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!)
“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”- Clark Williams-DerryClark I do not think what you said is correct. What Bill said is that we need to invest in technologies that have the greatest ability to reach zero CO2 emissions at half the cost of today’s energy.He eloquently pointed out where he thought the research dollars should go and where they shouldn’t go when he mentioned two points. The first point was when he said that “one molecule of nuclear fuel is equal to one million molecules of coal” Though I am not a nuclear engineer I am however fairly certain he is referring the usage of fuel in a breeder reactor that use fuels sources 80 times more efficiently than today’s light water reactors. The second point is in fact a combination of points that show where he thinks energy research money should not go. There were three points that he made against renewable energy that illustrate why he does not think renewable energy can reach the goal zero CO2 emissions at half the cost of today’s energy. The first was that there are physical properties that make renewable energy to expensive due to the amount of land that they would encompass. Second he pointed out that renewable energies are intermittent. He said they need a “miracle” in batteries in order to provide a constant source of power. The final swipe that he made against renewable energy was indirect but came near the end of his presentation. This final swipe was when he said that every one in this room could afford to pay 5 times more money for their power and still be okay. However this increased cost would cause great harm for the poorest 2 billion people who also inhabit our planet. So in fact Gates’ passion is for nuclear research. In particular his passion is for the development of fast breeder reactors. All I have to say to Bill is welcome to the revolution my friend. I hope you brought a pair of high waders to deal with the endless torrent of B$ that spews from the anti nuclear activists pie holes. Viva the Nuclear Renaissance, Jfarmer9
I suppose a TED talk is a bit like a Rorschach test—I see a call for research into a hundred (or more) ideas, you see a clear endorsement of nuclear. That probably says as much about us, and our respective world views, as about the talk itself.I will add that the “miracle” in energy storage is, in the short term at least, simply deployment of well-understood existing technologies. In the Northwest, hydropower dams make a wonderful battery. Pumped storage, compressed air storage, and the like have remarkably high storage efficiencies. These sorts of things are order of magnitude less technologically complicated than a new nuclear design. That doesn’t mean that they’re THE answer; but it does make me wonder why one particular exotic technology gets all the attention, when a range of proven solutions are so underutilized.
It’s not a Rorschach test. It is black and white. To save the planet from unknown consequences and to help the poorest 2 billion people of this world Bill Gates said in his presentation that he believes you need to develop power sources that can achieve zero CO2 emissions while providing power at half the cost of today’s energy. There are power sources that have the ability to do this like generation IV and V nuclear power plants and those that can’t like wind and solar. You should read Tom Blees book “Prescription for the Planet.” You will find it very similar to Bill Gates presentation. I suppose that the science of what is possible is what dictated their similarities. The difference is Tom Blees suggest moving forward with Integral Fast Reactor based on the on a reactor that we have already successfully built at Idaho National Laboratories called EBR II. Main difference that I can see between EBR II reactor and TeraPower’s reactor is TeraPower core containment has the ability to last 60 years before having to be breached. This new ability of containment is a giant leap in As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) principles for personnel working at one of these new reactors. It is also is a giant leap forward in addressing proliferation issues. Bill Gates has done his homework and is financially backing the product that he thinks has the most likely ability to meet zero carbon emissions and can be commercially produced at half the cost of today’s energy. On the other hand I would not count out the EBR-II design which GE holds patent on called SPRISM. It is important to note that as Bill hinted at in his presentation we would have already developed some of these generation IV reactors if it were not for the anti nuclear activists opposition of these technologies. So I guess my question to you Clark is this time around what side of history do you want to be part of the doable or the side of impossible wants? My suggestion for you is to be realist and not an anti nuclear planet killer.Jfarmer9
Bill Gates has been doing his homework and we should thank him for the concise presentation. It is helpful to see a industrialist reductionist perspective on this problem. No doubt Bill understands more than he spoke about, namely that the laws of thermodynamics are stacked against us. The Laws will tend to accelerate climate change – and this has always been the paleo-climatic script (refer James Hansen). Thus any and all physical activities that we humans participate (with good or with bad intentions) will probably result in increased planetary entropy and will likely therefore fail. Humans are tribal animals and we don’t appear to have the collective intelligence to manage a large industrial civilization (numbering in the billions) and we certainly cannot manage Gia as we are but a small product of her changing metabolism. The evidence indicates that appropriate action would be to very quickly accept significant reductions in living standards, cooperate globally, reduce consumerism, regulate capitalism, and suspend democracy. These changes go against the grain of our DNA, thermodynamics, and the philosophy of most corporations, governments and institutions. So the new hotter climate may force an evolutionary culling leaving only some surviving species to the next glacial period in ~100,000 years or so…however a somewhat inconvenient problem in this planetary extinction will be the use of exotic weaponry in regional resource wars (over the next 100 years). Good luck to us all.