It May Be “Cute,” Mr. Gates, But That Doesn’t Mean Microgeneration Can’t Help Save The World
Bill Gates irked a few people recently.
While that’s not unusual – ask anyone who uses Windows in any form and you’ll find they are often irked into having to press ctrl-alt-del to restart a crashed system in the middle of a project – it wasn’t computing Mr. Gates was addressing during his speech at the Wired Business Conference 2011. It was green technology, and he was making clear that he doesn’t think that small scale, personal efforts (such as putting solar panels or a wind turbine on the roof of your home or business) to generate energy from renewable energy are going to get the planet anywhere. He referred to such small-fry conservation and microgeneration efforts as “cute.”
“If you’re interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go,” said Gates. “If you’re interested in solving the world’s energy problems, it’s things like big [solar arrays] in the desert. You have to help the rest of the world get energy at a very reasonable price to get anywhere,” said Gates.
The way Gates looks at it, piddling efforts to reduce consumption or microgenerate in developed nations are vastly undone by the high demand for dirty energy in the developing world, and the world needs a giant hammer to solve a giant problem.
“Can we, by increasing efficiency, deal with our climate problem?” wondered Gates out loud. “The answer is basically no, because the climate problem requires more than 90 per cent reduction of CO2 emitted, and no amount of efficiency improvement is enough.”
What the world needs to be doing now, said Gates, is to take the long view on solving large, long-term problems by helping developing nations deploy technology that will create clean energy going forward.
“90 per cent of subsidies are on deploying technology and not on R&D,” said Gates. “You can buy as much old technology as you want, but you won’t get breakthroughs, which only come out of basic research.”
Easy for a guy with a few billion dollars in the bank to say. For now, I’ll keep using my mini kitchen composter. I’m glad Gates thinks it’s “cute.”
While it’s not hard to see Gates’ reasoning and, let’s face it, he’s a technology guy who got where he did by thinking big, many environmental groups would disagree with his views. For starters, we’re not very good, as a nation, on agreeing on solutions for energy conservation, environmental protection and climate change at the broad federal level. We are, of course, a country of 50 states and many times more than that special interests, political persuasions, person opinions and conflicting city-versus-rural needs. Given the current political climate in Washington, getting a resolution passed unanimously and without contention to declare that water is wet would be challenging at the moment, and that situation is unlikely to change in the near future.So while Mr. Gates may be a technology guru, he appears to be a political naïf.
So who are the voices currently speaking out on behalf of the “cute” technologies?
A 2011 white paper called “Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California” is one those sources that would, at least in part, disagree with Gates’ views. The paper’s author, Al Weinrub, is a member of the Sierra Club California Energy-Climate Committee and serves on the Steering Committee of the Bay Area’s Local Clean Energy Alliance. Weinrub believes that a key to clean energy (in the U.S., at least) is to focus on exactly what Gates decries as “cute”: local, small-scale, decentralized renewable energy efforts that are tailored to each geographical location’s resources (solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, or any optimum mix) and can bypass any need for long-distance transmission of the energy created.
“Community Power” acknowledges that there is currently robust debate over whether this de-centralized model of renewable energy generation would work. The author might be describing Gates specifically when he writes, “Some advocates of renewable energy promote a central station model characteristic of the fossil-fuel power plants of the past century, and indeed, some industrial scale renewable energy facilities might be needed to reach California’s energy goals.”
In other words, while the new energy technologies may be different, the mindsets about distribution are the same, and the nation might as well be repeating its fossil fuel mistakes, only this time with more renewable sources.
While the paper addresses only California’s needs, it’s not news that California is often an environmental front-runners whose policies frequently set the standard for other states. (California is currently working under a requirement to ensure that 33 percent of the state’s energy comes from renewable sources by the year 2020.) And while California is not a country, its GDP is larger than all but eight nations in the world, so it’s not unreasonable to say that the state’s experiences in generating renewable energy in a decentralized manner could be extrapolated to pretty much any nation on the planet.
For the purpose of the paper, the author defines “decentralized generation” of electricity (or distributed generation) as electricity produced locally from dispersed, small-scale generators, rated at about 20 megawatts capacity or less. These facilities would be located near the communities that would consume the power, eliminating the need for long-distance transport of the electricity.
While the paper acknowledges that centralized renewable power generation in remote areas might have some economies-of-scale benefits over local, decentralized installations, it points out that the benefits are outweighed by the drawbacks. Remote energy generation, before it can be realized, requires large-scale land acquisition, zoning and regulatory scrutiny and is often the target of litigation (few projects trigger the NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” instinct faster than a giant solar array or wind farm to be sited on formerly open land). Once the project is online, it requires long-distance transmission capacity, which often needs to be custom-built for the purpose of the project. These new transmission lines are often the target of legal challenges, and beyond the legal hurdles, they usually take about 8 to 10 years to build at extremely high cost.
Decentralized, or community-based, solutions come with their own benefits over large-scale remote installations. They provide local jobs, they can be better tailored to suit local resources and needs, they involve fewer political and regulatory hurdles, they often have more community support, since local residents understand in advance that they will see direct benefits. These smaller projects can also be brought online quickly and with less fuss. In addition, smaller-scale installations are often more secure (preventing, for example, a malicious computer virus or human error from knocking out an entire state or county’s power grid).
There are also community economic benefits. Essentially, a group of urban homes, community centers and
businesses using solar panels or small wind turbines can become both the producers and consumers of the power. A business with a large rooftop can generate enough solar power to meet most of its electricity needs and even sell some electricity back to local grids. A group of local interests or homeowners can essentially form co-ops, collectively investing in the means of generation and also collectively owning the power generated, often making money back by reselling surplus power.
While the costs of smaller-scale electricity generation – solar panels, for example – may have been prohibitive just a few years ago, costs have dropped precipitously (by as much as one-third from 2007 to 2009, in the case of solar panels), according to sources cited by the “Community Power” paper. This, plus the cost savings on transmission, make community-based solutions not only feasible, but desirable. (Though the author points out that the cost-effectiveness of small-scale wind projects is a little harder to quantify than solar PV installations, a group called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has demonstrated the economic benefits of local wind projects, as well.)
There are certainly barriers to community-level energy generation. For starters, utility companies are none too keen on the competition. California has overcome this opposition, to some degree, with its 2002 Community Choice Energy legislation that gives communities more flexibility and choice in how and where they purchase their power. (Massachusetts, Ohio and New Jersey have similar legislation in place.) Some California state lawmakers hope to strengthen the Community Choice legislation further this year to provide communities with even more clout to fight utility company foot-dragging and obstruction.
If community power projects are to succeed, they may need all the help they can get via this type of legislation. Let’s face it, the clout in the energy industry tends to lie where the money does, and community-based or local scale renewable power programs are unlikely to make anyone very, very rich. Which is where people like Bill Gates come back into the picture. While nobody doubts Gates’ wide philanthropic streak – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations operates from a pool of about $36 billion directed toward humanitarian causes and is the largest charity in the history of the world – he’s still a business man on a vast scale, and as such, tends to think on vast, “big business” scale. So it’s not surprising he doesn’t get excited by mini wind turbines.
Gates, of course, is a great believer in nuclear power as the answer, and thinks there is a lot of innovation that can be done in the nuclear field. Gates is a heavy investor in a Seattle-based company called TerraPower, which uses far less-toxic depleted uranium – instead of the enriched variety – as fuel, which should theoretically produce about one-one-thousandth of radioactive waste – the second biggest drawback of current nuclear power generation, after safety issues – of a typical reactor. (There is some disagreement on these claims of vastly reduced waste, however, but that’s a story for another day.)
“The new nuclear design … is quite amazing,” Gates told Wired magazine, referring to TerraPower’s technology. “Basically, no human should ever be required to do anything.” Also theoretically, these new types of reactors should be able to run for about 50 years without requiring refueling.
However, given that the world just watched an utter disaster unfold at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi reactor following a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami damage last month, Gates’ timing may be poor on that issue. The general public isn’t ready to make a distinction between depleted and enriched uranium in the court of public opinion, even if Gates has affirmed his continued support for emerging nuclear technologies after the Japanese disaster.
Now, to give Gates a little credit and diffuse criticism a bit, when he made the comment about “cute technology” he was speaking at a session about “disruptive technology,” or advances so broad and game-changing that they essentially put other technologies out of business, so it’s no wonder he may have had broad solutions on his mind, but it seems short-sighted to imagine that any one solution is going to save the world from itself.
Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” In other words, trying to fix a problem in the same mindset in which it was created is a non-starter.
Time to hit ctr-alt-del, Mr. Gates.