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March 27th, 2012

Video of the week: Gates talks about the future of energy, miracles and the need for “200 crazy” people

Published on March 27th, 2012 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Love him or hate him, Bill Gates does have influence. In this new Wall Street Journal video of an on-stage interview at WSJ’s recent “ECO:nomics” conference, Gates discusses several key points, including:

• Energy is what enabled civilization to evolve dramatically over the most recent centuries.

• People in “poor” nations pay more for energy than anyone because there is no grid, so they basically are paying for diesel power.

• People, including knowledgable scientists and engineers, underestimate how hard it is to develop and change a global energy system so that we can get to the point where fossil fuels provide only half of the energy needs in 50 years. People tend also not to look deeply at subsidies or appreciate the energy needs of developing world.

• The potential for innovation in the 20-year range can be dramatic. If one looks at the 75-year range, there is a chance to set some aggressive goals and see substantial reductions in CO2.

• People overestimate what can be done now. There are limits because of what has already been installed or what will be installed over the next 20-30 years. But by 2050, however, we could have all new energy generation plants in the “rich” world built with zero CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, we would still need much more time to have significant reductions in CO2 because of dependency on previously installed bases.

• The ability to run digital simulations and models in energy-related work is much more advanced than people appreciate, but the IT experience over the last two decades also tends to make people overly optimistic about the possible speed of innovation in the energy field.

• Gates discusses the need to have at least one of five “miracle” things to happen, such as 1) dramatically increase reliance on natural gas and be aggressive about related carbon capture during gas processes at 90+ percent level or 2) signficant adoption of Gen IV Nuclear energy with full “passive safety” design (doesn’t require human intervention), or 3) address the special storage and transmission needs of energy sources that require “farming” (solar, wind or biofuel).

• Gates says that for every one of these energy innovation paths, we need 200 “crazy” people who think their idea alone can provide the solution, “some of who we will declare ‘sane’ in the future.” He says, “It’s what should happen because it drives both conservation and innovation.”

• For society’s future, he says we need to fund basic energy research at at least twice the level we do right now. That would increase the probability of success for achieving one of the miracles.

• Gates says the greatest energy failure of our energy policy is to not have a carbon tax being imposed or rolled in at some point in the future that incentivizes power industry into reducing CO2 emissions.

• He says the division of financial support for intermittent energy (such as wind) is wrong, with only 2% going to R&D and most of the rest going in various forms of subsidies, tax credits, etc.. for manufacturers and wind farm investors. Gates says he isn’t really talking about things like DOE’s budget, which he believes is just modest, but things that are hidden or not obvious to the public in the form of tax credits, etc. When all that is aggregated, it should seem obvious that we are spending the money foolishly, he says.

• Gates predicts that the lack of political will or good policies in the US over time will be strongly influenced when energy prices in other countries (he suggests China, for example) becomes less expensive in the US.

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