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As Energy Week limps to a close, tension mounts between the nuclear vision of Bill Gates and the natural gas leverage embodied by of Rex Tillerson.

Policy & Politics

The Energy Week Shuffle: Trump Tweets, Tillerson Goes Nuclear, Gates Waits In Wings

As Energy Week limps to a close, tension mounts between the nuclear vision of Bill Gates and the natural gas leverage embodied by of Rex Tillerson.

Suppose they gave an Energy Week and nobody noticed? The Trump Administration had big plans for publicizing its energy policy this week, only to be torpedoed by a couple of more misguided than usual Presidential tweets and reports of a White House meeting during which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blew up at the President’s personnel chief. However, the President did manage to squeeze out some strong messaging in support of nuclear energy — which was a bit of a surprise, considering that he has been relatively silent on the topic up to now.

So, what’s up with that? Take a look at the portfolio of Microsoft’s Bill Gates for a clue or two.

A Nuclear Energy Stealth Attack

CleanTechnica has spilled much ink over the Obama Administration’s clean tech initiatives, but as President Obama often stated, his was an all-of-the-above energy policy. That included a focus on commercializing small, modular reactors that could be factory-built and trucked to sites.

Nuclear is also where Bill Gates comes in. When the Paris Agreement on climate launched in the fall of 2015, Gates was front and center with the launch of a companion initiative called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

The idea was to harness the power of the Earth’s billionaires to accelerate low carbon energy development, though the focus seemed to lean in favor of nuclear energy rather than renewables.

Unsurprisingly, a few months later Gates followed up with an article in the MIT Review expressing his vision of a “nuclear energy miracle” in support of climate action.

Gates’s line of reasoning has been picked apart, but it’s a fair bet that he will persist because he is a major stakeholder in and chairman of the nuclear company TerraPower.

Follow The Money

The TerraPower connection also explains why Gates has an interest in promoting nuclear funding in the Trump Administration’s Energy Department.

Last year, DOE chipped in $6 million for a nuclear research cost-sharing partnership involving TerraPower along Southern Company, the Electric Power Research Institute, Vanderbilt University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The partners are supporting the development of something called the Molten Chloride Fast Reactor, dubbed a “next generation design with the most advanced safety features that enable its potential use across the country” by DOE.

For all the excitement over the Breakthrough Coalition’s billionaires saving the planet, it seems that everyday ordinary taxpayers will also deserve a nice group hug if all goes according to plan.

The grant dollars designated for the research partnership are just part of the taxpayer contribution. TerraPower also gives credit where credit is due. In a 2015 Powerpoint presentation about its nuclear technology the company had this to say about the role of taxpayer-funded research (that’s ORNL as in Oak Ridge National Laboratory):

TerraPower is excited to celebrate and build upon the 50 years of ORNL experience & technology

Ya don’t say!

As for Gates’s ability to influence the Trump Administration, he is one of the numerous billionaires who prefer to keep the cyberstalker-in-chief at arm’s length when the media spotlight is on. That is certainly true of energy issues.

However, behind the scenes it’s a different story.

In March E&E News reported that Gates appealed directly to DOE “to include his nuclear energy company in high-level talks between the United States and China.”

That makes sense considering that in 2015, TerraPower closed a deal for its first sodium-cooled fast reactor to be built in China.

For those of you keeping score at home, the diplomacy angle constitutes a third pathway for me, you, and millions of other taxpayers to support the nuclear miracle.

Group hug!

What About Natural Gas?

No, we didn’t forget about Rex Tillerson, and this is where it gets interesting.

Bill Gates has been stirring the nuclear pot as the most effective climate action strategy. Basically the idea is to replace the old generation of gigantic baseload coal power plants with a new generation of gigantic baseload nuclear power plants (some reports lump the TerraPower business model with small-scale reactors, but that is not accurate).

The natural gas industry has taken an opposing approach, arguing that baseload capacity is an out of date concept. The American Petroleum Institute has just rolled out a new report arguing that natural gas is the best fit  for the flexible, responsive US electricity grid of the future.

Food fight!

When Tillerson was first announced as Secretary of State, his long career with ExxonMobil (now just plain Exxon or something), highlighted by his stewardship of the company during the fracking boom,  indicated that natural gas would win the pole position in US energy policy.

As Energy Week limps to a conclusion, gas still holds a strong position, but word on the street is that Tillerson is being shoved aside in favor of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner — the linguistic brawl reported between Tillerson and the White House personnel director earlier this week being the latest indication.

That could have a ripple effect on US energy policy.

Adding to the intrigue, Kushner has some interesting business connections in China as does his wife and Trump advisor/daughter Ivanka, and he is connected to Bill Gates through the New York City social circles as well as his (Kushner’s) position as head of the new White House innovation office.

Here’s The Washington Post reporting on the new office back in March:

The innovation office has a particular focus on technology and data, and it is working with such titans as Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff and Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk.

Musk has already cut ties with Trump, citing withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as his reason, but don’t count on Gates to ditch the goose that lays the golden egg.

Gates reacted to the decision in a Facebook post, first by expressing disappointment (cited here by Financial Express)…

“I am deeply concerned with the decision to take our country out of the Paris Agreement…”

…and then by making it clear that Breakthrough Energy Ventures (that’s the fund set up by Breakthrough Coalition members) would most likely keep working with the Trump Administration anyway:

“…We look forward to continuing to work closely with all countries that share that vision. I am hopeful that the United States will continue its bipartisan commitment to developing the innovative foundation for those new technologies by supporting our world leading labs and universities.”

If that shoutout to the national laboratories sounds familiar, it’s the same line that Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been cranking out, so it looks like Gates and the Trump Administration are on message.

Tillerson, not so much.

One last thing: in the waning days of the Obama Administration, DOE put out word that it was working on a new study examining how renewables and nuclear could complement each other in the low carbon grid of the future.

Stay tuned.

Image: Renewables-nuclear interplay via US Department of Energy.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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