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Hanley Sustainability Institute

Brecha book review: Gates’ 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster' a worthy offering, but overlooks the power of renewables

By Robert Brecha

Note: University of Dayton professor Robert Brecha, who has been a member of UD’s Department of Physics since 1993, taught sustainability courses before a sabbatical and then a two-year appointment as a European Union Marie Curie fellow with Berlin-based Climate Analytics. He is returning to campus in Fall 2021 as a tenured professor of sustainability for the Hanley Sustainability Institute.

It is risky for a highly prominent personality to dedicate the effort to educate oneself about a subject of critical importance, and then to publish a book for a broader public. After all, prominence in one area is no guarantee of being able to make a significant contribution in another.

Bill Gates has undertaken this challenge in his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, and given his own history, it is perhaps not surprising that the result is mostly solid. He also shows (and often mentions) the kind of special access he can gain to the best experts when he needs help, even though it is a bit annoying when he admits to having been surprised when he learned that climate change caused by humans was a real issue – well over a decade after scientists had been making the case.

But to his great credit, Gates goes beyond simply writing about the climate change crisis and describes how he has been investing hundreds of millions of dollars in targeted efforts to spur technological innovation where he thinks the most impact can be made to mitigate climate change.

First, some of the things Gates gets right in terms of big-picture of climate change and technology: His starting point is the need for countries to honor commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement - “… to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty” and to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

Both parts of the agreement are important and represent, together with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a clear recognition of crucial interlinkages between human well-being globally and the threats due to climate change to progress that has been made in recent decades to raise hundreds of millions out of poverty.

Since a large part of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change are due to energy and industrial processes like cement and steel production, there is an urgent need to transform the energy system to eliminate emissions as much as possible, while not putting at a disadvantage the billions of global citizens who need access to more modern energy to enable development.

One of the key follow-up analyses to the Paris Agreement is found in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Models show that to achieve the target of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5°C, emissions must decrease to zero by soon after mid-century.

Therefore, it is necessary to “electrify everything possible” and to ensure electricity is without emissions. So far, so good – Gates tackles the important themes and provides clear explanations, making the book worth reading.

But there are at least two key areas in which Gates’ arguments are not truly convincing. Gates says we need to dramatically increase our use of renewable energy such as solar photovoltaics and wind. However, he remains unconvinced that renewables (along with the ability to store electrical energy) will ever be sufficient to supply our needs. His conclusion is that we have to get used to the idea that nuclear energy will play a role in a zero-emissions energy system.

Not only must emissions reach near zero by about mid-century, but along the way, they should decrease by almost 50 percent by 2030 compared to today. The pathway toward reaching “carbon neutrality” is important, not just the endpoint. One could imagine continuing along at our current level of emissions and then suddenly dropping to zero emissions in 2050 through some miraculous technology. That would not be sufficient to hold the global temperature below 1.5°C, since far too much CO2 would have been emitted – it is the total amount of emissions that determines what the temperature rise will be. Reductions in emissions must start now; we can’t wait for technologies that are only in the conceptual stage, hoping they solve our emissions problems.

Gates has little patience for the idea that energy efficiency, in the sense of reductions in energy consumption in wealthy countries may play a significant role. He treats as nearly a law of nature that citizens of the U.S. have to live in large, poorly-insulated houses, use too much electricity, and drive extremely large and inefficient vehicles. Of course, with proper incentives such as much stricter building codes and vehicle efficiency standards, some of that energy use can be discouraged and avoided – as California has shown during the past four decades compared to the rest of the U.S.

The fact that car manufacturers only make a profit from their largest, highest fuel-use vehicles provides them a big incentive to advertise those vehicles and convince consumers they need at least two tons of steel to move themselves around for an hour or so a day.

One of the key points Gates does not give enough attention is that of the exponential growth in solar photovoltaics and wind energy. He mentions solar plus wind only make up 7 percent of global energy generation (true as of 2018). But exponential growth is characterized by a doubling time – for wind plus solar this is about four to five years – in 2000, they made up a quarter of one percent, a few years later 0.5 percent, another four to five years 1 percent, then 2 percent, etc. If this rate of increase continues another 10 years, we would be at 30% and then well over 50% by the mid-2030s.

Paired with the increase in wind and solar capacity installations is the remarkable decrease in the costs of installing renewables – by at least 90% in the past decade. The point is that installing new utility-scale solar and wind systems is now often as cheap as operating existing coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, per kWh generated – and getting cheaper. 

Historically, doubling in installations has led to about a 20 percent decrease in cost. The usual counter-argument, made by Gates as well, is that “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.” This is indeed a challenge for variable renewable energy. However, the other trend over time has been the decrease in cost of battery storage, such that in most cases, solar or wind plus battery storage is competitive with other technologies. As Gates rightly points out, shorter-term storage like batteries cannot solve the problem of seasonal variations in availability of solar energy in particular. There is a rough reciprocity between more solar energy in summer months and more wind in winter months, at least in the U.S.

Other options such as compressed air storage could take advantage of existing generating turbines. Or excess electricity from wind and solar can be used in electrolysis of water to create hydrogen, which can be stored and used for generating electricity in both stationary and mobile applications using fuel cells or even in gas turbines. In a further step, hydrogen could be combined with captured CO2 to generate methane, the main component of natural gas, which can be then combusted to generate electricity.

Right now, these technologies are too expensive to be economical options, but one reason for that, discussed by Gates, is that we do not systematically put a price on the damage done by CO2 emissions. Essentially, we are allowing the fossil-fuel industry to free-ride on global society in ways that no economist would accept as being part of a free and efficient market system.

All of the above brings me to one of the most questionable parts of Gates’ proposal for rapid solutions to the climate crisis. He has invested many millions in support for new-generation nuclear power technologies. It is true nuclear power can provide stable, reliable electricity without the worries about the variability inherent in wind and solar power. Several linked points need to be made about nuclear power. First, with respect to the timeframe Gates says is so important and pointed out above, the new technologies (traveling wave reactors, small modular reactors) are in their infancy for commercial development and application. It would be extremely surprising if any utility-scale units were online by 2030, let alone enough capacity to make a significant contribution to global energy systems.

Secondly, solar and wind energy have shown sharp decreases in costs as more capacity is installed. Those do not seem to occur for nuclear energy. In fact, the predominant experience, especially so in the U.S. but even in European countries that are very much in favor of nuclear power, is one of increasing costs over time. Current examples under construction in France, Finland and England all show extreme cost overruns and long delays in estimated completion dates. And these were to be for a new type of reactor advertised as cheaper and faster to build. Right now, each of those examples will result in electricity to consumers that is much higher than electricity generated from solar or wind.

On the other hand, Gates says surprisingly little about the potential for coupling of sectors. Coupling makes for a more complicated energy and industrial system, but offers a vision for more flexibility and resilience as well. Currently fossil fuels can be fairly well assigned to specific sectors – oil to transportation, coal to power generation and steel production, natural gas to power, and heating and industrial processes.

In the future, transportation with electric vehicles will imply a coupling of the power and transportation sectors, but not only on the demand side for more electricity. In an intelligently designed system, vehicle batteries also would be part of a distributed smart grid system and can help supply stability against supply and demand fluctuations, as well as resilience in the case of natural disasters.

Finally, nuclear power plants are likely to be a particularly poor complement to variable renewables since they cannot be ramped up and down quickly in their output to make up for fluctuations in demand and supply from other sources. Although Gates calls for a fast and large build-out of renewables, this issue of the potential conflict between slowly-reacting nuclear power and quickly shifting renewables is not clearly addressed at all.

He does mention the possibility of including large amounts of electricity storage together with the (smaller, completely safe, and autonomously operating) new-generation nuclear power plants. My question is: If we have the choice between an uncertain, expensive technology, one that will always have remaining risks, and other options that are cheaper, but do involve some clearly-defined technological challenges, which path should we choose?

There also are issues of public acceptance and the possibility of large swaths of land being made uninhabitable for long periods of time, disposal of nuclear waste in ways that may have to be dealt with by generations far in the future, and any potential for coupling between nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation.

There also are serious concerns about materials needed for renewable energy capacity manufacturing, and potential for conflicts between, for example, wind farms and bird or bat habitats. We do need to weigh alternatives and, as opposed to the evolution of energy systems to-date, take care to design systems carefully. Sustainability is, in the end, a combination of ensuring well-being for both the present and future, which means not leaving future generations to clean up our mess.

In conclusion, Gates discusses many of the important topics linking climate change, energy systems and sustainable development, making it worth reading. The main reservation I have is that Gates relies on incremental and technocratic changes to “business as usual.” He gives too little emphasis to the need for dramatic changes to consumption patterns in wealthy countries. And he places too much emphasis on technologies that are questionable in timing, lack broad public support and potentially leave unsolved problems for future generations while not giving enough credit to the ongoing revolution in renewable energy.

For more sustainability news and information, visit HSI’s news blog, the Hanley Sustainability Institute website and the sustainability program website. To sign up for HSI’s Sustainability Spotlight newsletter, register here.

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