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Can the Gates-ian approach to treating infectious disease work to alleviate energy poverty?

Bill Gates in 1983.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’s has famously focused his philanthropic efforts on big, bold ideas, like eradicating infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

Now, fresh from his success in convincing several dozen billionaires to donate big chunks of their fortunes to charity, Mr. Gates is taking on the greatest challenge of our times: the quest for a sustainable energy revolution that won’t jeopardize life on Earth.

In a recent interview granted to MIT’s Technology Review, Mr. Gates ranged far and wide on a host of issues, including energy poverty, the lessons learned from his focus on public health solutions, and the search for clean, cheap, sustainable energy.

At The Charcoal Project we’re always looking for new ways of thinking about energy poverty alleviation, which is why we’ve chosen to share excerpts from the interview and, in some cases, provide our own thoughts in response to Mr. Gates’ views. (Excerpts are in italic.)

Taken from Technology Review: Q&A: Bill Gates. The cofounder of Microsoft talks energy, philanthropy and management style. By Jason Pontin

You are a member of the American Energy Innovation Council, the AEIC, which calls for a national energy policy that would increase U.S. investment in energy research every year from $5 billion to $16 billion.


I was stunned that the U.S. government invests so little.

Yeah, particularly when you look at the DOE budget, and it looks so big–but the biggest part of that by far is dealing with the legacy of nuclear weapons production at various sites around the country. I was stunned myself. You know, the National Institutes of Health invest a bit more than $30 billion.

The Gates Foundation is in that health area, and when we pick a disease to work on, we pick a disease where for some reason the market is not working. Like malaria: rich people don’t need a malaria vaccine. They are rarely in malarial areas, and when they are, they can take prophylactic drugs and not worry about it. And yet for the people who live there, over a million a year, mostly kids in Africa, die. When we did our first $50 million grant for malaria, about a decade ago, we more than doubled the amount of money going into malaria research at the time. It’s a horrific disease, but there’s not a market reward for coming up with a malaria vaccine.

So you made a market.

Yes, you can create a market where there’s no natural market. The biggest project, the one that’s furthest along, is where GlaxoSmithKline is doing a vaccine called R2SS, which is now in phase 3 [trials]. It’s not a perfect vaccine. It reduces mortality a bit more than 50 percent. And then we’re funding a lot of other things that aren’t as far along that–either by themselves or in combination–would get us a perfect vaccine. There are some very novel ideas in the early stages.

It occurs to us that Mr. Gates’ description above of how the market treats (or not) infectious diseases could easily apply to energy poverty and the 3 billion people who depend on biomass as their primary fuel. For one, the socio-economics of the victims are similar. Second, there is no natural market for clean cookstoves.

So, could a Gates-ian approach to combating infectious disease work for poverty alleviation? Maybe, but there are major, maybe irreconcilable differences, between the two. For one, a vaccine or a bednet will work just about anywhere in the world. Not so for clean cookstoves which require infinite adaptations and tweaking to ensure end-user adoption. Additionally, we still lack standards for what would constitute success. Is it less fuel consumption? Less emissions? By how much? What should the targets and standards be?

On the other hand, the investments necessary to come up with the appropriate technology for solving biomass energy efficiency for the energy poor is relatively modest compared to the funding required for a malaria or HIV/AIDS vaccine.

So why couldn’t huge, regular, dependable investments from your foundation make a difference?

In energy, we might have some involvement where it’s connected to things that wouldn’t happen for poor people otherwise. There may be some particular biomass approaches for getting local energy out where there’s no roads and infrastructure-there might not be a market signal for that type of innovation. You know, the poor people are the ones who are going to suffer the most from climate change. It’s unfortunately the poor people of the world who live in tropical zones, and there’s a variety of reasons for that. But that’s where agricultural productivity is already barely good enough for survival. Think of people in places like Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan. There, climate change will clearly reduce productivity without some big innovation in the seeds and the approaches.

Why the Gates Foundation has not zeroed in on biomass combustion energy efficiency as a priority is a mystery considering the multiplying effect that these would have on public health, poverty alleviation, climate change, and local environmental services.

Let’s talk about poverty. What is the minimum amount of energy that a person in a developing country should have access to for a reasonable standard of living?

Well, a level that’s about half of current European usage, which is a quarter of current U.S. usage. The room for efficiency–I’m saying it’s probably a factor of four. And then I’m saying the rest of the world should be allowed to live at that energy level. Now, the aggregate energy therefore for nine billion people, which is about what the peak population is expected to be, is dramatically greater than what we have today, and that’s why when you multiply that big E by the CO2 per E, that number better be pretty damn small, because you’re not just trying to stay where you are today; you’re trying to get 90 percent down from where you are today. So wow, that number has got to be approaching zero.

Energy obesity vs energy starvation: they are both undoubtedly related and undoubtedly bad to society and our environment.

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. We’ve been working on energy miracles–and we’ve seen nothing. Wouldn’t we be better off making the energy technologies we have more efficient?

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 designs that were measured according to their economics didn’t happen. There’s a lot of paper designs under the heading Gen 4, but most of those are going to be very, very expensive. They’re kind of cool science, but they’re very, very expensive.

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 percent fraction that stays for over 10,000 years. That’s the way the ocean equilibrates with the air on this planet. 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, that are single-point sources out with the poorest people. So you better get the big sources: you better get rich-world transport, rich-world electricity, and so on to get anywhere near your goal. And so when people say, “Shouldn’t we do X or Y or Z?”–well, if X or Y or Z gets you a 20 percent reduction, then you’ve just got the planet, what, another three years? Congratulations! I mean, is that what we have in mind: to delay Armageddon for three years? Is that really it? A 20 percent reduction is interesting, and it’s on the way to a 40, 60, 80 percent reduction, but most things that are low-hanging fruit are not scalable. The U.S. uses, per person, over twice as much energy as most other rich countries. (Put Canada and Australia aside, because they are almost as bad as us.) And so it’s easy to say we should cut energy use by building 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 when the world uses less energy. In other words, there is absolutely no hope if you just say the world should use less energy. The only hope is less CO2 per unit of energy. It may feel good for people to use less energy, and they should–if individually they can delay Armageddon for about one microsecond, everybody should do that–but you ought to save the political will and the money to make sure you’re doing the thing that really has a chance of solving the problem, and that’s CO2 intensity. 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 we need?

You know, take wind: it’s actually not that far from economical when it makes up the last 20 percent of the energy supply. But almost everything called renewable is intermittent. I also have another term for it: “energy farming.” The density is very low. We have no idea how to take those intermittent sources up to 50, 80, 90 percent. You can see this in microcosm in the Texas grid. When wind was like 2 percent, they would let the wind guys bid low and then fail to deliver, with no penalty. Well, now wind is up to about 8 percent of the Texas grid. And so the guys who are maintaining the standby power, which is mostly natural gas, are saying, “Hey, when the wind guys fail, shouldn’t they pay at least a penalty? Because most times they don’t fail, and yet we’ve always had to maintain this backup for them.” It just points up that without a storage miracle, you cannot take intermittent sources up to large numbers. In fact, not only do you need a storage miracle, you need a transmission miracle, because the intermittent sources are not available in an efficient form in all locations.

Now, energy factories, which are hydrocarbon and nuclear energy–those things are nice. Well, they have some nice things and some not-nice things. You can put a roof on them if you get bad weather: most coal plants have been built to withstand the 20-year hurricane. But energy farming? Good luck to you! Hail, wind, dust–what is your lifetime? Energy factories can be anywhere. They can withstand tough conditions. 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. People are willing, but until society decides that the government’s willing to certify storage locations and take the long-term risk and do the monitoring of trillions of cubic feet of CO2, it can’t happen. The complexity of managing, say, 50 years of U.S. carbon emissions–it makes Yucca Mountain look like the most trivial exercise ever contemplated. I happen to think that if you have the political will, the technical problems could be solved.

We look forward to the day when Mr. Gates makes energy poverty alleviation one of his top priorities!

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