One of humanity’s greatest failings is that we take someone who is accomplished in one field and assume that they are competent in all fields. It is in this light that we should, perhaps, view Bill Gates’ claims that we will see a clean energy breakthrough in the next 15 years.
In a letter to schools students in the USA, Gates says that if we are to end global poverty and reverse climate change, we will need “an energy miracle” – one that taxpayers will have to fund. Although he argues that such “miracles” (he cites examples like the Internet) have been seen before, he stops short of suggesting where we might look for this one.
One place where we probably won’t see a miracle is Gates’ favoured technology – liquid sodium breeder reactors. While these have the potential to generate power from the spent plutonium waste that the nuclear industry has already created, there are some pretty serious safety issues. As Charles Barton points out:
“The basic problem with sodium cooled reactors like the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor is the safety problem inherent in the use of sodium as a coolant. Sodium reacts chemically with both air and water, and will burn strongly with either. Hence sodium leaks become a significant issue with sodium cooled reactors. The history of sodium cooled reactors give scant comfort to those who argue that they are safe.”
Barton’s own preferred technology – liquid thorium salt reactors – might also provide the kind of “miracle” that Gates is looking for. But they come with problems of their own – not least that entirely new materials will have to be invented to contain the highly corrosive thorium fluoride salt used to generate the reactor fuel.
I hope that Gates turns out to be right. Some new energy breakthrough – most likely in fission or less likely in fusion – may provide humanity with a quick-fix solution to our growing energy/climate crisis. But then I define “hope” as “being optimistic about something that you have no ability to influence.” I also think that the technologies that will underpin our coming energy problems are the ones that we already have:
- Solar pv
- Solar thermal
The real problem is that no combination of these forms of generation is going to allow us to run a fossil fuel-based economy without fossil fuels. Looking for an energy miracle is just a way of distracting ourselves from the hard work and the lifestyle changes that we will have to make to mitigate the impacts of both increasingly expensive (to produce) fossil fuels and the environmental impacts of climate change.