TED 2010: Bill Gates wishes for more than "cheaper than coal"

So this is a wish… If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years, I could pick who’s president, I could pick a vaccine, which is something I love, or I could pick that this thing that’s half the cost with no CO2 gets invented, this is the wish I would pick. This is the one with the greatest impact. If we don’t get this wish, the division between the people who think short term and long term will be terrible, between the U.S. and China, between poor countries and rich, and most of all the lives of those two billion will be far worse.

Bill Gates TED presentation on energy “Innovating to zero!” has now been released. If you subscribe to TED video via iTunes you can download the video. Note there is an interactive transcript — which is an efficient way to navigate straight to a segment, but sadly is not searchable (unless you copy/paste the transcript to an external editor).

Bill’s talk could be crudely summarized by his phrase “we need energy miracles”, meaning we need to foster innovation that will lead to new energy sources that are 1/2 the cost of coal. Aside, in one Bill’s Gates Notes podcasts he explains the fundamental market failure problem of R&D investment — that the returns to the innovator are vastly smaller than the returns to society at large.

We rated Bill’s talk “outstanding”. We’ve been noting in previous posts that Gates has been doing his homework on energy policy. In this talk he has distilled some of his conclusions in a way that should penetrate the minds of at least some of the public who view it [after reading through the comments, I wonder if penetration is possible — there are almost no comments that evidence any understanding of the talk].

I was also pleased to see that Bill used the Kaya Identity to demonstrate the necessity to focus upon carbon intensity:

carbon emissions = C = P x (GDP / P) x (TE / GDP) x (C / TE)   [where TE is total energy]

There are a number of quotable quotes. E.g., I liked the “energy farming” metaphor to capture the diffuse nature of wind/solar “renewables”.

The last three of the five, I’ve grouped together. These are what people often refer to as the renewable sources. And they actually — although it’s great they don’t require fuel — they have some disadvantages. One is that the density of energy gathered in these technologies is dramatically less than a power plant. This is energy farming, so you’re talking about many square miles, thousands of time more area than you think of as a normal energy plant. Also, these are intermittent sources. The sun doesn’t shine all day, it doesn’t shine every day, and, likewise, the wind doesn’t blow all the time. And so, if you depend on these sources, you have to have some way of getting the energy during those time periods that it’s not available. So, we’ve got big cost challenges here. We have transmission challenges. For example, say this energy source is outside your country, you not only need the technology, but you have to deal with the risk of the energy coming from elsewhere.

Bill showed a slide of some of the books that he has read during his research. I was pleased to see that he explicitly recommended one of our picks, the David McKay book, “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.”

And lastly, Gates mentions, in the spirit of full disclosure, his investment in the Terrapower traveling wave fast neutron reactor.

The idea of Terrapower is that, instead of burning a part of uranium, the one percent, which is the U235, we decided, let’s burn the 99 percent, the U238. It is kind of a crazy idea. In fact, people had talked about it for a long time, but they could never simulate properly whether it would work or not, and so it’s through the advent of modern supercomputers that now you can simulate and see that, yes, with the right material’s approach, this looks like it would work.

And, because you’re burning that 99 percent, you have greatly improved cost profile. You actually burn up the waste, and you can actually use as fuel all the leftover waste from today’s reactors. So, instead of worrying about them, you just take that. It’s a great thing. It breathes this uranium as it goes along. So it’s kind of like a candle. You can see it’s a log there, often referred to as a traveling wave reactor. In terms of fuel, this really solves the problem. I’ve got a picture here of a place in Kentucky. This is the left over, the 99 percent, where they’ve taken out the part they burn now, so it’s called depleted uranium. That would power the U.S. for hundreds of years. And, simply by filtering sea water in an inexpensive process, you’d have enough fuel for the entire lifetime of the rest of the planet.

Fortunately, after Bill’s talk Chris Anderson interviews Bill on Terrapower, eliciting more depth on the waste-as-fuel concept. Checkout the high-powered scientific staff [PDF] at Terrapower.

One thought on “TED 2010: Bill Gates wishes for more than "cheaper than coal"

  1. I agree the speech was an intelligent look at energy issues – the energy farming metaphor is spot on. It’s refreshing to hear someone talking about renewables in a commonsense way.

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