Home' Technology Review : September October 2010 Contents q&a
technology review september / october 2010
That sounds politically unlikely.
Which is more likely: a carbon tax
with all sorts of markets and options and
uncertainties about prices, and traders
in the middle, and confusion about who
initially gets the most advantage? Or a
regulatory thing and a 2 percent tax to
fund the R&D so that utilities know they
can buy a plant that’s emitting hardly any
CO2? Raising energy prices by 2 percent
and sending it to R&D activities seems
easier in a weak economy than raising
them 20 percent. Now, 0 percent is the
easiest option of them all, but unfortu-
nately, that doesn’t get us the solution to
You’re saying that meeting our energy
needs will be both highly complicated
and fraught with unknown problems.
It is disappointing that some people
have painted this problem as easy to
solve. It’s not easy, and it’s bad for society
if we think it is, because then funding for
R&D doesn’t happen.
You’ve talked about the need for “energy
miracles.” But we’ve been waiting for such
breakthroughs for decades. TerraPower is
a traveling-wave reactor, a design that
dates back to the 1950s.
Well, no, we haven’t been working on
those things. The nuclear industry was
effectively shut down in the late ’70s.
And so evolutionary improvements on
those so-called Gen 3 designs really
didn’t happen, and more radical things
But let me get back to the main thrust
of your question. The CO2 problem is
simple. Any amount you emit causes
warming, because there’s about a 20 per-
cent fraction that stays for over 10,000
years. so the problem is to get essentially
to zero CO2 emissions. And that’s a very
hard problem, because you have sources
like agriculture, rice, cows, and small
sources out with the poorest people. so
you better get the big sources: you better
get rich-world transportation, rich-world
electricity, and so on to get anywhere
20 percent reduction in CO2
, then you’ve
just got the planet, what, another three
years? Congratulations! I mean, is that
what we have in mind: to delay Armaged-
don for three years? Is that really it?
The u.s. uses, per person, over twice as
much energy as most other rich coun-
tries. And so it’s easy to say we should
cut energy use through better buildings
and higher MPG and all sorts of things.
But even in the most optimistic case, if
the u.s. is cutting its energy intensity
by a factor of two, to get to european or
Japanese levels, the amount of increased
energy needed by poor people during
that time frame will mean that there’s
never going to be a year where the world
uses less energy. The only hope is less
CO2 per unit of energy. And no: there is
no existing technology that at anywhere
near economic levels gives us electricity
with zero CO2
Then what kinds of energy miracles do
Almost everything called renewable
energy is intermittent. I have another
term for it: “energy farming.” In fact, you
need not just a storage miracle, you need
a transmission miracle, because intermit-
tent sources are not available in an effi-
cient form in all locations. Now, energy
factories, which are hydrocarbon and
nuclear energy—those things are nice.
You can put a roof on them if you get
bad weather. But energy farming? Good
luck to you! unfortunately, conventional
energy factories emit CO2 and that is a
very tough problem to solve, and there’s a
huge disincentive to do research on it.
You’ve said that nuclear energy has the
best chance of being an energy miracle.
Well, it’s the one I’ve gotten involved in.
I spend time at TerraPower. I don’t claim
to be the person who’s surveyed all the
possibilities. I think solar thermal has a
lot of promise. solar chemical: some peo-
ple see the possibilities at the research
level. Algae: I’ve actually got some money
in some of those [ventures]. Then there
are crazy things like these high-wind kite
guys. You really don’t want to rule any-
Will TerraPower really build a traveling-
wave reactor? And if so, where?
We’re in discussions with basically
everybody. TerraPower itself will not raise
the money to build the reactor. We will
partner with some mix of sovereign and
private actors to get TP1, which is what
we call our first reactor, and our dream is
to build that by 2020. It’s more likely to
be built in Asia than in North America or
europe. China’s the obvious one.
TerraPower is far out.
It’s very far out. It definitely needs to
be categorized as a high-risk, wild thing,
but the world only needs a few wild
things to succeed. But you’ve got to get
the pilot plant built, which is hard. You’ve
got to have all the science and economics
work the way they work on paper.
How has being a philanthropist broad-
ened you in a way that your career as a
software entrepreneur did not?
Believe me, when somebody’s in their
entrepreneurial mode—being fanatical,
inventing new things—the value they’re
adding to the world is phenomenal. If
they invent new technologies, that is an
amazing thing. And they don’t even have
to know how it’s going to help people. But
it will: in education, medical research,
you name it. so I was one of those fanat-
ics in my 20s where I didn’t know about
poor people. I worked night and day on
software. I thought a lot about software.
That’s a great mode to be in, but in my 30s
I got exposure to management, although
I was still writing some of the code. Then
in my 40s, the majority of what I was
doing was large-organization manage-
ment and picking strategies, but I didn’t
write any code that shipped in products.
Now, in my 50s, I’m in a role that’s kind of
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