March 17, 2010
Gates: Efficiency Won’t Cut It
Yesterday, Bill Gates, yes, the Bill Gates, voiced his support of clean energy innovation as the path forward if the United States aims to transition to a clean energy economy and meet "the 80% goal by 2050."
In the piece, "Why We Need Innovation, Not Insulation," crossposted at the Huffington Post from his new blog Gates Notes, Gates asks an important question:
"Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?"
"To make the 80% goal by 2050 we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to zero.
You will still have emissions from other activities including domestic animals, making fertilizer, and decay processes.
There will still be countries that are too poor to participate.
If the goal is to get the transportation and electrical sectors down to zero emissions you clearly need innovation that leads to entirely new approaches to generating power.
Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?
If addressing climate change only requires us to get to the 2025 goal, then efficiency would be the key thing.
But you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism to anything close to zero.
Because 2025 is too soon for innovation to be completed and widely deployed, behavior change still matters.
Still, the amount of CO2 avoided by these kinds of modest reduction efforts will not be the key to what happens with climate change in the long run.
In fact it is doubtful that any such efforts in the rich countries will even offset the increase coming from richer lifestyles in places like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, etc.
Innovation in transportation and electricity will be the key factor."
Gates emphasizes the need to grapple with the immense scale of the energy technology challenge:
"If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters -- getting to zero.
With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed."
While some would argue that Gates presents a false dichotomy - innovation or efficiency - they are ignoring the "energy crossroads" the United States is facing. As it becomes increasingly clear that cap and trade is not the policy to help us meet our climate change mitigation goals or our energy needs, Gates is not pushing for an either/or decision, he's pushing for an honest prioritization.
Acknowledging an "80% by 2050" goal means, he notes, a significant change in the way produce and use power. That doesn't mean there isn't a role for energy efficiency, it means we have to commit to the difficult task of prioritization. And, as Gates added in an interview with CNET today, efficiency and conservation should not obscure the immense need for innovation.
And, according to CNET, although Gates is a self described capitalist, he believes an exception must be made for clean energy R&D:
"I'm always for minimizing the role of government wherever you can, but for almost all these large-scale energy things, the government has to come in and decide what kind of experimentation to allow...
The relative lack of investment in research and development is incredible. It just jumps out as a huge mistake because in the long run to get to zero carbon emissions, it's a case of using technologies that don't exist today, both in generation and the storage space as well."
Gates opinion bolsters the growing consensus that government investment in clean energy innovation is the way to reduce carbon emissions, alleviate our energy independence, and provide clean, cheap energy to both the developed and developing worlds.