TR: Then what kinds of energy miracles do we need?
BG: Almost everything called renewable energy is intermittent. I have another term for it: “energy farming.” In fact, you need not just a storage miracle, you need a transmission miracle, because intermittent sources are not available in an efficient form in all locations. Now, energy factories, which are hydrocarbon and nuclear energy–those things are nice. You can put a roof on them if you get bad weather. But energy farming? Good luck to you! Unfortunately, conventional energy factories emit CO2 and that is a very tough problem to solve, and there’s a huge disincentive to do research on it.
TR: You’ve said that nuclear energy has the best chance of being an energy miracle.
BG: Well, it’s the one I’ve gotten involved in. I spend time at TerraPower. I don’t claim to be the person who’s surveyed all the possibilities. I think solar thermal has a lot of promise. Solar chemical: some people see the possibilities at the research level. Algae: I’ve actually got some money in some of those [ventures]. Then there are crazy things like these high-wind kite guys. You really don’t want to rule anything out.
TR: Will TerraPower really build a traveling-wave reactor? And if so, where?
BG: We’re in discussions with basically everybody. TerraPower itself will not raise the money to build the reactor. We will partner with some mix of sovereign and private actors to get TP1, which is what we call our first reactor, and our dream is to build that by 2020. It’s more likely to be built in Asia than in North America or Europe. China’s the obvious one.
TR: TerraPower is far out.
BG: It’s very far out. It definitely needs to be categorized as a high-risk, wild thing, but the world only needs a few wild things to succeed. But you’ve got to get the pilot plant built, which is hard. You’ve got to have all the science and economics work the way they work on paper.
TR: How has being a philanthropist broadened you in a way that your career as a software entrepreneur did not?
BG: Believe me, when somebody’s in their entrepreneurial mode–being fanatical, inventing new things–the value they’re adding to the world is phenomenal. If they invent new technologies, that is an amazing thing. And they don’t even have to know how it’s going to help people. But it will: in education, medical research, you name it. So I was one of those fanatics in my 20s where I didn’t know about poor people. I worked night and day on software. I thought a lot about software. That’s a great mode to be in, but in my 30s I got exposure to management, although I was still writing some of the code. Then in my 40s, the majority of what I was doing was large-organization management and picking strategies, but I didn’t write any code that shipped in products. Now, in my 50s, I’m in a role that’s kind of like that.
The full transcript of the interview can be read here.