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By Robert Rapier on Apr 30, 2008 with no responses

How to Change the World

Fortune has a very interesting interview with Google co-founder Larry Page. He hits on a lot of topics that are frequently discussed here, and some that aren’t often discussed, but that I have spent a lot of time thinking about (e.g., geothermal). Here is a link to the interview:

Larry Page on how to change the world

And some energy-specific excerpts:

Do you have other examples where innovative leadership could move the needle?

I think there are a lot of areas. You can be a bit of a detective and ask, What are the industries where things haven’t changed much in 50 years? We’ve been looking a little at geothermal power. And you start thinking about it, and you say, Well, a couple of miles under this spot or almost any other place in the world, it’s pretty darn hot. How hard should it be to dig a really deep hole? We’ve been drilling for a long time, mostly for oil – and oil’s expensive. If you want to move heat around, you need bigger holes. The technology just hasn’t been developed for extracting heat. I imagine there’s pretty good odds that’s possible.

Solar thermal’s another area we’ve been working on; the numbers there are just astounding. In Southern California or Nevada, on a day with an average amount of sun, you can generate 800 megawatts on one square mile. And 800 megawatts is actually a lot. A nuclear plant is about 2,000 megawatts.

The amount of land that’s required to power the entire U.S. with electricity is something like 100 miles by 100 miles [RR comment: That's around what I have come up with whenever I tried to calculate it. Maybe that's where he got it, since I often get hits from Google in Mountain View. :-) ] So you say, “What do I need to do to generate that power?” You could buy solar cells. The problem is, at today’s solar prices you’d need trillions of dollars to generate all the electricity in the U.S. Then you say, “Well, how much do mirrors cost?” And it turns out you can buy pieces of glass and a mirror and you can cover those areas for not that much money. Somehow the world is not doing a good job of making this stuff available. As a society, on the larger questions we have, we’re not making reasonable progress.

And it looks like we are on the same page – no pun intended – regarding the solution to our energy problems:

So you think that geothermal and solar thermal could solve our energy problems?

Yeah, probably either one could generate all the energy we need. There’s no discipline to actually do this stuff, and you can also see this vested interest, risk-averse behavior, plus a lack of creativity. It sort of conspires. It’s also a timeliness thing; everyone said Sam Walton was crazy to build big stores in small towns. Almost everyone who has had an idea that’s somewhat revolutionary or wildly successful was first told they’re insane.

He also comments on who needs to be working on these changes:

Whose obligation is it to make this kind of change happen? Is it Google’s? The government’s? Stanford’s? Kleiner Perkins’?

I think it’s everybody who cares about making progress in the world. Let’s say there are 10,000 people working on these things. If we make that 100,000, we’ll probably get 10 times the progress.

And then you compare it with the number of engineers at Exxon and Chevron and ConocoPhillips who are trying to squeeze the last drop of oil out of somewhere, and all the science brainpower that’s going to that. It’s totally disproportionate to the return that they could get elsewhere.

What kind of background do you think is required to push these kinds of changes?

I think you need an engineering education where you can evaluate the alternatives. For example, are fuel cells a reasonable way to go or not? For that, you need a pretty general engineering and scientific education, which is not traditionally what happens. That’s not how I was trained. I was trained as a computer engineer. So I understand how to build computers, how to make software. I’ve learned on my own a lot of other things. If you look at the people who have high impact, they have pretty general knowledge. They don’t have a really narrowly focused education.