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Bill Gates On Energy 474

Sam the Nemesis submitted an interview in Wired with Bill Gates on the future of energy. Gates sees nuclear as the only feasible option for base load generation. His views on the current direction of energy funding are particularly distressing: "But the economics are so, so far from making sense. And yet that's where subsidies are going now. We're putting 90 percent of the subsidies in deployment — this is true in Europe and the United States — not in R&D. And so unfortunately you get technologies that, no matter how much of them you buy, there's no path to being economical. You need fundamental breakthroughs, which come more out of basic research."
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Bill Gates On Energy

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  • by Bob the Super Hamste ( 1152367 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:05AM (#36682448) Homepage
    Say waht you will about MS but to me it appears old Bill is mostly right on this one. Things like solar and will will eventually become economical, but not in the immediate future. This is mostly due to the rising cost of fossil fuels, but there are some economies of scale. More basic research is needed but renewables will become economical on their own eventually.
  • by Stargoat ( 658863 ) * <> on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:12AM (#36682520) Journal

    There is not enough energy potential in solar power nor in wind / hydro-electric to match the energy potential from nuclear power and fossil fuels. As fossil fuels become more expensive, nuclear power will be the world's only option. Gates is right on this issue because physics dictates his correctness. No matter how much people may wish it, you cannot legislate past physical laws.

  • by bmo ( 77928 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:19AM (#36682588)

    >Solar won't become economical? Is that a joke?

    No, it's not a joke. And in places like here in the Northeast, it's totally out of the question.

    Solar only works when the sun is out.


  • by compro01 ( 777531 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:19AM (#36682590)

    The down side to nuclear is the waste where does it go?

    Into another reactor, then into storage for 100-ish years.

  • Re:er, why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kervin ( 64171 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:21AM (#36682618) Homepage

    1. You should into look at how Bill Gates has spent the last decade and then ask yourself your own question.
    2. Even if you felt that way before the article, did he actually come off as a man who didn't know what he was talking about?

  • by cbeaudry ( 706335 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:23AM (#36682644)

    Ignorance, does not a point make.

  • Re:er, why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:26AM (#36682688)

    Because he's one of the world's premier professional philanthropists with lobbyists and a research staff who's been involved with political and humanitarian advocacy full-time for ten years now?

    Internet Explorer sucks and all, but Bill Gates is a very accomplished and intelligent man with a lot of influence. His opinions matter a great deal.

  • Re:er, why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cbeaudry ( 706335 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:30AM (#36682736)

    He's a technology geek, with lots of money. Has a charity foundation that's trying to find ways to help the other 80% of this earths population.

    The #1 thing to help those people is to get them ENERGY.

    So he invests in groups, companies, people to find solutions. That's what foundations do.

    And as someone else mentioned, did you read the interview? I has very good points and insights even if some of them have been obvious to the geek /. crowd.

  • by NevarMore ( 248971 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:33AM (#36682792) Homepage Journal

    You also need to recognize that there are wastes and negative impacts from all forms of energy:
      - copper windings for any rotational generator have to be mined
      - rare earths for solar arrays are also mined
      - heavy metals (\m/\m/) and acids for batteries are not exactly harmless
      - coal ash, great big mountains of it
      - smoke and other pollutants from burning fuels
      - alteration of waterways for hydro or cooling plus runoff

    The reality is we don't get energy for free and no current form of energy production is entirely without environmental consequences.To attack the challenges and consequences of nuclear power without honestly acknowledging the same from other forms of energy will lead to poor decisions.

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:34AM (#36682808) Homepage
    Here is the base problem: It's not that everything else is too expensive, it's that fossil fuels are too cheap. Too cheap in the long run. We've had a something like 100 year run on FF and we're going to run out of cheap versions of it (the Peak Oil concept []). We're too stupid and spoiled as a culture to really put the money down for the next base power technology so we're going to run up the credit card now and really have to change our minds on how we live in the not so distant future.

    There is plenty of power around. We waste a perfectly enormous amounts of it and we know how not to, but it's not easy changing the way that billions of people do things.

    So the invisible hand will slap the ever living crap out of us in about 50-60 years. Our grandkids will wake up with one hella hangover.
  • by gnick ( 1211984 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:43AM (#36682922) Homepage

    1. Batteries and other storage forms

    If your goal is to save the environment, please don't bring up batteries. Although I will grant that there are other efficient and interesting power storage mechanisms (molten salt vats are kinda cool.)

    2. Transmission lines

    I think you underestimate transmission cost when collecting in Texas to power Maine.

    3. There has to be some good that came from stealing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah from the Mexicans a couple of centuries ago.

    Texas is good for wind and the whole area is OK for solar if we can figure out how to do it right. But again, the postage necessary to transmit power from Texas to, say, NYC is non-trivial.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:45AM (#36682948)

    No it is not you *stupid fool*. Nuclear is the ONLY technology that actually manages its waste. The only one. If you care one bit about the environment, you would support nuclear precisely because of its waste management practices.

    If fossil fuel energy managed all its waste, we would not be in the shit we are today. There wouldn't be catastrophic global warming. There would not be forest destroying acid rains. There would not be 1,000,000+ million people dying per year directly attributed to fossil fuel pollution and the diseases it produces. The ocean would not be polluted with mercury. Almost ALL lakes in the US are now so contaminated with mercury, it is not safe to eat fish from them! And the list goes on and on and on...

    Nuclear waste is so *little* that even if you had to guard and monitor the dump and renew its containers for a billion years, it would still be very cheap. We are talking a few tons a year per reactor, if we don't do any r processing. Reprocessing could reduce this waste by 98% and provide more usable fuel) Simply a fund with $1-2 billion in it would be able to fund all the personnel in perpetuity simply from interest.

    A coal plant burns *thousands of tons* of coal *per day*, producing hundreds of tons of toxic, carcinogenic waste *every day*, most of it going "puff" into the air you breath.

  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:48AM (#36682972)

    What's the total life-cycle cost comparison though?

    With solar I see the following:

    up front:
    Mining raw material for the panels, batteries, and electrical converters
    manufacturing the components in a low-security factory
    transporting the components on standard truck
    installing the panels and conversion equipment to an existing structure or building frames to install on bare earth

    down the road:
    cleaning the panels
    maintaining the circuitry
    replacing batteries
    having an electrician or homeowner possibly replace individual components over time if things fail

    end of life:
    remove panels from frames
    remove frames from structure or earth
    remove switching equipment and batteries
    send panels, frames, and switching equipment to recycler
    send batteries to mild hazardous waste disposal for disassembly or recycling

    Potential problems:
    solar panels smashed en masse in a hail storm - solar is offline until panels are replaced and structure is back on grid power. If owner has insurance, that is used to pay for the replacement.
    Batteries leak, owner stops storing power for overnight use and goes back on to the grid, and replaces batteries and cleans up acid spill
    Absolute Worst Case- solar system causes a fire and the small structure burns.

    Contrast to nuclear:

    Spend billions to build obtain land, fight local opposition, and build the plant.
    spend millions to obtain ROW to install power transmission lines
    Refine nuclear fuel in a high security factory
    transport fuel in an expensive manner via truck convoy
    employ dozens, if not hundreds of engineers and technicians to fuel, power up, and baby sit the reactor

    down the road:
    continue to employ dozens, if not hundreds of engineers and technicians to baby sit the reactor
    spend millions to refuel reactor as necessary
    spend millions to store spent nuclear fuel in the proper fashion, forcing it to stay cool until it's no longer generating its own heat
    maintain security at the facility

    end of life:
    spend billions to decommission and clean up plant site
    find solution for storage of spent fuel?

    possible problems:
    contaminated water spills posing an environmental hazard requiring expensive cleanup
    mismanagement of the reactor leading to core meltdown and environmental contamination (worst case similar to Chernobyl, but without the graphite moderator)
    natural disaster leading to core meltdown and environmental contamination (Fukushima)
    attractive target for terrorism

    I'm for solar subsidy, especially once solar panel efficiency exceeds 40%, which they're almost to on the newest panel designs, especially for structures that can receive solar panels without spoiling the appearance of the structure. Commercial and residential structures with flat roofs, retrofitting houses with the backyard side on the south (as to no put the panels on the roof on the front of the house, for appearance), and building new structures with solar in mind from the planning stages all appeal to me. Give subsidy for Photovoltaics with battery storage, grid-tie-in, and intentional islanding (leaving the structure powered by the PV or batteries but separating from the grid when the grid itself loses power) and suddenly every home becomes a mini power plant. It might even cost more per unit of energy than bulk production like at large power facilities, but it also reduces or eliminates a need for more wiring infrastructure, adds failover, and in places like the southern portion of the country, provides power when it's needed most, during the sunniest days when the air conditioning is cranked down and when power grids tend to fail due to a lack of capacity. A big enough solar installation at a house can power the whole house and can sell back to the grid easily.

    If people are worried about safety, have cities implement an inspection regimen at installation, significant modification, and every ten years or so. Nothing really expensive, just something to make sure that everything is hooked up properly and safely.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:49AM (#36682990)

    There are ways of storing energy: CAES, electrolysing H20 into H2 and O2 (then storing the H2 for use in fuel cells). These are slowly becoming economical, especially the electrolysing method. The fuel cells are almost ready for mass production, in fact some very big companies in Germany and Australia are looking at waste H2 and UCG for fuel cell applications.

    Obviously you're not going to produce 100% of required output through just one type of power production, a combination of nuclear, H2/fuel cells, wind, thermal, wave, UCG etc. will be the future. We shouldn't be putting all our eggs in one basket like we have done in the past with fossil fuels.

  • by Rakishi ( 759894 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:51AM (#36683022)

    You think fossil plants don't have this problem? They are a perpetual accident, we're just used to it and the cost (health problems, environmental damage, pollution, etc, etc.) are implicitly externalized onto society by now.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 07, 2011 @10:58AM (#36683120)

    why don't you share how to convert this to usable energy efficiently, because no one else on Earth knows how.

  • by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @11:04AM (#36683196) Homepage Journal

    It doesn't work at night.
    Battery technology is limited by physics and chemistry.
    Very little of it is in many places where you need it. The North East US for instance and all of Canada.
    Transmission lines are not a total solution. You will loose a lot of power shipping it from Texas to New York for example. Plus you have the NIMBY and the issues with massive centralization. If lots of power is sent over a few very good power lines from Texas to the North East those lines become a single point of failure. Since you will not build only one Nuclear plant to power the North East you have at least some redundancies compared to a thousand mile long power line.
    Solar cells will not follow Moore's law. Moore's law is based on things getting smaller. The amount of power a solar cell can produce is going to be tied directly the size of the cell.
    Economies of scale is also a mixed bag. Economies of scale fights with supply and demand for production to go up you must have the demand, high demand drives up prices which gets more people to start producing which should drive down prices in the long run the problem is that we are not there yet so demand goes up more than supply prices will first rise that will create a barrier to since it must compete with mature energy sources like natural gas.
    I am not anti solar or anti nuclear. I think that nuclear has a very bright future as a base load provider. I am also all for Solar as well. In the south every home should have a solar roof to help out with peak AC loads. However the pro solar and wind spout off buzz words like "Smart grid" and "Economies of Scale" without really understanding the problems or the meanings of the terms.
    Today I would have to agree with Mr. Gates that Nuclear is the way to replace Coal fired plants and to reduce CO2 emissions. I would love to see more research into Thorium cycle plants as well. I also want to see more funding for the Polywell reactor. In the county I live in we have two nuclear reactors and they are looking into building a wind farm as well. I am good with both. The fact is that Solar and Wind can not today or in the foreseeable future replace Coal, Nuclear, and or Hydro. It can and should be part of our current energy plans and future but so should nuclear.

  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Thursday July 07, 2011 @11:07AM (#36683226) Homepage Journal


    Yes, lots of energy comes from the Sun. 1Kw per sqr meter of the earth.
    We can get, 150-200 watts from a sqr meter of solar power, 5-6 hours a day assuming no clouds and clear sky.

    The US uses 122,471,071 920Kw per hour.

    That means we need 612,355,359.6 sqr meters just to get what we need for 6 hours. Now you actually need off paek sun, so triple it.

    And we don't have a way of storing, but if we did, we would need to double the area to collect it to store for the night.
    SO panel are out.

    Now we have Solar thermal generation. This is pretty good tech, but it use a LOT of water. Far more then Nuclear.
    So the best places for industrial solar thermal have little water, and none to spare.

    Should we build some massive Industrial Solar thermal pants? yes. Hell, I would take a huge area near a city, and sell the power at cost and see what it would take to completely power the city.
    The US government should do that so we can see if we can substantial lower the water requirement, see how practical it is, and let energy producing company get a good look at it.

    All that said, right now, with what we know, 4th gen thorium plants are our best solution to meet base load needs.


  • by Jodka ( 520060 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @11:14AM (#36683306)

    If you put Bill Gates, Vinod Khosla, and Sergey Brin & Larry Page in a room together it would be a massive love fest; From statements each has made independently it appears they are in close agreement on the subject energy. Bill Gates states the issue well. Compare to interviews with Khosla on the subject of his investment strategy and the REC initiative.

    People who gained wealth and fame by bringing improved technologies to market instinctively apply the same approach to energy. That is the Silicon Valley approach. In contrast, the energy policy emanating from Washington D.C. is a combination of vote buying using cash handouts to favored constituencies, e.g. corn ethanol subsidies, and using government coercion to extort cash payments from the public directly into the hands of the politicians, e.g. Al Gore's carbon offsets business.

    Genuinely greener technologies do not require government handouts. In fact, it is the opposite, they are cash cows for private investors. That is because efficiency is inherently and simultaneously more green and more profitable than inefficiency. The higher the ratio of outputs the more you get for less. That means spending less money on inputs and impacting the environment less by consuming fewer inputs in production per unit of output.

  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Thursday July 07, 2011 @11:15AM (#36683320) Homepage Journal

    1) Batteries are a tech that isn't good enough.

    2) That great..except the whole country is dark for periods of time

    3) this is pointless trolling

    4) Have you even bothered to calculate the land area you would need?

  • by Shatrat ( 855151 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @11:17AM (#36683358)
    There are plenty of people terrified of nuclear power, and there are plenty of people terrified of ghosts, for the same basic reasons.
  • Re:Wrong - Again! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 07, 2011 @11:23AM (#36683424)

    It comes down to a couple of simple questions. Firstly do you support a level of civilization that we currently have? That means all the things we use every day which requires energy. If you do, then you need lots of energy. If you don't then feel free to go back to the stone age and die from the next polio outbreak, cholera outbreak or famine. It really is that simple.

    I ask you to do a couple of searches for:

    1) How many people died as a result of Chernobyl?
    2) How many people died as a result of Fukushima?
    3) How many people died as a result of Coal mining?
    4) How much radiation is released as a result of burning Coal?

    Remember Chernobyl and Fukushima were not nearly as well designed as modern reactors. Unfortunately, we are forced to keep running these older designs because:

    A) The public still wants to continue to live in a civilization with a standard of living similar to before while population increases, B) The public didn't want new nuclear plants built. Which would have allowed older plants to be retired.
    C) The fuel rods at Fukushima should have been shipped to a long term storage facility scheduled for the U.S. but it was never built.
    D) Chernobyl is a special case. Read the detailed report. The operators did the equivalent of taking a pressure cooker on a stove and filling it up with loads of water and then shoving it onto the exhaust of a jet engine.

    So it's really that simple. Solar and Wind are all well and good, but they will not support the current level of civilization we enjoy. They may someday, and the use of them is not bad, but they simply wont cut it right now without deploying a huge number of them all over the place.

    So if you want to keep your current standard of living, you need reliable base-load energy, and that energy needs to come from somewhere. Nuclear provides lots of energy and if you do the research you will find has actually - even accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima included killed and harmed less people than fossil fuels. You may soon find more people die falling from wind turbines than Nuclear has killed.

    So choose what you want. You may decide that you do want to live in a technological civilization that needs energy, but you don't want nuclear. Just don't be surprised if when you take a cold hard look at the numbers, you discover you actually made things worse by building huge wind farms and solar plants, and that your level of civilization collapses somewhat due to the costs.

  • by JonySuede ( 1908576 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @11:51AM (#36683782) Journal

    This is pretty good tech, but it use a LOT of water.

    I why can't you condense the vapour back into water indefinitely ?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 07, 2011 @12:03PM (#36683922)

    The blue glow of death.

  • by Rockoon ( 1252108 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @12:08PM (#36684020)
    Please name the solar cell manufacturer that powers its factories with solar power. These people get the solar cells at cost, and if THEY wont use it.. then what the fuck?
  • by Shatrat ( 855151 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @12:52PM (#36684586)
    There are riders in the MotoGP championship who are asking not to have a race in Japan this year because of radiation fears. This is how retarded people can be, they are afraid of radiation from Fukushima which has killed no one as far as I know, but they won't blink at going 200+ miles per hour on a 230 horsepower motorcycle with titanium rods holding their bones together from the last race.
    Nuclear power is so many orders of magnitude safer than driving a car, smoking, eating red meat, pretty much anything else we do on a daily basis that the fear of it is pretty analogous to the fear of ghosts in my eyes. It's purely based on ignorance.
  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Thursday July 07, 2011 @03:40PM (#36686662)

    Potential problems:
    solar panels smashed en masse in a hail storm - solar is offline until panels are replaced and structure is back on grid power. If owner has insurance, that is used to pay for the replacement.
    Batteries leak, owner stops storing power for overnight use and goes back on to the grid, and replaces batteries and cleans up acid spill
    Absolute Worst Case- solar system causes a fire and the small structure burns.

    You left off people falling off of rooftops during installation, maintenance, and replacement. That kills far more people per TWh than nuclear.

    Contrast to nuclear:

    Spend billions to build obtain land, fight local opposition, and build the plant.
    spend millions to obtain ROW to install power transmission lines

    Per TWh generated, solar is currently far more expensive to construct and takes up more land. The average generation capacity of a U.S. nuclear plant is a bit over 1.5 GW. With a 90% capacity factor, that means they generate on average 1.4 GW throughout the year. Cost estimates for a new 1 GW reactor range from about $1 billion (Westinghouse's estimate after production is ramped up) to $5 billion (high end estimate) excluding interest payments for financing. So for 1.5 GW of capacity you're talking $1.5 - $7.7 billion.

    Commercial panels are only about 15% efficient. Some are up to 16%, and I've seen 18% ones available if you're willing to pay (a lot) extra. Go with 16%. Sunlight hits the earth's surface with about 700-800 W per m^2 perpendicular to the rays. Go with 750 W. So one square meter of commercial panels has a peak generating potential of ~120 Watts.

    Capacity factor, taking into account night, weather, changing angle of the sun throughout the day, etc. ranges from about 12% in the northern U.S. to 18% in the desert southwest. Assume you build in the best areas for solar and go with 18%. So the average annual production of of a square meter of panels is 120 W * 0.18 = 21.6 Watts.

    To match the average annual power generation of one nuclear plant (1.4 GW) at 21.6 Watts per m^2, you'd need 64.8 square km of PV panels. So already you can see solar is going to require acquiring a lot more land than nuclear. In terms of cost, if your construction budget matches that of the nuclear plant with the same power output ($1.5 - $7.7 billion), the panels have to cost $23 - $119 per square meter. No commercial panels are close to that price point yet, and this is ignoring the cost of batteries to time-shift your electricity production to match demand.

    Refine nuclear fuel in a high security factory
    transport fuel in an expensive manner via truck convoy
    employ dozens, if not hundreds of engineers and technicians to fuel, power up, and baby sit the reactor

    The U.S. currently uses about 2000 tons of enriched uranium as fuel each year in its 3-4 decade old heavy water reactors which don't reprocess. By volume that's about two tractor trailer's worth. The amount of high-risk material we're talking about to power the entire country is minuscule compared to alternatives. To power the average U.S. home for 30 years would require just 2.5 tablespoons of uranium, vs over 150 tons of coal.

    Personally, I don't see what the problem is. Nuclear is great for baseline load but sucks for daily load variances. Of the green renewables, only hydro is able to provide baseline load, but its real strength is being able to respond almost instantly to variable load. Solar's variable production coincides with daily load variances. So you start with nuclear as your baseline power source, add wind on top of that, add solar to compensate for some of the daily variance, and use hydro to top it off and make generation exactly match demand. Any solution which relies only on nuclear, or only on renewables adds considerable expense and engineering obstacles because you'd be using the technologies for things they suck at. And all of them are much, much better than coal.

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."