Bill Gates on Energy

This morning I read an interview with Bill Gates in Wired magazine. Essentially, Gates asserts that it will be impossible to effectively address global energy issues without a greater reliance on nuclear power. Kind of a risky thing to say in light of what happened at Fukushima. While I am no supporter of nuclear energy, he did bring up a few points which cause me to stop and think.

First off, he claims that there are actually many more deaths related to energy generation from fossil fuels, particularly in the way of deaths in coal mines and from particulates. The difference, he says, is that these deaths usually occur a few at a time, and it’s safer for politicians to manage death in small amounts. If the negative effects are spread out over time, then they don’t get the sensationalist attention in the media.

Another thing that Gates talked about, and this one hit home for me, is the problem with biofuel in this country, particularly ethanol:

… despite often-heard claims to the contrary, ethanol has nothing to do with reducing CO2; it’s just a form of farm subsidy. If you’re using first-class land for biofuels, then you’re competing with the growing of food. And so you’re actually spiking food prices by moving energy production into agriculture. For rich people, this is OK. For poor people, this is a real problem, because their food budget is an extremely high percentage of their income. As we’re pushing these things, poor people are driven from having adequate food to not having adequate food.  (p. 110)

Gates is correct here. My biggest household expense is food, and I refuse to buy unhealthy, subsidized food for my kids. Should we be continuing to look at biofuel as an alternative energy source? I think so, but I don’t think we should be giving more money to companies like Monsanto while we make basic sustenance more challenging for lower-income families.

So what’s the answer? I’m not sure. It’s a complex problem and will require a complex solution. The one thing that I am sure of is that we need to do something, and soon. Climate change is a real concern and the longer we dawdle and neglect exploring innovative ways to address the issue, the more dire it will become.

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2 responses to “Bill Gates on Energy

  1. Good points. I do wonder if it’s apples-and-oranges comparing accidents and deaths due to those energy methods. I wonder if, adjusted for amount of energy created, Nook-u-lar doesn’t look as good.

  2. jim

    Surprised someone as smart as Gates would make such an incredibly naive comparison. First off, if you work in the coal mine (or other job where exposure to fossil fuels is a health hazard) – you have made a choice… You have decided it is worth the risk to your health for the financial payoff involved – the money you receive for doing the hazardous work. That is not the same as being a civilian living in Chernobyl or Fukishima (or Nebraska… possibly) who wakes up one day with radiation poisoning. The other point I would make is we are not even at the point where we can make a fair comparison between alternative energies and nuclear, because nuclear has received the benefit of decades of public support whereas alternative energies are the bastard stepchild of public subsidies – receiving next to nothing in terms of real financial support. The reason being obvious – the last thing the energy corps want is free (or very low cost) energy. Beyond that, nuclear is not financially viable. We know this because financial institutions refuse to back new plants. Why? Because the risk is too great – one accident would wipe out the biggest of the “too big to fail” institutions. Not only that – it is impossible to get new plants up and running because they are too expensive. That is why all the talk about new nuclear facilities are being discussed ONLY in terms of PUBLIC financing. People – pay attention, this is where we get reamed for the next 30 years. It’s just another public money hole – a place to disappear our tax dollars rather than put them to good use building infrastructure we need or… ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SUPPLIES.

    So far as ethanol – it’s a boondoggle for more reasons than you suggested. It takes almost as much energy to create as it produces – so it’s not even a good source of energy. The subsidies should be dropped.