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Climate change and the 75% problem

"To stop the planet from getting substantially warmer, we need breakthroughs in how we make things, grow food, and move people and goods—not just how we power our homes and cars....The world’s middle class has been growing at an unprecedented rate, and as you move up the income ladder, your carbon footprint expands. "

 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 21, 2020

The world’s middle class has been growing at an unprecedented rate, and as you move up the income ladder, your carbon footprint expands.

This seems to be the uncomfortable truth-- we want to continue growth, bring up populations to greater qualities of life, but with that comes the expanded global footprint. Of course the solution isn't to say that people shouldn't move up the income ladder, nor to suggest we change that goal. But it's finding ways for those who are already atop the ladder to have their needs met more sustainably-- cleaner energy, less waste, etc. But it's a tough spot to be in for sure. We're lucky to have Bill Gates taking these issues so close to heart

Maria Kiefer's picture
Maria Kiefer on May 21, 2020

It is indeed, but there are some signs of hope in this area when it comes to the microgrid approaches becoming more wide-spread and some preliminary research around reducing poverty and carbon impact.  This was another article I thought was interesting on that topic:  Getting people out of poverty and older homes helps cities cut emissions.

Obviously there's no magic solution, but definitely some reason for hope that we can find ways to increase standards of living while simultanously reducing carbon impacts across the board.  There are a few countries in South East Asia that have started to prove that you don't have to choose between increased GDP and sustainable energy solutions!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 21, 2020

Maria, on Bill Gates's list of forward goals defined in his Landscape of Innovation, "Next-Generation Nuclear Fission" is the #1 priority.

What about solar, wind in renewable energy? Though publicly Gates is circumspect on the subject, in private he's painfully direct:

Bill Gates Slams Unreliable Wind and Solar Energy (video)

Maria Kiefer's picture
Maria Kiefer on May 26, 2020

Hello Bob,

Obviously I don't speak for Bill, but I think the key of the above article that is trying to be highlighted is that electricity is only one part of the puzzle and that there are other major pieces of the puzzle to be determined in the fight against climate change: decarbonization of agriculture, industry, construction, and transportatation.  Unfortunately electricity is the main focus of a lot of discussion and it's had some solid strides so we need to spread the R&D money!

To the commentary on the type of energy, were you just trying to highlight that he doesn't seem pro-wind / solar?  My interpretation is that the concern of him / foundation is around area of greatest contribution.  Wind and solar technologies have had some major strides in decreasing cost to make them competitive whereas storage and other technologies such as carbon capture will need a lot more investment to make them commercially viable.  In the end while solar and wind are essential in the energy future, all of the major Energy Outlooks involve a blend of solutions!  Personally in the immediate future I would most love to see the offshore wind be picked up in the United States.

Cheers,

Maria

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 26, 2020

In the end while solar and wind are essential in the energy future, all of the major Energy Outlooks involve a blend of solutions! 

Agreed, Maria. We're not looking necessarily for a silver bullet-- since it likely doesn't exist. Rather the complex energy systems across the world will adapt to the unique solutions that work best for them based on costs, geographies, needs, etc. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 27, 2020

Maria, the idea cheap solar panels have reduced costs for consumers is more a product of marketing than anything else, as is the idea they are "more competitive". Are your electricity bills lower than they were ten years ago? In a state endowed with plentiful solar resources (California) mine are considerably higher, and like other Americans the utility that provides my electricity is a monopoly - there is no competition.

In the video, Gates was trying to explain the idea solar and wind can power a modern industrial economy is absurd, and it has a lot to do with intermittency. He explains why Japan's economy would crumble if industry was forced to rely on good weather to keep running, and why using batteries to run an electricity grid - to fill in when renewables are unavailable - remains hopelessly impractical. That's why Japan; even after the accident at Fukushima, is investing in more nuclear energy, not less.

I think most experts view electrification of energy as being essential to lowering carbon emissions, in as many areas as possible. So eventually it will all come down to how to best generate electricity without carbon emissions. Though solar and wind can help reduce emissions on a grid powered by fossil fuels, they're unnecessary on a nuclear-powered grid, and if we're serious about addressing climate change that's inevitably where we're headed.

Maria Kiefer's picture
Maria Kiefer on May 27, 2020

Hey Bob,

Those are good points - I actually meant "more competitive" in the context of a capacity market - that solar and wind can compete with traditional energy sources with fewer required subsidies (not everywhere, but often!) rather than in the context of the consumer.  The structuring of the electricity bills for consumers are a completely different beast to addressed and incorporates a lot of other topics.

I completely agree with you that a mixture of energy sources is required and certainly would be keen to see some of the modern nuclear be successful.  One of the more interesting articles I saw was this one: Nuclear Goes Retro - with a much Greener Outlook

I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 28, 2020

Maria,

Much controversy about capacity markets these days, mostly because they no longer do what they were designed to do. Originally, the purpose of capacity markets was to make payments to generation facilities for guarantees of future capacity: "From January through March of 2023 I will provide you with 1000 megawatthours of electricity, each day, for this price," for example. It gave generators some money in advance to build their plants, so they would be ready to go live when needed.

Then, wind and solar entrepreneurs stepped in and wanted a piece of the action, but there was a problem: due to the unpredictable nature of weather, neither could guarantee they would be able to provide the energy when it had been promised. They tried to justify payments using statistics: "statistically, there's a 35% chance it won't rain, and I'll be able to give you 1000 megawatthours on June 7, 2023. So I'll just charge 35% as much for my capacity, 'kay?".

For a moment everybody was happy, but then reality sank in: say you're booking an Uber to the airport, and the driver calls and tells you "There's only a 20% chance I'll be able to make it, so I'll charge you $5 instead of $25." Is that a deal you'd accept? Of course not - you might save $20, but you also might not make your flight. You'd waste the $900 you had spent on round-trip tickets!

Capacity payments don't make sense for renewables, period, and because they're inherently unreliable, they can't compete with dispatchable sources of electricity. Though suddenly this has become a big debate, it's something that never should have started in the first place.

//

The idea for molten salt reactors (MSRs) began with an experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s, where physicists assembled an 8-megawatt prototype. The reactor ran for a total of six years, generating 8 million watts of electricity non-stop, before it was shut down for political reasons (it was considered a resounding success, despite some technical problems).

Interest in the technology experienced a renaissance in 2005, after physicists Ralph Moir and Edward Teller ("The Father of the Hydrogen Bomb") published a paper describing how a hypothetical molten salt breeder reactor might work.

From 2011-2015 I attended several conferences sponsored by a group called the Thorium Energy Alliance, and spoke with Moir about progress on the technology. Much of the enthusiasm at the time was centered around the fact it couldn't "melt down". I discovered, however, that reactor meltdowns are virtually impossible at a modern U.S. plant (Fukushima and Chernobyl would never have been licensed to operate in the U.S. - not in the 1960s, not today). In 2012 two grad students at MIT started Transatomic Power, a company devoted to making an MSR that "would consume existing stockpiles of nuclear waste". In theory it was a great idea; in practice, it was a monumental task of engineering that would have required more money (a lot more) and expertise than the students could pull together. Transatomic Power folded in 2017.

Progress continues in China and Canada, but is not expected to yield fruit for another decade. For climate change, that's too long.

NuScale is the shining star in 4th-generation nuclear technology. Much about NuScale's Small Modular Reactor (SMR) is similar to existing plants, with several important differences: it's smaller, and runs at a lower temperature and operating pressure (think Crock Pot, vs. pressure cooker). The main attraction, however is cost - about 1/3 as much for the same power output as a "mainframe" 3rd-generation plant. The first NuScale plant is scheduled to go online in 2025 - not a moment too soon.

Maria Kiefer's picture
Maria Kiefer on May 28, 2020

Interesting, thanks! I'll keep an ear out for that in the news.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 24, 2020

It was great finding Bill Gates blog and interest in agriculture and soils. I also appreciate your focus on "distributed generation."

Without elaborating, I'll mention a proposal from 1987 advocating "recycled plastic livestock septic tanks," when this area of Minnesota had many dairy farms. Now that plastic is killing the Pacific Ocean, cow farts, soil fertility, and distributed generation are discussion topics, maybe the windmill politicos won't attack you.

Also worth mentioning, hay crops are the only crop not processed for added value. There might be a trick or two to separate the cellulose from nutrient, making non-ruminant livestock feed.

Several videos around, but the classic "The Plow That Broke the Plains, ca. 1937" is a good reminder for sustainable agriculture.

Maria Kiefer's picture

Thank Maria for the Post!

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