Microsoft founder and big time philanthrophist Bill Gates predicts in his annual foundation letter: "Within the next 15 years—and especially if young people get involved—I expect the world will discover a clean energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world."
Gates accepts the mainstream scientific projections that rising global temperatures resulting from unabated emissions of greenhouse gases would likely cause significant problems for humanity later in this century. In order to avoid these problems, he argues humanity needs to shift away from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral forms of energy. Current versions of carbon-neutral energy, chiefly solar and wind power, are not adequate because the sun doesn't always shine and wind doesn't always blow. While the capital costs for both are falling steeply, they are still far too expensive for the 1.3 billion poor people around the world who still lack access to modern energy supplies. A breakthrough in battery storage would help a lot, but progress remains slow.
The "miracle" Gates thinks will happen is that a new suite of zero-carbon technologies will drive the cost of energy production below that of fossil fuels. As he explains over at the Tech Insider, "When I say "an energy miracle," I mean that there will be some form of energy whose 24 hour cost really is competitive with hydrocarbons given, say, 20 years of learning curve. You invent it, then you look at how much its costs go down over the next 20 years, that it really beats hydrocarbons."
Gates is the organizer of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition which is a "public-private partnership between governments, research institutions, and investors. Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs can invent and scale the innovative technologies that will limit the impact of climate change while providing affordable and reliable energy to everyone." Gates is a believer in the role of government in subsidizing energy innovation and argues that such R&D spending needs to be tripled in the U.S. from $5 billion to $15 billion per year.
As examples of the type of research that might produce energy miracles, Gates cites work in which carbon dioxide is transformed into liquid fuels. The great thing about such liquid fuels, if they can be manufactured at scale, is that they are more or less compatible with our existing energy infrastructure, e.g., pipelines, internal combustion engines, etc.
So what energy bets is Gates making? One is Terrapower which aims to produce electricity by burning nuclear waste in traveling wave reactors. However, as Gates told Andrew Revkin over at Dot Earth, "The best case is that we have our pilot plant built by 2023, and that by 2030, this fourth-generation inherently safe design with all sorts of nice characteristics, including cost, becomes the standard for all nuclear builds from that point forward. That's the best case for this amazing, brilliant Terrapower design." Last September, Terrapower signed a memorandum of understanding with China National Nuclear Corporation to build the prototype of its reactor.
Of course, as I reported recently, there are is a lot of effort and excitement in the nuclear power arena nowadays and it's possible—with the right regulatory system—that nuclear power will cost less than burning fossil fuels.
In my newish book, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century, I outlined what I called the emerging energy climate consensus. I noted:
The fourth and most provocative plank of the new energy technology consensus is that government research and development spending on zero-carbon forms of energy supply must be dramatically ramped up. …
The better course would be to establish a level playing field by eliminating all energy subsidies and incentives and letting the cheapest technologies developed by innovators win in the marketplace. Proponents of markets must continue to push policy in this direction, but given the history of pervasive government intervention in energy markets, it is unlikely that governments will suddenly step back and allow markets to decide how to innovate and produce energy in the future. Energy production, especially for electricity, approximates a government-sanctioned monopoly that has the unfortunate side eect of stifling private innovation in energy production technology. Given that situation, the new consensus in favor of government-subsidized energy production research and development that aims to make zero- carbon energy supplies cheaper than fossil fuels looks like the least bad likely policy option for addressing concerns about climate change.
Man-made climate change is a problem, but it does not portend the end of the world. The solution to future climate change is the same as the remedy for other environmental problems—the application of human ingenuity and technology.
Like Bill Gates, I expect that an "energy miracle" will resolve the climate-energy-poverty conundrum well before the middle of this century.