Technology Podcast: Energy

Kuraymat Solar Plant Courtesy of Green Prophet via Flickr
Kuraymat Solar Plant Courtesy of Green Prophet via Flickr

Bill Marcus sits down with futurist Brian Wang to discuss technological disruption and its effects on the fields of energy, internet infrastructure, climate change and poverty.




BILL MARCUS: This is part of the “Think Further” series, presented by Alger. This is Bill Marcus. Today, we’re going to be talking about the energy it’s going to take to power the future. Brian Wang is a Cognos Business process consultant is the Francisco Bay area. In that position, he creates, compares and evaluates business scenarios. He is also a long time futurist and lecturer at Singularity University. He holds an MBA in entrepreneurship and finance at the University of Calgary, but he’s most well-known for his blog, Next Big Future dot com. Next Big Future discusses a wide variety of topics from energy to aerospace, technology to robotics, and artificial intelligence.

In 2006, many of the predictions Brian Wang made for the then future of nanotechnology came true. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN WANG: Good morning.

BM: In the next five years, the internet is going to be everywhere: Google Moon, drones, WiFi. Tell me about the future.

BW: Yes, so people may not know it or think that the Google project is somewhere out there but it could happen in the next 12 months if they could start doing an air quote test with a hundred balloons that would provide internet to several hundred miles around the equator. And so over the next 5 years I believe that project as well as the long duration drones from them as well as Facebook, and a new generation of satellites for internet, low flying – will fill in many of the gaps that we currently have with internet, particularly with the developing world. And this will enable the bottom 2 billion to get connected because they will also get $10 – $20 smartphones and tablets.

BM: How is that going to transform business?

BW: That will transform business because internet sensors everywhere – even for them to connect to have their sensors and data to relay back that will reduce the power requirement – that will make all that easier so you can have those sensors out in the wild providing feedback. It will also mean that the concerns we currently have – can I get connected even just driving around the united states sometimes to rural areas – those kinds of issues will go away. We’ll have true connectivity.

Remotely themed power could be possible. Very low power requirements – they’ve already proved out powering devices on a laboratory scale where a device is powered off the wifi power. Where they transmit the white noise in order to provide a constant stream of power. So not just internet connection but also a low level power distribution.

BM: So all those 2 billion people in Africa who are living on one dollar and a quarter a day, they’ll have cell phones and they’re going be able to overcome poverty in some way?

BW: Yes. They’ll no longer be ox family poor. They’ll still be poor but once you have a little bit of electrical power – 20 to 40 watts – and also have lights and the internet and a device – you may still be illiterate but you can still connect and talk to a person in the next village and that the distance, the virtual distance between them will be less. They’ll be able to know where to sell their goods or get better prices. It will disrupt and transform their lives.

BM: In Africa for example, can you tell me about the new LED technologies, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa? How is that technology going to slow the progress of let’s say, climate change and reverse devastating trends of poverty?

BW: So, one of the major aspects of climate change or related to it is also the air pollution. People focus a lot on the CO2 but particulates actually cut nearly as much environmental impact in terms of temperature. Because in fact, particulates are dark and then they absorb more heat. That in particularly gets over the ice cap and makes it melt faster as well as any other mountain top areas. And particulates are easier, lower cost to deal with than CO2 issues. That it’s about 10 times cheaper to get your car to higher standards of complete burning. So having the clean lights with LEDs and solar, those low cost lights, no kerosene, also found on Kickstarter. Three years ago they cost 50 dollars a light and now, you can get them down to 10 dollars, even 8 dollars with the solar power combined.

And that means that the portable population doesn’t have to buy kerosene, which is their current method. And because they’re buying very low amounts of kerosene, their cost of kerosene matches 30 percent, even 300 percent more than buying kerosene in the cities.

They spend about 88 billion dollars per year on that. And the lights, at 10 dollars the payback time is 4 months. And then also if you were to buy a 100 watts on Alibaba and get a bit more volume, that cost can come down to 60 dollars or 50 dollars for a hundred watt panel. So the electrification of not just individuals, but billions making microgrids is happening and will be probably done in 5 year’s time.

BM: I was fascinated when I was reading what you had been writing about this. The numbers are staggering. Half a billion Africans are still using dangerous kerosene. 3 point 3 million lives lost because of smoke in their cooking process. And having electricity to enable clean water and reduce food spoilage would improve health and save 10 – 15 million lives. Is that accurate?

BW: Yeah, the World Health Organization indicates that the number of unnecessary deaths where people die, before the global average was about 75, now about 30 million. So out of the 55 million deaths a year, only say 15 20 million are from old age and the others are premature deaths, from primarily air pollution, unsafe water and unsafe sanitary conditions and also from malaria which is also being [unintelligible]. But there’s only a handful of major killers.

BM: Brian, there’s been a lot in the news lately about the Pope and the president of China making statements about your area of expertise, climate change. China president Xi Jinping announcing during his visit to the United States that in two years, China, the largest carbon emitting nation on the planet is going to limit and put a price on greenhouse gas emissions, a system known as cap and trade. But the New York Times writes and it’s not clear that China will be able to enact and enforce a program that substantially limits emissions. Coal is 60-70% of their energy. Is a policy from Beijing going to be able to make a difference and if it does, how will it effect the steel, cement, paper and electric power industries?

BW: I believe that China is serious about their air pollution problems, not necessary for the global, international agreement but because of the local impact. The local people know they can see the air they breath, that they cough up black. That domestic motivation is what will actually make this real. Because they’re building most of their coal plants new, they have the air pollution mitigating systems, gas bag smoke stacks and various other stuff to control most of the pollution. They will turn on all the devices. They will enforce the regulations because of the domestic uproar over the fact that their air pollution is terrible.

They also want to get more efficiency. By boosting your co2 to super critical higher temperatures, you can reduce the amount of coal or natural gas that you burn by 20 to 30 percent. That extra efficiency is something they want anyway. So moving to do the virtuous thing with energy is something that has both business and other social motivations that I think will make it reality.

BM: You talk about the impact of factory mass produced pebble beds and liquid metal reactors?

BW: Right, so China at the engineer leadership level, they are all in on nuclear power. They know that once they dam every river, which should happen by 2020, they will no longer have any other scalable clean source of energy. So even though they are building 60 percent of the nuclear reactors today in the world, this is them just getting started. Because they are going to go to triple DUS power. They are going to use any means to provide the energy they need in order to get people up to the per capital energy levels of the west. So that’s going to happen. They’ll do anything they can do to achieve it because there are hard and fast rules related to economics around GDP per kilowatt. So right now they’re experimenting, building every kind of reactor they can. They signed a deal with Bill Gates’ Terra Power to build his traveling reactor. They’ll all be building reactors through 2020, maybe 2025, then they’ll start getting serious about scaling it up. They’ll start building hundreds of gigawatts of that. And the way to do that just like they have mass production of their coal plants where they turn one new coal plant out every week, they can do that with nuclear too. They’re going to replace coal, they’re going to have the same power requirement if not more and they’re going to be building one new nuclear reactor every week. Even though it could take a year or two years – currently they take 4 or 5 years – but it’s the paleobed that might be able to get down to 2 years and some further refinement as they get better at it, they might be able to get it down to one year.

BM: Can you tell me about battery pack technologies?

BW: Batteries and battery pack technologies. So Elon Musk is making the giga factory where he’s increasing the amount of batteries we’re making. The scale of the amount of batteries he’s making should reduce the cost of batteries 30 to 40 percent just from using the same technology but building it on a larger scale. The factory scale which is also how China dominated solar, just by making larger factories. So the economies of scale aren’t coming from the overall industry but from the factories themselves and more efficiencies. So battery packs, there is improvements in technologies making battery packs themselves. Just like the balance of plants, not just for solar. There’s the battery cell and then how you pack it and getting more efficient on the materials and being able to lower that cost. It’s part of the overall factory process. And primarily to make it so that the factory more efficient.

BM: Brian Wang of Next Big Future dot com, I want to ask you one final wrap up question. Are there more creative ways that we can apply to work some of the problems that we simply aren’t engaging?

BW: Yeah, I think that we need to not look at in terms of how can we get clean and useful and economic power for 12 billion people in the world 40 50 years, and how do we clean this all up and make it economic. If we just look at small scale issues, we’re not going to get there. In terms of the climate, it’s a long process to clean it up. You’re biggest impacts are to clean up the particulates first. That’s your biggest issue. The co2, you’re going to have to live with it for a while. And bending the co2 is going to take a lot longer. If we adopt all the policies on it – and I’ve seen the studies – it doesn’t have an impact until twenty one hundred, if we stop every production now. So just forcing yourself to endure a lot of pain and do the choice is not particularly helpful but somehow makes you feel better, is not the way to go. Saying everybody must be virtuous – just like to obesity, if everyone only ate 1,500 calories, you’ll all be better – is not very realistic. People aren’t going to do it. So you need to do it from the engineering side. How do we build things that will work? We need to clean up the supply end. That’s where you can make the biggest impact technologically. And you have to have a plan to do it. Develop it, fund it, make the choices like to replace all the coal burners in the United States and in Europe. Have that policy happen. Pay who you need to pay on the corporate side. It has to be a profitable path. Companies will do what’s profitable so you have to have something that is profitable for the companies. Having a plan that involves some kind of weird sacrifice do to it is going against the current. You want something where people want to do it, where people who will fund it, people who build it, do it.

Then we on the consumer side don’t have to make some weird, bad choice. You want something that just works and we can build it where it just works. We need to look at it from an engineering perspective, a long term one. And the economics where it’s profitable.

BM: You’ve been listening to Brian Wang. Brian is the author of Next Big future dotcom. He’s a lecturer in the field of nanotechnology at Singularity University in the San Francisco Bay area. He’s a consultant and a futurist. Brian, thank you very much.

BW: Thank you, I enjoyed it a great deal.

BM: I’m Bill Marcus and this is part of the Think Further series presented by Alger.

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