This is Cute

Bill Gates’ straight talk on solar subsidies was refreshing and spot on. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal and from an interview in Wired magazine.

[Chris] Anderson: When you look at the big picture [for the future of energy], where should we be focusing besides nuclear? On massive solar plants in the desert? On middle-size stuff for office roofs? Or is there a reinvention that could be done right in the home?

Gates: If you’re going for cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. It’s really kind of cool to have solar panels on your roof. But if you’re really interested in the energy problem, it’s those big things in the desert. . . .

I think people deeply underestimate what a huge problem this day-night issue is if you’re trying to design an energy system involving solar technology that’s more than just a hobby. You know, the sun shines during the day, and people turn their air conditioners on during the day, so you can catch some of that peaking load, particularly if you get enough subsidies. It’s cute, you know, it’s nice. But the economics are so, so far from making sense. And yet that’s where subsidies are going now. We’re putting 90 percent of the subsidies in deployment—this is true in Europe and the United States—not in R&D. And so unfortunately you get technologies that, no matter how much of them you buy, there’s no path to being economical. You need fundamental breakthroughs, which come more out of basic research. . . .

Anderson: So suffice to say we will find no solar cells on the roof of the Gates residence?

Gates: Oh, we like to be cute like everyone. For rich people, this is OK. Rich people can do whatever they want.