Advertisement

Bill Gates And Exxon Now Share The Same Climate Policy. They’re Wrong.

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

There was some bad news for billionaire Bill Gates at Exxon’s shareholder meeting Wednesday. Exxon chairman, president, and CEO Rex Tillerson said of Gates, “there’s no space between he and I” on what the world needs to do about climate change. “We’ve gotta have some technology breakthroughs but until we achieve those, just saying turn the taps off is not acceptable to humanity.”

Memo to Gates: It just might be time to rethink your position when the biggest corporate climate villain on planet Earth embraces your climate policy. And it might be time to rethink your message when the head of the company that has funded disinformation about climate science and solutions longer than any other says he has “had this conversation” with you and you are in total agreement.

Of course, Tillerson is not telling the truth when he says people who want strong climate action now are “just saying turn the taps off.” They are saying we need to turn the taps down in an orderly fashion over the next several decades — or risk multiple catastrophic climate impacts from Dust-Bowlification to sea level rise lasting centuries.

But Tillerson’s framing is just the illogical extension of Gates’ own argument that “the focus on ramping up deployment of [today’s] technologies diverts attention from the critical need to greatly intensify spending on basic research and large-scale development of new energy technologies.”

Advertisement

Both Gates and Tillerson are engaging in dangerous straw men. We don’t have to choose between clean energy R&D; and deployment, between ramping up research funding and ramping down fossil fuel use. We can do both, and indeed we must.

We Can Stop Searching For The Clean Energy Miracle. It’s Already Here.

But deployment just happens to be vastly more important. As climate expert Ken Caldeira explained four years ago, “Globally, deployment costs will be in the trillions of dollars, while R&D; costs might be in the tens of billions.” Caldeira, who helps run Gates’ Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research argued in 2012:

If we had to choose one or the other, drivers to deployment or publicly funded R&D;, I would pick drivers to deployment. However, we don’t need to make this either or, and we can do both.

Gates’ pro-miracle, anti-deployment argument was debunked at length by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Chairman Michael Liebreich in his keynote address at BNEF’s annual conference in April — pointedly titled “In Search of the Miraculous” (which I discussed here). I also directly debunked Gates back in February.

Advertisement

Liebreich’s point was that what sustained long-term deployment programs have done for key clean technologies like solar and wind and batteries was already a “miracle.” He summed up the solar miracle in one chart, noting, “We’ve seen the costs come down by a factor of 150 since 1975. We’ve seen volume up by 115,000.”

Solar’s exponentially declining costs and exponentially rising installations (the y-axis is a logarithmic scale).
Solar’s exponentially declining costs and exponentially rising installations (the y-axis is a logarithmic scale).

“How much more miracle-y do you need your miracles to be,” Liebreich added.

But Gates, in arguing for his “Breakthrough Energy Coalition” — the $2 billion effort he is spearheading to research and develop breakthrough “energy miracles” — has taken to dissing not just existing technology, but also the critical government deployment policies needed to avoid catastrophic climate change, including a price on carbon for the United States.

Consider what Gates said earlier this year:

Gates is concerned that today’s technologies will not solve the “reality gap” in the Paris agreements. Worse, the focus on ramping up deployment of those technologies diverts attention from the critical need to greatly intensify spending on basic research and large-scale development of new energy technologies. That is the only way to create the breakthroughs required to cut emissions of greenhouse gases to near zero later in the century — or suck the gas out of the atmosphere at gigatons-a-year scale if emissions efforts falter.

Gates’ argument is exactly backwards. If anything, it is his public attacks on deployment programs and his debunked claims we need an energy miracle that threaten to divert attention from the far more essential policies need to further speed the clean energy deployment “miracle.”

Why Aggressive Deployment Of Clean Energy Now Is The Sine Qua Non Of Climate Policy

Studies by the International Energy Agency, M.I.T., and others make clear why aggressive deployment is the sine qua non of climate policy. Indeed, the International Energy Agency wrote a whole report back in the year 2000 explaining this very point in great detail, titled, “Experience Curves for Energy Technology Policy.”

The IEA report concluded:

A general message to policy makers comes from the basic philosophy of the experience curve. Learning requires continuous action, and future opportunities are therefore strongly coupled to present activities. If we want cost-efficient, CO2-mitigation technologies available during the first decades of the new century, these technologies must be given the opportunity to learn in the current marketplace. Deferring decisions on deployment will risk lock-out of these technologies, i.e., lack of opportunities to learn will foreclose these options making them unavailable to the energy system.

It isn’t R&D; into breakthrough miracles that is essential to maximizing our options for responding to climate change, it is rapid deployment right now that matters most.

Advertisement

Liebreich makes the same point — the rapid expansion of global deployment programs (what he calls “The March of the Price Signal”) has led to astounding sustained price drops characteristic of experience or learning curves:

Nonetheless, Gates asserted earlier this year, “A little bit of the trap people get into is they think, okay if we’re meeting some 2030 goal, we must be on the way, because we just do more of what we did.” He add, “So you thought, oh what a great thing we just did. But in fact it doesn’t scale to the sort of near-zero that we need to achieve.”

Again, his argument is exactly backwards. It is aggressive deployment programs that make technologies like solar and wind and batteries and LED lights achieve steadily improved price and performance that allows them to keep scaling.

Existing Solar Technology Has A Tremendous Potential To Scale

Significantly, a major 2015 interdisciplinary study led by the MIT Energy Initiative on “The Future of Solar Energy,” came to the exact opposite conclusion as Gates. The study noted that “today’s leading solar PV technology, wafer-based crystalline silicon (c-Si), is technologically mature and large-scale-Si module manufacturing capacity is in place.” The study concluded that “for these reasons” (emphasis in original):

c-Si systems likely will dominate the solar energy market for the next few decades and perhaps beyond. Moreover, if the industry can substantially reduce its reliance on silver for electrical contacts, material inputs for c-Si PV generation are available in sufficient quantity to support expansion to terawatt scale.

A terawatt is 1,000,000 megawatts or 1,000 gigawatts. The world’s largest solar photovoltaic power station is currently the 579-megawatt Solar Star system in California.

So, with continuing improvements in price and performance driven by deployment programs, the world’s leading PV technology can scale to staggering levels. Or we can scale those back so as not to interfere with our search for the Holy Grail.

The study noted, “Particularly in the absence of a charge on CO2 emissions, now is the wrong time to drastically reduce federal financial support for solar technology deployment.”

And yes, the nation and the world can steadily increase the fraction of energy supplied by renewables using the technology we have today and that which is entering the market now — as I explained here and here.

The 2000 IEA report pointed out presciently:

The experience curve shows the investment necessary to make a technology, such as PV, competitive, but it does not forecast when the technology will break-even. The time of break-even depends on deployment rates, which the decision-maker can influence through policy. With historical annual growth rates of 15%, photovoltaic modules will reach break-even point around the year 2025. Doubling the rate of growth will move the break-even point 10 years ahead to 2015.

In fact, the rate of deployment did pick up substantially — thanks to very aggressive deployment programs in countries like Germany and China — and that was able to move up the break-even point by many years. We’re already seeing unsubsidized solar power starting to beat coal and natural gas in more and more locations around the world.

“For major technologies such as photovoltaics, wind power, biomass, or heat pumps, resources provided through the market dominate the learning investments,” according to the IEA. “Government deployment programmes may still be needed to stimulate these investments.”

Certainly government R&D;, and especially first-of-a-kind demonstration programs, are critical before the technology can be introduced to the marketplace. But, as the IEA explains, we “expect learning investments to become the dominant resource for later stages in technology development, where the objectives are to overcome cost barriers and make the technology commercial.”

We are in a race to get technologies into the learning curve phase: “The experience effect leads to a competition between technologies to take advantage of opportunities for learning provided by the market. To exploit the opportunity, the emerging and still too expensive technology also has to compete for learning investments.”

In short, you need to get from first demonstration to commercial introduction as quickly as possible to be able to then take advantage of the learning curve before your competition does. Again, that’s why if you want mass deployment of the technology by 2050, we are mostly stuck with the technologies we have today in the market or what is just emerging from the technology pipeline now. Some breakthrough miracle in the year 2025 will find it virtually impossible to compete with technologies like solar or wind that have had decades of such learning.

The IEA report concluded:

The low-cost path to CO2-stabilisation requires large investments in technology learning over the next decades. The learning investments are provided through market deployment…. Governments can use several policy instruments to ensure that market actors make the large-scale learning investments in environment-friendly technologies. Measures to encourage niche markets for new technologies are one of the most efficient ways for governments to provide learning opportunities. The learning investments are recovered as the new technologies mature, illustrating the long-range financing component of cost-efficient policies to reduce CO2 emissions. The time horizon for learning stretches over several decades, which require long-term, stable policies for energy technology.

Tillerson And Exxon Versus Science

Tillerson told shareholders, “We can set the science apart from what we as a society are going to choose to pursue as a matter of policy…. There’s no space between us and IPCC. We see the science the same way.”

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson answers questions at a 2014 shareholders meeting. CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson answers questions at a 2014 shareholders meeting. CREDIT: AP Photo/LM Otero

That is utter nonsense. In 2013, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment of the scientific literature warned that on our current emissions path we faced, “9°F Warming For U.S., Faster Sea Rise, More Extreme Weather, Permafrost Collapse.” Then in March 2014, the IPCC warned the “World Faces ‘Breakdown Of Food Systems’ And More Violent Conflict.”

Then in April 2014, the IPCC explained the science was very clear that “Avoiding Climate Catastrophe Is Super Cheap — But Only If We Act Now.” Finally, in November 2014, the world’s top scientists and governments issued their bluntest plea: Slash carbon pollution now (at a very low cost) or risk “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” Scientists have “high confidence” these devastating impacts occur “even with adaptation” — if we keep doing little or nothing.

So Tillerson says “There’s no space between us and IPCC” — and that is clearly B.S. The IPCC pleas for aggressively replacing fossil fuels with carbon free energy starting now while Tillerson wants to do little but search for breakthrough miracles. Moreover, Exxon continues to fund groups who discredit this information about the IPCC, the science, and the solutions — years after saying they would stop.

Tillerson also said “There’s no space between” he and Gates. So, Bill, is that really true?