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Bill Gates: Energy Visionary? (energy Manhattan project, yet again)

“If America can put a man on the moon, why should we stay in servitude to the first and second laws of thermodynamics? What we plainly need is a Manhattan Project–like the one that gave us the atomic bomb but not like the one that narrowly missed finding a cure for cancer.”

- Paul Samuelson, “Tragicomedy of the Energy Crisis,” Newsweek, July 2, 1979, p. 62.

“A group of industry leaders, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and General Electric boss Jeff Immelt, stepped up calls for a Manhattan project for low carbon energy last week urging the US government to significantly increase investment in energy research and development.”

- Danny Bradbury, “Gates and Co Demand Manhattan Project for Energy.” BusinessGreen.com, June 14, 2010.

Just as as the polls start finding that nobody thinks global warming matters much, and just as hockey stick predictions of catastrophe fall apart in a scientific scandal, guess who turns up at the White House?

Bill Gates! And the billionaire wants your money to federally fund research on “breakthrough” energy technologies to cope with carbon, an increase between $3 billion and $16 billion a year, possibly forever. The Wall Street Journal apparently lost its secret decoder ring and quotes him: “It’s the only way you’re going to get to the goal of not driving extreme climate change without extreme pain.”

In a video clip he says that ten years of research would mean that by 2030 “we’d be in a position to change the transportation infrastructure to zero carbon,” and likewise for electricity. Red ink in Washington a problem? No problem with “a modest energy tax,” or “cutting subsidies to fossil fuels.”

Subsidies? The U.S. Energy Information Administration defines them and finds that in 2007 coal got $932 million and gas and petroleum liquids got $2.1 billion. Even if your Congressman votes to kill them totally, that’s still only $3 billion. But before even hoping for any of this recall that your Congressman is the person who put the subsidies in place. Since $3 billion is rock bottom in Bill’s wish book, we are probably talking taxes or bonds for the rest.

Meet the New Energy Experts

Bill Gates didn’t go to Washington alone. He is a member of the American Energy Innovation Council (AEIC), made up of:

  • A retired Lockheed Martin executive (share price down 27% since Oct. 2007, S&P down 31%);
  • The CEO of Xerox (down 48%);
  • Bank of America’s Chairman (down 70%); and, of course;
  • Jeff Immelt of GE (down 61%).

 As for the other members’ firms, Microsoft is down 22 percent and Cummins Diesel is unchanged. The final member is renewables venture capitalist John Doerr, whose firm counts Al Gore as a partner.

Got it? A group of executives who have helped destroy billions of shareholder wealth (even relative to the market decline) have decided they know how to save America and the world. Oh, and it has to be done with your money rather than theirs. Note that the AEIC contains no one remotely related to the production of real energy, not even some exhibitionist CEO of a regulated utility wailing his concern for the planet as long as his carbon allowances come for free.

And the Council’s advisors? Lots of scientists, not a single economist.

National Energy Plan Redux

Best to sit down before learning that the Council’s first recommendation is for an “Independent National Energy Strategy Board,” a “small, politically-neutral high-level group with a lean operating budget and a focused mandate.” Exactly who appoints them is unstated. They will make up a “National Energy Plan” that’s “ambitious but achievable,” and its nice that they can make a call on the latter in advance.

The Plan would “also assess political path dependence questions” like “[c]an the utility industries be reformed to align with the nation’s 21st century aspirations.” The aspirations are not further specified, but I’ll bet mine are racier than yours. We start from an “in depth assessment of end uses” and their “potential for improvement,” after which things go to “special federally chartered corporation to develop and demonstrate large-scale energy technologies.”

Enthusiastic yet? We haven’t even gotten to the creation of “Centers of Excellence” in research, along with an energy equivalent of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. The payoff will come with a “New Energy Challenge” program that will build large-scale pilot projects. Your money, their choices.

Albuquerque Not

Yo, Mr. Gates. Do you remember what you did after leaving Harvard? You and some friends went down to Albuquerque to spend several months sleeping in shifts in a motel room near an industrial park. You came with nothing but an absurd expectation that something big might happen if you could figure out how to program a stone age computer called the Altair, whose manufacturer was belly up a couple of years later. You lived with a belief that what you were doing might just someday transform the world, and you lived to see it as reality.

Can you imagine where you would be now had there been a National Computing Strategy Board to coordinate research and investments? None of us really want to know what might have happened, although there is a chance we would have gotten something better than Windows Vista.

Private Innovation, Thank You

We already had a program a lot like AEIC’s back in the Jimmy Carter days–you can see the remnants of worthless coal gasification plants to this day. They were built in expectation of the imminent exhaustion of the nation’s natural gas, and along with them came thousands of pages of laws and regulations to maintain a just price for what little gas was left.

The biggest energy breakthrough of our lifetimes is happening right now, and without a National Energy Strategy Board. Shale gas is already reshaping the world’s politics and economics. It will do so for the next century, be largely beyond the control of governments, and most of this will be good.

All quotes and video are reachable from the AEIC site.

16 comments

1 Ed Tribuna { 06.18.10 at 3:26 am }

Messrs Gates, Buffet, et al have invested large sums in “green energy” start-ups that show no promise of generating a return on those investments – unless of course, we taxpayers bail them out.

The Wall Street Journal (at least in Europe) recently referred to them as “Captains of Subsidy”.

2 Steve C. { 06.18.10 at 7:54 am }

There is no doubt that some problems are amenable to resolution by some sort of “industrial mobilization” and focus. Generally, these problems can be characterized as engineering challenges. There is a defined goal and the resources (technology, knowledge, principles, funds) exist. The solution only requires some central authority to define the mission and then enforce the discipline needed to move toward the goal.

The other type of problem is the problem where we have some undefined want, but nobody can define a path to reaching that goal. As a nation we have been so successful at solving both types of problems, we are now convinced that we can do anything. That’s a great national attribute, it’s paid us many benefits, but the implication that we can accomplish anything if we put the right “smart” people in charge and given them unlimited resources is hubris of the first order.

The Manhattan Project and Apollo are both cited as models for how we can reach our green energy future. Neither is comparative because in the scheme of things they were both defined by specific and limited goals. A green energy future is nebulous. An ill defined goal, and one that lacks any economic analysis of the trade offs required to get there. (It’s much the same as “universal health care” another desirable outcome that founders on the reality of who gets to pay!)

These captains of industry would have much greater credibility in my mind if they had announced that they were creating some sort of foundation (like the old Bell Labs) and endowing it with billions of their dollars. Instead, what we see is no different than a bridge to no where. A group of industrialists have determined that is in their best interests (lower costs and reliable energy supplies not to mention sales) to get the rest of us to commit to long term funding of their vision.

Bill Gates has 50 billion dollars. He and Warren Buffet could fund this thing themselves for the next 20 years. But Mr. Gates is nothing if not rational. His personal foundation is focused on much more pedestrian concerns such as clean water, immunizations and science education. Maybe he is a realist after all.

3 Andrew { 06.18.10 at 8:01 am }

“If America can put a man on the moon, why should we stay in servitude to the first and second laws of thermodynamics?”

This is either Samuelson’s idea of a joke (in which case it isn’t funny, just appalling) or a case study in subjectivism. For Christ’s sake, the Apollo and Manhattan projects relied on understanding the laws of physics, not denial of them!

But clearly if you just “feel” like we should be able to get around them to have “alternative energy” you can just bend reality to your will.

No, seriously, that’s apparently what leftists actually believe.

4 Kennedy Maize { 06.18.10 at 10:12 am }

As a nation, we have thrown federal dollars after illusions consistently since WWII, with little real impact.
I was working in the Office of the Director at NIH in 1970 when Nixon announced his “War on Cancer,” with $100 million in funding (that was a lot at the time, but chump change for Gates or Buffett). The then-director of NIH, Robert Q. Marston made a public, impolitic statement that he couldn’t spend that much money on useful cancer research. A career civil servant, allegedly protected by the merit system, Nixon fired him (and he chose not to fight it).

We’ve made a lot of progress on cancer — including understanding that it is not just one disease, but many — but it wasn’t the result of the War on Cancer any more than Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated “moral equivalent of war” had anything to do with what progress we have made in energy technologies over the years. Government money to private-sector innovators can be useful, but doesn’t drive the process of innovation and invention, particularly the D part of R&D.

5 Ferdinand E. Banks { 06.18.10 at 12:00 pm }

I met Paul Samuelson once in Stockholm, and as somebody pointed out, that statement of his was a joke, because Mr Paul didn’t make mistakes where thermodynamics is concerned.

A council with many scientists but not a single economis? Hmm. That makes all the sense in the world to me. Why? Because after an hour or two of deep thought I could probably name a few reasonable energy economists, but unfortunately the woods are filled with the other kind, especially if you go hunting at MIT. Better send your short list for economists to me for verification before you make any reckless appointments.

As for the rest of it, I wonder what the **** is going on in that country. The bottom line in the energy thing for the US is somewhat more nuclear, and lot more renewables and alternatives, and sooner rather than later. Period. And remember folks, without the nuclear the renewables and alternatives will underperform. Can I prove the latter? Yeah.

6 Jon Boone { 06.19.10 at 12:36 pm }

Too bad Samuelson, with his quirky humor, didn’t call for breaking the bonds of the Third Law of Thermodynamics, overturning the Uncertainty Principle as well. Absolute zero is the perfect temperature in which to incubate renewable energy sloganeering.

And I’d loved to see how nuclear plants would help intermittent, highly variable renewables perform at contemporary standards of power. Such a ridiculous tandem would result in underperforming nuclear generation. Why go there at all?

7 Tom Stacy { 06.19.10 at 6:08 pm }

Unlike those manipulated by Congress, the laws of physics are, so far, unresponsive to the green energy lobby…

It is interesting to look at the PAC donations and lobbying budgets of the biggest energy concerns in the US. One good source is http://www.opensecrets.com.

And don’t forget https://www.cdproject.net/en-US/Results/Pages/reports.aspx

Maybe I am just getting impatient, but what do we all think can actually turn this watermelon juggernaut around ???

8 GoneWithTheWind { 06.21.10 at 8:17 pm }

There are no viable alternatives to oil, NG and coal. There aren’t even any legitimate promises of a viable alternative.

Photovoltaic panels (PV solar) are incredibly expensive and would take more money then there is in the world to replace our existing electrical generation system (not to mention it would not provide any energy for 16 hours a day).

Wind power is very slightly less expensive but dramatically less reliable.

Ethanol from corn is so bad it makes PV and wind look good. It actually takes 130% energy (most from oil) into the process to make the 100% energy from ethanol with. It is a huge failure which the government is unable or unwilling to recognize. There are NO alternatives and it is unlikely there will be any. Without exception every idea that has been floated as a solution to our energy problem has been a thinly disguised scam to extract subsidy money from the government.

The government presents its own problem. It is either to dishonest, to naive or to stupid to be allowed to work on this problem and if you doubt this ask yourself why more and more ethanol subsidy money is budgeted each year in spite of overwhelming evidence of it’s failure. There are a number of small steps we can take to conserve energy and eliminate waste. Most of these work best at the lowest level rather then something that can be done by the government and if the government gets involved it will only result in fraud, waste and abuse. The two best options available to us are more hydro (which goes contrary to what environmentalist want) and nuclear power which has been practically made impossible with red tape and bureaucracy. They both work, don’t require subsidies and we could build them today as fast and as many as we needed. However they will not replace oil or NG.

9 I"m a Doctor { 06.21.10 at 10:52 pm }

Trust me. I would LOVE to see some new clean and efficient energy source come down the pipe (like maybe we bombard some radioactive rods with alpha particles and heat water with it? Just throwing that out there). But this will NEVER happen as long as we refuse to acknowledge the ESTABLISHED FACTS OF PHYSICS. A huge one of which is that fossil fuels have lots and lots of stored energy from being trapped under the earth for millions of years. Windmills CANNOT COME CLOSE to returning the same amount of energy. Solar panels either. This is not Global Warming hocus pocus, these are facts that are infinitely provable and never wrong. So as long as Jeff Slimmelt and his ilk go to Washington looking for subsidies to “solve the energy crisis” with these beyond-inadequate means, WE CAN NEVER MOVE FORWARD. And the fact that your representatives CONTINUE TO GIVE THEM AUDIENCE IN FULL DENIAL OF THESE FACTS, should be all the proof you need that it’s not about science, its about rigging the system. Had the scientists of the REAL Manhattan project been this willfully ignorant to physics we’d all be speaking German-ese. Theirs would be a similar failure given their denial of reality.

I have the same pipe dream as Bill Gates. Difference is I know that dream won’t come true until Gates, Immelt and their audience of fools on Capitol Hill GO AWAY, in lieu of people with genuine interests who are capable of acknowledging the truth.

10 The Breakthrough Institute: The Emerging Climate Technology Consensus | TrendsCovered.com { 07.11.10 at 12:19 am }

[...] by Alex Evans of the UK Global Dashboard on the left and Robert Michaels of the Master Resource blog on the right, imagine [...]

11 Stanley E. Szymczyk, MA CPA { 07.12.10 at 1:02 pm }

Energy for the World.

Thank you

12 David McCallum { 09.12.10 at 7:50 am }

To expose the true nature of earth ‘s natural energy is to remove all hold over the world, of the establishment energy industry, and the financial cabal who under their many influences now control it. This knowledge would forever reverse the economic manipulation of the world power elite who will never relent unless forced, by a massive sweeping CHANGE OF THE HEART of society. Leadership unwilling to be held captive by any means, must initiate societal non participation without revolution. To solve the world energy needs and prevent the last war over energy from taking place, capital & the science of scalar energy needs to focus on immediate mass distribution of technologies already developed and used under black projects. Key persons at every curve in the road in many instutions are in place to prevent this knowledge from spreading into public awareness. The primary goal then is to educate the masses about these technologies, without the participation of mass media or the majority of mainstream instutions who would block momentum like a gate keeper. Technology must be the slave of the masses…not of the ruling elite to collapse civilization into their electronic cage of the New World Order. Far greater than solving the worlds physical & economic needs, knowledge of scalar energetics would teach humanity the nature of who & what we are, of our dual existance in the energetic plane and beyond. The goal of our adversary is to prevent this at all costs. The printing press created the industrial revolution. The internet can awaken civilization again, but can only be done if preceeded by a change of heart. Humanity faces destruction since we already have the knowledge ( held back ) because it is void of the heart.

13 rbradley { 05.24.11 at 11:25 am }

This article presents an argument that the success of the Manhattan Project was lucky and that big science rarely comes through with breakthrough technologies.

http://math-blog.com/2011/05/23/the-manhattan-project-considered-as-a-fluke/

14 Chris { 09.06.11 at 2:50 am }

What if we dedicated a few billion dollars a year to research aimed at increasing solar power efficiency. What if we were able to increase it by 500% in 5 years. Is this not possible? Why do we need to look for new energy sources and not look at increasing the efficiency of the ones we already have.

15 In Defense of Bill Gates | The Innovation Files { 01.30.12 at 4:21 pm }

[...] Michaels, an Adjunct Scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, urged Gates to remember how he made his fortune ostensibly free from government intrusion: [...]

16 Biggs { 04.13.12 at 7:00 pm }

From a non-doctor, lawyer, scientist, or for silly sake elected politician. Just a father..Well its like this, since oil has been used we are 2 trillion Barrels gone and 1 trillion left or so. With population models that will maybe last until 2035. Using corn for biofiel is a mistake on all counts, 4 to 1 on water to biofeul per gallon and energy spent to convert, not to mention land not used for food production. Nuclear energy is uncontrolled power at the fission level unfortunately at this time because we can’t contain the energy released yet. Not to mention, Not in My back yard policy on storing radioactive waste product left over. On just how we are using it to heat water to turn a blade on a generator is stone age. But I know I know….look at how unsafe it is in are recent history of Japan shake and wave ruin….

I agree on most of what was said above, about a waist of $$ a new panel control board to point fingers and think it knows what its saying because of a brief typed by others doing what they were told to do…..we can’t cry over spilled milk at this point..

For gods sake people…enough energy hits this planet in 1 hour to power all energy needs now and some not in use for a YEAR!

Solar panel, battery & storage and hydrogen technology has been side lined by fossil energy power brokers that have been a pool of 4-6 families in control for the last 70 yrs….

Hopefully what little power the government has on choices in the 7-15 yrs to change the publics mind on how to pay for transportation and extra power uses is best served by electric,algae biofuel and hydrogen-using sea water not drinking water…salt water has better properties anyway.

So the only way this will work is if the government leads in the directions of innovation of above mentioned and the private sector follows..STOP all subsidies to oil and the stupid Fraking for shale natural gas..its going to pollute are ground water! There is going to be escalation in water wars soon as it is..are CO2 levels are sky rocketing and algae eats it. Loosing the polar bears is just the start of down turn continuing in that oblivious way.

Maybe investing in nano technology with create new substances for better solar cells, power storage, automatic electrolysis to make hydrogen gas, or even containment for nuclear fission and bacteria that eats radioactive byproduct.. Better water management needs to be done ASAP so the rest of the world follows are lead..

Want more of this straight to the point, just ask.

C. Biggs

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