Energy: Bill Gates’s Climate Heresy

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Bill Gates—through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—revolutionized the health world by focusing vast amounts of money on diseases of the developing world that hadn’t responded to traditional philanthropy. (That’s why TIME put Gates, his wife Melinda and U2 frontman Bono on the cover as People of the Year in 2005.) Lately, though, Gates has turned his attention towards the equally enormous energy and climate challenge facing the planet—and just as he did with the global health establishment, he’s shaking things up.

In an interview with Technology Review editor-in-chief Jason Pontin, Gates lays out some energy heresies—at least compared to mainstream green thinking: nuclear power needs to be pursued, tax credits for solar power have largely been a waste and cap-and-trade is a distraction from energy research. Check out the whole thing, but here are a few quick excerpts:

On how we should spend money for cleaner energy:

I think it’s very important, both to give poor people cheap energy and to avoid hugely negative climate change, that the U.S. and other governments fund basic research. The irony is that if you actually look at the amount of money that’s been spent on feed-in tariffs and you properly account for it–tax credits, feed-in credits in Spain, solar photovoltaic stuff in Germany–the world has spent a massive amount of money which would have been far better spent on energy research.

On the need for a tax and regulatory approach versus cap-and-trade:

If you said to a utility company executive, which is more likely to stay in place: a cap-and-trade thing, whose price will vary all over the map, that will have some international things that will be shown to be a waste of money? Or a tax and a regulatory framework for plant replacement over the next 50 years? We should have a carbon tax. What we owe the developing world is this: we’re willing to pay high prices for energy plants above coal and drive prices down the curve so by the time they need to buy them, they don’t have to pay the high price.

On the sheer challenge of decarbonizing our energy supply:

It is disappointing that some people have painted this problem as easy to solve. It’s not easy, and it’s bad for society if we think it is, because then funding for R&D doesn’t happen.

On why we shouldn’t overestimate the contributions of energy efficiency:

Even in the most optimistic case, if the U.S. is cutting its energy intensity by a factor of two, to get to European or Japanese levels, the amount of increased energy needed by poor people during that time frame will mean that there’s never going to be a year where the world uses less energy. The only hope is less CO2 per unit of energy. And no: there is no existing technology that at anywhere near economic levels gives us electricity with zero CO2.

Gates’s technology-centric views have their opponents—see a piece by Grist’s David Roberts that takes the Man from Microsoft to task for underplaying energy efficiency and failing to take into account the social and psychological side of changing the way we use energy. (Yes, hard to imagine the person whose company brought you Windows 7 would perhaps stumble on how people actually act in the real world.) But I sense the tide of the energy debate moving towards Gates—and others like the Breakthrough Institute—who are a pushing an R&D focused approach to climate change and energy, if only because the changing political landscape seems to make cap-and-trade hard to imagine. (I wrote about the energy approach—and its roots in great American inventors like Thomas Edison—earlier this summer.) Of course, given the rising number of Republican candidates who are now openly disbelieving of climate change, the argument may be an academic one.