Zero-Sum Game

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

With two power-players—Bill Gates and Barack Obama—placing their bets on nuclear energy, another round of debate begins over its place in a carbon-free future.

Illustration: Joe Kloc

Last Sunday marked the end of the 2010 TED conference, the yearly gathering of generally smart, funny, and interesting presenters who spend 18 minutes each describing their “ideas worth spreading.” Or, in the case of John Hodgman, how the circumstances of meeting his wife prove the existence of space aliens’ influence on worldly affairs. (Hey, the “E” does stand for “entertainment.”)

Nathan Myhrvold, the founder of Microsoft Research who now leads the innovation start-up Intellectual Ventures, may have taken a page from those space aliens. His talk this year was about inventions for the developing world. His weapon of choice against malaria? Laser cannons.

The basic idea behind his “Photonic Fence” is that, using parts from consumer electronics, a computer can visually track mosquitoes, distinguish them from beneficial insects by measuring their wing-beat frequency, then fry their wings with a pinpoint laser shot. Perhaps this was an attempt at upstaging his former boss, Bill Gates, who released a bunch of live mosquitoes on his TED audience last year during his own talk about fighting malaria.

But when you’re one of the richest men in the world, you don’t get outdone so easily. Gates was back at TED for 2010, and delivered what Alex Steffen of Worldchanging dubbed “The Most Important Climate Speech of the Year.”

The crux of that speech is a number, specifically, zero. That’s Gates’ goal for the amount of net carbon emissions the developed world will be releasing by the year 2050. What’s the big deal with another ambitious carbon target? As Steffen puts it, “When we talk zero, we sound crazy. When Bill Gates does it, bankers pick up the phone.”   

Gates lays it out in simple terms, literally the terms of an equation CO2=P x S x E x C. That is, our carbon emissions are the product of the number of people in the world, the services they use, the energy those services require, and the carbon needed for that energy. Keeping things simple, getting the term on the left side of that equation to zero means one of the variables on the right to zero as well. Dropping P or S to zero would be the definition of disaster, and E can only get there with a suspension of the law of thermodynamics. So that leaves us with one option.

The candidates for reducing carbon are likewise simple, in Gates’ estimation: Carbon capture and storage, and power from nuclear, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, and wind. It’s that first power source that has particularly caught his attention, however. To create the “energy miracle” necessary to bring C to zero, Gates is banking on a new form of fast reactor that will burn waste fuel, now in early development by a company called TerraPower. (Myhrvold’s got Gates’ back on this one: TerraPower is Intellectual Ventures’ main energy innovation project).

Gates’ speech coincides with President Obama’s announcement on Tuesday that he would be approving $8.3 Billion worth of loans to a Georgia energy company to build two nuclear power plants. These would be the first new American nuclear plants in 30 years, after public sentiment for them heavily soured due to the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979.

The move is seen as an olive branch to Republicans, who generally support nuclear power but oppose the other carbon-cutting measures Obama campaigned on. It’s also somewhat of a balancing act for a president who shuttered the nation’s only plans for a long-term nuclear waste storage site—Yucca Mountain—and who has also made nuclear disarmament a calling card of his career. 

And while these new reactors won’t exemplify Gates’ idea of energy miracles, it’s clear that the Obama administration, specifically Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, is a believer in the concept. The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program is more or less the model of innovation Gates is proposing.

Of course, not everyone is enamored with this approach. Gates’ bet on nuclear has set off the classic debates over its costs, safety, and the timeline on which it can provide the energy returns we need. Joe Romm of Climate Progress has an extremely detailed post on why “Bill Gates is Wrong on ‘Energy Miracles’”, essentially arguing that rapid deployment of the energy technology we have now trumps any realistic investments into innovation we could make. And David Roberts of Grist echoes Romm’s points a little more bluntly (his article is simply “Why Bill Gates is Wrong”), saying the balance between the last two variables in Gates’ formula—efficiency and carbon reduction in the energy supply—is not a zero-sum game.

I don’t think Gates would say it was, either. It’s easy to take shots at the world’s richest man when he promotes market-based solutions for climbing out of our carbon hole, but that’s the world in which he exists and holds the most sway. His ability to influence technological changes while others work on societal ones isn’t a zero-sum game either. The only “zero” that matters is on the other side of the equation, and if Bill Gates wants to pour billions into moving that number, more (nuclear) power to him.

Each week, Seed’s Evan Lerner offers his take on the events and issues that shape science, science policy, and science journalism. Read previous Weeks in Review here, or follow him on Twitter.

Originally published February 19, 2010

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