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What Bill Gates Should Know About Solar Energy

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View Peter Campbell's blog posts
17 May 2011, 10:52 AM
Gates thinks home solar installations are fad for the rich. Really?
Bill Gates at TED

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.

This message verifies the political climate in the USA. That it is best for (the USA) to buy your energy from some corporate utility instead of collecting what is freely distributed for anyone. There seem to be great resistance to helping distributed solar awareness from developing in the corporate world, whose main interest is leveraging profits and diminishing their tax liability. Our representatives need to be made aware that as wealth entities gain what they seek, corporate or private, they, perforce, leverage greater strata of the economic infrastructure and therefor are obligated to contribute a greater portion of that specie to the government that regulates and oversees them and all of us. It is beneficial for all that those who are so inclined be enabled to gather and convert solar energy for themselves and to share their excess with others, and to be compensated for that effort.

It takes a lot of conservation and consciousness to live with solar on an individual basis. But it can be afforded by the middle classes. What we can't afford is to wait for world leaders who don't believe that real change is a doable option.

Here in Maine, where nearly all domestic hot water is heated by oil fired boilers, we are installing hydronic solar systems to heat that domestic hot water for around $7,000 - 8,000 (after rebates and tax write-offs). With the amount of oil the systems save the homeowners annually, the systems pay themselves off in 3 to 7 years. Our customers are not 'the rich'. They are average families... middle America. And every gallon of oil not burned in someone's home boiler is a little more available for other needs.

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