An interview with Ramez Naam
The following is an edited transcript of our interview with Ramez Naam, co-chair for energy and environment at Singularity University.
I don’t want to dwell on the fact that you are a science fiction writer, but I think that’s kind of cool that science fiction predicts science sometimes, and I wonder if maybe that was an inspiration for you? If, like, some of the things you thought about as a science fiction writer, you are now working to try to make reality?
I wish I had that story. Science fiction is amazing and it’s amazingly fun. It does provoke things. My science fiction and my speaking and writing on energy and food are actually pretty distinct, to be honest. But, they both come from the same thing, which is a deep curiosity about the future.
Here we are in the coal state of Kentucky, and there are definitely still some myths here about solar energy and how expensive it is and how doable it is to replace fossil fuels. I think that is probably true throughout a lot of the U.S. still. Can you comment on what the actual state of affairs is and what the potential is for solar energy?
I can’t blame people for doubting what solar or wind can do because the world has changed so fast. When I was born, a solar panel cost $100 per watt of power. Now, it’s less than 50 cents per watt of power, so that plunge in price is really the big story.
A new coal plant costs about seven-and-a-half cents per kilo-watt hour. In Los Angeles, they now have a new solar plant at three-and-a-half cents per kilowatt hour. In Dubai, oil capital of the world, they signed a deal for solar at less than three cents per kilo-watt hour. Those are all sunny places, sunnier than Kentucky is, but the changes are coming.
The price of technology always comes down. Just like your iPhone is so much cheaper than the mainframe computer that has the same power, solar follows that same trajectory, so it’s now kind of inevitable.
Since technology has ramped up so fast and prices have come down, there still seems to be a thought by some people that we need some sort of silver bullet technology. Do you feel like we have everything we need, or we have all the tools we need now, or we just need to start implementing them faster?
That’s what Bill Gates, who I used to work for, talks about — the need for an energy miracle or energy breakthroughs — but I would say the cost of solar has come down by a factor of five in the last five years, an 80 percent price decline. That’s a miracle already, that’s a breakthrough, but it’s not any one scientific breakthrough. It’s just the continual progress of technology.
If there is one area we want more of that, it’s in energy storage. With batteries, you can use them overnight, but batteries have dropped in price by a factor of five in the last five years, too, and they are going to keep on dropping. I wouldn’t say we are going to deploy a lot of technology that we have now, or rather we are going to, and that’s going to lead to more research and further dropping of prices.
Another big area of study for you is agriculture and land use; can you tell us a little bit about what you think our goals should be there?
If you look at how we, humanity, have changed the planet, the number one way we have changed the planet is through agriculture and fishing. Half of the world’s forests are gone, and almost all of that is for agriculture. A third of the land area of the planet is used to grow food or graze animals.
We have to almost double the amount of food we produce in the next 40 years or so. It’s all about more yield. It’s about growing more food on the same land or less land. That’s the only way we can make it through the challenge of the next century of more people eating richer diets, eating more meat without chopping down all the world for us. That’s what it’s all about to me: higher intensity agriculture and more food out of that same acre.
What are some of the key technologies that you think will help us do that?
There is every sort of technology. We have better seeds, we have high-tech equipment that allows us to plant better, more precise irrigation, better applications of fertilizer and technology that scans the field and tells you where you need to apply fertilizer. Alltech has done an awful lot with animal feed that allows you to grow healthier animals that have better nutrition, so all of those play a role.
Can you tell me a little bit about Singularity University and the program there and your role in it?
I am the co-chair for energy and environment at Singularity University. Singularity University is really a think tank that does continuing education. We take executives and people in government and we give them a week of bombarding them with information about the cutting edge of technology. Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics — and I talk about energy.
That sounds like a fantastic program. It’s great that you are trying to reach some of the people that need that information the most and that can put it to the best use. Are they all willing, or do you have to go out and draft them sometimes?
We are oversubscribed. There is a waiting list for every one of our programs because people see that technology is changing fast and if they want to survive and thrive in their company and in their government, they need to be abreast as to what’s going on.