Bill Gates: Grid-scale renewable energy is decades away. Nuclear is an option


On Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show, GPS, Bill Gates gave a gloomy answer when asked about the prospects of the U.S. creating renewable energy projects at such a large scale that they will replace dirty fuel sources like coal and oil in the coming decade. Gates, normally sanguine on the power of technology and market forces to cause transformative change at a rapid pace, said that the technology to store energy from intermittent power sources like wind and solar energy remains undiscovered.

Gates, an investor in new nuclear power sources, doesn’t appear to support plans like that of his former rival Google, which has a scenario to reduce greenhouse gases to almost zero in the coming decades. Google’s plan involves scaling up renewable energy sources, dramatically increasing the deployment of energy efficiency technologies, and creating an electric car fleet. The plan would get us off oil and coal by 2030, with some use of natural gas.

Gates has invested in TerraPower, a Washington area company innovating in nuclear design. Its model uses unenriched uranium that can be used as a fuel source for up to 60 years.

The problem with renewable energy is indeed that it is intermittent and not able to generate power steadily and dependably 24/7. (Geothermal is the major exception. Tidal power is another, sort of, because you always know exactly when the power will be created.) Thus, grid-scale power generated by renewable energy must somehow be stored to be used when needed. Gates is correct, the technology to do that on a massive scale simply doesn’t exists yet. Not only is massive storage needed, a smart decentralized grid is crucial in getting the power out. And we don’t have that either. Pumped hydro is a primary way to store power now. Large scale batteries are also being explored as is creating ice at night to use for air conditioning during the day. But these technologies exist on a tiny scale now.

That’s why Gates is funding nuclear. Because he sees it as perhaps the only way to generate the massive amounts of power the world will be needing. It’s not just the US. India and China are industrializing and modernizing fast. They need electricity in huge quantities. Gates appears to be saying, they will either do it with coal or do it with nuclear, because right now, it can’t be done with renewables. Maybe in a few decades, but not now.

DJ, who posts here, vehemently disagrees, saying let’s conserve, and that saving could mean we don’t need to build new coal or nuclear plants. Yes, we waste way too much here and conservation of even 25% (which is probably quite doable) could have a huge effect. Let’s do it.

But that doesn’t solve the storage problem. Also, while the US isn’t growing fast, China and India are. China is building a new coal plant every week, as well as doing renewable energy on a massive scale. And it’s still not enough.

What say you? Is Gates right? Should we look at nuclear too?

  • DJ

    The variability in solar and wind can be (and has been) addressed by distributed systems– when one is down, another is producing. And the potential of geothermal is only beginning to be tapped. Storage can be (and has been) addressed in a number of ways, some of which you have blogged about in the past, from molten salt to H2 to gravity. There are some amazing technologies out there, waiting to be brought to market– and yet not being brought to market.

    There are a number of structural roadblocks to renewables. As a business person, would you invest in technologies that are currently more costly, with limited and unpredictable government support and difficulty raising capital? Or would you choose fossil fuels, which have stable tax benefits and existing markets… or nuclear, on which the government guarantees funding and provides insurance, eliminating much of the risk? Heck, even corn-based ethanol, which cannot be produced at a profit without massive government subsidies, makes more sense in our current economic structure than renewables.

    It’s a system where the government pays to help you make a profit. How can you beat that? Sure, renewables get tax credits (renewed annually, and not every year), but the benefits are far less predictable, and tax credits are not nearly as good as a cash subsidy payment or loan guarantee– or free insurance.

    We have an economic system that relies on growth. We have to build stuff and consume stuff to keep people employed, So it’s little wonder we want to build new plants (coal or nuke), mine more fuel (coal or uranium), and have little interest in conservation or energy sources that don’t require constant consumption. Consumption means profits and jobs.

    Add to that an entrenched system of government handouts, and it’s a no-brainer: build and consume, build and consume.

    • Distributed systems don’t completely solve the problem. In our current grid, load must always equal demand. Must. There’s no way to do that reliability using lots of renewables because you can’t be guaranteed the pwer will be there. That’s why Gates was talking about storage. Not only does it have to store mass quantities, it has to be be able to release it immediately. Pumped hydro can create power very fast, not sure about molten salt.

      And, the storage and release needs to happen on a grid level and be completely reliable. No simple task.

      I completely agree that conservation and devising ways to use less should be a national priority.

      • DJ

        Our current way of thinking does not include storage. If supply exceeds demand, we dump the excess. Dumping may mean a dump load, as is used on smaller wind turbines, which (usually) converts unused electricity to unused heat. Larger wind turbines furl to reduce generation. PV would be disconnected. A coal plant would dump generated electricity and/or blow off steam generated by the coal fire. All of these are ways of wasting (or failing to produce) energy that might otherwise be stored.

        The premise is that with fossil fuels, it’s cheaper and more profitable to dump unneeded energy than to store it. Burn, baby, burn. And until the environmental cost of fossil fuels are considered (or peak supply is reached) that may well be true. But how can we include in our assessment of energy “needs” the massive amount of waste that results?

  • Ten Bears

    In all our deliberations we must consider the consequence of our action even unto the seventh generation.

    Though a longer view than present, nukes are never-the-less shortsighted. And that may be moot at that – as Richard Heinberg recently noted in Peak Everything: about the same time oil production peaked so too that of nuclear fuels, again an equation of not demand exceeding supply but demand exceeding the means of production, or ‘mining’ as it may be. There is simply not enough easily ‘minable’ uranium out there to meet the projections. Not to mention the problem of the spent fuels…

    And there’s nothing altruistic in that kind of ‘investment’. It’s all about the bottom line.

  • It’s not like Gates is usually opposed to technology like this – he’s a big supporter of conventional (ie, not organic, biodynamic, etc) agriculture and GMOs. Just sayin’.

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