Some of the world’s most famous billionaires have long had a hand in traditional and innovative energy projects, but just how much do they shape the perception of the industry? For example, when Elon Musk announces a major Tesla purchase of Bitcoin or critiques the digital currency, people listen. So, how do their investments in different energy projects or scepticism about energy developments shape public opinion? Bill Gates created his energy firm, TerraPower, to commence work on a new nuclear project in rural Wyoming. He intends to build a new form of nuclear reactor, setting up a plant in Kemmerer, a town previously known for coal mining, by 2028. The facility is expected to create hundreds of new jobs in green energy, as the town shifts away from its fossil fuel-driven past.
TerraPower and the U.S. Department of Energy will spend an anticipated $4 billion on the plant and will put Kemmerer on the map for its energy production. Gates’ firm and its partner GE-Hitachi have developed a new form of reactor using Natrium technology, which the companies believe is safer than traditional nuclear power mechanisms. It is a sodium-cooled reactor coupled with a molten salt energy storage system, which operates flexibly depending on renewable energy input. It was designed considering the fluctuation in the delivery of power from renewable sources to decrease and boost output depending on the availability of electricity.
The smaller size of this new plant is also expected to reduce the time and cost needed to build it, making it replicable across various sites. Gates and TerraPower have played up the potential of this technology to the media, suggesting it will significantly decarbonise the US in the transition away from fossil fuels. And, of course, they’ve attracted everyone’s attention due to Gates’ fame and the significant investment. Meanwhile, many scientists believe the focus on new nuclear projects is diverting attention and investment away from renewable alternatives and making people view nuclear projects as safer than they are.
And just recently, in response to sanctions on Russian energy, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel hailed nuclear energy as the green way to move the world away from natural gas. Elon Musk has also called for nuclear energy expansion and billionaire Marc Andreessen Tweeted “Build 1,000 new state of the art nuclear power plants in the US and Europe, right now. We won't, but we should.”
As governments around push to put nuclear power back on the agenda, quickly looking for ways to fill gap left from oil and gas shortages, these famous figures are helping to garner public support for the power source. Despite decades of negative press, following the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, nuclear power is undergoing a rebranding that’s getting it noticed.
The public is often reluctant to listen to politicians they don’t trust, but self-made billionaires are a different matter. Famed business giants Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are much-loved worldwide thanks to their philanthropic ways, each creating a foundation to distribute large quantities of their wealth to a variety of causes. So, when they invest in specific types of energy or talk about them positively, it makes people listen.
Now, an innovative energy projects that might have otherwise gone unheard of is gaining global media attention thanks to investment from Denmark’s richest man, Anders Holch Povlsen. A startup aiming to use a new technology to store energy in molten salt has raised $12 million from Povlsen and other sources.
Hyme, the company in question, will use a significant proportion of the funds to run a pilot project, attempting to unlock new ways to store unused electricity from wind and solar power. It was mainly due to Povlsen that Hyme achieved such widespread media attention before even running its pilot project, showing the power that fame can bring to new technologies.
In addition, negative comments can also help sway public attention, particularly about topics we know little about. While energy experts around Europe and other parts of the world push for greater investment in green hydrogen research and production – hoping greater funding will improve technologies and drive down costs to make hydrogen the renewable power source of the future, critical remarks from Elon Musk can make people sceptical about its potential.
This month, Musk commented it’s “the most dumb thing I could possibly imagine for energy storage,” in regard to hydrogen. He critiqued the large storage tanks needed to store hydrogen, suggesting it is not a practical energy source compared to electric batteries and other alternatives. While the International Energy Agency is encouraging greater innovations in hydrogen, Musk gets significantly more media and public attention for making short, bold comments about the renewable source.
In 2020, Musk Tweeted “fuel cells = fool sells”, gaining thousands of likes. As more people are paying attention to snappy headlines and catch phrases, unlikely to read a lengthy report on an energy source that doesn’t directly concern them, statements such as these can have a huge impact on the perception of different energy developments.
While investment in innovative energy sources can help drive research and production, the choices of where famous billionaires put their money has an impact on public perception. If Bill Gates says nuclear power is good, that’s good enough for many. And if reputable energy organisations want to be heard, it seems they may have to employ the support of famous businesspeople and celebrities to get heard.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More