In his recent TED Talk, Microsoft founder Bill Gates focused on global energy policy. He clearly takes the risks of global climate change seriously, and nicely summarizes the state of the science—namely, that the majority of professional climate scientists sincerely believe that humans are changing the climate, and that climate disruption could bring new troubles to the world’s poor.
If we’re going to reduce the risks of climate disruption, Gates argues, we need a major research initiative to look for an energy “miracle”—a game-changer that advances energy technology radically as the silicon chip advanced computing. If you’ve got the time, the talk is worth watching:
Almost as an aside, Gates mentioned that he’s funded research into a particular nuclear reactor design. And for some reason, we’ve gotten a couple of follow-up press calls focusing not on the guts of his talk, but on the aside: what do we think about Gates’s endorsement of nuclear power?
That’s exactly the wrong question.
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If you watch the whole interview, what’s really driving Gates isn’t a passion for nuclear power—it’s a passion for energy research. He believes that that society should ramp up research in all sorts of energy technologies—carbon sequestration, energy storage, solar, nuclear, you name it—in search of that game changer that scales globally and radically reduces climate-warming emissions. He recognizes that most of that research will lead nowhere—perhaps including his own current project. But if just one idea pans out, it will change the world.
In essence, Gates is arguing that the public and policy-makers should stop focusing on particular favored technologies—the flavor of the month, as it were —and instead work to boost funding across the board, for energy research of all types.
But, ironically, the only significant reaction I’m hearing about Gates’ talk is the the buzz about his modest bet on a certain type of nuclear reactor.
To me, a narrow focus on what Bill Gates happens to be doing right now plays right into a major obstacle to sustained funding for clean energy research: the tendency for the public to lurch from fad to fad. Time and again, the press and public have become infatuated new technologies that sound great on paper, but face huge hurdles in practice. Think about the hype over hydrogen; or over fusion, both cold and hot; or biofuels; or even, to a lesser extent, pebble-bed nuclear reactors or “clean” coal. Each has suffered from a boom of unrealistic expectations and a bust of disappointment. And I’d argue that this “hype cycle” creates an emotional whiplash that suppresses the public’s long-term enthusiasm for clean energy research.
Hype springs eternal—it’s like a renewable resource—but it’s certainly no guarantee of success. So I wish folks would stop feeding the hype bubble, and take Gates’ words to heart when he calls for funding a hundred clean energy ideas in hopes of finding the one that might truly work.
(Note: In case you’re curious, I’m completely agnostic about the traveling wave reactor. There’s no way to decide whether the technology is safe or cost effective because…it doesn’t exist! It’s just an idea! Personally, I’m much more excited about the many clean energy technologies that are already in use, ready to be scaled up. But my opinion about which energy technology holds the most promise doesn’t matter. What really matters is that we sustain our enthusiasm for energy research overall!)