Legendary tech billionaire Bill Gates has been pitching the idea that nuclear energy is the only technology that can be deployed quickly enough to ward off catastrophic global warming. However, Gate’s favored nuclear technology is not nearly ready to come off the drawing board. Meanwhile, solar, wind, and other clean technologies are already sweeping into the real world.
Nevertheless, Gates continues to soldier on. In the latest development, he made the case for a nuclear energy “miracle” to the readers of MIT Technology Review.
The Bill Gates Nuclear Vision
One should expect an ultra-savvy marketer like Bill Gates to come up with a far-reaching strategy for his nuclear vision, and he has. In 2006 he formed a nuclear company called TerraPower with the aim of providing the world with “a more affordable, secure and environmentally friendly form of nuclear energy.”
Gates bumped his strategy up to the next level in December 2015. In a splashy media event coordinated with the COP21 Paris climate talks, he launched a new investment group called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
BEC was designed as private sector companion to Mission Innovation, which also launched at COP21. Mission Innovation is a coalition of energy-producing governments that have pledged to increase public sector investment in clean energy.
Given Gate’s interest in TerraPower’s success, we’re thinking that BEC is also designed to deflect investment toward nuclear. Although Gates has positioned BEC as source-neutral, in a blog post during COP21 he laid down a pretty big hint that nuclear was the way to go:
The renewable technologies we have today, like wind and solar, have made a lot of progress and could be one path to a zero-carbon energy future. But given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths—and that means we also need to invent new approaches.
What’s Wrong With A Little Nuclear Energy?
Joe Romm of Think Progress has picked apart Gates’s most recent pro-nuclear pitch, concluding that:
…Gates is just wrong about everything here. He is wrong that energy miracles are needed by the industrialized countries to achieve CO2 levels in 2050 consistent with beating the 2°C target. He is wrong that achieving that target requires focusing on R&D rather than deployment. He is wrong that there is some sort of consensus to that effect. He is wrong that a carbon price isn’t important in achieving the rapid reduction the rich countries need. He is wrong to make it seem like boosting energy efficiency is not as vital a strategy as reducing carbon intensity.
Romm’s basic point is that clean energy solutions are already here and now, just not in the form that Gates would prefer to invest in.
The solar industry, of course, is one place where you’ll find a lot of agreement with Romm. One example is the graphic above, which represents the winnowing-out process used by the company Siva Power to settle on its market-ready thin film solar technology.
Last December, Siva CTO Markus E. Beck, a recognized leader in thin film technology, shared some thoughts with CleanTechnica about Gates’s nuclear solution. He emphasized that solar insiders are not the only skeptics:
The Breakthrough Energy Coalition’s premise is flawed. The BEC argues that at present there are no workable solutions to tackle the world’s increasing need for energy while reducing carbon emissions at an affordable level. Studies by Goldman Sachs, MIT, McKinsey, the IEA, Shell and others provide data supporting a counter argument — i.e. the solutions exist: namely solar (PV) and wind.
Tough Row To Hoe For Nuclear Energy
We’ll give the last word on TerraPower to the Senior Editor of MIT Technology Review, Richard Martin.
In a brief but eyebrow-raising article last fall, Martin raised some questions about TerraPower’s choice of nuclear technology, the traveling wave reactor. Apparently, after spending a considerable amount of time and money on traveling wave R&D, the company has modified its course and is now experimenting with a molten chloride design:
Many nuclear industry observers have been skeptical about the concept from the outset. The traveling wave is a subspecies of a sodium-cooled fast reactor, and the track record of those reactors is not encouraging.
Martin also cites M.V. Ramana, a Princeton nuclear physicist:
“The problem with sodium is that it has been pretty much impossible to prevent leaks… Fast reactors in general have never been commercially viable, and I haven’t seen anything from TerraPower that suggests that their design will fare any better.
The Human Factor
They say that pride goeth before a fall, and if TerraPower turns out to be a bust, the seeds of the disaster can probably be found in Bill Gates’s success as a philanthropist, specifically in the field of public health.
In a 2010 interview with MIT Technology Review, Gates makes the case that a clean power solution for global warming could be modeled on the miracle-making field of vaccines.
There is absolutely no arguing with the effectiveness of vaccines, but in terms of general framing that approach represents a top down, one shot solution.
The clean energy field, in contrast, is a diverse, wide open field that accommodates an enormous amount of variety depending on regional resources and circumstances.
In other words, Gates’s framing is a classic 1950’s style business model. For that matter, in the 2010 interview Gates demonstrated some rather dated views about wind, solar, storage, and transmission:
But almost everything called renewable is intermittent. I also have another term for it: “energy farming.” The density is very low. We have no idea how to take those intermittent sources up to 50, 80, 90 percent.
It just points up that without a storage miracle, you cannot take intermittent sources up to large numbers. In fact, not only do you need a storage miracle, you need a transmission miracle, because the intermittent sources are not available in an efficient form in all locations.
The vaccine frame also falls short when it comes to the human factor. Nuclear can and will find willing hosts in countries like China, where central planners have more leverage over local concerns (China happens to be the location of TerraPower’s planned demo facility, by the way).
The situation is quite different in countries like the US. Regardless of safety claims, it is almost certain that the NIMBY factor will prevent or at least significantly delay the mass deployment of new nuclear power plants — or “energy factories” as Gates calls them.
Nuclear energy in the US has been in a holding pattern for a generation, though the Energy Department continues to fund R&D. Given public skepticism over nuclear safety, that situation is not likely to change no matter which party wins the 2016 presidential election.
There is probably a lot more to be said for the vaccine/public health framing, and if you have something to say, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Image: via Siva Power.