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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Innovating to Zero: Gates Wants Clean, Cheap Energy Fast

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

[UPDATE 2/18/09: Video of Gates' TED talk is now online, and embedded in the post below]

Bill Gates wants clean, cheap energy more than he wants to pick the next 50 years worth of presidents, even more than he wants a miracle vaccine. At least that's how he ranked his number one wish while describing climate change as the world's greatest challenge to a rapt audience at the TED conference last week.

Just weeks after lending his voice to a growing "innovation consensus" by writing on his blog, Gates Notes, that innovation, not just insulation, must be the focus if we are serious about "getting to zero," Gates' TED speech expanded on what we need to get there:
"We need energy miracles. The microprocessor and internet are miracles. This is a case where we have to drive and get the miracle in a short timeline."
Gates emphasized the need for an energy miracle portfolio that includes carbon capture and storage and nuclear as well as wind and solar. According to CNN's coverage of the conference (watch the video below), Gates showed particular interest in the potential for nuclear waste reprocessing as a source of clean, cheap energy.

He also set 2050 as the deadline for reducing carbon emissions to zero and outlined a tight innovation and deployment timeline: 20 years to innovate, 20 years to deploy.

The Gates Foundation typically invests its resources in issues related to public health and poverty, not climate change and energy, which is why Gates' unprecedented speech could be a game changer for two important reasons.

The first is that Gates has come to realize that the reducing the carbon intensity of energy is the only feasible way to achieve a zero-carbon world. In an article about Gates' talk for AlterNet, Alex Steffen explains that Gates presented the following equation to explain how he arrived at this conclusion.
CO2 = Population x Services x Energy x Carbon
Steffen dubs this the "Gates Climate Equation," though regular readers of this blog will also recognize it as a simplification of the Kaya Identity, which looks like this:
Carbon emissions = Population x Per capita wealth x Energy intensity of the economy x Carbon intensity of energy
Whatever you call it, the conclusion is the same: in a world with increasing population that values greater economic growth, reducing carbon emissions means fueling development with clean energy that is cheaper than incumbent fossil fuels. As Gates has written, energy efficiency can help, but getting to zero carbon will require major innovation if we want abundant carbon-neutral energy.

The second reason why Gates' opinions are so poignant, is that he defines a clear need for investment in clean technology innovation, notably asserting that current technologies are not sufficient despite Al Gore, the main flag-bearer of the phrase, "We have all the technology we need," being in attendance.

According to Gates:
"All the batteries we make now could store less than 10 minutes of all the energy [in the world...So, in fact, we need a big breakthrough here. Something that's going to be of a factor of 100 better than what we have now."
As a respected innovator and philanthropist, Gates' opinions may help drive home an aspect of the climate change/clean tech debate that is often underappreciated, or at least, easily overlooked: scale.

We have grappled with the scale of both the climate challenge and the energy challenge via our writing and admittedly, they both seem overwhelming. But while Gates acknowledges that the solutions are complicated - clean technology innovation and implementation will not be easy, especially in such a short time frame - the ultimate goal to overcome both challenges is clear: make clean energy cheap, and fast.

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