Renewable energy ‘cutes’ its way past nuclear energy

By Mark Burger
Illinois Solar Energy Association

Two interesting events have occurred concerning the perception and reality of solar and renewable energy. The first was a remark made by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at a business conference in New York last May. Gates considered solar and other forms of renewable and energy efficiency to be “cute,” but incapable of addressing the comprehensive issue of climate change. The second was a report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency last June that renewable energy for the first time generated more energy than nuclear power.

These events are interesting indicators of the perception and reality of renewable energy. On one hand, a “visionary” like Bill Gates issues a “damning by faint praise” of renewables, conjuring up solar, wind and other renewables as a niche, a “petting zoo.” One pets the cuddly little solar panels and feeds the cute little wind turbines on the way to the serious, grownup stuff. And yet, we have these cute little systems, along with hydro and a variety of other sources that pollute less or not at all overtaking a massive infrastructure that received tens of billions of dollars of financial and regulatory support like clockwork for over a quarter century.

This report ( is a relative snapshot, and one swallow doesn’t make a summer, or a Cubs’ win salvage a lost season. But it shows that the growth of renewable energy (and the growth rate was mostly from wind and solar) has become a major energy source, not just something “cute” to refer to in a CEO or politician’s Earth Day speech. This growth occurred in spite of the “stop and go” modest support for renewable energy, and the still continued hostile or patronizing attitude toward these ever growing multi-billion dollar industries.

It is interesting that Bill Gates scorns solar and other green applications, a classic example of yesterday’s revolutionaries becoming today’s conservatives. One would think Mr. Gates would be a little more sensitive to innovation.

When the personal computer was gaining traction, one of Gates’ role models, Ken Olsen of Digital Equipment Company, scorned that revolution with the 1977 remark, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Years later, learning too late, the remnants of Digital disappeared into the scrap heap of companies and people who didn’t get it.

Companies like Google are investing in solar, wind and other renewables. Those technologies get incentives, to be sure, but so too nuclear, and Google isn’t touching investments in nuclear with a ten kilometer pole.

Nearly all of the investment community avoids nuclear investment like, well, radioactivity. Only governments or government regulated utilities and corporations are “investing” in nuclear power, leaving the risk to tax payers and rate payers. Meanwhile, renewable energy will continue to “cute” its way to energy mainstream of the U.S., and the world.

From the July 13-19, 2011 issue

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