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Gates: We need an energy miracle

Gates: We need an energy miracle

The challenge we face is big, perhaps bigger than many people imagine. But so is the opportunity. If the world can find a source of cheap, clean energy, it will do more than halt climate change. It will transform the lives of millions of the poorest families.

Every year, Bill Gates writes a letter to students.

This year’s letter is about our climate and energy transition towards a renewable energy world.

In his letter, he notices that that all plans and existing techniques will not be sufficient enough to stop the global warming.

This year, Gates appeals to the students of today.

Gates: “We need an energy miracle. You might just have the answer. You may be wondering what you can do to help.”

Scientists like at MIT say that – to avoid the dramatic long-term changes to the climate – the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent by 2050. And we have to eliminate them entirely by the end of the century.

From his letter

When I first heard this, I was surprised. I asked may scientists: Can’t we just aim to cut carbon emissions in half? But they all agreed that wouldn’t be enough.

CO2

The problem is that CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for decades.

Even if we halted carbon emissions tomorrow, the temperature would still rise because of the carbon that’s already been released. No, we need to get all the way down to zero.

36 billion tons of carbon dioxide

That’s a huge challenge. In 2015, the world emitted 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide to produce energy. This is a mind-boggling number.

For example, someone may tell you they know how to remove 100 million tons of carbon per year. That sounds like a lot, but if you do the math – 100 million divided by 36 billion – you’ll see that they’re talking about 0.3 percent of the problem.

Gates informs students about global carbon emissions from fossils

Gates: We need an energy miracle. Every reduction in emissions helps, but we still have to work on the other 99.7 percent.

Math buts out the noise

How can we ever reduce a number like 36 billion tons to zero? Whenever I am confronted with a big problem I turn to my favorite subject: math.

Math cuts out the noise and helps him distill a problem down to its basic elements.

What I needed was an equation that would help to understand how we might get our CO2 down to zero. Here’s what I came up with:

gates meth calculations

Let’s take a look at (E). That’s the energy needed per service. There’s some good news here. Fuel-efficient cars, LED light bulbs, and other inventions are making it possible to use energy more efficiently.

Explanation of the math

CO2 needs to be zero
On the right side you have the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we put in the atmosphere. This is what we need to get to zero.

This math formula is based on the four factors on the left side of the equation:

  1. the world’s population (P)
  2. multiplied by the services (S) used by each person
  3. the energy (E) needed to provide each of those services
  4. the carbon dioxide (C) produced by that energy

If we want to get to zero CO2, then we need to get at least one of the four factors on the left to zero. Let’s go through them, one by one, and see what we get.

World’s population

The world’s population (P) is currently 7 billion and expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050. No chance it’ll be zero.

Services

Services is everything: food, clothing, heat, houses, cars, TV, toothbrushes, dolls, dvd’s etc.

This is the number that needs to go up in developing countries, so people can have lights, refrigerators, and so on. So (S) can’t be zero, either.

Energy

The (E) is energy needed per service. There’s some good news here:

  • Fuel-efficient cars
  • LED light bulbs
  • other inventions

These new technologies are making it possible to use energy more efficiently.

Many people are also changing their lifestyles to conserve energy like:

  • they’re biking and carpooling to save gas
  • turning down the heat a couple degrees
  • adding insulation to their homes

All of these efforts help cut down on energy use.

Unfortunately, they don’t get us to zero. In fact, most scientists agree that by 2050 we’ll be using 50 percent more energy than we do today.

Conclusion: C is our best shot

None of the first three—population, services, and energy—are getting close to zero. That leaves the final factor (C), the amount of carbon emitted per each unit of energy.

Renewables

New green technologies are allowing the world to produce more carbon-free energy from solar and wind power.

It’s great that these are getting cheaper and more people are using them. We should use more of them where it makes sense, like in places where it’s especially sunny or windy.

And by installing special new power lines we could make even more use of solar and wind power.

Urgently needed: new inventions

In order to stop climate change and make energy affordable for everyone, we’re going to need some new inventions.

Why?

  • Solar and wind power are reliable energy sources so long as the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
  • But people still need dependable energy on cloudy days, at nighttime, and when the air is still.
  • That means power companies often back up these renewable sources with fossil fuels like coal or natural gas, which emit greenhouse gases.
  • It would help if we had a great system for storing solar and wind power. But at this moment, the best energy storage options are rechargeable batteries, and they are expensive.

So we need more powerful, more economical solutions.In short, we need an energy miracle.

Miracle but possible

When Gates said “miracle” He doesn’t mean something that’s impossible. Gates seen miracles happen before.

  1. The personal computer
  2. Internet
  3. The polio vaccine

None of them happened by chance. They are the result of research and development and the human capacity to innovate.

We are running out of time

In this case, however, time is not on our side.

Every day we are releasing more and more CO2 into our atmosphere and making our climate change problem even worse.

We need a massive amount of research into thousands of new ideas—even ones that might sound a little crazy—if we want to get to zero emissions by the end of this century.

Needed: thousands of different ideas

New ways to make solar and wind power available to everyone around the clock could be one solution.

Some of the crazier inventions Gates is excited about are a possible way to use solar energy to produce fuel, much like plants use sunlight to make food for themselves, and batteries the size of swimming pools with huge storage capacity.

Many of these ideas won’t work, but that’s okay. Each dead end will teach us something useful and keep us moving forward.

As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

But to find thousands of ways that won’t work, you first need to try thousands of different ideas. That’s not happening nearly enough.

What can you can do?

  1. First, it’s important for everyone to get educated about this energy challenge.
    Many young people are already actively involved in climate and energy issues and I’m sure they could use more help.
    Your generation is one of the most globally minded in history, adept at looking at our world’s problems beyond national borders. This will be a valuable asset as we work on global solutions in the decades ahead.
  2. Second, if you’re someone with some crazy-sounding ideas to solve our energy challenge, the world needs you.
    Study extra hard in your math and sciences. You might just have the answer.

Gates prediction

I’m so optimistic about the world’s ability to make a miracle happen that I’m willing to make a prediction.

Within the next 15 years – and especially if young people get involved – I expect the world will discover a clean energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world.

Imagine this

I like to think about what an energy miracle like that would mean in a slum I once visited in Nigeria. It was home to tens of thousands of people but there was no electricity. As night fell, no lights flickered on. The only glow came from open fires lit in metal barrels, where people gathered for the evening. There was no other light for kids to study by, no easy way to run a business or power local clinics and hospitals. It was sad to think about all of the potential in this community that was going untapped.

A cheap, clean source of energy would change everything.

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