The Miracle Seeker
Bill Gates is investing millions to halt global warming by creating an inexhaustible supply of carbon-free energy
by Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone Magazine, October 28, 2010
Well, energy would be superinteresting and important even if it wasn't for the terrible climate problem. The thing that really changed in civilization — only about 250 years ago — was an intense use of energy. It changed everything: transportation and food and appliances and communication. Today, we're very dependent on cheap energy. We just take it for granted — all the things you have in the house, the way industry works. I'm interested in making sure the poorest countries don't get left behind, so figuring out how they can get cheap energy is very, very important. Whether it's fertilizing crops or building housing, a lot of it comes down to energy.
It's the poorer people in tropical zones who will get really hit by climate change — as well as some ecosystems, which nobody wants to see disappear. This is a global thing, and it's really hard for people to get their minds around the amount of reduction required. Every year we're increasing the amount of CO2 we put out, and yet we're talking about an 80 percent reduction. To make that happen, the rich world is going to have to be way down — way down — in energy use.
To have the kind of reliable energy we expect, and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon, we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough. I certainly don't want the government to only pick a few paths, because our probability of success is much higher if we're pursuing many, many paths. Think about all the people who are getting up every day and working on solutions that may seem kind of delusional even though the odds against them are higher than they realize. The world needs all these people trying things out and believing in them. In IT, there were tons of dead ends — but there was enough of a success rate to have an unbelievable impact.
You can certainly limit things by their potential scale. There are a few places on the planet that can produce tidal energy, for example, but that alone won't ever be gigantic. Geothermal, because of the formations and the amount of heat that comes through, is also going to be pretty minor. So what you're left with is: Can you make fossil fuels carbon-free? That's important to pursue but very hard to achieve.
America's Power [a coal-industry PR group] has these ads recently where they're talking about "clean coal." But there are a number of steps required to do that, and they aren't really being done. For instance: The government has got to take responsibility for the long-term waste. They messed up on nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and the long-term waste from clean coal would be a billion times larger. The issue of "where to put the waste" is the hardest because of the consensus that's required.
The nuclear approach I'm involved in is called a traveling-wave reactor, which uses waste uranium for fuel. There's a lot of things that have to go right for that dream to come true — many decades of building demo plants, proving the economics are right. But if it does, you could have cheaper energy with no CO2 emissions. You'll still have issues with safety, proliferation, cost and fuel availability. But part of the beauty of the nuclear path, compared to all the energy-farming approaches, is you don't have a problem with location and storage.
Wind, solar, anything where you're just collecting the natural flux. The trouble with energy farming is that the energy isn't always where you want to use it, and it isn't always when you want to use it. So you have a tough transmission problem, which is often across political boundaries, and you have a tough storage problem — "tough" as in "may not be able to invent the solution."
People are at so many different places on this problem, it's hard to get a dialogue going. There are people who don't even know there's something important here at all — people who think, "Geez, is this real?" That's unfortunate. The fact that we're still arguing over "Is it real, yes or no?" has kind of clouded the debate. The real issue is, "Wait a minute — how soon and how big are these effects, and what does mitigation look like?"
In order for the United States to do the right things for the long term, it appears to be helpful for us to have the prospect of humiliation. Sputnik helped us fund good science — really good science, the semiconductor came out of it. And in the 1980s, we were driven by state-sanctioned racism — the idea that Japan was going to take over everything. But look at consumer electronics today — it's Xbox, iPhone. Sometimes you overestimate your rival, and that can actually help.
The first is a pretty dramatic increase in research and development — about $10 billion a year extra. The U.S. government has an annual budget of $3.5 trillion, so that's not a lot of money percentage-wise. To pay for it, you could tax energy usage at a very modest level, between one and two percent. That would make it budget-neutral.
The politics are hard. Anybody who thinks that once upon a time you just called up George Washington and he solved a messy problem like this — it's never happened that way.
I don't think I'd give them any different grade than they'd give themselves. They wanted to get additional R&D money, and they wanted to get some type of price signal in on carbon, and they haven't succeeded in doing it yet, so I think they'd give themselves an incomplete and I'd give them an incomplete. It may stay that way. Should they be trying harder? They have a lot of things going on.
Climate change is a terrible problem, and it absolutely needs to be solved. It deserves to be a huge priority. But when you think of kids, you think of more immediate things like, "Will terrorists blow up a nuclear bomb?" When you start thinking about kids, I hope they fasten their seat belts. There's a lot to worry about.