VIDEO: Billionaires’ Breakthrough Energy Coalition: No Manufacturing?

Gates, Branson, Zuckerberg, Soros form nonprofit. Why can’t they see the forest for the trees?

In a move clearly timed to coincide with the Paris COP 21 climate change talks, more than 20 of the world’s wealthiest people have announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

The concept is that the group will invest in firms working on zero carbon energy solutions that are scalable and marketable.

It’s an admirable goal and is entirely achievable, but in my opinion it’s another example of good money and good intentions disappearing into the wide chasm of institutional overthink.

Zero net carbon alternate energy sources are a bit like fusion power. They’re always a couple of decades away and they never emerge at street level. Thousands of laboratories across the world are each working on a tiny piece of a vast puzzle with no single entity emerging with a truly marketable solution. Everywhere on the planet, vast alternate energy megaprojects operate with massive government subsidies yet never seem to reach economic parity with fossil fuel production. Why?

Multiple alternate energy technologies are available but none are cost-effective. The Greens and the political Left would of course remedy the situation by simply making fossil fuels so expensive that in relative terms alternates look cheap. However, this irrational strategy simply crushes the standard of living of an already teetering middle-class in much of the Western world.

Alternative Energy Solutions are a Manufacturing Problem

A more sensible and simple solution is to attack this as a manufacturing problem. Economies of scale only really kick in with mass production numbers, so several alternate energy technologies are automatically ruled out. Maybe we won’t see a fourth-generation fission reactor or a large wind turbine in an ordinary residence, but photovoltaics are a different story.

Solar panels are graced with several major advantages. They have no moving parts, they’re infinitely scalable, they’re easy to install and wire—and they are efficient to package and ship. IKEA may be the master of the flat pack, but it has nothing on the amount of power that photovoltaics can pack into a 40-foot shipping container. This makes solar photovoltaic a logical way to attack the affordability problem.

So here’s my solution: forget cap and trade, carbon taxes and global summits on climate change. Call a special session of the UN General Assembly and commit the world to a global Apollo-style engineering project to develop mass-produced solar photovoltaics at $.10 a watt.

“That’s impossible,” they’ll say. With current technology it is, but so was the goal of landing men on the moon in less than 10 years back in the 1960s. A critical part of the success of the Apollo program wasn’t technological, although the extent of progress in that decade has probably never been equaled. I think the real driver was the PR angle: a young, hip president that defined an ambitious national goal with what author Mike Gray calls the three sacred specifications: Man, Moon, Decade.

The lack of clearly defined goals and timelines has killed many an ambitious project, but the Apollo program showed that essentially anything is possible if cost is no object. Extrapolate a US national space program to the 21st century and add modern computing power, advanced management and the resources of the entire planet—and I suspect that “$.10 in 10 years” will absolutely be achievable.

I’m not talking about developing a new photovoltaic technology; just new manufacturing technologies. That’s an important distinction because every manufacturing project requires some form of specification control.

Cost Effectiveness and an Engineering Focus may be the Key to Solving Climate Change

New innovations emerge all the time, but at some point it’s important to freeze the design and learn how to make what you have. I’m suggesting that the Breakthrough Energy Coalition and all the other environmental research programs stop looking for new ways to make clean energy and focus on ways to make it so cheap that global market forces will eliminate fossil fuels entirely.

Research will be necessary of course, but not in the sexy, Nobel-laureate world of advanced photonics and materials science. Truly useful research will focus on weatherproof, low-cost polymers for housings and frames, advanced assembly techniques that minimize fasteners and maximize the use of welding, staking and crimping. This will likely use high-speed automation.

If current semiconductor technologies are used, we’ll need a way to lower the cost of high-purity substances like silicon and gallium arsenide by maybe two orders of magnitude. Get the faculties of science and engineering at the world’s major universities working on that problem. Put them under the coordinated control of an experienced manufacturing engineering management team and I’m certain that they will be successful.

So why won’t it happen? Billionaires, politicians and journalists alike are seduced by the idea of the “Edison moment,” a eureka discovery that historians will brand as a key technological turning point.

Everyone knows that Thomas Edison invented the practical lightbulb. Few know that the technology that actually emerged was based on a tungsten wire filament and not the carbon-impregnated cotton loop invented by Edison. Who invented the machinery that made mass production of the electric lightbulb possible? I don’t know. I’ll bet you don’t either. And that’s the point: if we want to fix the CO2 problem, mass production is what matters—not the science. Elon Musk gets it. Let’s hope the other billionaires and global political leaders eventually figure it out, too.

For commentary and analysis on the COP21 summit in Paris, keep watching with here.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.