Innovation or Insulation. Or both??

 Bill Gates recently wrote an article on his personal website that has created an uproar in the building energy efficiency community.

Gates proposes that to reach an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions below 1990 levels by 2050 (the generally accepted IPCC target), we must "reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to zero," which will require "innovation" and "entirely new approaches to generating power." So far, so good. Mr. Gates then asks a rather misleading and problematic question: 

Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation? 

This is where things get tricky. He argues that working towards such "modest reduction efforts" only diverts resources needed for clean energy technology R&D and distracts policymakers and the general public from the goal of zero net energy. 

The building energy efficiency community has reached strongly against this viewpoint, arguing, essentially, that it's not a question of either/or, but of doing both. 

So, what do you think?


We need both

Eric Plunkett's picture

Considering his background and current work, it is not surprising that Bill Gates supports increased investment in R&D for clean energy technology, and it would be hard to argue against this viewpoint. The problem with Gates’ article is that he insinuates that current efforts to reduce energy use through efficiency and conservation are having a harmful effect on meeting long-term CO2 emissions reduction goals.

This is simply untrue, and the reason is basic economics: Achieving a sustainable energy future is not a zero-sum game. Energy efficiency and conservation are one half of the equation, and renewable energy is the other.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2009 report, worldwide investment in sustainable energy was four times greater in 2008 than in 2004. This number is all the more impressive when you consider the global economic downturn. Given this trend, the UNEP is cautiously optimistic that investment will continue to grow.

If this is the case, supporting energy efficiency and conservation will not hurt investments in clean energy technology, particularly because they have different timeframes. While we advance R&D for clean technologies for the future, we can reduce energy use through efficiency and begin changing behavioral patterns. In fact, our experiences advancing energy efficiency and conservation will inform our clean energy R&D and policy decisions down the road by bringing these issues into the public consciousness and helping to lay the groundwork for larger societal changes in the future.

Mr. Gates’ opening line suggests that he understands the need for both: “Conservation and behavior change alone will not get us to the dramatically lower levels of CO2 emissions needed to make a real difference. We also need to focus on developing innovative technologies that produce energy without generating any CO2 emissions at all.” Then why the incendiary article denouncing “insulation” (i.e. energy efficiency and conservation) as unnecessary and even detrimental? He could just as easily promote clean tech R&D without attacking other equally valid and critical approaches.

He also seems to discount all of the benefits of energy efficiency except GHG reductions. What about saving consumers and businesses money, stimulating the economy, creating green jobs, reducing pollution, and improving the health and safety of buildings? Ramping up clean tech R&D will do some of that, but it’s years away from having the type of far-reaching impact that energy efficiency already has.

Finally, this line stood out to me: “One of the reasons I bring this up is that I hear a lot of climate change experts…talk about how great it is that there is so much low hanging fruit that will make a difference.”

Absolutely, but you still have to pick the low-hanging fruit for it to make any difference. Ignoring it because you’ll eventually need new technology to reach the fruit at the top is a waste of existing resources. Take advantage of the opportunities available to you now while you prepare for those that will become available in the future through technological advancement.

Eric Plunkett - January 21, 2010 4:59pm


aleisha.khan's picture

My thought, in finally reading this article after reading numerous comments on it from our many friends in the area of building efficiency, is that Mr. Gates is expressing frustration at the lack of a goal - there is no "end game" in what he is seeing. I would argue that this is not the case. In efficiency and codes, there is a clear goal toward "net zero energy" use in buildings. So all of the small steps we take are not accomplished under the illusion that they will solve all the problems of climate change. They are a means to an end.

Particularly in the sector of design and construction, it is those steps that are important to move the market and change practices. One could not show up one day with a 'magic fix' and expect the General Contractor on a building project to know what you were talking about or how to change what he's doing. Or, for that matter, care. Small steps are about education and changing society and how we think, not just about squeezing out another kWh of savings. They are about encouraging innovation and encouraging people to think about what else they can do -- to ultimately get at that big idea. The person who makes that break though Gates is looking for in the future, may be learning right now in school why it's important to turn off the lights.

aleisha.khan (not verified) - January 22, 2010 9:39am

Al Gore's response to Gates'

maria leonardi's picture

Al Gore's response to Gates' article in the Huffington Post:

I don't think Gates is suggesting we ignore the insulation efforts or the 'low hanging fruit,' but to not lose site of the long term goals that innovation can help us achieve. The current R&D funding is hard to access especially with application processes being far from user friendly and the response time being much too long for companies, especially start ups. I think we are seeing Gates' frustrations in the current investment market and R&D industries vented a bit here. What he misses is that we need the small steps to help people understand the importance of innovation in this area. Without this understanding there will not be enough investment in new technologies to promote the level of innovation that can mitigate climate change in the long term.

maria leonardi - January 29, 2010 5:42pm

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