Bill Gates on Energy

February 29, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy: When Bill Gates Speaks About Energy, We Should Listen | Ecocentric |

Bill Gates puts a lot of time and investment into the energy issue. Yesterday he made a presentation in Washington alongside Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu. Hopefully, I will be able to find a longer form video or article on the discussion, but this piece from Ecocentric at Time Magazine presents some highlights.

Mr Gates is staking a lot on nuclear energy, not an easy position to hold considering the climate post-Fukushima, and with countries like Germany completely divorcing themselves from a nuclear future. But, he makes some important points about the challenges in transitioning to new energy systems, and in particular the battery storage issue.

Gates also pointed out that while renewable energy was improving rapidly—earlier in the session Chu reported that solar power could be competitive with natural gas by 2020, which is remarkable—it couldn’t get the job done alone. Even as solar and wind improves, that kind of power remains intermittent. Greens have placed their hopes in energy storage to make up the difference, but Gates noted that you’d need more batteries than have ever been built in the history of the world to provide enough storage to make up for the lack of baseload power currently provided by coal, nuclear or natural gas.

If you rule out carbon sequestration, Gates said, that leaves you with no baseload power—except for nuclear. Gates has a vested interest in this argument, having put money into the small-scale nuclear startup TerraPower. But his logic works—I just don’t see how you can achieve massive reductions in CO2 while keeping the lights on unless nuclear becomes an even bigger part of the overall energy mix.

This will not be a popular position with many, but as you look at the complexity of the global energy system, and the systems within the bigger system (oil, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, etc.) there are certain realities that must be faced. Mr Gates illustrates a significant issue with regards to ensuring reliable access to baseload power. There has been much creative thinking on these issues, so there are possibilities beyond nuclear, but one of the advantages of nuclear over a multi-prong system that might include a combination of wind, solar, and geothermal for example, is energy and power density versus land use.

Nuclear power plants, especially the newer technology, do not need the amount of land to produce electricity compared to other alternative electricity systems. Many will disagree with option, but the attributes of energy and power density are vital considerations in meeting global energy needs.

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