As much as I’d like to hate Mr. Gates for foisting that other operating system on the world, I have to respect what he’s chosen to do with all his cash. Pouring money into disease prevention and treatment (as well as his earlier attempts to ‘save’ our educational system) seems like the type of thing people should do when they have more wealth than many countries.
It seems he’s finally started to think about the effects of climate change, and seems to have come to the conclusion that climate change poses a more serious threat to the world. He gave a talk at TED in which he outlined his analysis of the problem:
CO2 = P x S x E x C
Meaning this: the climate emissions of human civilization are the result of four driving forces:
* Population: the total number of people on the planet (which is still increasing because we are not yet at peak population).
* Services: the things that provide prosperity (and because billions of people are still rising out of poverty and because no global system will work unless it’s fair, we can expect a massively increased demand for the services that provide prosperity).
* Energy: the amount of energy it takes to produce and provide the goods and services that our peaking population uses as it grows more prosperous (what some might call the energy intensity of goods and services). Gates believes it’s likely cutting two-thirds of our energy waste is about as good as we can do.
* Carbon: the amount of climate emissions generated in order to produce the energy it takes to fuel prosperity.
Those four, he says, essentially define our emissions (more on that later). In order to reach zero emissions, then, at least one of these values has to fall to zero. But which one? He reckons that because population is going to continue to grow for at least four decades, because billions of poor people want more equitable prosperity, and because (as he sees it) improvements in energy efficiency are limited, we have to focus on the last element of the equation, the carbon intensity of energy. Simply, we need climate-neutral energy. We need to use nothing but climate-neutral energy.
To do that, we need an “energy miracle.” We need energy solutions that don’t yet exist, released through a global push for clean energy innovation. That, in turn, demands that a generation of entrepreneurs push forward new ideas for renewable energy, unleashing “1,000 promising ideas.” He described one of his own investments, but went on to note that we need hundreds of other ambitious companies as well, and he plans to put his own efforts into this arena.
This is a very accessible way to approach the problem; it comes with a handy acronym, presents the problem as a simple equation that needs solving, and makes intuitive sense. Framed in this way I have to agree with him; developing net-zero energy sources seems like the best way to zero out the problem.
So after reading this I felt all warm and fuzzy; Bill Gates is on the case, and he has tonnes of cash to throw at it! Surely we’ll have this engineering problem solved in the next decade or so right?
Then I read this response written by Joe Romm (former Acting Assistant Secretary at DOE and current senior fellow at the Center for American Progress), which basically shreds both Gate’s premise and his solution. Here’s the basic problem; quantifying ‘Services’ distorts reality beyond utility, developing ‘energy miracles’ will take too long to work, and even if it didn’t we already have all the technology we need to fix the problem.
So I have thought a lot about whether Gates is right that we need multiple “energy miracles” developed through a $10 billion-a-year government R&D effort to stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm.
Put more quantitatively, the question is — What are the chances that multiple (4 to 8+) carbon-free technologies that do not exist today can each deliver the equivalent of 350 Gigawatts baseload power (~2.8 billion Megawatt-hours a year) and/or 160 billion gallons of gasoline cost-effectively by 2050? [Note -- that is about half of a stabilization wedge.] For the record, the U.S. consumed about 3.7 billion MW-hrs in 2005 and about 140 billion gallons of motor gasoline.
Put that way, the answer to the question is painfully obvious: “two chances — slim and none.” Indeed, I have repeatedly challenged readers and listeners over the years to name even a single technology breakthrough with such an impact in the past three decades, after the huge surge in energy funding that followed the energy shocks of the 1970s. Nobody has ever named a single one that has even come close.
I don’t know why the energy miracle crowd can’t see the obvious — so I will elaborate here. I will also discuss a major study that explains why deployment programs are so much more important than R&D at this point. Let’s keep this simple:
- To stabilize below 450 ppm, we need to deploy by 2050 some 12 to 14 stabilization wedges (each delivering 1 billion tons of avoided carbon) covering both efficient energy use and carbon-free supply (see here). The technologies we have today, plus a few that are in the verge of being commercialized, can provide the needed low-carbon energy [see "How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution (updated)"].
- Myriad energy-efficient solutions are already cost-effective today. Breaking down the barriers to their deployment now is much, much more important than developing new “breakthrough” efficient TILTs, since those would simply fail in the marketplace because of the same barriers. Cogeneration is perhaps the clearest example of this.
- On the supply side, deployment programs (coupled with a price for carbon) will always be much, much more important than R&D programs because new technologies take an incredibly long time to achieve mass-market commercial success. New supply TILTs would not simply emerge at a low cost. They need volume, volume, volume — steady and large increases in demand over time to bring the cost down, as I discuss at length below.
- No existing or breakthrough technology is going to beat the price of power from a coal plant that has already been built — the only way to deal with those plants is a high price for carbon or a mandate to shut them down. Indeed, that’s why we must act immediately not to build those plants in the first place.
For better or worse, we are stuck through 2050 with the technologies that are commercial today (like solar thermal electric) or that are very nearly commercial (like plug-in hybrids).
I have discussed most of this at length in previous posts (listed below), so I won’t repeat all the arguments here. Let me just focus on a few key points. A critical historical fact was explained by Royal Dutch/Shell, in their 2001 scenarios for how energy use is likely to evolve over the next five decades (even with a carbon constraint):
“Typically it has taken 25 years after commercial introduction for a primary energy form to obtain a 1 percent share of the global market.”
Note that this tiny toe-hold comes 25 years after commercial introduction. The first transition from scientific breakthrough to commercial introduction may itself take decades. We still haven’t seen commercial introduction of a hydrogen fuel cell car and have barely seen any commercial fuel cells — over 160 years after they were first invented.
The article goes on to discuss how technologies move from lab discoveries to commercial energy sources – the gist is; it takes a really long time and we should be spending the next 40 years trying to push existing technologies into wider use rather than trying to develop brand new ones.