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?