Gates Continues Push for Energy Innovation

Dispatches from the Front Lines of Ecomodernism


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

February 28, 2016 | Alex Trembath

Bill Gates is continuing his admirable efforts to promote energy innovation through the recently launched Breakthrough Energy Coalition. 

Last week Gates was interviewed by Andy Revkin at DotEarth and Ezra Klein at Vox. He also answered my question on electrification in poor countries, which was pretty cool:

What role should centralized and decentralized technologies play in powering emerging economies, especially in sub-Saharan African countries? —Alex Trembath

Gates: The lowest cost of power when you have density of usage, comes with a large grid. But that requires the utility to have the capital and to get people to pay. And so even though that’s the end goal for urban areas, you want to be able to start out house by house, then create micro-grids and mini-grids and as they grow have technical standards that can coalesce them and lead to that most efficient solution. It’s been great seeing in Kenya, for example, how solar energy at the household and micro-grid level really is coming in for modest energy needs like cell phone recharging, charging lights at night. And there are interesting technologies for micro-geothermal, micro-hydro type solutions that don’t have some of the complexities of large-scale hydro. Creating micro-grids, which are then integrated, will be part of the process of getting Africa electrified.


CityLab's Julian Spector had a great piece on why the cost of nuclear power plants have risen in the United States. Spector's piece focuses on new research from Breakthrough's Jessica Lovering and Ted Nordhaus and Carnegie Mellon's Arthur Yip. He pretty much nails it:

Nuclear won’t make sense everywhere. It is, however, one of the largest sources of low-carbon energy currently operating worldwide. When governments weigh the costs and benefits, they should learn from the American example but recognize that it’s something of an anomaly. The rest of the world has lessons to share, too.


Lovering also wrote about her paper in Greentech Media last week, emphaszing the contexts where nuclear power has seen cost declines over time. For instance, of South Korea, Lovering writes:

There are many potential explanations for the positive learning in South Korea’s nuclear industry. Most notably, South Korea usually built reactors in pairs, often with four to eight reactors at a single site. South Korea also has a single utility that owns and operates all the nuclear power plants. It also happens to design and construct all the plants.


Joe Fassler wrote last week at the Smithsonian on why palm oil is not quite the environmental scourge we all imagine, but the choice we make over where to produce it can have major environmental impacts. Breakthrough's Marian Swain wrote similarly a few years ago.


I appreciated this quick video explainer on reviving mammoths, a major project of the Long Now Foundation:

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.


Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker are in India this month, and have a great note at India's Observer Research Foundation on why energy transitions are essential for environmental progress. 


Shellenberger could also be found last week on stage at UCLA talking renewable energy with Stanford's Mark Jacobson and Ken Caldeira, NRDC's Dale Bryk, and the Economist's Oliver Morton. Check it out.


With Oscar Season ending this week, I enjoyed this piece by Sarah Goodyear on why doomsday scenarios have become so prevalent in modern cinema.

Why are apocalyptic storylines striking such a nerve at this particular point in history? “I agree with a lot of scholars who say 9/11 is the incision in the American consciousness that changed everything,” says Karen Ritzenhoff, a professor in the department of communication at Central Connecticut State University and the co-editor of the recent book, “The Apocalypse in Film: Dystopias, Disaster, and Other Visions About the End of the World.” “Before 9/11, even if there was a Godzilla who was taking over New York, or there was a tidal wave that broke the Statue of Liberty, in the end you could survive it. There would be some kind of heroes. But since 9/11, there is no resolution, there is no happy end.”


Ecomodernism is, clearly, quite taken with the concept of modernity. That being the case, I greatly enjoyed this essay on modern civilization by Mike Lind at The Smart Set, in which he takes issue with The Stanford Review:

What the editors of the Stanford Review are calling “Western civilization” is really not Western civilization — that is, the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome or medieval European Christendom. What they have in mind is liberal modernity, which is not much older than the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The history of modernity goes back only three centuries or so, not three millennia. Isaac Newton, John Locke, and James Watt are its founders and culture heroes, not Homer or Aristotle or Aquinas.


'Manifesto' coauthor Erle Ellis has a great piece explaining his new theory of sociocultural niche construction.


Finally, the ecomodernist tweet-of-the-week goes to Breakthrough's own Linus Blomqvist, for dinging Bernie Sanders' strange nostalgia for farming:



Jesse Jenkins, "Which Nations Have Reduced Carbon Intensity Fastest?" April 3, 2012

Roger Pielke, Jr, "Clean Energy Stagnation," July 9, 2013

Max Luke, "Nuclear and Gas Account for Most Carbon Displacement Since 1950," September 3, 2013



"Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Power"

"Moderate Environmentalists Go Nuclear"

"Top Climate Scientists Urge Support of Nuclear Power"


Jessica Lovering, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger, "Out of the Nuclear Closet," September 2012



Editorial Board, "Don't Give Up on Nuclear Energy Yet," September 5, 2013

Eduardo Porter, "Coming Full Circle in Energy to Nuclear," August 20, 2013

Bryan Walsh, "New Nuclear Reactor Designs Could Address Safety and Cost Concerns," August 5, 2013

Amy Harder, "Can the US Government Revive Nuclear Power?" November 23, 2014

Tim McDonnell, "Obama's Deal with China Is a Big Win for Solar, Nuclear, and Clean Coal," November 12, 2014

Ashutosh Jogalekar, "Making Nuclear Energy Cheap," June 20, 2014

Martin LaMonica, "U-Power's Truck-Size Nuclear Power Plant," May 15, 2014

Robert Bryce, "A Nuclear Option for Energy," May 9, 2014

Ben Geman, "Greens Still See Red On Nuclear," February 2, 2014

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Can Climate Skeptics Save the Planet?" September 27, 2013

Ashutosh Jogalekar, "Nuclear vs. Renewables: A Tale of Disparaties," August 22, 2013

Bob Dreyfuss, "The IPCC Report and Nuclear Energy," August 21, 2013

Eduardo Porter, "Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear," August 20, 2013

Mark Halper, "Newfangled reactors will slash costs of nuclear power," July 16, 2013

Eliza Strickland, "Can Nuclear Reactors Be Cheap?" July 12, 2013

Fred Pearce, "New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet's Last Best Hope," July 15, 2013

Bryan Walsh, "Nuclear Energy is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?" July 8, 2013

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Going Green? Then Go Nuclear," May 22, 2013

Joe Garofoli, "Some Environmentalists Back Nuclear Power," June 13, 2013

Robert Bryce, "Rise of the Nuclear Greens," March 7, 2013

Colbert Report, "Tonight's guest: Michael Shellenberger explores global energy consumption, nuclear power and lessons from Frankenstein," January 28, 2013

Tim Wu, "If You Care About the Environment You Should Support Nuclear Power," January 24, 2013