Michael Liebreich of BNEF Argues Persuasively that Bill Gates’ Clean Energy “Miracle” Is Already Here

solar wind BNEF Michael Liebreich Bill GatesLast November, Bill Gates asserted: “we need innovation that gives us energy that’s cheaper than today’s hydrocarbon energy, that has zero CO2 emissions, and that’s as reliable as today’s overall energy system…we need an energy miracle.”

That comment by Gates was widely criticized. For instance, Jigar Shah wrote:

…Basic R&D, early commercialization, and deployment are all needed to reach our climate goals. But don’t believe for one second that we don’t already have the technology. We do. We can always use more and achieve better, but for once we have to stop satiating the public with future talk around R&D and prove that can do big things now. We have been training millions of people with the skills necessary to deploy at scale for over 40 years – time to put them to work.

Similarly, Joe Romm at Climate Progress argued:

Gates is more wrong now than he was in 2010. Why? Because in the last six years, we have seen that aggressive deployment of clean energy technology driven by government policies has — as was predicted — led to precisely the kind of game-changing cost-slashing innovation that Gates mistakenly thinks happens primarily from basic energy research and development (R&D).

And last week, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Chairman Michael Liebreich made his case that Gates’ “miracle” is already here. Liebreich cites several key data points in making his case.

  • Plummeting Costs for Wind and Solar: “Wind unsubsidized at 3¢ US per kilowatt hour. There is no other form of generating capacity that can produce power to build at 3¢ a kilowatt hour…[Solar] costs [have] come down by a factor of 150 since 1975. We’ve seen volume up by 115,000. How much more ‘miracally’ do you need your miracles to be?”
  • Clean Energy Scaling: “In terms of scale, solar have seen seven doublings in 15 years. And even wind, four doublings in 15 years. To be a miracle you need scale and there you see the rate at which those technologies are growing.”
  • Low-Cost Solar Lighting: “Now Bill Gates also showed, in his concern for the need for a miracle, this picture – a girl studying by the light of a candle. Well that technology…that is a solar lamp and it costs two dollars. The entire population of children studying by candlelight could be given those lamps for a cost of just over one billion dollars, or more to the point that families could, perhaps, buy them for two dollars each.”
  • Rooftop Solar: “We’ve done a lot of work on rooftop solar. 99 million households by 2020 will be using rooftop solar systems, not just tiny lanterns, but also larger ones. This trend gets underestimated persistently. The IEA forecasts for wind and solar over years have gone up and up and up…In the case of solar, fourteen-fold increase since the year 2000.”
  • Electric Cars: “Electricity is not the whole energy system. We need to talk about a few other areas where there are potential miracles. This one I call the miracle of Musk…Nearly two thirds of U.S. households have second cars. Tell me why they wouldn’t all, or almost, all go electric in the next decade?”
  • Batteries: “The price of batteries is coming down 77 percent by the time the gigafactories and other battery manufacturers scale up in 2018. And we project that out, experience curves, and you can see that cost parity with internal combustion cars will be between 2022 [and] 2026, depending on price of oil and so on.”
  • Smart Grid: “Now there will also be miracles, implications of the solar and the renewable energy shift and the electrification of vehicles nowhere more than in the grid. We have to have a grid to tie it all together. It’s not just a smart grid… in the future, new technologies that will be playing these roles of balancing long-term, medium-term, and short-term. We’re talking demand response, battery storage, thermal storage, chemical storage, power to gas.”

Put those all together, Liebreich argues, and they add up to the “miracle” Bill Gates says he’s looking for. And that, of course, doesn’t even take into account the enormous technological advances and price declines likely to take place in all the areas mentioned above. In sum, it’s a great time to be in the cleantech business right now — no future “miracles” required.