwhile Gates continues to hold on to some of the largest shares in fossil fuel interests in the world…. If he just dumped those, he’d ‘bring on’ a massive collapse to those industries and would trigger more renewable investment in renewables as a change over. Forget the research, just do that.

  • howardpatr

    Great response from Joe Romm. In Australia we have a Coalition Government still actively out there backing a fossil fuels and doing very little to foster massive change to renewable energy.

    Perhaps Cayman Turnbull, like Gates, still holds a significant in fossil fuel related industries?

  • liquidblueocean

    Once again Gates has demonstrated that tech is often just beyond his grasp. His future predicting books are just as bad. He should just stick to talking about what he is good at: business.

    • Alastair Leith

      Crony capitalism business at that. Lucky for him Bush II protected him from anti-trust breakup.

  • solarguy

    Well Bill’s FF interests says it all really. I never did like puppets or the puppeteers.

  • Brian Tehan

    It’s hard to understand why Gates is so badly informed.

    • Motorshack

      Actually, he’s not badly informed, and he’s really smart on top of that.

      However, we have to remember that he made his billions by using seriously ruthless business methods to sell a technically mediocre product. When it comes to aggressive, monopolistic practices, he’s right up there with John D. Rockefeller, except that he has (just barely) managed to stay on the right side of the anti-trust laws.

      If that sounds cynical on my part, it comes from thirty years of experience as a software designer, who routinely had to figure out how to keep Windows from falling on its own face at every turn. There are lots of much better products out there, but the average citizen has just never heard of them, because Gates has managed to crush them in the marketplace that he controls.

      If Windows were an airplane, I not only would not ride on the plane, I wouldn’t live anywhere near an airport. Planes would be dropping out of the sky every day, and the take-off and landing paths would be littered with wrecks.

      In short, I suspect that Bill’s real problem with existing renewable energy technology is that he missed his chance to corner the market, so now he has to bet on something else, such as mini nuclear reactors, which he still has a chance of owning or controlling.

      • Barri Mundee

        I think we see that disingenuous approach here in Oz with the nuclear boosters. Their tactic appears to be first shit-can renewables and then talk up the so called many virtues of nuclear.

      • Alastair Leith

        VC angels I’ve spoken to suggest he’s not that smart with his money in that space and has made a lot of problems for others. His business ethics are still rubbish by the sounds of it. Was happy to steal from small software houses and force them into the courts where he could use his power to out spend and outstay them with countless appeals and manipulations. Not a good guy.

  • energyAsFreeAsAir

    A perspective: The grid is a fundamentally flawed paradigm that is restricting efficient innovation of energy harvesting at the point of use. Ultimately the most logical point of energy harvesting is at the point of use. Modernizing a grid that will still require continuous waste in processes from policy, regulation, safety, complexity, control and management seems like a normal response from a archaic industry led by failing monopolies and not true innovation.

  • david_fta

    Price of desktop computing came down with scaleup, as Gates himself should know. Likewise, the price of renewables is coming down with scaleup.

    The difference is, desktop computing didn’t really replace a previous technology, it replaced manual labour, and it made entirely new things possible.

    All that renewables are doing is supplanting older technology.

    • jeffhre

      Mr. Gates primary innovations were in the software of desktop computing, not the hardware side that experienced price decreases with scaling. In fact each iteration of software production seems to increase costs, even as the scale of the addressable markets rise.

  • Jens Stubbe

    Well we might have yet to come technologies in store that would appear miraculous to us by todays standards.

    Otherwise I do agree that we have the technologies we need to build a 100% renewable powered world.

    Some of the technologies he envisions that could be created through his fund will however speed up the transition.

    That he did not respond to carbon divestment movement has cost him far more cash than he has committed to the energy transition research and also much more than he has spent from his charitable funds so far.

  • onesecond

    Precisely. Technology wise he had his one stellar moment with windows, but otherwise he didn’t and doesn’t seem to have any clue.

  • jeffhre

    This is not within Bill gates skill set. Manufacturing improvements through economies of scale – in shipping software? Engineering improvements that lower the cost of manufacturing – software? Process improvements that improve the efficiency of – mailing copies of software? All of the manufacturing improvements that have taken PV applications from the labs to daylight, having rendered price reductions of thousands of percentage points – seemed to have been entirely opaque from Mr. Gates point of view. Ditto with wind power.

  • Math Geurts

    Unfortunately, the progress in low carbon technology costs is mainly for power production. Power is just about 30% of energy consumption.