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What Bill Gates Should Know About Solar Energy

Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a talk last month at TED on climate change. His overall point was dead on—we need big solutions for a big problem. And he's a man who is willing to back what he speaks about financially. But, it was interesting to see him dismiss the small steps in a somewhat cynical fashion, characterizing home installations of solar panels as an ineffectual fad for the rich. Gates said:

The solutions that work in the rich world don’t even come close to solving the [energy] problem. If you’re interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. If you’re interested in solving the world’s energy problems, it’s things like big [solar projects] in the desert.

There are numerous problems with this characterization of home solar customers and the impact they have on the climate. First, solar panels have dropped in cost dramatically, to the point where middle-class families can lease them and, under the right conditions (roof design and placement) pay less per month for the lease and tiny energy bill than they would for their former electricity costs alone. We've hit a point where the economics are compelling, even if you aren't on board with the carbon reduction goal. And, hey, my solar lease even came with a free iPad 2. There are plenty of incentives.

Secondly, the "cuteness" dig is pretty ironic, as the former president of IBM was rumored to have said of early graphical operating systems:

"Executives don't want to click a 'mouse,' they want to issue commands!"

PC's won out over the mainframes the same way that solar might ultimately win out over coal and nuclear: they were trendy at home, and the home users brought them to their businesses. Why wouldn't the Microsoft model work for solar?    

Of course, the climate crisis won't be solved by homeowners alone. Businesses need to be on board and the energy providers have to transition from the legacy power sources. But that doesn't mean that individual actions are worthless—far from it.

It's not just that every little bit counts. It's that winning the battle to embrace alternate power sources, like every battle, is about winning the hearts and minds of the people. And nobody should know that better than the man that took down the mainframes with his personal computers one house at a time.