What about nuclear energy? You're very involved with developing what are known as next-generation nuclear plants.
The nuclear approach I'm involved in is called a traveling-wave reactor, which uses waste uranium for fuel. There's a lot of things that have to go right for that dream to come true — many decades of building demo plants, proving the economics are right. But if it does, you could have cheaper energy with no CO2 emissions. You'll still have issues with safety, proliferation, cost and fuel availability. But part of the beauty of the nuclear path, compared to all the energy-farming approaches, is you don't have a problem with location and storage.
By energy farming, you mean stuff like wind and solar?
Wind, solar, anything where you're just collecting the natural flux. The trouble with energy farming is that the energy isn't always where you want to use it, and it isn't always when you want to use it. So you have a tough transmission problem, which is often across political boundaries, and you have a tough storage problem — "tough" as in "may not be able to invent the solution."
Does the work of climate deniers play a part in preventing action?
People are at so many different places on this problem, it's hard to get a dialogue going. There are people who don't even know there's something important here at all — people who think, "Geez, is this real?" That's unfortunate. The fact that we're still arguing over "Is it real, yes or no?" has kind of clouded the debate. The real issue is, "Wait a minute — how soon and how big are these effects, and what does mitigation look like?"
You've just come back from China, which many people argue is beating us at energy innovation. Do you agree?
In order for the United States to do the right things for the long term, it appears to be helpful for us to have the prospect of humiliation. Sputnik helped us fund good science — really good science, the semiconductor came out of it. And in the 1980s, we were driven by state-sanctioned racism — the idea that Japan was going to take over everything. But look at consumer electronics today — it's Xbox, iPhone. Sometimes you overestimate your rival, and that can actually help.
Energy innovation is not a nationalistic game. If tomorrow some other country invented cheap energy with no CO2 output, would that be a bad day or a good day? For anybody who's reasonable, that would be, like, the best day ever. If all you care about is America's relative position, every day since the end of World War II has really been bad for you. So when somebody says to me, "Oh, the Chinese are helping to lower the cost of it, or creating something that emits less CO2," I say, "Great." The Chinese are also working on new drugs. When your children get sick, they might be able to take those drugs.
Let's say President Obama comes to you and says, "We need to make this energy transition happen quicker. Bill, you are going to be my energy guy." What are the two or three things you would tell him we should do right now, politics aside?
The first is a pretty dramatic increase in research and development — about $10 billion a year extra. The U.S. government has an annual budget of $3.5 trillion, so that's not a lot of money percentage-wise. To pay for it, you could tax energy usage at a very modest level, between one and two percent. That would make it budget-neutral.
Then you need a real energy plan. One example: If you're going to get sun and wind power out of the center of the country, you have to do some amazing transmission stuff out to the coasts. But if offshore wind is going to be gigantic, then the need for transmission is less imperative. Building transmission takes decades, so you've got to really have a plan that considers each option based on the likelihood of success. You have to write down the probabilities so you can shift resources as the probabilities shift.
What have you learned about energy politics in your trips to Washington?
The politics are hard. Anybody who thinks that once upon a time you just called up George Washington and he solved a messy problem like this — it's never happened that way.
The most important thing is to start working on the long-lead-time stuff early. That's why the funding for R&D feels urgent to me. If you said to me, "Hey, you can get R&D now in return for a carbon cap eight years from now," that would be a pretty good trade. The key thing about R&D is, it causes you to build different energy plants when the ones you have wear out. That's a 30-year decision, what you're putting in that place. If people knew there will be a carbon tax during the life of that plant, that really starts to change the decision.
What grade would you give the Obama administration on their energy policy?
I don't think I'd give them any different grade than they'd give themselves. They wanted to get additional R&D money, and they wanted to get some type of price signal in on carbon, and they haven't succeeded in doing it yet, so I think they'd give themselves an incomplete and I'd give them an incomplete. It may stay that way. Should they be trying harder? They have a lot of things going on.
Are you scared about the kind of world — and the kind of climate — your kids will inherit?
Climate change is a terrible problem, and it absolutely needs to be solved. It deserves to be a huge priority. But when you think of kids, you think of more immediate things like, "Will terrorists blow up a nuclear bomb?" When you start thinking about kids, I hope they fasten their seat belts. There's a lot to worry about.
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