Jun 20, 2012
Gates on Energy
What will it take to deliver affordable energy while drastically slashing carbon emissions? Bill Gates has a prescription: political courage, innovation and a lot more funding.
The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray discussed these issues with the entrepreneur and philanthropist. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Getting to Zero
MR. MURRAY: The Gates Foundation is focused on health, development, education. It's not focused on energy. Why are we here?
MR. GATES: If you want to improve the situation of the poorest two billion on the planet, having the price of energy go down substantially would be the best thing you could do for them. That, along with the carbon constraint, is hugely important, partly because global warming makes tropical agriculture virtually impossible.
MR. MURRAY: You've said we have to not just slow the growth of carbon emissions, but get to zero. Why?
MR. GATES: You'll never get to zero. But if you want there not to be increased warming every year, you have to get to extremely low numbers.
MR. MURRAY: How long will it take until only 50% of our global energy needs, as opposed to 80% today, are met by fossil fuels?
MR. GATES: People underestimate how hard it is to make these changes. They look at intermittent energy sources, they don't think about storage and transmission. They look at things that are deeply subsidized and forget they're deeply subsidized. They look just at the rich world, and they don't look at where all the energy increase is taking place, middle- and low-income areas.
If we fund basic research at a reasonable level, which the U.S. and other countries do not, if we encourage experimentation, if we do the right things, there is a chance to meet very aggressive goals in a 75-year time.
MR. MURRAY: You've said there are five miracles that we need to make this happen.
MR. GATES: We don't need five. We need one of the five.
Let's take carbon capture. If supplies of natural gas continue to expand and drilling technology keeps getting better, all you need to do is put carbon capture on that and be willing to pay for it. You can imagine a future where you're using a lot of natural gas and you're able to do extremely good capture, like 95%. That miracle alone would get you a long ways, because the planet has a lot of coal and a lot of natural gas.
The next miracle is nuclear energy. The plants that are out in the world today are basically generation-one and -two plants. There's a few generation-three plants. The thing I'm investing in is a fourth-generation design.
MR. MURRAY: Can you explain a little bit about how this technology works?
MR. GATES: The part of uranium that's fissile—when you hit it with a neutron, it splits in two—is about 0.7%. The reactors we have today are burning that 0.7%. There was a concept that you would do a different type of reactor that would make a bunch of another element called plutonium, and then you would pull that out and then you would burn that. That's called breeding in a fast reactor. But plutonium is nuclear-weapons material, it's messy, and the processing you have to get through is not only environmentally difficult, it's extremely expensive.
The concept of the TerraPower reactor is that in the same reactor, you both burn and breed. Instead of making plutonium and then extracting it, we take uranium—the 99.3% that you normally don't do anything with—we convert that and we burn it. The 99.3% is cheap as heck, and there's a pile of it sitting in Paducah, Kentucky, that's enough to power the United States for hundreds and hundreds of years.
MR. MURRAY: What's the timetable for this?
MR. GATES: By 2022, if everything goes perfectly, our demo reactor will be in place. And by 2028, assuming everything continues to go perfectly, it will be a design that could be replicated.
MR. MURRAY: How often does everything go perfectly?
MR. GATES: In nuclear? If you ignore 1979 and 1986 and 2011, we've had a good century. No, seriously. Nuclear energy, in terms of an overall safety record, is better than other energy.
In Search of Storage
MR. MURRAY: You've got three miracles to go.
MR. GATES: You can have a miracle having to do with the rest of these energy sources, whether it's sun, wind or biofuel. The amount of land involved, the place that you can do it suitably and—in the case of wind and sun—the intermittency create a huge problem. All of them require storage and transmission.
MR. MURRAY: Do you put probabilities on these miracles?
MR. GATES: It's pretty hard. I think for society's sake, we need to fund basic energy research at least twice as much as we do right now. And for some of these things, you have to put on a serious carbon tax.
MR. MURRAY: What are the odds of that happening in the next couple of years?
MR. GATES: It depends on the I.Q. of the U.S. public.
MR. MURRAY: And your current assessment of that?
MR. GATES: Anytime you really look close at politics, it has looked pretty ugly. Yet the U.S. has managed to do the right thing in a variety of issues. I do think, over time, that consensus will emerge.
MR. MURRAY: Is natural gas a good thing or a bad thing?
MR. GATES: If you put aside climate change, which you shouldn't do, this natural-gas thing is phenomenal. It's amazing that there may be dramatically more than the proven reserves we have right now. Unfortunately, even though natural gas has less CO2 emission per unit of energy, you get some leakage, and any leakage is a dramatic negative.