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Innovating to zero
February 18, 2010 11:00 AM   Subscribe

Talking About Energy at TED "Bill Gates unveils his vision for the world's energy future, describing the need for 'miracles' to avoid planetary catastrophe and explaining why he's backing a dramatically different type of nuclear reactor. The necessary goal? Zero carbon emissions globally by 2050." Others, however, reckon no breakthroughs are needed.
posted by kliuless (31 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Others, however, reckon no breakthroughs are needed.

Please don't frame energy posts as an adversarial either/or. Why can't we have breakthrough solutions *and* non-breakthrough ones? Diversification is as good in energy sources as it is in investment portfolios. Not only do we not need a silver bullet, we wouldn't even want one if we had it. We want 10 (or 20 or 50) plain old lead bullets.

If Bill Gates can build a zero-emission nuclear reactor, great. We also want solar and wind and geothermal, etc. "Energy independence" is not just freedom from Mideast politics but also freedom from a locked-in solution of any kind.
posted by DU at 11:11 AM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


*inserts 'Bill and Ted' joke*
posted by Smedleyman at 11:17 AM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


While the reactor may be dramatically different, it would still present the same problem of how to dispose of the spent nuclear fuel. I recently learned about Thorium, which was successfully developed as a nuclear fuel along with uranium and produces a small fraction of the nuclear waste with zero risk of meltdown. Thorium generators were scrapped, however, because the element couldn't be refined to make nuclear weapons.
posted by ekroh at 11:18 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


honestly though, and totally not Gates bashing here, given Bill's predictive and observational powers in the past (640K ought to be enough for anybody, Microsoft is not about greed. It's about innovation and fairness, People everywhere love Windows....) I'm not sure why anyone would look to him for an accurate vision of the future.

To be fair he can be somewhat funny at times: "Windows 2000 already contains features such as the human discipline component, where the PC can send an electric shock through the keyboard if the human does something that does not please Windows."

and sometimes I'm just not sure: You see, antiquated ideas of kindness and generosity are simply bugs that must be programmed out of our world. And these cold, unfeeling machines will show us the way.
posted by edgeways at 11:22 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Previously: The nuclear path not taken.

We must also leave existing coal and unconventional oil reserves underground. A million nuclear reactors won't save us if the tar sands are not stopped.
posted by mek at 11:25 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


640K ought to be enough for anybody

Dude, really?
posted by smackfu at 11:27 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can't we talk about what the guy has to say in this speech without resorting to "Hurf Durf 640K"?
posted by octothorpe at 11:30 AM on February 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Need for clean energy + Science! = Profit... I mean a greener future.
posted by LD Feral at 11:30 AM on February 18, 2010


Thanks, mek. That was the article I read, but I thought I had read it in the Atlantic. Hadn't seen the MeFi thread.
posted by ekroh at 11:33 AM on February 18, 2010


These sodium reactors have interested me for a while - the first article I read about them implied that they were 'fast enough' that they could be fed waste from other plants and turn it into significantly less dangerous material.

Sadly, 1/10 the size means 10/1 the NIMBYs - and a backyard gets very big when someone wants to put anything nuclear in it.

Ah well... here's hoping my username doesn't turn into a description of the apocalypse...
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 11:39 AM on February 18, 2010


Not only do we not need a silver bullet, we wouldn't even want one if we had it. We want 10 (or 20 or 50) plain old lead bullets.

OMG NO! Lead poisoning is not the way! (Stupid jokes aside, I agree with DU.)

honestly though, and totally not Gates bashing here, given Bill's predictive and observational powers in the past

I think his views can be classified into (at least) two major categories: 1. market-driven projections relating to Microsoft products saving the world and 2. ways to better the world at large without Microsoft products. The former is marketing, the latter is (probably) humanitarian, like the foundation founded by him and his wife investing $10 Billion in the fight against a number of illnesses including AIDS. More on recent Gates thoughts previously (posted Jan. 20, 2010).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:40 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can't we talk about what the guy has to say in this speech without resorting to "Hurf Durf 640K"?

Well, since he never actually said anything of the sort, I'm semi-surprised it even came up.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:11 PM on February 18, 2010


I was surprised by the info graphic linked in the last link (Mckinsey via Economist):

1.3 Gigatons/yr CO2 abatement merely from people making selfish, rational, profit maximizing decisions. There's massive impact from obvious things like residential electronics/lighting/shell improvements, and, combined heat-and-power cogeneration.

These abatements dont cost money, they make it.
posted by dongolier at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2010


I'm not sure why anyone would look to him for an accurate vision of the future.

For one reason and one alone: he has enough money to make Scrooge McDuck jealous. If I had a great idea to save the world, there is not a lot I could do other than tell you about it. Gates has the chance to make it happen. On the way he made his money there are legitimate qualms to be had (hell, I hate what his company has done and continues to do to hold back the computer software and hardware industry), but on the other, at least he hasn't gone all Rupert Murdoch or Roger Ailes on us.
posted by JHarris at 12:23 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why anyone would look to him for an accurate vision of the future.

He's not predicting the future. He's talking about what kind of future he's willing to pay mega-big money to help create.
posted by straight at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


The solution is simple

1) Cap carbon emissions
2) Prices for CO2 emitting energy goes up
3) Prices for non CO2 emitting energy become relatively cheaper
4) wasting CO2 emitting energy becomes even more expensive.
5) prices are high enough that new technology has a much better shot of becoming profitable.

Laws first, technology second. The only reason people are even investing in things like solar energy are because of government subsidies and anticipation of laws changing. Wind power has reached "grid parity" but there's a huge problem of an outdated electrical grid that can't carry the energy from one side of the country to the other.

The idea of relying on free market faeries, with no government push to solve the problem is delusional. But if the government caps emissions, then the problem will be solved* and it will be up to the free market to figure out how it wants to sort itself out.

(*for the U.S at least, and we can require trading partners to do the same)
posted by delmoi at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I recently learned about Thorium, which was successfully developed as a nuclear fuel along with uranium and produces a small fraction of the nuclear waste with zero risk of meltdown. Thorium generators were scrapped, however, because the element couldn't be refined to make nuclear weapons.
posted by ekroh at 2:18 PM on February 18 [+] [!]


Fast neutron reactors also produce less nuclear waste than conventional nuclear plants. From what I understand, many are passively safe and compatible with Thorium fuel too, so it isn't an either/or kind of thing.
posted by Humanzee at 1:14 PM on February 18, 2010


While the reactor may be dramatically different, it would still present the same problem of how to dispose of the spent nuclear fuel.

The nuclear waste disposal problem is intractable, because it's a political, not a technological problem, informed by NIMBYism and standards that are deliberately set to sabotage any plan to dispose of nuclear waste. For example, look at the radiation emission standards for Yucca mountain: the EPA originally proposed a limit of 350 millirem per year, the Environmental Impact Statement for the facility gave an average dose of 0.98 millirem/year- massively increasing the difficulty and expense of the construction. Likewise, requiring the facilities be completely secure for a time period longer than our species has existed seems more like ridiculous levels of overcaution than an actual concern with safety- especially when people proposing abandoning Yucca Mountain for those reasons say that it's safe to store nuclear waste above ground for the next couple of decades. And that's not even counting the communities that scream about potentially letting nuclear waste pass through their communities- while happily allowing shipments of dioxins and other toxic chemicals to go through.

In other words, the problem is that the nuclear waste disposal standards are pretty much designed to benefit the oil and coal industries rather than safeguard the public. And anti-nuclear paranoia means that implementing existing solutions in the next several decades will be extremely difficult.
posted by happyroach at 1:19 PM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


The former is marketing, the latter is (probably) humanitarian, like the foundation founded by him and his wife investing $10 Billion in the fight against a number of illnesses including AIDS.

Probably humanitarian? Are you expressing doubt about his intentions or his humanity?
posted by The Tensor at 1:43 PM on February 18, 2010


1) Cap carbon emissions
2) Prices for CO2 emitting energy goes up
3) Prices for non CO2 emitting energy become relatively cheaper
4) wasting CO2 emitting energy becomes even more expensive.
5) prices are high enough that new technology has a much better shot of becoming profitable.


To be fair, you're leaving one out:
6) prices of domestically produced goods and services will have to rise due to the increased energy costs, so it will be harder for US companies to compete on the world market, and everybody in the US will have less purchasing power than they used to.

Now, you can argue about whether those prices are artificially inflated or whether we're pricing in external costs that the free market is incapable or unwilling to price in, but to leave that one out misses the reason that so many people would oppose your idea.
posted by willnot at 2:30 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


honestly though, and totally not Gates bashing here, given Bill's predictive and observational powers in the past (640K ought to be enough for anybody, Microsoft is not about greed. It's about innovation and fairness, People everywhere love Windows....) I'm not sure why anyone would look to him for an accurate vision of the future.

I'd rather judge the ideas based on their merits, I guess, rather than thinking about Bill's predictive track record.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:49 PM on February 18, 2010


I wish this thread had as many comments as the "how often do you wash your sheets?" one.
posted by vectr at 4:17 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


(*for the U.S at least, and we can require trading partners to do the same)

No you can't. China holds your debt.

China doesn't agree. India doesn't agree.

Also how do your work out the details, does France, with per capita emissions about 1/4 or so of the US have to do anything?

Copenhagen failed.

The US appears to not even be able to do what you're suggesting. Let alone after November when the Republicans will probably be stronger in the Senate.

It's like saying the answer to war is for everyone to give up their weapons right now. Fine, it's a nice saying, but it's unrealistic.
posted by sien at 5:09 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


honestly though, and totally not Gates bashing here, given Bill's predictive and observational powers in the past

Indeed. A guy who had the vision to ensure he maintained licensing for the OS separate from IBM hardware and made billions as a result has extremely questionable predictive and observational powers. America, the home of befuddled, clueless billionaires.
posted by juiceCake at 5:28 PM on February 18, 2010


JuiceCake, don't try to push your "billionaires are smart" lies here at MetaFilter. Why, that's social Darwinism!
posted by The Tensor at 5:44 PM on February 18, 2010


Billionaires are just dumb, failed trillionaires.
posted by swift at 6:42 PM on February 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's like saying the answer to war is for everyone to give up their weapons right now. Fine, it's a nice saying, but it's unrealistic.

Right so the solution is to use all of our weapons at once. Nuclear winter will end war and global warming at the same time!
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:05 PM on February 18, 2010


I think the focus on zero-carbon as a goal is what's interesting about this. Has anyone else with Gates' ability to get on the news and access decision-makers set such an ambitious target?
posted by harriet vane at 10:02 PM on February 18, 2010


Dragging this vaguely back on topic, we've discussed this 'new breed' of nuclear reactors before.

To sum up, they're a 50 year old technology, which have been used in a number of test plants around the world, most of which have now been shut down due to cost, though Japan is still persisting with the technology despite the disastrously handled sodium leak and subsequent fire at the monju plant. Liquid metal coolant is pretty much a necessity for fast breeder reactors, and the toshiba 4S design uses liquid sodium as is usual, though burying it 30m underground as a sealed unit would presumably help in the event of sodium leak and fire.

The other downside of such fast breeder technology is one of the end products is plutonium, which can be reused as fast breeder fuel, or of course, nuclear weapons, so anti-tampering mechanisms and a plan by which the battery can be moved back to country of origin for reprocessing is also required.

There are several nuclear battery programs at the moment; the US have the SSTAR program, the Japanase are working on the toshiba 4S linked in the post, and GE hitachi have their PRISM program, all based around relatively small, sealed nuclear batteries. The big advantage of such a design is that it's fairly low maintenance, has a fixed lifespan, and can be used in remote places or places with limited infrastructure as an alternative to heavily polluting coal plants with minimal support - certainly in comparison to a conventional nuclear reactor. One end-goal is a way to provide nuclear power to poorer countries without them developing their own nuclear fuel processing programs.

In the west, while not a replacement for current large-scale grid energy production (i.e. coal, oil and gas), it may well be useful as a way to spread out power generation into smaller, more local setups, a step that will be necessary in our move towards renewable low-CO2 energy sources.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:22 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


If wasted and inefficient energy use is the main problem then the solution is not necessarily a new form of energy.
posted by Brian B. at 6:56 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Indeed. A guy who had the vision to ensure he maintained licensing for the OS separate from IBM hardware and made billions as a result has extremely questionable predictive and observational powers. America, the home of befuddled, clueless billionaires.

Ten thousand other people, given his position, would also have had his vision. His trick was being in the right place, at the right time, with the right command line OS purchased outright from another developer.

In other words: there was an awful large luck component to Bill Gates making his billions. But that is true about most vast fortunes.
posted by JHarris at 6:14 PM on February 20, 2010


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