Innovating to Zero: Bill Gates (Full Transcript)

Some individual services even bring it down by 90%. There are other services, like how we make fertilizer, or how we do air transport, where the rooms for improvement are far, far less.

And so overall, if we’re optimistic, we may get a reduction of a factor of three to even, perhaps, a factor of six. But for these first three factors now, we’ve gone from 26 billion to, at best, maybe 13 billion tons, and that just won’t cut it.

So let’s look at this fourth factor — this is going to be a key one — and this is the amount of CO2 put out per each unit of energy.

So the question is: Can you actually get that to zero? If you burn coal, no. If you burn natural gas, no. Almost every way we make electricity today, except for the emerging renewables and nuclear, puts out CO2.

And so, what we’re going to have to do at a global scale, is create a new system. So we need energy miracles. Now, when I use the term “miracle,” I don’t mean something that’s impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle. The personal computer is a miracle. The Internet and its services are a miracle.

So the people here have participated in the creation of many miracles. Usually, we don’t have a deadline where you have to get the miracle by a certain date. Usually, you just kind of stand by, and some come along, some don’t. This is a case where we actually have to drive at full speed and get a miracle in a pretty tight timeline.

Now, I thought, “How could I really capture this? Is there some kind of natural illustration, some demonstration that would grab people’s imagination here?”

I thought back to a year ago when I brought mosquitoes, and somehow people enjoyed that. It really got them involved in the idea of, you know, there are people who live with mosquitoes.

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With energy, all I could come up with is this. I decided that releasing fireflies would be my contribution to the environment here this year. So here we have some natural fireflies. I’m told they don’t bite; in fact, they might not even leave that jar.

Now, there’s all sorts of gimmicky solutions like that one, but they don’t really add up too much. We need solutions, either one or several, that have unbelievable scale and unbelievable reliability.

And although there’s many directions that people are seeking, I really only see five that can achieve the big numbers. I’ve left out tide, geothermal, fusion, biofuels. Those may make some contribution, and if they can do better than I expect, so much the better.

But my key point here is that we’re going to have to work on each of these five, and we can’t give up any of them because they look daunting, because they all have significant challenges.

Let’s look first at burning fossil fuels, either burning coal or burning natural gas. What you need to do there seems like it might be simple, but it’s not. And that’s to take all the CO2, after you’ve burned it, going out the flue, pressurize it, create a liquid, put it somewhere, and hope it stays there.

Now, we have some pilot things that do this at the 60% to 80% level. But getting up to that full percentage — that will be very tricky. And agreeing on where these CO2 quantities should be put will be hard, but the toughest one here is this long-term issue: Who’s going to be sure? Who’s going to guarantee something that is literally billions of times larger than any type of waste you think of in terms of nuclear or other things?

This is a lot of volume. So that’s a tough one.

Next would be nuclear. It also has three big problems: cost, particularly in highly regulated countries, is high; the issue of safety, really feeling good about nothing could go wrong, that, even though you have these human operators, the fuel doesn’t get used for weapons.

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And then what do you do with the waste? Although it’s not very large, there are a lot of concerns about that. People need to feel good about it.

So three very tough problems that might be solvable, and so, should be worked on. The last three of the five, I’ve grouped together. These are what people often refer to as the renewable sources. And they actually — although it’s great they don’t require fuel — they have some disadvantages.

One is that the density of energy gathered in these technologies is dramatically less than a power plant. This is energy farming, so you’re talking about many square miles, thousands of times more area than you think of as a normal energy plant. Also, these are intermittent sources.

The sun doesn’t shine all day, it doesn’t shine every day, and likewise, the wind doesn’t blow all the time. And so, if you depend on these sources, you have to have some way of getting the energy during those time periods that it’s not available. So we’ve got big cost challenges here.

We have transmission challenges; for example, say this energy source is outside your country, you not only need the technology, but you have to deal with the risk of the energy coming from elsewhere.

And, finally, this storage problem. To dimensionalize this, I went through and looked at all the types of batteries made — for cars, for computers, for phones, for flashlights, for everything — and compared that to the amount of electrical energy the world uses.

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