An extraordinary pair of events occurred this week. They concerned the future of energy and two of the world’s richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. No one took much notice but they have remarkable implications for the future of the American economy.
First, Gates returned from a secret visit to China where, it was revealed in the Chinese press, he struck a deal with the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation to develop the Travelling Wave Reactor, a highly innovative technology that Gates has been developing with his spin-off company, TerraPower. The Travelling Wave is a profoundly sophisticated technology that, thus far, exists only on paper. The idea is this: First, you design a fuel assembly in the shape of a long cigar, so that it burns slowly end-to-end. The uranium first “burns,” producing heat and electricity and transforming into plutonium and other highly radioactive isotopes in the process – creating what is usually called “nuclear waste.” But this is no “waste,” as the design of the reactor then allows the plutonium to “react” with itself as well, producing another round of nuclear fission and burning up the “waste” fuel in the process. By the time the “wave” has travelled end-to-end it will have generated up to 1000mW or more of electricity for a century with no refueling and very little waste remaining at the end of the process.
The Travelling Wave is the brainchild of Nathan Myhrvold, the legendary chief of research at Microsoft who, a decade ago, founded his own company, Intellectual Ventures, to research futuristic technology. Myhrvold settled on the Travelling Wave as the wave of the future and convinced Gates to fund TerraPower in order to develop it. The company is now working on the design with the aid of “1,024 Xeon core processors assembled on 128 blade servers,” which is a cluster that has “over 1,000 times the computational ability as a desktop computer,” according to its own report. TerraPower President John Gilleland estimates that a demonstration model can be assembled within ten years, with commercialization in 15.
But where to do all this? Developing nuclear technology in the United States means squeezing through the portals of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that 11-story building in Beltsville, Md., that serves as corporate headquarters and clearinghouse for all new ideas in the nuclear industry. Right now, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko is complaining he doesn’t have enough staff to conduct license-renewal applications for aging reactors such as Vermont Yankee and New York’sIndian Point (which will conveniently allow him to postpone these contentious issues until after the 2012 election, thereby protecting President Obama’s environmental flank). Getting approval from the NRC to build anything new is basically a lost cause. Eight years ago, innovative engineers at Los Alamos came up with the idea of creating Small Modular Reactors — like the kind we have put in submarines for the last half-century — and burying them deep underground so they could power a town of 20,000 with something that could fit in a church basement. Several start-up companies have been trying to commercialize small-modular reactors but so far they have barely managed to get a foot in the door at the NRC.
So where to go with your revolutionary ideas? Why, China, of course! There they don’t have a mandarinate bureaucracy or hordes of environmental lawyers waiting to oppose your every move. So Gates has taken his pet idea to China — which means, of course, that if the Travelling Wave ever becomes a reality, China will be manufacturing them.
But wait — don’t we have “alternative technologies” that are going to make all this fossil fuel and nuclear stuff unnecessary? That’s what Warren Buffett thinks. Last week his MidAmerican Energy Holdings plunked down $2 billion to buy the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in the Central Valley of California. This is one of those projects in which about five square miles of photovoltaic panels are deployed in order to produce slightly less electricity than the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear facility — and only when the sun shines. During the night, when nuclear power just about runs the whole country, we’ll have to try something else.
Is Buffett riding the wave of the future? Does he see something that Gates and others don’t recognize? Well, not really. What he is perceiving most clearly is the array of federal and state subsidies, plus California’s “renewable portfolio standard” that requires utilities to build and buy solar electricity regardless of whether it’s reliable or even needed. Buffett is not exactly a pioneer. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, would qualify as that. In an interview last month with the New York Times (which is beginning to catch on to some of this stuff), Crane said, “I have never seen anything that I have had to do in my 20 years in the power industry that involved less risk than these projects. It is just filling the desert with panels.” Even if these projects produce off-and-on electricity at four times the price of today’s power, they will be guaranteed a profit.
Buffett, ever the canny investor, is seeing his opportunities and taking them. He’ll make out alright. As for the future of American energy — the engine of our economy — well, that’s not nearly as bright.