Skip to Content
Climate change

Bill Gates says it’s time to redirect solar and wind subsidies. Is he right?

September 17, 2019
A wind farm.
A wind farm.
A wind farm.Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash.

It’s time to redirect government subsidies supporting solar and wind farms toward clean technologies that can’t yet compete on their own, according to Bill Gates. Does his idea make sense?

What did he actually say? The falling costs and rising share of solar and wind power are one of the few success stories to date in the battle against climate change, the Microsoft cofounder and clean -energy investor said during an interview with Bloomberg.

But Gates said costs aren’t likely to drop much further and other areas are in far greater need of support, including grid energy storage, offshore wind parks, and tools that could cut greenhouse-gas emissions in sectors other than electricity, such as agriculture, cement, and steel.

Why’s that? One of the highest hurdles for wider adoption of renewables isn’t the cost of the electricity they generate, but the fact that they can only produce it when the sun is shining or wind is blowing. Better, cheaper energy storage technologies could help address that limitation.

Gates’s clean-energy fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, has been investing tens of millions into startups working on this very problem, including Quidnet, Form Energy, and Malta. The firm also funded Boston Metal, an MIT spinout developing an emissions-free method of producing steel.

So ... is he right? Should we divert subsidies? In an ideal world, yes. The government applies them to help a technology reach a level of scale and maturity where they can compete in the market on their own.

And to the degree there’s a finite pool of subsidies available, they should be directed toward the tools we need the most and which require the most help.

But … There is an added wrinkle here. Renewables don’t just need to compete with natural gas or coal on a dollar-for-dollar basis, so that utilities pick them when they’re in the market for a new plant.

Given the dangers of climate change, solar and wind farms need to become so cheap it becomes economical to start shutting down fossil-fuel sources that would otherwise continue operating, and pumping out emissions, for decades into the future.

The slowdown in renewables growth last year certainly doesn’t suggest we’re anywhere near that point, even with government subsidies in place.

Deep Dive

Climate change

How Bitcoin mining devastated this New York town

Between rising electricity rates and soaring climate costs, cryptomining is taking its toll on communities.

The Green Future Index 2022

A ranking of 76 economies on their progress and commitment toward building a low-carbon future.

carbon neutral fuel concept
carbon neutral fuel concept

This $1.5 billion startup promised to deliver clean fuels as cheap as gas. Experts are deeply skeptical.

Prometheus Fuels has struck deals to deliver millions of gallons of carbon-neutral fuel. But it’s years behind schedule, and some doubt it can ever achieve its claims.

single stack of Polyjoule batteries on site
single stack of Polyjoule batteries on site

These plastic batteries could help store renewable energy on the grid

Startup PolyJoule wants to expand grid storage beyond lithium batteries.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.