Electricity is a basic necessity that powers our lives
When I recently heard Bill Gates tout cheap electricity as essential for improving the lives of poor people around the world, I was struck by how similar his opinion is to that of electric co-op leaders.
Gates was speaking during the February 27-29 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C. (This should not be confused with the Colorado Rural Electric Association’s Energy Innovations Summit held in the fall.) ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, was created to bring together scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to do transformational research in the energy field and to bridge the gap between basic energy research and the commercial application of new technologies.
As part of its mission, ARPA-E has sponsored its annual summit for the last three years. I did not attend the 2012 summit, but through the miracle of YouTube I was able to see and hear the keynote presentations. Among the many prominent speakers featured at the 2012 ARPA-E summit, the one I found most compelling was Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Gates was on a panel with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu that was moderated by John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff. Of course, we all know about Bill Gates the Harvard dropout, software genius, business mogul and philanthropist. He also happens to be a savvy thinker when it comes to the world’s energy issues, and his comments at the summit were instructive not only for the East Coast think tank crowd, but also for Colorado electricity consumers.
Perhaps the most important comment Gates made as part of the panel was his response to the moderator’s first question about why he was interested in energy issues. As you probably know, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been primarily concerned with public health issues in the developing world. But Gates made the point that the vast improvement in the human condition that has occurred over the last 200 to 300 years is due to what he called “energy intensification.” In other words, our standard of living has dramatically improved as the result of increased energy use.
He pointed out that in order to improve the lives of the “poorest one billion” people in the world, “having cheap energy” is critical to things like transportation and lighting, which are essential to basic human dignity. Gates made it clear that access to energy is just as important as access to food and health care for those in the developing world. Gates also recognized that while many people would like to see a transformation in the way we produce energy, people “underestimate how far away we are” from wide deployment of renewable sources of power. According to Gates, it will take a lot longer to transform our power supply system than the revolution we have seen in the information technology industry in the last 20 years because the power systems that are in place today that provide consistent, reliable power are expensive and complex.
He noted that if power from hydrocarbons is ruled out, “you have no baseload power.” It would take more than 100 times all the batteries ever produced to store the power from renewable sources that would be needed to replace power from fossil fuel-fired plants. To that end, Gates is one of the founders of TerraPower, a startup “Generation 4” nuclear power company that is exploring a new technology that would use nuclear power more efficiently and produce less waste.
Gates views this new nuclear design as the way to provide baseload energy with no carbon output. Gates also pointed out that there is no single technology on the horizon that is likely to provide the silver bullet for energy storage. He predicted that more than 90 percent of startup companies developing new technologies to integrate more renewable resources into our power mix will fail. Many of the points made by Bill Gates at the ARPA-E conference are relevant to the Colorado electric co-op program. We are strong advocates for the key role that affordable electricity plays in our lives. Affordable power is not only critical to the developing world, but it is also a fundamental building block in our world as well.
Electric co-ops also support continued research into new energy technologies, but we don’t have the luxury of waiting to see which technologies lead to affordable and reliable power. We have to rely on the tried and true for now because we have the obligation to provide reliable, uninterrupted power to you, our co-op member-owners. We applaud the entrepreneurial spirit that is necessary to find the “next big thing” in energy, but it is also refreshing to hear some of our points validated by one of the smartest guys in the room.
Originally published in Colorado Country Life.