Bill gates was on Fox News Sunday this last weekend. He was there to promote his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. If this interview is anything like the book, Mr. Gates has a deep flaw in his solutions and ideas about the future. It’s not his fault. Most people are working under the same assumption: we can just electrify everything and continue business as usual. This is wrong, however. I’ve seen no evidence that we can generate enough clean electricity to simply switch from fossil fuels to renewables. I am completely in favor of using solar, wind, geothermal, and other green energy production, but we just can’t generate our way out of this crisis. We need to stop thinking about the short-term economy or we won’t have any economy in thirty years.
Two years ago, I wrote an essay in response to the Green New Deal, called the Low Tech New Deal. In it, I do the math about solar generation and found we’d have to cover the state of New York in solar panels to give us enough power to fuel our energy-hungry lives. This is just a illustration (as other energy sources would also be in play) that the real problem isn’t energy generation but instead, it is our energy use — read the Low Tech New Deal for more on that.
Let’s break down this interview into a few parts.
Texas’s Power Crisis
Gov. Abbot’s ludicrous claim that green energy sources were at fault for the Texas power outage has been thoroughly debunked (one example). The problem in this discussion is that everyone involved is simply accepting the idea of long-distance energy generation and transmission as the only way to power a state or community. Yes, if Texas was connected with the eastern or western power grids of the US, this might have been avoided (not only because of the availability of external energy, but also because it would have regulated these companies to be more resilient). Imagine, however, if long-distance transmission was secondary, backup power source.
What if, instead of having huge energy plants and long-distance transmission as the primary source of energy in our grid, we had community microgrids tied to independent, small- and medium-scale production sites? These microgrids could be tied together so if one community’s wind turbine went down, the neighbors might be able to provide the needed energy. In this scenario, the large production plants would only provide backup power. A single average US wind turbine (1.67 MW) can produce enough power for 460 homes on an monthly basis (USGS). If our little village of Cooksville had a wind turbine on the outskirts, we could power all thirty or so homes here plus the surrounding countryside. Or, we could have ten acres of solar panels in a poor-producing agricultural field near the village and produce the same amount of energy. This is much more energy than we would need, which means that when our wind and solar are producing extra, we can transmit that to other communities where it is cloudy or calm. Power companies do not want this idea to take hold because they make money by controlling the large production plants and long transmission lines as a dominant monopoly. If Texas had had microgrids, this might have been a different story.
One perceived problem with this microgrid and community-generation approach is energy storage, but again, decentralization offers solutions. For example, in our home, we have a 10-kWh battery and a 500-gal hot water storage unit. If every house in our village had this, we could store 300 kWh and millions of BTUs for water and space heating. Frankly speaking, turning energy into stored heat is easier and more efficient than saving that energy as electrons, but few consider this as a way to store energy. This distributed system, coupled with super efficient wood stoves fired by sustainably harvested firewood would provide enough heat and power even in a Wisconsin winter.
Is Climate Change Even Real and at Fault?
We’re not going to go through whether or not climate change is real. It is. But it is worth clarifying why we’re getting these extreme cold events in the winter, while one might expect more mild conditions. First, conditions on average are more mild. That is the “warming” in global warming. Our average monthly temperatures are warmer. But, we do get more extreme weather (that is, short-term events) because of climate change, too.
Here, we’re getting more arctic air escaping because of warming temperatures. I’ll explain this with an analogy. Have you ever been swimming in a lake and you dive down below the top four or so feet of water? You feel a line of demarcation between warm surface water and cold deeper water. That thermocline is the boundary between two different but adjacent bodies of water. Because the temperatures are so drastically different, they do not mix. This used to be the case with our atmosphere. The very cold air masses around the polar region were segregated from the warmer southern air because of the difference in density — they couldn’t mix. But now, as the arctic warms faster (on a relative basis) than the sub-polar regions, the temperatures are less different and thus able to mix. Occasionally the barrier breaks down and cold air streams into southern areas and we get these polar vortexes. So, thanks to climate change and the warming arctic, the cold air escapes and gives us colder snaps in the winter, even if the average winter temperature is higher. It’s not easy to grasp this intuitively, so it is often misunderstood.
If we Change to a Green, Carbon-Neutral Economy, Won’t People Lose Jobs?
Yes. They will. I am tired of politicians and other prominent people trying to soft-pedal this issue. Frankly, I am surprised, because when this happened at another point in history, the capital-driven part of society (business owners, the government, and other interests) were too happy to put people out of work. I am talking about the industrial revolution, when many farmers, weavers, and other cottage industries went under because factories and fossil fuel–driven machines came on line. The wealthy and powerful were glad that people were out of these old jobs because they could work for less money in the factories. One of the first blog posts I wrote was in defense of Luddites, who raged against the changing economy during the industrial revolution (not technology itself). If we all agree that fossil fuels shouldn’t be part of our futures, why are we trying to subsidize the jobs of yesterday? The answer, like for so many other problems, is money, power, and politics.
As our economy must change on a fundamental basis, many of our jobs must follow suit. I argue that many of us would benefit from working 20–30 hours per week in our jobs and then spending 10–20 hours per week growing more food and taking care of other production that we otherwise must outsource because we do not have time to do for ourselves. Some job sectors will be completely eliminated while others will need more people. Becoming an electrician today, especially one that knows how to work with DC power and solar panels, is a safe bet for future job security, but we don’t hear about that nearly as much as the coal miner who is now out of a job (not to mention that most coal job losses are due to the fact that large, surface mines out west need less manpower to drive huge machines than previous underground mines; production is up and jobs are down according to Brookings).
Is a 2050 Goal for Zero Emissions Realistic?
Mr. Gates is right that this is going to be hard and does point out that it isn’t just transportation and energy production that cause greenhouse-gas emissions. He is essentially saying that if we want to keep living as we are right now, it will take almost thirty years to transition our economy to zero emissions. He might be right on the timeline, but his premise is flawed: we cannot keep living this way.
Waiting thirty years for zero emissions is a death sentence on many species, ecosystems, and human communities, not to mention individuals. If that is the price we must pay to keep driving, flying, and living in over-heated, poorly insulated homes as we are now, it is too high.
The hard fact is that unless our way of life fundamentally changes, we cannot make the carbon-emission changes. We must accept the fact that the next generation’s lives will be fundamentally different than the previous one’s. We can choose for that to be a proactive shift in our society and economy away from fossil fuels and emitting gasses right now, or we can let the world continue to heat up as we try to maintain a grasp on the business-as-usual model.
Mr. Gates as an “Imperfect Messenger” on this Issue
Bill Gates freely admits that he is an imperfect messenger on the green economy because he lives in large houses, flies frequently, and has other high-emission tendencies. He counters this by stating that he pays for carbon offsets and finds it surprisingly expensive. I understand his argument that if he pays for the carbon he emits, its ill effects are counterbalanced, and that is true from a narrow point of view. But this is not sustainable, as most of us are not able to afford this method. Even if we could, we cannot pay for enough carbon offsets to counteract all of our emissions. If Mr. Gates wants to be a leader, he should model the behavior he wants to see.
Mr. Gates goes on to address critics from the environmental movement, who think more drastic cuts are needed. He calls net-zero emissions by 2030 “unrealistic,” because that approach doesn’t reckon with the enormity of the changes necessary. But again, he is arguing for continuing our current way of life without drastic changes to our day-to-day lives, which is either short sighted or disingenuous. The only changes he mentions in our daily lives (in this interview) are climate-driven mass migrations and dealing with increasing natural disasters. I will give Mr. Gates the benefit of the doubt because I have not read his book, but unless he has real, concrete steps that individuals, households, and communities must take to fundamentally change their way of life to one that is more resilient, self-sufficient, and completely different from today’s energy-intensive way of life, he has misdiagnosed the problem facing us as one of “not enough green energy available,” when the real problem is that “we are addicted to using too much energy.”
I would be glad to speak to Mr. Gates (or anyone) about this. Please leave your reactions and comments below, but keep in mind that facts, figures, and concrete proposals will win the day.