Dear America: You're Doing 'Clean Energy' All Wrong

Worker installing solar panel on roof
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"The climate problem requires more than 90 percent reduction of CO2 emitted, and no amount of efficiency improvement is enough."

With those "optimistic" words, Bill Gates lit the fuse on the keg of dynamite that is America's green power lobby. Four years ago, the Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder-turned-save-the-world-activist crushed environmentalists' dreams of the world going "clean energy" to reverse the course of global warming. According to Gates, solar and wind power are nice technologies as far as they go -- but the idea that they could save the world?

Mr. Softy dismissed that idea as "cute," but quite simply unrealistic.

And he was right.

Green Energy Costs Too Much Green

As Gates explained it, the problem with green energy isn't that it doesn't work, but that it doesn't work fast enough. Whether you're talking about energy efficiency ("cash for caulkers") or improvements in the rate at which solar power plants and windmills convert sunlight and wind, respectively, to electricity -- pretty much any kind of green energy you name adds to the total energy supply of the world. But because the global population keeps increasing, new energy needs to outpace the rate of new green energy supplies. The United Nations estimates that global population will increase to somewhere between 7.5 billion and 9 billion by 2040. This necessitates building "dirty energy" sources -- plants powered by coal, for example -- to keep up with the rising power demands of a growing population.

Result: Despite adding megawatts of green energy every year, the world is still getting dirtier. In a recent report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that through 2040, global energy demand will increase by 56 percent, while the addition of dirty fuel sources will grow carbon dioxide emissions by 46 percent. In short, while green energy production will slow the growth of CO2 emissions, it can't stop -- much less reverse -- the trend.

Adding to the problem, despite marked reductions in the cost of solar power panels, for example, green energy continues to be one of the more expensive forms of energy available. Turning again to EIA reports, we find that most forms of solar- and wind-produced green energy cost more than the equivalent amount of megawatts generated by natural gas-fired power plants. In the best cases, these forms of green energy are anywhere from 21 percent to 367 percent more expensive. More pessimistic estimates put the disparity at as much as 20 times more expensive.

Tiny Atoms, Big Potential

Gates' solution: nuclear power. In 2010, Mr. Gates joined a group of investors putting $35 million into cutting-edge nuclear tech firm TerraPower, which he now chairs. TerraPower aims to develop a wholly new class of nuclear power generator that's 50 times more efficient than current-generation reactors, eliminates the need to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, and could be ready for deployment in less than 10 years. Reuters reports that the project will cost "billions," but the promise of 50-times improvement in efficiency suggests this could still be a bargain in comparison to current nuclear technology -- which the EIA says is already cheaper than offshore wind power, solar thermal, or solar photovoltaic.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-956%If TerraPower's promises bear fruit, then the 50-times improvement in efficiency alone -- 5,000% -- promises to race ahead of Earth's rate of population growth and head it off at the pass. Expanding the use of CO2 emission-less nuclear power would then have a fighting chance of providing the extra power we need without accelerating global warming -- and potentially even reversing it.

Now here's the problem: According to a March Gallup poll, Americans' support for nuclear energy recently hit a near-20-year low. According to Gallup, just 51 percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy in the U.S. today. That's down 11 percentage points from where nuclear energy support peaked five years ago. And if the trend continues, we could be headed back to the absolute nadir for nuclear energy these past 20 years, when support briefly sank to 46 percent (in 2001).

At the same time, Gallup notes that solar and wind power -- which cost up to twice as much as nuclear but get much better press -- are enjoying banner days among American voters. According to Gallup data, solar power and wind are, respectively, the two most popular forms of energy among American voters. Of those polled, 79 percent favor the U.S. putting more emphasis on developing solar power, and 70 percent favor more wind.

But the sad truth of the matter is that, if Bill Gates is right, and if the EIA is right... then 70 to 79 percent of the rest of us want to do "clean energy" all wrong.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith likes the idea of cheap, clean, 50-times-more efficient nuclear power. But like most Americans, he's not really thrilled at the idea of having a nuke plant planted in his backyard. (And that may be precisely our problem.) Rich does not own shares of any company named above. Nor does The Motley Fool.Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.