Zakaria: Nathan Myhrvold on the Future of Energy

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Nathan Myhrvold Dan Lamont / ZUMA

The word “polymath” was invented for a man like Nathan Myhrvold, who earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics by age 23, studied with Stephen Hawking, made millions as Microsoft’s chief technology officer, and has lectured on topics as diverse as barbecuing and paleontology. Today he’s best known as a founder of Intellectual Ventures, a scientific think tank working on solutions to the world’s thorniest problems—including global warming. NEWSWEEK’s Fareed Zakaria spoke with him about alternative energy and geoengineering. Excerpts:

Which technologies do you think are most essential to the future of energy?

There’s a limit to how much you can deploy renewables, like wind or solar. People will talk about getting up to 30 percent of America’s power from renewables, but you can’t get to 100 percent because of their unreliability.

What are our other options?

One thing you can do is fund advanced nuclear. I’m a big fan of that and am working in that area. Nuclear energy is a baseload—meaning it’s power that you can run any time you want, day or night—and carbon-free. Another kind of R&D to invest in would be energy storage. If you had a really good --battery, it wouldn’t matter that the sun goes down at night and the wind stops blowing sometimes. But at the moment, battery technology is nowhere near good enough to use at utility scale.

Why is battery technology so difficult to improve?

The depressing thing about battery technology is that it gets better, but it gets better slowly. There are a whole bunch of problems in materials science and chemistry that come in trying to make existing batteries better. Maybe, just maybe, someone can come up with a breakthrough idea that would suddenly take [efficiency] up by a factor of 10. If you don’t have that, then I’m afraid the use of batteries in electric power and transportation is going to be limited.

You sound as if you don’t believe current technologies can make for a viable alternative-energy future.

There isn’t one that is comprehensive and viable. I think that is a better way to say it.

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Is this what makes you so interested in adaptation strategies?

Yes. Suppose we had the perfect technology today. It would still be an enormous, enormous task to go and build all-new power plants. We have to research geoengineering [the tactic of using technology to alter the globe’s climate] in case we need it. It seems very prudent to hedge your bets.

You’ve been identified with the idea of mimicking volcanic explosions to partially block the sun’s rays and thus mitigate global warming. Do you still think this is a good idea?

If you had a system for delivering sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, you could easily dim the sun by 1 percent, and even do it in a way that wouldn’t be visible. I’m not saying that we should deploy that tomorrow. I’m saying we should study it so that we can then un-derstand the pros and cons in case we ever needed to deploy it.

But the Icelandic volcano threw up huge amounts of ash and had very minimal effects on the weather.

The Icelandic volcano wasn’t powerful enough to get the material high enough in the atmosphere to cause a climate effect. In 1783 a larger Icelandic volcano erupted, and the winter of 1784 was extremely cold in Europe. It’s possible that if one of the big ones went off, it might actually buy us a couple of years.

Why do you think that people in the environmental community dismiss geoengineering?

They have this attitude for two reasons. One is that much of the environmental movement is anti-technology. They’ll say, “Isn’t there going to be an unintended consequence?” And I say, yes there is! When a heart surgeon does bypass surgery on you, you’re left with a big scar—but it saves your damn life. I think another reason is more political. A lot of environmentalists feel that if everyone believes there’s a simple fix, they’ll demand that. And then they’re never going to get rid of their SUVs and they’re never going to tax carbon.

But those concerns aren’t enough to dissuade you.

You’re still going to be burning coal to generate most of the world’s electricity until we have a clean baseload power source. There’s almost no way to get around that in the short term. In the long term, I think these problems can be solved. But I want to be clear: they have not been solved yet.

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