The Microsoft co-founder and legendary philanthropist has spent huge sums of his personal wealth and time trying to improve the health and living conditions of people in third world countries. He knows the territory. Last month he gave an interview with Wired Magazine and some of his comments bear repeating here.
Anderson: When you look at the big picture, where should we be focusing besides nuclear? On massive solar plants in the desert? On middle-size stuff for office roofs? Or is there a reinvention that could be done right in the home?
Bill Gates: If you’re going for cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. It’s really kind of cool to have solar panels on your roof. But if you’re really interested in the energy problem, it’s those big things in the desert.
Rich countries can afford to overpay for things. We can afford to overpay for medicine, we can overpay for energy, we can rig our food prices and overpay for cotton. But in the world where 80 percent of Earth’s population lives, energy is going to be bought where it’s economical. People are going to buy cheap fertilizer so they can grow enough crops to feed themselves, which will be increasingly difficult with climate change.
You have to help the rest of the world get energy at a reasonable price to get anywhere. It’s great to have the rich world, because we’re there to think about long-term problems and fund the R&D;. But we get sloppy, because we’re rich.
For example, despite often-heard claims to the contrary, ethanol has nothing to do with reducing CO2; it’s just a form of farm subsidy. If you’re using first-class land for biofuels, then you’re competing with the growing of food. And so you’re actually spiking food prices by moving energy production into agriculture.
For rich people, this is OK. For poor people, this is a real problem, because their food budget is an extremely high percentage of their income. As we’re pushing these things, poor people are driven from having adequate food to not having adequate food.
From the Audience:
What about on the usage side? What do you think of the technologies that are increasing efficiency, cutting down on the amount of energy consumed?
Gates: There’s certainly lots of room for increasing efficiency. But can we, by increasing efficiency, deal with our climate problem? The answer is basically no. The climate problem requires more than a 90 percent reduction in CO2 emitted, and no amount of efficiency improvement is going to address that. As we’re improving our efficiency, poor people are increasing their energy intensity. You’re never going to get the amount of CO2 emitted to go down unless you deal with the one magic metric, which is CO2 per kilowatt-hour.
Anderson: Imagine a world where we have made a transition to electric cars, and we have a smart grid, and storage is distributed on some level. Can you imagine that microgeneration would make more sense in a world where we have the ability to use, say, electric car batteries as local storage and have a microgrid model?
Gates: No. We should all grow our own food and do our own waste processing, we really should. But scale has some significant advantages in terms of reliability, and electricity is something you want to be reliable. Also, this is dangerous stuff: For solar to work well, you have to generate very high temperatures. Do we want everybody to have that on their roof? No. It’s just not going to happen.
Anderson: So suffice to say we will find no solar cells on the roof of the Gates residence?Gates: Oh, we like to be cute like everyone. For rich people, this is OK. Rich people can do whatever they want.”