Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has argued that nuclear power is an ideal technology to decarbonise the global energy system, as it is less prone to volatility and variable outputs compared to renewables.
In a blog post detailing his key learnings from 2018 and predictions for the year ahead, Gates claimed that a string of negative news stories last year – including those exposing rising global emissions and those covering the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 1.5C report – had served to “reinforce” the case for urgent breakthroughs in the energy sector.
While praising the role which renewable generation has played in decarbonising the global electricity sector, which accounts for a quarter of emissions worldwide, Gates expressed doubts about the technology’s capability to abate sectors such as heat.
“Some people think we have all the tools we need, and that driving down the cost of renewables like solar and wind solves the problem,” Gates’ blog post states.
“I am glad to see solar and wind getting cheaper and we should be deploying them wherever it makes sense. But solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy, and we are unlikely to have super-cheap batteries anytime soon that would allow us to store sufficient energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.”
Gates then went on to posit nuclear generation as the ideal alternative, arguing that it is “the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”
Specifically, he called on the US Government to implement policies that will help re-establish the nation as a global leader in nuclear technologies, and to invest more funding in research and development in this field.
“The world needs to be working on lots of solutions to stop climate change,” the blog post adds.
“Advanced nuclear is one, and I hope to persuade US leaders to get into the game. Next year, I will speak out more about how the US needs to regain its leading role in nuclear power research.”
Impartial industry insight?
The publication of Gates’ blog comes shortly after his nuclear reactor firm, TerraPower, was left unable to complete a pilot project testing a new “cleaner” wave reactor in China due to the ongoing trade war between the Chinese and American Governments.
The reactor, which has been ten years in the making, allegedly prevents proliferation and produces very little waste. Gates is now looking to carry out the trials within the US – with the support of policymakers and funding from central Government.
Despite his personal investment in nuclear power, Gates has been a long-term advocate for renewables and other low-carbon energy technologies. In 2017, the philanthropist and business mogul teamed up with Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson as part of a new collaboration aimed at creating affordable and reliable clean energy for the entire planet. Under this partnership, Gates is committing $1bn of his own money to invest in clean-energy technology and has been pushing governments to increase their funding.
Gates has also campaigned for developed countries – which are largely responsible for the majority of the emissions – to help developing countries in Africa and Asia invest in basic electrical appliances and grids – something that a lot of people are without. Without access to the electricity grid, many rural homes in developing nations are left dependent on carbon-intensive coal, kerosene or wood burning for heat and light.
Reliable and renewable?
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) has predicted that renewable energy sources will account for around three-quarters of the expected $10trn global investment into power generating technologies between now and 2040.
However, experts have consistently warned that the intermittency of wind and solar energy will create wildly varying outputs from renewable energy generation in the UK by 2040, hence the need for energy storage solutions.
In contrast to Gates’ claims about battery storage prices and technology capabilities, BNEF has predicted that storage devices will cost 52% less in 2030 than they do now, creating an ideal environment for the technology to become popular among business and domestic energy users alike.
Similarly, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has predicted that the price of storage and flexibility technologies will fall to a point that renewables could meet around 50% of the UK's electricity demands by 2030, at price parity with coal, oil or gas generation. This would be possible regardless of any large “lulls” in wind and solar generation, according to the ECIU.