(2022-05-10) Smith Interview Ramez Naam Futurist Author And Investor

Noah Smith Interview: Ramez Naam, futurist, author, and investor. In 2011 he wrote a guest post for Scientific American entitled “Smaller, cheaper, faster: Does Moore's law apply to solar cells?” that alerted the world to the startling, consistent, and seemingly unstoppable cost declines for solar energy.

N.S.: Lots of people, including yourself, have talked about the need to get off oil and gas quickly in order to starve Russia of income, as part of the Ukraine war assistance effort

First, while natural gas is a relatively small portion of Putin’s revenue from selling fossil fuels, it’s an enormous amount of his leverage over Europe

Because natural gas (methane) keeps the lights on. And because it’s a regionally traded commodity. You see, oil is a global commodity

Natural gas is different. The world has relatively little shipping capacity

If you look at where Europe uses methane gas, one third of it goes to buildings. That means building heat. Literally keeping your home or office warm. Another third is “heat and power” – that’s electricity. That’s keeping the lights on.

N.S.: OK, so how can Europe get off of Russian gas?

In the short term, it’s going to require something that environmentalists and climate activists don’t want to hear. Europe is going to need to bring in natural gas from elsewhere

That will mean Qatar. And it will mean natural gas exports from the US as LNG. This doesn’t make me happy

What’s most exciting about the chart above, though, is the long term, running out to 2030 (climate change)

accelerated build-out of solar and wind, alone, can more than make up for all imported Russian natural gas. And on top of that, it plans for increase deployment of electric heat pumps – which heat buildings though almost-magically-efficient use of electricity, rather than burning natural gas – along with increased energy efficiency, and deployment of new technologies like green hydrogen, made by using solar and wind electricity to electrolyze water.

What’s really exciting about this is that, as I’ve written about for years, deploying more clean energy makes future clean energy cheaper

Why does that matter now? Because natural gas was going to be the last fossil fuel we got rid of.

hidden inside those bar charts of the 2030 plan are some details that Europe has to figure out, that aren’t made clear

  • Energy storage, especially long-duration energy storage
  • Electricity transmission and the grid
  • Electrifying building heat
  • Offshore wind and floating offshore wind. Europe’s natural gas demand spikes in winter. As we electrify building heat, even more of the electricity peak of Europe will be in winter. Solar is a summer-peaking resource
  • Green hydrogen. A third of natural gas usage is for “industrial” uses such as making fertilizer and chemicals, or high temperature heat
  • Nuclear fusion, geothermal anywhere, and other next generation “clean firm” resources.

N.S.: Of course we should be doing the same thing in the U.S., right?

The energy provisions of the Build Back Better bill are fantastic.

Unfortunately, Build Back Better appears to be dead. By which I mean that the omnibus bill is likely dead.

In the meantime, 30 US states have clean energy standards or renewable portfolio standards on the books

Even in states where there aren’t binding standards, renewables are booming. Know which state in the US has the most combined wind and solar power? Guess. Is it California? No. It’s Texas. Why? Because Texas has an open electricity market that encourages direct price competition between different energy production resources, which advantages solar and wind, because they’ve been plunging in cost. Texas is also sunny, windy, has a lot of land, and makes it easy to build transmission, and to build things in general (which blue states ought to learn from).

N.S.: What do you think are the most exciting technologies in the clean energy space right now?

Green hydrogen technologies are plunging in cost, specifically the electrolyzers that use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

You can also use that green hydrogen as an input to make so called electro-fuels, fuels from solar and wind, that are liquid fuels you can put into an engine to power ships and planes.

That will take time to develop, probably more than this decade

Other areas that are seeing incredible price declines are energy storage for the grid, batteries for EVs (as we’ve already discussed), carbon removal technologies, alternative methods of industrial production that don’t even use hydrogen

N.S.: That's awesome. So what should policy be doing to accelerate progress in these technologies?

For the technologies that are in the most nascent stages, say, ultra-long-duration storage that can store power for weeks, or batteries that can store 10x the energy per unit weight of lithium ion, or plastics stronger than steel that could reduce the weight of everything, you want to invest in basic R&D.

For technologies that are hitting commercialization but aren’t yet big and aren’t yet cheap, you want policies that scale those industries. Those can be direct subsidies, like the solar and wind tax credits

or they can be performance standards that dictate that a certain percentage of the grid has to be clean electricity by this date, or that a certain fraction of auto sales have to be electric by this date, or that combined fleet fuel economy has to hit a certain number

Those performance standards are probably the most important and under-rated policy there is in clean energy.

The other policy we don’t talk about nearly enough, that’s even more under-rated, is getting out of the way of building things.

long-range, coast-to-coast power transmission is actually one of the cheapest ways to increase how much solar and wind we can use on the grid, to increase grid reliability across the country, and to lower the cost of energy. But bad regulation at the federal, state, and local level makes it hard to build. (world energy grid, NIMBY)

You want more clean energy? Fix NEPA. Get rid of the Jones Act so we can actually build offshore wind in the US. And Congress has to reform permitting of transmission lines to make it at least as easy to build a transmission line as it is to build an oil or gas pipeline

Finally, we need open markets for competition. Utilities are, in most states, regulated monopolies that don’t have to choose the cheapest energy. They get rewarded for building things, whether those things work well or were the cheapest option for their customers or not

N.S.: Is it possible to be any more specific at this point?

Here are some of the biggest unsolved climate problems:

  • Ultra-long duration storage (weeks)
  • Cheap clean industrial heat & industrial processes
  • Clean “firm” energy resources
  • Decarbonizing aviation and shipping
  • Decarbonizing building heat
  • Decarbonizing agriculture and ending deforestation – This is a big one. A quarter of the world’s emissions come from agriculture forestry and land use – AFOLU in the IPCC’s lingo. That comes form deforestation which is mostly caused by using land to grow livestock or biofuels.
  • Stabilizing fragile ecosystems
  • Direct climate system interventions. Geo-engineering: Everyone seems to hate this idea. But I have news for you. We are not going to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

N.S.: That's an awesome list. And in fact, it makes me want to segue into the next part of this interview, which is to ask about futurism in general.

I have been and continue to be an optimist. Over the long run, the world is clearly getting better.

Now, this has been a shitty decade or two on multiple of these fronts, to be honest

do I think this coming decade is special, or that we’re going to see a sudden burst of more rapid improvement? No, not particularly.

everything about biology is just really, really hard.

As forecasters, it’s absolutely essential that we actually look at what we predicted and see what we got right and got wrong. On energy, I’ve gotten a lot right. I’ve been one of the most accurate forecasters out there

On human biology, though? On life extension? On brain augmentation? I was wrong. These technologies have not improved quickly

Now, you asked about this in the context of energy and other tech like that. Okay. We do see progress there. But as a function of time, we’re going to see cost declines slow down

We’ve had just over 1 degree Celsius of warming. We’re most likely to get close to 2 degrees Celsius – or perhaps a bit more – before we get this under control.

Add to that our political problems, and then add on the way that biological problems get exponentially harder as you make progress, and we have some significant headwinds to overcome.

N.S.: Wow, I ended up being more techno-optimistic than the author of The Infinite Resource!

I am, in the words of the Extropian philosopher Max More, a “Dynamic Optimist”. That means I believe that things will get better. But not because they just magically get better on their own. I believe they’re going to get better because we’re going to make them better.

I do believe that the most likely path for the world is one of rising material abundance.

I also believe that – most likely – we’ll reverse this trend of stalling or even falling democracy, and we’ll return to a path of humanity become mostly more free over time.

But I think there is also an underestimation of risks and barriers, and some irrational exuberance about some technologies.

Some of the areas I think are overly hyped include:

  • Space. The prospect of self-sufficient colonies in space any time this century seems dim.
  • Human biology, and especially “life extension”.

How about energy? This is my top area of focus for the last decade.

Yet the total cost of electricity isn’t dropping. In the US, even as the cost of generating electricity has dropped, the cost of delivering energy (transmission and distribution) has gone up

None of this makes me a pessimist about the future. I think the future is better than the past. But I am a skeptic of the narrative that overall progress (as measured in quality of life of the median human) is really rapidly accelerating.

N.S.: OK so, last question. A lot of smart people out there want to get involved

At a technical level: Get involved. If you have professional skills, how do you deploy them?.... helping craft business models or marketing plans for products that improve humanity?

On a civil level: Can you help cut through the hyper-polarization that exists? Can you reach out to people with differing opinions

On a social level: Can you help cut through the heavy marketing of outrage and fear that media use to get clicks?

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