Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bill Gates on Energy and Climate

I have an odd love-hate relationship with Bill Gates. Like many, I use Microsoft products and have issues with their design and stability. More personally, I grew up in Washington state and experienced the changes -- both positive and negative -- resulting from the growth of Microsoft and the transformation of the Seattle region that accompanied it. But whatever you think of Microsoft, you have to admit Gates has both an unusually analytic mind and an exceedingly well developed ability to understand the big picture. He also puts evidence ahead of ideology and, as a result, his thought tends to evolve in relation to changing circumstances rather than stay fixed. He first used those abilities to identify a series of opportunities in computer technology and rather ruthlessly grow a business.

But, as he has moved into retirement, he has progressively applied those same abilities to a wider context. Thus in the late 1990's, much to the surprise of his Silicon Valley competitors, he argued that what the developing world needed was not computer technology (which they were pushing) but, rather, innovation in the area of health. Thus, he created the Gates Foundation and proceeded to fund innovation in the areas of vaccines and seeds. Now, in this wake of the Copenhagen debacle, Gates has shifted again, arguing that energy and climate are the central problem. His recent TED talk provides an exceptionally clear analysis of the benefits and, in particular, the technical and logistical hurdles associated with a variety of clean energy solutions. Interestingly, he is now seriously supporting development of a relatively unknown form of nuclear power, the traveling wave nuclear reactor (aka TerraPower). And, irrespective of whatever one may think of him, this is an interesting development in that his pedigree as the world's most successful late-20th century capitalist means his statements and views might reach climate skeptics in ways that others can't.


  1. The article cited states that development of Gates invention (he owns the company that is developing it) will take 10 years, mass production 15 years. That puts us out to 2025, about the time that 2+Celsius rise in temperature becomes a reality.

    The Oil Drum is pushing another techno-wonder, the Bloom Box, one of several designs for a fuel cell.
    It works great, only it costs $800,000. Bill Gates will probably buy one--only billionaires could afford it.

    Another idea was publicized recently--small nuclear reactors that you could put in your back yard, or link together in a distributed power network. Only problem is, where's the local nuclear physicist in your neighbourhood that could fix one of those things?

    Sorry to be skeptical about all these wonderful gadgets but we're wasting time when we have a number of simpler and less expensive technologies that already work well enough. Not perfectly mind you, but better than most of what's out there: wind, solar, geothermal, wave tech, hydro, etc.

    When the final wonder-gadget finally gets produced and mass-marketed at under $2000 per household--the cost of a water heater--then I'll tune in. Meanwhile, it's just interesting. . . .

    I feel the same way about "new discoveries of oil--or shale gas,etc.--or depleting sources of xyz." Can't get excited about it any more. The only thing that matters is the price of gas, because that's the only thing that has a large-scale effect on the structure of our economy. I find out the price of gasoline/oil on the evening market report, and that's all I need to know. The rest is just interesting. . .

  2. The price of electricity is hugely important, of course, especially when I pay my NB Power bills every month.

  3. Yes, you're right. He's got a stake in the product and still thinks like a business person. And, like many techno wonders, it may come to nothing. However, my view is that the shit is going to hit the fan. And that we need to be actively exploring all alternatives, including those that fit within the paramaters of a large, centralized and heavily capitalized distribution system, not just those that can be decentralized to the household level.