Bill Gates and the Pace of Innovation on Fossil-Free Electricity

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on June 25, 2019
Traver Kennedy
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There is a master key to tackle the problem of global warming: electricity. This is what Bill Gates explained a couple of weeks ago in an insightful article published by The World Economic Forum in collaboration with his blog. Mr. Gates wrote that if we solve the fossil-free electricity puzzle, it will not only eliminate 25% of all greenhouse emissions created by this industry, but more importantly, it will act as a keystone to unlock the ability of other sectors, such as transportation, manufacturing, and buildings, to go carbon-free.

Carbon-free electricity is the keystone to unlocking additional clean sector pathways.

His sharp analytical insight can help society apply the Pareto Principle, commonly referred to as the 80/20 rule, to focus limited resources where it matters the most to tackle the biggest problem humanity has ever faced. Bill Gates writes with optimism that focusing on eliminating fossil fuels from the production of electric power will serve to create a downstream domino effect that will reduce emissions to the levels agreed by the overwhelming majority of countries in the historic Paris Agreement. The good news is we have the technology to do exactly this.

Rapid Change

On its “Vital Signs of the Planet” web page, NASA presents detailed facts on what they refer to as “rapid climate change.” They share evidence of an unprecedented pace in the warming of our atmosphere and our oceans through historical figures on global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreat, decreased snow cover, sea level rise, declining Arctic sea ice, extreme events, and ocean acidification.

NASA explains some of the sources that enable scientists to reach these conclusions as follows: “Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in greenhouse gas levels. Ancient evidence can also be found in tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks. This ancient, or paleoclimate, evidence reveals that current warming is occurring roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.”

To stop this rapid rate of warming, society must fully apply the clean technologies that are already available along with next-generation technologies to replace fossil fuels in key sectors of our economy as soon as possible.

Rising Renewables

In his article, Mr. Gates refers to “energy innovations” as the way to build on the progress that renewables like solar and wind have experienced. Specifically, he writes, “By investing in energy innovations, we can build on the progress we’ve made deploying current technology like renewables, which will help accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to a future of reliable and affordable carbon-free electricity.”

His analysis includes an interesting chart that shows, since the year 2000 wind and solar have expanded by a factor of more than 1,500-times, unquestionably an impressive figure, but not nearly enough to remediate the current crisis. The good news, as he suggests, is that focusing on renewables to make the electricity sector carbon-free can slow down global warming. He explains:

“While electricity generation is the single biggest contributor to climate change—responsible for 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and growing every day—it’s an even bigger part of the solution. With clean electricity, we can do more than light our homes and power our grid. We’ll unlock a source of carbon-free energy to help power the sectors of the economy that produce the other 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, including transportation, buildings, and manufacturing. Think electric cars and buses; emission-free heating and cooling systems in our homes and businesses; and energy-intensive factories using more clean power to make products.”

In other words, a domino effect in mitigating humanity’s carbon footprint to counter the domino effect of our rapidly warming and increasingly fragile planet.

Calling all Energy Innovators

The energy innovations required to free the electricity sector of fossil fuels must address two challenges, which Mr. Gates expands on:

“The first challenge will come as no surprise. We need to do more to harness the power of the sun and wind. And thanks to falling prices for solar panels, wind turbines, and other technologies, deploying renewable energy systems is more affordable than ever before. The second challenge is probably less obvious and more difficult. We need big breakthroughs in technologies that will allow us to supply the power grid with clean energy even during windless days, cloudy weather, and nighttime.”

The problem of wind and solar intermittency (which we have written extensively about on this blog) serves as the bottleneck for the full adoption of renewables. Mr. Gates suggests shifting from a monopolistic way of looking at energy―which established fossil fuels as the dominant energy source throughout the past century―to a democratic one, where a mix of technologies works together to make up for the shortcomings of each other. As he puts it:

“While I wish there could be a single, magic bullet solution to this problem, there isn’t one right now. What will be required in the years ahead is a diverse and flexible mix of energy solutions—a Swiss army knife of energy tools—to support a future of renewable energy generation to meet our needs. Some of these solutions already exist. Others will require more innovation. All can help us make the transition to low-cost, carbon-free power.”

To get to this future clean electricity mix, he notes that we need to innovate when it comes to energy storage, carbon capture, nuclear energy, and long-distance energy transmission. There are thousands of innovative organizations working on these areas. Joi Scientific’s Hydrogen 2.0, which generates clean and affordable hydrogen from seawater, is one such technology that may play an important role in realizing fossil fuel-free electricity everywhere―by enabling the storage of wind and solar energy, allowing the edge of the grid to become energy independent, and supplying portable energy in sectors like transportation and manufacturing.

Bill Gates concludes his article by stating, “with the right mix of solutions we can deploy right now and new innovations, we can build a path to a carbon-free future.” The technology is there. Now, we just need the will to make it happen.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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