Sigh. I’ve been an energy analyst for most of a decade, with half of that period spent studying renewable energy.
So when I see Bill Gates coming forward with ideas on how to create a fossil fuel free energy future and even more important, putting his money into it and persuading other billionaires to do the same, I’m excited. He advocates a venture capital approach that has succeeded in IT, biotechnology and healthcare devices, understanding that a shotgun approach may produce losers (like Solyndra) but will also produce winners.
Here’s a man who has succeeded mightily twice–first with Microsoft and second with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As much as I curse some of his products while using them, Microsoft has changed the world for the better. So has the B&M Gates Foundation.
Naturally, the usual activist suspects, Luddites longing for solar and wind to be the primary solution to the energy issue, immediately leaped to attack Gates. Who other than Michael Mann and Joe Romm are better qualified to represent those driven by pre-determined political stances as opposed to looking at what science can actually do?
It’s safe to say Michael Mann is unable to understand the potential of new approaches and the difficulties facing current renewables. He blew his chance at being a leading scientist (not by his mistakes in creating the flawed Hockey Stick Chart, but by his intransigent refusal to acknowledge and learn from his mistakes), and has nothing but political drama to bring to the debate. His criticism of Gates is based on Gates’ late arrival to the party and reinventing the Kaya Identity.
Mann’s pointless criticism was approvingly quoted by Joe Romm, the logorrheic climate thug who has attacked everyone who doesn’t accept his policy demands. But (of course) Romm went much further, dictating an apoplectic screed into his speech to text software program.
Romm insists that we don’t need an energy revolution, that what we desperately need to do right now is spend lots more money on wind and solar–50 times more than we are spending now.
To do this with a straight face he has to ignore the horrible operating record of offshore wind turbines and the nascent state of the solar industry. His insistence that all we need to do to fix the climate is spend insane amounts of money on solar and wind today is just pie-in-the-sky nonsense.
I’m a big fan of solar power. I believe that 50 years from now it will be the dominant form of energy on this planet, and perhaps another (one can hope). But it needs work. Photovoltaic modules that produce at 21% are still too expensive and the modules that people can afford are producing far less–13% or even below. Building materials that can integrate solar into roofs, walls and windows are just beginning to move from design to prototype. The last thing we need right now is brute force plugging and playing of inefficient arrays that won’t last and won’t produce the power that we need.
As for wind power, the problems with maintenance that drive up the operating cost of the technology are huge, but they pale against the simple fact that the best sites are either already taken or will never be available. When Bill Gates talks about using the jet stream as a source of wind power, it’s not only because there’s more wind power there to harvest. It’s because that’s where you can actually site collection machines.
This chart is from 2010, but the percentages haven’t changed:
Current renewables cannot make a difference today, no matter how much money you throw at them. They are on track to do exactly what we asked them to do, provide 30% of electricity generation in the developed world by 2050. They are a huge success story.
They are a huge success story but they are not the answer. We badly need the ‘energy miracle’ that Bill Gates wants to find and is willing to finance.
Trust Michael Mann and Joe Romm to be wrong on the facts, mean spirited in their approach to the issue and Luddite in their world view.