Scale matters. Let’s talk about it.

We need to have better conversations about the energy challenges we face.

Senior Science and Economics Correspondent
An illustration that shows a giant white factory building in the middle of a dry landscape ringed by mountains.
The Tesla Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada in 2021. Here, Tesla Motors manufactures lithium-ion battery and electric vehicle components. Illustration by Nadya Nickels. Photo by JasonDoiy via iStock.

LONDON — To understand the scale of the energy transition, it helps to look at Nevada.

In a room packed with global energy and climate technology leaders here, Eric Toone, the chief technology officer of Breakthrough Energy, did just that as he shared a distressing statistic about the $6 billion Tesla Gigafactory.

“This is the largest battery production facility on Earth in Nevada. Annual output from the Tesla Gigafactory stores three minutes of the U.S. grid. It would take 1,000 years of production from the Tesla Gigafactory to store two days’ worth of U.S. energy. So how is this going to work?”

In a TED-talk style speech to open the first day of Breakthrough Energy’s biennial summit, Toone used the Gigafactory example to illustrate the prodigious need for energy storage to back up the vast amount of variable wind and solar coming online. (Breakthrough Energy also supports Cipher.)

A chemist and former leader of the U.S. Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, Toone recounted the history of energy from the early use of whale oil in the mid-19th century to recent breakthroughs in nuclear fusion.

Today, the story has a specific urgency: as the consequences of climate change worsen, the world is trying to decarbonize its energy systems while simultaneously meeting mounting demand, especially from lower-income countries. Increasing energy demand is a proxy for rising prosperity, a point Toone returned to throughout his speech.

Grasping the enormity of our energy systems and the challenge of transitioning to clean energy is like trying to imagine how many teaspoons of saltwater make up the ocean or trying to count the number of stars in the sky.

Energy systems and products are woven into every fabric of our life, Toone said. He offered the example of petroleum, which is used to produce compounds found in everything from fabrics and biomedicines to adhesives and fragrances.

“Every drop of that barrel of oil gets used — every drop, and even more importantly, the economics of every drop of that barrel of oil depends on the economics of every other drop in that barrel of oil. There’s no way I can take a little slice out of this thing and imagine that it’s going to operate in a vacuum,” Toone said.

A man stands on a large stage in front of a screen with a colorful picture of a landscape behind him.

Eric Toone, chief technology officer of Breakthrough Energy, speaks at the Breakthrough Energy Summit in London on June 26, 2024. Photo by Cat Clifford.

If we don’t do a better job attempting to understand the size and complexity of the energy transition challenge, we won’t be able to meet it, he emphasized.

“It’s important that we have clear eyes and understand the magnitude of the challenge that’s in front of us. There’s no sugar coating this,” Toone said. “There is no easy button to push here. It’s hard work, and it’s going to take a long time.”  

Toone is not alone in this thinking.

“We certainly should not become paralyzed,” Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in New York, told Cipher. “But it doesn’t help us meet the climate challenge, either, if we pretend this is easier than it is.”

Understanding the scale of the problem is as important as scaling up the solutions to meet it, said Bill Gates, the founder of Breakthrough Energy, on Wednesday morning at the confab in London. “We’ll be measured by scale,” he said.

Rising energy use

Low-income countries will require ever more energy as their populations work to emerge from poverty. Rising energy needs worldwide combined with ever-more urgent decarbonization efforts together mean global energy demand is expected to double by the end of the century, Toone said.

The stakes of meeting that need are high.

“There is a clear and relatively unbreakable relationship between GDP growth and growth in energy use,” Bordoff, who also attended the Summit, told Cipher.

“It provides health and prosperity and allows you to study and read at night, refrigerate food and medicine, transport your agricultural goods to market — all things that come with a higher standard of living, and we have to make sure that we can provide that to the developing world,” Bordoff said.

The impending increase in energy demand from emerging economies is “not always fully appreciated,” he added.

For example, Bordoff said, India has a “staggeringly ambitious” goal to build 500 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030. To achieve this, India will have to add three times more renewable energy every year, starting now, than the country has ever added in any single year.

“And if India is able to achieve that Herculean feat, coal use in 2030 will be the same as it is today in India, because India’s the largest population in the world, and the rate of economic growth there is high, and they’re pulling a lot of people out of poverty and into the middle class,” Bordoff told Cipher.

Nuclear’s role

Nuclear reactors are necessary to deliver the quantities of carbon free, always-on power the energy transition is going to demand, Toone argued in London.

And why is that? Again, scale.

Nuclear reactors convert small amounts of mass to enormous amounts of energy, Toone explained. And unlike renewable sources of energy like wind, which generates energy when the wind is blowing, or solar, which generates energy when the sun is shining, nuclear reactors provide energy consistently.

“Wind and solar is a tremendous way to make very cheap electricity — very cheap electricity — and that has value… If we are going to rely on electricity as a part of this transition, then our electricity is going to have to be reliable,” Toone said.

“It seems that there is no chance of doing what we need to do without nuclear energy,” he said. 

To be on track to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the International Energy Agency has said investment in nuclear energy will need to reach $125 billion per year by the late 2020s, up from the roughly $40 billion invested per year between 2016 and 2022.

Just how central the growth of nuclear is to a successful energy transition is a topic of debate.

Kingsmill Bond, a senior principal for energy at the nonprofit RMI said the plummeting cost (largely thanks to China’s manufacturing prowess) and exponential penetration of wind and solar will make renewables the primary driver of decarbonization over nuclear, which has remained too expensive to be competitive for generations.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle, not necessarily such an important piece as people imagine,” Bond said.

He expects wind and solar to grow at 30- to 40-times the rate of nuclear. “They are just much more important to the debate,” Bond told Cipher.

Talking it through

A different type of problem also haunts the energy transition and the massive changes it requires: The need to have better conversations about it.

Bringing more nuclear energy online, for instance, will require having better conversations about risks and trade-offs, Toone told Cipher in Washington D.C. in May.

In London, Toone said meeting rising global energy demand with clean energy is “the greatest challenge of our time, and one that we really have to accept.”

And as part of meeting that challenge, “we need to be responsive to the pushback,” Gates said at the London summit. “That type of dialogue where it’s not just the cleantech industry saying, ‘Hey, get out of our way,’” is going to be increasingly important, he said, especially as cleantech competes against other priorities, like defense and healthcare, for limited funds. Funding all of these priorities “involves very difficult tradeoffs,” he said. 

Having more productive conversations about climate solutions starts with having the discussion in the first place, said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy transition at Environmental Defense Fund.

“I have found, more often than not, that if I am able to achieve a conversation, I can make progress with just about anybody. But even getting a conversation going is, these days, hard,” Brownstein told Cipher.

In particular, social media disincentivizes nuanced conversations, he lamented.

“I honestly believe that we will get further, faster with the climate crisis when and if we are able to create places and spaces for conversation,” which will mean engaging with each other from a place of humility, Brownstein said.

“There are way too many people who use the climate crisis as an excuse to indulge their inner ‘Soviet central planner,’ where they believe that they have the optimal mix of solution sets and that one size fits all,” Brownstein said. Rather, he said, we should learn what’s best for a community by talking to the people who live there.

Bordoff, from Columbia, said any path forward is almost certain to require thoughtful compromise. We’re going to have to come together if we’re going to move as fast as we must.

“We use the word existential to describe the climate crisis all the time, but few people act as if they take that word seriously,” Bordoff said. “We have to move so much faster than we are.”

Editor’s note: Breakthrough Energy, where Eric Toone is the chief technology officer, also supports Cipher. Bill Gates founded Breakthrough Energy.