Bill Gates’ recent entry into the discussion about climate action and technology is welcome. Not only is Gates a very smart guy and one of the world’s leading philanthropists, but he also has at least the reputation of knowing what he is talking about when it comes to technology and innovation.
That being said, his opening moves in this discussion — his speech at the TED conference and a post on his blog — are not beyond criticism. Though by no means his intention, Gates is encouraging a peculiar type of 21st century passivity by government officials, investors, and activists that has a high probability of leading to climate inaction. The “more innovation” meme repeated by Gates has limits that need to be acknowledged.
Gates’ TED speech beautifully outlines the challenge facing us, but I believe it falls down when it comes to solutions and their timing. He seems to feel that energy technology will follow a different, “miraculous” path to commercial acceptance than almost every other new technology.
For Gates, the big deal is reducing the carbon intensity of energy to zero, and he seems to underestimate the value of energy efficiency, as David Roberts points out in these pages. In his TED talk, Gates quickly ran by wind, solar PV, and solar thermal electric, all renewable sources, citing the cost of energy storage and ancillary services. Gates is placing his bets with his friend and former employee/partner Nathan Myhrvold, who is trying to build a type of fast breeder nuclear reactor called a traveling-wave reactor (TWR). Gates is an investor in Intellectual Ventures and TerraPower, the developer of the TWR. Fast breeder reactors could theoretically run on the much more plentiful isotope of Uranium-238 as well as other heavy elements, including nuclear waste. Additionally they are supposed to be able to produce a nuclear waste of lower toxicity and shorter half-life. However, scientists, governments, and plant developers have been attempting to build and commercialize fast breeder reactors for more than 50 years and most estimates place their commercialization into the hazy and often receding 10-to-20-year timeframe.
The largest portion of Gates’ TED talk was devoted to the TWR even though he acknowledged in the question-and-answer period that it was not a foregone conclusion that the reactor could be commercialized within the 20-year period that he allotted for the invention of new energy technologies. For what it’s worth, I support efforts to build a cleaner reactor technology, especially one that could actually, rather than theoretically, clean up the nuclear waste that we have created.
Gates is free to support whatever technology he likes, but in his role as a philanthropist he has gained the reputation of being someone who tries to represent the best interests of humanity, not simply the parochial interests of post-software venture capital. Gates seems to believe that the still non-existent TWR technology will 20 years from now meet the “cheap” criteria that will be universally acceptable. He brands renewable energy as necessarily and always “not cheap” or not cheap enough.
Strangely, he overlooks or strategically omits how most technologies get cheaper in the first place: they enter the cost curve through deployment, they achieve economies of scale, new efficiencies are discovered, and the basis for further innovations is created. How did the internet, the microchip, and the cell phone get cheap? They were deployed either via government procurement or through early commercialization at higher prices to reward and incentivize innovation. In fact, Gates seems to have some kind of awareness of this when he is not hoping for miracles. As Joseph Romm points out in a recent post on this subject, Gates in a speech a couple years ago talked about how his software business benefited from the installed base of ever-faster personal computers.
Gates and others from the software world or its periphery seem to believe that in the field of clean energy, it will all be different: innovation and cheap will come simultaneously, perhaps through acts of brilliance by their friends or companies in which they hold shares. Maybe selling bits and bytes has given these leading technorati a false impression of how physical products like electric generators are manufactured and made more economical.
Miraculous or magical future “cheap” is stealing attention and consequently funding from technologies that could enter or continue down the cost curve now. Right now in the U.S., if we were not as fixated on paying always and only the lowest price for power today and distracted by the hope of technological “maybes” of the future, we could start pretty much tomorrow replacing the output of the dirtiest baseload coal power plants on a one-for-one basis for 20 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first generation of concentrating solar thermal power plants with 16 hours thermal energy storage. Based on estimates, within a decade this price would be 10 cents/kWh, if we were to enter the cost curve in the first place and not continue dreaming and dithering. No technological miracles are required.
Both of these wholesale power rates are more than existing, paid-for coal baseload generators receive (3 to 5 cents/kWh), but what is the cost of the Holocene climate that has been so good to us and our ancestors? If we also are pushing for green jobs and green economic stimulus, we are going to have to pay something via electric rates and/or taxes to make it happen. It can’t all be cheap.
Yet, why do we turn up our noses at the sure thing, that additionally has economic benefits at a time of need, and turn to the innovation casino in the name of a spectral, maybe-someday “cheap”?
I would suggest, in agreement with Gates and other innovation fans, that we spend the $10 billion per year on energy research, but more importantly, spend $100 billion or more on deploying existing technologies that cut emissions assuredly now or within a predictable timeframe. What do you do in the face of fast-approaching tipping points?
While they have generally good intentions, Gates, Myhrvold, the Breakthrough Institute crowd (as represented by Teryn Norris in these pages), and the Google guys are reinforcing a largely American tradition where innovation and technological optimism put off hard choices. “Invest in innovation and just wait for us to deliver the future to you,” they say. “You can’t have too much innovation.” The hope of “cheap and clean” contains the promise of instant gratification and an easy path to worldwide sustainable development.
Unfortunately this type of promise, issued by technologists, has the effect of freezing us in our chairs behind our computer screens as future consumers of technological brilliance. Furthermore and perhaps more devastatingly, it has the effect of freezing policymakers and our leaders into living in the eternal “maybe.” “Maybe tomorrow,” they think, “technology and innovation will release me from the hard choices I have to make today.”
Less fantastic and more real is to start building the zero-carbon future today, which may have the unpleasant effect for some of rupturing the bubble of miracles or utopian dreams. The hope for easy virtue distracts us from the push to put clean energy generators online when they are needed at a price that we as a society can easily afford.