Bill Gates, delivering the 14th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on the eve of Mandela Day, has again dismissed the potential global role of solar, and in particular the value it could have in solving energy crises in Africa.
“In the long run, what Africa needs is what the whole world needs: a breakthrough energy miracle that provides cheap, clean energy for everyone,” Gates said on the 17th. However, Gates doesn’t believe that that breakthrough has been made in the form of solar.
In an interview with Tech Insider earlier this year in February, which saw the billionaire philanthropist discuss the need to bring electricity to the millions who do not yet have access to reliable grid-provided energy, Bill Gates dismissed the role of solar. Gates discussed the need for an “energy miracle” then as well. “You might say, well, aren’t people saying that about wind and solar today? Not really. Only in the super-narrow sense that the capital costs per output, when the wind is blowing, is slightly lower.”
Gates continued, saying that the reason solar and wind “still needs subsidies, and it can’t go above a certain percentage, is this intermittency — it changes the economics, particularly the requirement that the power company at all times be able to require power.”
Speaking last Sunday as he delivered the 14th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, Gates again dismissed the role of solar in bringing electricity to the millions throughout Africa who are without reliable access to electricity.
“In East Africa especially, governments should invest in hydro and geothermal sources of energy, which are both reliable and renewable, as soon as possible,” Gates said. “There has been a lot of experimentation with small-scale renewable energy, including micro solar. This approach can provide individuals with some electricity for basic purposes, but it’s not going to be the solution for the continent as a whole.”
In an article published in June of 2014, Gates explained that “Today’s technologies are a good start, but not good enough.” He continued, explaining:
“Some places don’t get enough regular sunlight or reliable wind to depend heavily on these sources. In any case, these and other clean-energy technologies are still too expensive to be rolled out widely in poor countries”
Instead, these countries are “building large numbers of coal plants and other fossil-fuel infrastructure. That’s very unfortunate, but it’s understandable,” Gates said. “We can’t expect them to wait decades for cleaner alternatives when their people need energy now.”
What’s disappointing is that, at every step along Bill Gates’ arguments, we find reason to disagree with his increasingly-outdated points of view. Integrating energy storage with wind and solar generation mitigates much of the intermittency concerns, while reliance upon fossil fuels such as coal in Africa rely on massive levels of infrastructure — infrastructure which simply doesn’t exist, and would cost billions to develop, in excess of the cost of developing large-scale renewable energy deployment. Already the levelized cost of electricity (LCoE) has seen to be decreasing for both solar and onshore wind, and in some parts of the world are already cost competitive with existing fossil fuel energy sources.
Bill Gates isn’t unable to access this information, so what’s driving his seeming intentional ignorance towards the potential benefits of renewable energy, and solar energy in particular, for providing widespread electricity throughout Africa?
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