Gates Calls for Increased Spending on Energy Research, Renewed Focus on Nuclear

Bill Gates didn’t mince words last night when sharing with the IHS CERAWeek crowd his thoughts about public support for basic scientific research in the United States.

“It’s an incredible travesty that we’re spending so little,” he said.

Delivering the final evening keynote for the energy conference in Houston on Thursday, Gates, chairman of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, exhorted the energy industry to renew its focus on research and, especially, public support of science.

The energy sector, he said, spends too much on projects and too little on research and development. The U.S. energy budget, he said, ought to be doubled, which would mean an additional $8 billion in federal spending.

Gates suggested that federal support for innovation is more important in energy than in other fields because the returns don’t come right away. Because of that lead time, “it’s all the more urgent to get the innovators working on things.”

In capitalism, “You tend to underinvest in [this sort of] innovation,” Gates said, because the benefits flow to society as a whole. But in energy, “The room for innovation is simply mind-blowing.”

“Entities like the utilities really don’t get great recovery for getting involved in much R&D,” he said. There is some investment, but “nowhere near what it should be.”

Gates, who got his first big break—while only 15—debugging grid control software for TRW, told the audience how he’s always been interested in energy because of its capacity to affect the human race and human development. Energy affects an enormous range of basic human needs, he explained.

Asked how he might change public spending on energy, Gates went on, “We can put more money into solar, because there’s so many different approaches there. I’d love to see more nuclear, because those projects tend to come in bigger chunks.”

Research into carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) should also continue, he said.

While immediate returns may not be obvious, “things that are economic will come out,” he said. “We should put a whole lot more into basic research.” Some of this extra money could come from carbon taxes.

Among the ideas that might be pursued, Gates showed a particular interest in advancing nuclear technology. He also lauded potential advances in simulation software for nuclear plant design that could lead to safer, more efficient reactors.

Gates spent some time discussing his involvement with Bellevue, Wash.–based TerraPower, which is working to develop a new, safe form of breeder reactor.

“It is probably in a different league in terms of not needing humans to keep it safe at all times.”

The first test reactor is currently under development in China. Given China’s commitment to nuclear power, this project is “particularly attractive” to them, Gates said.

Discussing the potential for other advances, Gates pointed out that venture capital is starting to focus on energy, “which wasn’t the case ten years ago.” That means more early stage seed money. “I think it’s fantastic.”

“Frankly, we need hundreds of ideas because many of them won’t succeed.” (This is an approach shared by the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, reported on last week.)

Gates was less optimistic when the discussion turned to renewables.

Because renewables are intermittent in nature, getting them beyond a limited percentage of the mix means “you’re going to need mind-blowing advances in terms of storage capacity,” he said.

Right now, those storage technologies are “so far away from being economic.” That means there’s still a need for baseload resources like nuclear and fossil fuels with CCS.

Gates felt a carbon tax might be a way forward for renewables, to balance the playing field. “It’s tough to be a business that depends on subsidies.”

All of that, though, underscores the longer lead time for research and advances in energy, he said. “It’s an incredibly daunting field.”

The best long-term solution, he repeated, is likely going to be nuclear. If advanced, inherently safe designs like TerraPower prove to be viable, “You’ve got a source of energy that is incredibly economic without putting out CO2,” but that can also operate full time whenever needed.

“There’s not many solutions that have those characteristics, particularly if you don’t assume there’s a miracle in storage.”

Moving on from energy, Gates also discussed climate change and how this has impacted his work with the foundation he started with his wife.

“The climate is already challenging for an African farmer.”

While people in the United States might be paying more for food because of changes in the climate, for subsistence farmers in the Third World, “it’s a life and death issue.”

The rich world created the problem, Gates explained, but it is being felt most heavily in the poorest regions of the world. “There’s certain inequity in that.”

“We need to provide tools to help those farmers” deal with climate change, he said.

Asked how computing will advance in the next 20 years, Gate responded, “A lot of things that are hard today will be very straightforward.”

Information exchange will be much more seamless and streamlined. “The way we deal with information today is incredibly inefficient.”

That led to questions about cybersecurity, something Gates has been thinking about since his very beginnings in software development.

Recalling his teenage days working on TRW’s grid software, Gates said, “It was kind of scary,” realizing the things the program was going to help operate. He realized, “This thing needs to work.”

The future for cybersecurity, Gates went on, is developing better isolation practices. “Isolation is a primary solution for many of these problems,” not only physical isolation, but sandboxing of code so that software can’t be manipulated to do things it isn’t supposed to do.

Gates was optimistic that the challenges were manageable, precisely because people are concerned about it. “It will cause people to think about the architecture.”

“We’ll never completely solve it,” but plenty of progress can be made.

Asked about “big data” and its application to energy, Gates envisioned a database combining everything a utility might do and be involved in or concerned with, over a long period of time, which could then be mined for patterns and new applications.

“The sky is the limit on that depth of knowledge.”

Thomas W. Overton, JD is POWER’s gas technology editor. Follow him on Twitter @thomas_overton, @POWERmagazine.

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