Clean energy – where the smart money’s going
Imagine having several billion dollars of your own personal money to invest in projects that you believe in. There can’t be many people that rich. But Bill Gates is one of them – and I’ve been watching with interest what he decides is worth investing in when it comes to new low-carbon-energy technologies.
His support for innovation stems from his belief that the only way to reduce global carbon emissions is to find new solutions to generating energy affordably and reliably. Existing technologies can only achieve what we need at ‘beyond astronomical’ cost, he claims.
Yet new technologies need more funding to succeed. Currently, only 6% of the $100-billion in global government subsidies for renewable energy is spent on research and development. Gates believes this needs to double or even triple. Hence why he’s contributing $2-billion of his own money to the cause.
A safer form of nuclear power
His biggest single investment is in a Washington-state-based company called TerraPower, which has created a new way to generate nuclear power using something called a travelling wave reactor (TWR).
This technology is based on existing fast reactor technologies. But the major difference is that TWRs run on depleted rather than enriched uranium, which not only simplifies the process, but provides a good use for the waste from conventional nuclear power stations. And because TWRs generate little or no waste themselves, they are also much safer – and cheaper – to run.
TerraPower believes “taking a fresh look at an old idea can bring about substantial change”. So I’ll be watching with interest to see if and how quickly TWRs come to market – and what sort of return Mr Gates will be seeing on his investment.
Solar chemical power also gets support from Gates. This field hopes to find a way to commercially generate fuel from artificial photosynthesis.
For example, using only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide as inputs, researchers at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) in California are building prototypes they hope will create fuel with ten times the efficiency of natural photosynthesis.
The aim is to produce carbon-neutral transportation fuels, including hydrogen and methanol, plus fuels with high-energy density for aircraft. These fuels could be significantly more efficient than biofuel production processes and wouldn’t require arable land, agricultural feedstock or substantial inputs of energy or water.
If they get this right in time, this could challenge the mass transition to electric-power vehicles, providing an affordable, carbon-neutral alternative to petrol.
Wind power is becoming a relatively well-established technology. But the next generation of turbines could take it to higher level – quite literally.
High altitude flying turbines and kite balloons (‘kytoons’) could tap into the energy of the jet stream that circles the planet at around 20,000 feet above sea level.
Of course, this is some distance away from terra firma and would involve a hugely complex system of cables and tethers. “Capturing that energy is very difficult,” admits Gates. But he believes “there’s a 10% chance it’s the magic solution”. So watch this space…
Pulling carbon out of thin air
We know that many governments are pinning their hopes on the cost-effective commercialisation of carbon capture and storage technology, to extend the life of fossil fuel generation while minimising existing environmental impact. But Gates has already invested in another form or carbon capture – from the air around us.
The Canadian company Carbon Engineering has developed technology to pull the carbon dioxide out the air we breathe. This creates a stream of pure CO2 that can be sold and used in industrial applications, or captured and then permanently stored deep underground.
After five years in development, construction is currently underway to build a demo plant to test the technology at scale. So again, I’ll be interested to see how well the theory translates to reality.
For many innovators, finding a way to generate low-carbon power affordability, securely and sustainably is the Holy Grail. As Bill Gates has made his fortune by revolutionising the information technology sector, maybe his support can help new technologies succeed in this vital area too.
Wayne Mitchell is Director of Markets & Innovation for npower Business Solutions
This is a sponsored article.