Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates is also an investor and proponent of alternative energy. But despite Mr. Gates’ enthusiasm for next-generation nuclear power and the importance of fighting climate change, he’s skeptical that the world can dramatically cut greenhouse-gas emissions in less than 75 years.

“People underestimate how hard it is to make these changes,” Mr. Gates says, speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference. “They look at things that are deeply subsidized. They look at the richest areas and not low-income areas. I think it’s way harder than many people think.”

Mr. Gates, who is widely known for his philanthropy in health care and education, also has invested in a handful of alternative energy companies, including nuclear company TerraPower, which plans to use waste from conventional nuclear plants as fuel to generate electricity. Others include algae biofuel maker Sapphire Energy and Liquid Metal Battery Corp., which is developing a low-cost battery for storing electricity.

Nuclear power is among five or so “miracles” that Mr. Gates says are necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and other forms of energy to zero, as part of the global fight against climate change.

Mr. Gates predicts TerraPower will build a new nuclear reactor by 2022—if everything goes according to plan–though not in the U.S. because obtaining permits is too difficult. Nonetheless, Mr. Gates says he hopes to see TerraPower’s next-generation nuclear power plant scaled up and ready to be built widely by 2028, although several hurdles remain.

While solar and wind power may be promising technologies, their intermittence and inability to generate reliable, always-on electricity makes them not as valuable as nuclear power and overpriced in the current market, Mr. Gates said.

“We are addicted to super-reliable power,” Mr. Gates said.

He suggested that intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar power shouldn’t be eligible for government subsidies unless they’re matched with energy storage technology. Spending government money on wind power by itself, without also investing public money in energy storage and expanded transmission capacity to make the power more widely available, is “foolish,” Mr. Gates said.

Figuring out how to produce clean energy at a low cost would help boost the economies of the U.S. and other nations that can develop it, and is also important for the environment and helping the world’s poorest people, Mr. Gates said. “Cheap energy is like a fantastic vaccine.”

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