Current energy-efficient technologies like solar panels and energy-efficient light bulbs are “cute,” limited and could never adequately address the larger issues of climate change and energy consumption in developing countries, according to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Gates made the remarks during a keynote address at the Wired Business Conference 2011 in New York City. During the address, Gates said that things like energy-efficient light bulbs, solar panels and efficient building construction techniques may help consumers in developed countries save money on electric bills but do little to solve the world’s environmental and energy-efficiency problems.
“Can we, by increasing efficiency [technologies], deal with our climate problem?” Gates asked. “The answer there is basically no, because the climate problem requires more than 90 percent reduction of CO2 emitted, and no amount of efficiency improvement is enough,” he said.
Gates said the primary problem is that any energy-efficiency gains made by developed countries are being more than offset by staggering levels of increased energy consumption in developing countries.
“With the CO2 problem, even if the rich world did very erratic things it doesn't come anywhere near to solving the problem. You have to help the rest of the world get energy at a very reasonable price to get anywhere,” Gates said.
Furthermore, Gates said that it’s the way the wealth of rich countries is being spent that is preventing the innovation necessary to turn the tide toward global energy efficiency. According to Gates, over 90 percent of energy subsidies from wealthy nations go to deploying old technologies instead of research and development into new technologies that are both economically and energy efficient.
"You can buy as much old technology as you want, but you won't get breakthroughs which only come out of basic research,” Gates said.
Instead, Gates used the address to push his well-known preference for nuclear power, despite the recent disaster at a reactor in Fukushima, Japan. Gates, who has personally invested millions in nuclear energy start-ups, said that nuclear technology has lacked so much innovation that there’s plenty of room for improvement. One of Gates’ investments, TerraPower, a Bellevue, Washington-based nuclear plant, developed the prototype for a nuclear reactor that can run an estimated 50 years without refueling.
Gates’ Predictions Not Always Accurate
Although Gates predicted the failure of energy-efficiency technology to address global climate change and energy consumption in developing countries, Forbes energy blogger William Pentland suggested that Gates’ prognostications haven’t always been accurate.
“Of course, in 1989, Gates … famously said, ‘We will never make a 32-bit operating system.’ Only four years later, in 1993, ’never’ apparently happened when the 32-bit Windows NT 3.1 was launched,” Pentland quipped. “More recently, in 2004, Gates predicted during a talk at the World Economic Forum that: ‘Spam will be a thing of the past in two years’ time.’ Gates’ math on the end of spam was off by at least five years and still counting.”
“Bill Gates: 'Cute' Green Tech Won't Solve Energy Crisis,” PC Magazine, May 3, 2011.
“Bill Gates: Wind and Solar Are ‘Cute’,” Forbes (blog), May 5, 2011.