Bill Gates Says High-Voltage Power Lines Will Save America. He's Right.
Bill Gates is advocating for building more high-voltage power lines.
It’s the best way to support a 40 to 60 percent increase in electricity demand, he says.
Building transmission lines, however, is easier said than done.
Building a green energy future isn’t as simple as plopping down wind and solar farms (though that is certainly a start). You also need batteries to store that energy, especially when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, and transmission lines to get that energy from point A to point B.
Advancements in those first two categories are progressing nicely. Wind and solar projects continue to rapidly replace dirty energy sources, and many companies are developing storage systems, whether gravity or iron-air batteries, to make sure that energy is ready and available. But transmission lines continue to be a looming issue, and it’s a problem one of the richest men in the world wants to solve.
Microsoft co-founder and former CEO Bill Gates has his hands in nearly all aspects of the green energy future. He’s actively developing nuclear reactors to replace CO2-spewing coal-fired power plants and he’s investing in next-gen energy storage solutions—now he’s turning his gaze to the problem of transmission lines. After all, you can generate and store all the energy you want. But if you have no way to transmit it to people’s homes or businesses, then it doesn’t do much good.
“Since the beginning of the electric grid, power companies have placed most power plants close to cities,” Gates writes on his blog called GatesNotes. “That model doesn’t work with solar and wind, because many of the best places to generate lots of electricity are far away from urban centers.”
Gates goes one to explain that if the U.S. wants to reach its net-zero carbon emissions goal in 2050, the country is going to need an upgraded energy grid that can handle the estimated 40 to 60 percent increase in electricity demand because of the proliferation of electric vehicles, electric stoves, and other electric-powered appliances and infrastructure. This means building more high-voltage power lines, especially where the wind blows (the midwest) and the sun shines (the southwest), and making them longer as well so they can reach dense population centers.
Gates isn’t the first person to realize America’s dire situation when it comes to transmission lines. By one estimate, the U.S. needs to triple its current transmission capacity if it hopes to be carbon neutral in 30 years.
Gates notes in his blog that transmission infrastructure is largely a policy problem (planning, paying, and permitting) and that innovation has its place, whether designing dynamic line ratings or power flow controls.
However, building transmission lines is an absolute minefield of challenges that has stifled its expansion for decades. In 2021, researchers analyzed the strong opposition to transmission line infrastructure and discovered it was a diverse mix of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) resistance, safety concerns, and also confrontation with “wilderness preservation, alternative land use, strong property rights sentiment, and treaty rights for Indigenous … territories.”
Gates doesn’t outline exactly how he’ll help tackle this transmission line shortfall (though his organization Breakthrough Energy has funded efforts to update the power grid), but it’s clear he’s gearing up for the fight:
“Climate change is the hardest problem humanity has ever faced, but I believe we have the human ingenuity to solve it. And if you care about climate change, you should care about transmission.”
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