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Ben Morris

Technology of Business Editor

BBC

December 7, 2021
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Ep 52: Ben Morris - Technology of Business Editor, BBC
00:00 / 01:04

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Today, we are joined by Ben Morris, the Technology of Business Editor at the BBC. Welcome to Energy Impact.

Ben Morris
Thank you for having me.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Great. Well, I would love to kind of dive into a lot of the more recent work that you've been doing, which has been really great, looking at clean energy technologies and a whole vast array of technology and business and how they impact the global world. But I would love to actually start, Ben, with your background: how you got into journalism, where you're from, and how you got started in your career.

Ben Morris
Okay, well, that's going back a bit. I started off as a television producer on CNN in London, back when no one knew who CNN was. That would have been in about 1995 and I made television programs for them in London, in New York. I spent a bit of time in Hong Kong. And then, eventually, I did come back to London and I started working for the BBC in 2001 as also a Television Producer of Business and Economics programs. And then about 10 years ago, I moved to the BBC's Online Website Division, where I became a reporter there, mainly writing about business and economics.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Actually, what was that transition like, kind of going from on-screen TV reporting to the online world? It seems like that was kind of right around when the whole industry was making that pivot.

Ben Morris
It was really refreshing, because I didn't do much on-camera work. I was mainly the editor and producer of the programs I was making. So you're in a big team and there are lots of links in the chain. Some of those links can break and things can go wrong that you have no control over. Whereas, when you're an online reporter, it's all very immediate. You write your piece, it goes up online, and then you get immediate feedback. People either read it or they don't. People comment on it or they don't. So you get a much better idea of what people think of it, so I really enjoyed it. But it did take a year or two to kind of adapt to that kind of writing, but I've really enjoyed it. And in the last sort of two years, I switched over to our technology desk and features desk where I've been commissioning and writing features about technology and business and the intersection of the two. So that's all the kind of technology that's not gadgets is how I describe it. Anything that's sort of Apple, Google, Amazon, that stuff is kind of tech news and left to a different team. But all the stuff that's kind of AI, industrial sort of technology, green energy, flying cars. You name it, I write about everything else. So it's great to read, brief, and it's been really good fun. And I'm lucky. The joy of working in a big organization like the BBC is that you do get an opportunity to try different things, which might be harder if you were applying fresh to an organization and you didn't have a background. So I've been really lucky to be able to have those opportunities and it's been a good two years.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Wonderful. Actually, yeah, let's dig into a little bit more the types of the- you kind of described them, the technologies that almost enable businesses to make innovation and do their work. Could you give us some concrete examples of some of the more interesting things that you've been able to cover in features in the past few years?

Ben Morris
Well, the pieces I've written have included jet engines. I wrote a big piece about Rolls Royce and their latest engine. I went down to visit the Bristol facility in a city called Bristol in the West of England. And that's amazing, because everything they do is on a gigantic scale, so that was fun.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
So you get to know and see the technology, see their factories and really kind of get a firsthand look at what is enabling their entire business to thrive and the innovation space that they're sitting in?

Ben Morris
Yeah, exactly. And in their case, they're trying to automate as much as possible. They're making extremely large carbon fiber parts that are just on enormous scales. And, yeah, you get to walk around and look at it and talk to the engineers actually making it. It does bring it to life for the reader, if you can actually go and see it and describe what you're seeing and take pictures. People get ready lifted. Another piece I did recently -which is related to Rolls Royce, but it's a small company that is partnering with them - they're trying to build the world's fastest electric-powered plane and they're due to have a- they're test flying it now. But I went down to visit their manufacturing facility where they showed me. It's mainly about the batteries in an electric plane and they need very specialist, specific forms of battery power that are quite hard to make, because you need a lot of power over a very, very short time and in a strong surge of energy. So they have built that, but they'd also built the airframe and the engines and hooked them all up. So that was great having a poke around their facility and talk to those guys. They use a lot of engineers from motor racing, because obviously, there's a bit of overlap there with the energy requirements and the efficiency and the very lightweight materials that they use. That was a great piece. That did really well. Yeah, and probably more recently, I have written a couple of pieces on fusion energy. One about the just unbelievably powerful magnets they're having to build to make fusion work, and more recently about a British private company that's got a kind of innovative way to make fusion happening and they're very hopeful that that might kind of emerge as a possible technology in the next few years. So that's what I write about, but I have a team that freelances. There are probably about 10 of them and they write about all sorts of things. We're doing a series on Africa and technology at the moment, where we found interesting bits of technology that developed for the African market, so that's been interesting. Yeah. It's a very broad brief.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, absolutely. I used to work in science policy in DC and I absolutely understand that. It's just such a broad space, going from fusion to energy projects in Africa. That's just a very wide range. One of the things that I've loved, having read some of the articles that you referenced, is how you're able to kind of talk about highly complex topics and you're literally naming the elements that are part of the process and how these machines work. At the same time, you're making it really accessible to readers. I think I recall, in one of your articles you said, There's a lot of chemistry and physics, but here's the gist. And I think that's a really, really wonderful thing to be able to go in and meet with engineers and highly technical specialists, and then write a story and a feature about that company in that technology that makes people feel like they understand it and as if they were there with you on that visit? How have you- I guess, how do you do that as a journalist? What's your secret sauce to kind of helping to translate highly complex technical topics to something that really any reader can get their heads around and get excited about?

Ben Morris
Well, that's very kind of you to say that. Thank you for those words, Michelle. I guess the first thing is, the BBC is a very broad website. We try and cater to the biggest possible audience, so if I try to write anything too technical, it would get rejected straightaway. You have to make it as accessible to the broadest possible reading you can, so that's always in the back of my mind, but I wrote on Business and Economics for years. One of my jobs was every quarter to go down to the Bank of England and write about their interest rate meetings. And that's a hugely arcane and complex subject that's very hard to bring into your life, so I had a lot of practice kind of doing that kind of thing. So when I moved into technology, I realized I'd have to do a similar kind of job, but on a different subject. I think it helps in a way that my background is not- I'm not a scientist or an engineer and I always make that clear to any of these guys I go and interview. I'll just say straightaway, Look, I have a working knowledge of these things, but I don't have a background in it, so you're gonna have to keep it simple. And then most scientists and engineers are really, really good. If you say straight away, We've got to deliver this to a broad audience, they get it and they will try and deliver it in the simplest possible way. And then I can distill it down again. I mean, a lot does get lost in that. You lose a lot of subtleties. But you just got to think, what would you like the reader to come away with at the end of this? They're not- no one's that interested in - well very few people are - interested in physics and chemistry that they want to be able to remember it, and there are plenty of other places on the internet where they can go for that anyway. So what do you want them to take away? I guess, in the case of fusion, you want them to take away that this is difficult, that it's been- people have been working on it for years, it's expensive, it's all a bit mind boggling. But potentially extremely rewarding is kind of what you want people to go away with. And that's where you've got to think of it. I like to try and convey some of the kind of the awe-inspiring temperatures and pressures and sizes of the things they're trying to do. It's just unbelievable. And if you can get across any of that in a way that people can understand, then that's great as well. And there is a lot of appetite for it. I mean, these kinds of energy stories do really well. All sorts of green energy stories do very well. But I've been surprised how much interest there is in fusion. I think people really like kind of technology that almost feels like science fiction, that's kind of over the horizon. And people really enjoy reading about that and the stories do well, so I've been really pleasantly surprised about the reaction to this topic in particular.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
I guess from a personal standpoint, what got you interested in fusion to begin with? Was it kind of the connection that you could see, the hope I think that you see that it is instilled in people when they read about these types of technologies, or were you just personally excited about learning about it yourself?

Ben Morris
I've always had a kind of side interest in science. That's always been something that I've been into, but only from a casual journalistic side. Like I said, I've never really- I've never been a scientist. But here in Europe, we have- it's the base for a massive fusion project called ITER, which is based out in the south of France. And that is in and out of the news, has been ever since they started it 15, 20 years ago. I've always found that a really interesting project. But recently, over the last five, maybe 10 years, lots of private companies have been jumping up, popping up, and starting their own fusion projects. So there's just a lot to write about and everything's changing really, really quickly. These private companies move very fast and ITER is a massively wildly complicated project and seemed to move very slowly and nothing really happened for years and years and years, other than stories about cost overruns and delays. So for journalists, I don't think it was a hugely interesting story. But now that now the technology- there's better technology, there have been advances in materials and engineering, everything is happening more quickly and accelerating. Money as well is coming into it. I mean, I've spoken to one investor who invests in a lot of green energy projects and there's no shortage of money to go into these, whereas, probably 15 years ago, it was sucking up all the available money, the billions and billions of euros and pounds and dollars. And these science projects, they're expensive and there was no money out there to invest in them. But now, I guess interest rates have been so low for so long and there's plenty of money floating around the system, that they can get the investment they need to get these projects off the ground. I guess it was just something that that grabbed me. And there aren't many people writing about it. I think partly because science and technology journalists looked down the fusion project for many years, because everyone felt that it was too ambitious and it would never work. And no one really thought it was ever gonna amount to very much. But I think that attitude has really changed in the last few years, which is exciting.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, absolutely. I guess it sounds like you're incredibly well versed, not only on obviously the companies that you profile, but the whole technology space, its history, the competitors, kind of everybody who's involved, even the investor side. How do you go about kind of your research process when you're entering a new space that you're going to be writing about? Do you spend a lot of time speaking with folks that you've maybe had relationships with that are tangential. How do you go about preparing yourself to make sure that you're telling that full picture story?

Ben Morris
Yeah, I mean, that's a really good question. I mean, when I write a feature, I always want a really strong anchor to the piece, something that will sustain the whole article. And then you can hang all the context of that. So ideally, you want the strong central company - my most recent piece that was First Light Fusion, a very interesting kind of approach to fusion technology - but then also, you obviously want the context and then it's about going away and just finding the right person to speak to. And it's kind of the same principle in any journalism. If you're not an expert yourself, the next best thing is to find someone who is. I was lucky to get in touch with a chap called Arthur Turrell, who is a former plasma physicist, that's what he's PhD is in, but he's gone into economic policy. But he also writes books about fusion on the side and he was kind enough to give me some time and talk me through the bigger picture. So yeah, Michelle, it's all about finding the right people. And sometimes you get lucky and you find the right people. Sometimes you're less lucky and you don't. But as a non-specialist, you're totally reliant on the goodwill of people who really do know what they're talking about. And then it's your job to kind of make that kind of digestible to readers.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
So I mean, obviously, energy is not just a big topic and an interesting topic because of its relevance in the world, but kind of given the context of climate change and the energy transition. I'm curious where you see energy playing a role in the technology of business portfolio going forward. Is it only going to be growing or will you continue to focus on the broad suite of enabling technologies?

Ben Morris
One of the interesting things that came out of some of the recent reading I was doing was the UK Government, like many governments, has a net zero project that, by 2050, the UK economy will not produce any more carbon, or net carbon. And that is hugely challenging, because that inevitably means using more electricity. So as you turn off the gas and you turn off the fossil fuels, you're going to use more electricity. And by 2050, it could be twice as much electricity. That's all going to come from somewhere. The renewable energy sector is really, really interesting and expanding like crazy and we write a lot about that. In fact, a recent piece we did was, how big can wind turbines get? Because they're just getting so huge. The blades, the sweep of the blades is over 100 meters long. And it's just a limit to how the size of the vessels they need to get them out if it's an offshore. You're going to need a hell of a lot more electricity over the next 30 years. And the challenge for policymakers and for businesses is how you're going to do it without adding to global warming. It just seems like an extremely interesting place to write about. And that's where the fusion industry has its- hangs its hat, is that however much renewables can contribute, it probably won't be enough. And then it becomes, the more and more renewables you have, kind of the more and more backup you have and the more expensive you need to have and the more expensive it becomes. I just think over the next thirty years, the whole industry is going to be transformed. The grids are going to get more sophisticated. There are things you have in your home to heat and cool your home are going to be different. Here in the UK, there's a big project by the government to try and encourage people to use air source and ground source heating. And that's the way it's going. So, yeah, I think the industry is in for a lot of change. And there are going to be players, tiny players now. It's kind of like, I mean, I liken it to the late 1990s where it wasn't clear who was going to be the big winners from the expansion of the internet and Google, Amazon came out on top, but it wasn't clear at the time that was going to be the case. I think we're in a similar situation now. We don't know who the big energy players are going to be. Maybe it'll be the incumbents. Maybe it'll be the big oil companies switch. Maybe it'll be the big electricity generating companies. Maybe they're in a good position to take advantage, but there will also be new players who have new technology. So a bit of exciting times to kind of report on that over the next 10, 15 years and to have been there at the start, I think, is a big opportunity.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, absolutely. I can only imagine just kind of seeing the future and just understanding that you're going to get to play a really big role in telling that story. I think that's a really kind of exciting space to be in. I guess I'm curious kind of thinking towards the future, what are the things that you're most excited about reporting on next? Are there any kind of things that you have in the works that your team has in the works that you're excited, maybe around COP or some new and emerging technology enabling stories that we haven't even really started to wrap our minds around?

Ben Morris
Well, next year in the UK is quite an interesting year from an energy perspective in that the government has been- the UK government's been investing a lot of money in fusion technology. They invested about 220 million in their own fusion project. And the idea is to get a commercially viable reactor up and running by 2040 and they select the site for that next year. They've got five sites lined up and they'll make a decision later next year. And I mean, in and of itself, that's not a big deal. But it is a landmark moment and it's the start of really serious public money going into fusion, although they do have a very big cluster of fusion sort of base near Oxford that they're spending a lot of money on every year. So from that perspective, that's going to be a big deal and is going to continue to be. From a more consumer point of view, as I mentioned earlier, the UK Government - and I guess governments around the world - are trying to figure out how people are going to heat their homes. And there's one interesting bit of tech over here that I'm considering reporting on next year, which is a water heating system, a central heating system, that runs on microwave technology rather than a gas-fired combi or boiler. It uses the same technology as your microwave oven does. That's obviously on a much smaller and consumer scale, but I think innovations like this are gonna spring up endlessly over the next coming years and so there'll be loads for us to talk about. But yeah, this microwave heater, they next year will start putting them in homes on a test basis, so that's definitely something I want to look at or at least get one of my freelancers to look at.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
This technology is still electricity, is powered by electricity. That's fascinating. I don't think I was aware. Does the UK have district heating networks?

Ben Morris
No, it's not something that's very big in the UK. There is talk, there is a lot of talk about it now, particularly for blocks of flats, apartment buildings, things like that where you can't have individual ground source or air source pumps, or at least it's more difficult. I know on the continent it's more common in Scandinavia and Germany to have district heating. And maybe, yeah, that's a model we'll maybe have to move to or at least look at more closely, but the UK hasn't really gone down that path in a big way. But yeah, that might happen. And the fusion companies that I'm interested in, it's very exciting times for them. There's one I visited recently called First Light Fusion. They have a wildly interesting setup where they shoot projectiles at high speed at a small target fuel and that creates shockwaves that create tremendously high pressure and heat. And they think that will be enough, with clever design, to spark a fusion. And they are expecting to see evidence of that roundabout now. They're in the process of doing that, that set of tests, and they will be ramping that up over the next 12 months, so they're a long way from having a reactor. On the other hand, they can go to their investors and say, Look, we've got evidence of fusion doing it this way. Can we have some more money and can we continue on? And it's the same for the other ones. There's another UK company called Tokamak Energy. They have what's called a spherical reactor and they use very, very high-powered magnets. They will have a magnetic- a demonstration of their magnet technology up and running soon and that will be a big step for them in the process of getting their Tokamak up and running. There's just so much to talk about in that fusion field. I think that's what I'll personally focus on. But yeah, also I have reported to- reported a lot on wind turbine technology, that area, energy grids. We're always interested in that, but personally, it's not something I've written about very much.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
I want to circle back to something you mentioned previously, kind of using the fusion example which is, previously with some of these technologies that were really sponsored by state-run or state-funded programs - even on the international scale - now we're talking about a couple of companies and actually dozens of companies in that same technology space that are being funded by the private sector, have individual investors. That changes kind of, not only the business model, but it certainly changes the timeframes and the expectations around timeframes, changes the risk profile for the companies themselves. I wonder if you can kind of comment on that a little bit more, from- of course there's probably some level of government funding. But ultimately, when your funders come from the private sector, it's a completely different ballgame for innovation and for the technology of business.

Ben Morris
You are actually right. It's a good point. Often the ethos within a private company - and certainly the private fusion companies I'm talking to - is that they're absolutely focused on how can we make this into a commercial project? How can- this has got to make money at some stage. And often the answer to that is, We've got to keep this as simple as possible. This is not a giant science project that's going to go on for years and years and years, but we're just going to collect data and data. At some stage, this has got to produce more energy than we put in. And we're going to put deadlines on that. And they've also been tremendously helped by advances in technology. For example, at First Light Fusion, the clever bit of their technology is what they call the target. So they fire a projectile at a target and they design the target in such a way that the fuel, the shockwaves, force the field to collapse in on itself and create huge pressure. But they can simulate this, so they will do 200,000 simulations in one kind of testing block. And they can do this because they have powerful enough computers to do it that maybe 10 years ago they wouldn't have done. And also they can use machine learning, so the targets - they haven't had a human designer. One of their targets, their most successful targets, it's derived from machine learning. And this is something that AI is very, very good at. It can optimize these things extremely well. Because they can do the simulations, they can speed things up. I mean, sooner or later, they actually have to do the experiments in a real machine. But this really speeds things up. And I think they've also been- the investors and the companies themselves have really been encouraged and what they've seen from SpaceX. SpaceX took on an area that was considered to be something that only governments could afford to do and have the kind of scientific expertise in hand to go into space and build rockets. And the SpaceX did it and they did it quickly and they're doing it more cheaply. They keep testing. They make mistakes. Rockets blow up. But they keep moving forward. And these fusion companies, I think, they have mentioned this. They've said, Well, investors now are not so wary of big, technically complex projects as they used to be, because they've seen what happened. They've seen Elon Musk run into problems, almost go bankrupt, but come out the other side with a tremendous, successful, economically viable company. And this has been hugely encouraging for investors, because they can see, there's money to be made here. And the companies themselves have learned from the model of SpaceX and other successful companies and they're prepared to kind of go for it and make mistakes and plow forward. And be ambitious. So that's, from what I've seen- I mean, I'm not a businessman or a scientist so some of this is lost on me, but they are very, very focused. And they know they've got limited time and money and the sooner they get it out, the better. Also, they've got competition amongst themselves. They're all watching what each other is doing and they all have very different approaches. And I think they - most of these founders - would say that they'll be happy if someone makes it. Obviously, they'd prefer if their own technology comes out on top, but there is a sense that they're racing to do this, so that's also adding pressure. I think it's a combination of things. It's money. It's competition. It's technological progress. It's all- it feels like the sector is in a sweet spot at the moment. And, of course, the work that's being done in national laboratories is hugely important. I mean, in San Diego you've got the National Ignition Facility which recently had a big breakthrough. I mean, I'm not hugely familiar with their work, but people over here were very impressed with the recent experiment where they got back 70% of the power they put into their fusion machine. And really, that sets them out ahead of actually most of the private sector. The private sectors are still struggling to get to that stage, but they will. They'll get there. But yeah, of course, a lot of this is built on the back of work that's been done in the public sector and at universities.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Well, another thing that I think, kind of stepping outside of fusion even too, that we see when we are thinking about companies that are adopting this kind of model of "just get out there and try" and really be smart about creating products that are for the consumer, for an end goal, as opposed to just a research project for the sake of supporting future commercial products, right. And so you mentioned the Rolls Royce factory that you went to and the idea of designing your product to be manufacturable, to be scalable. All of all of these types of things, really, are kind of that same ethos. I think I've seen that businesses that are kind of more in the private sphere, as opposed to government funded, that they really embody. They're thinking about, How can I ensure that I have a commercially viable product that somebody actually wants to buy, as opposed to just doing the research.

Ben Morris
Well, it's interesting. So First Light, the company I reported on recently, the reason they've chosen their path is that- so the National Ignition Facility in San Diego, they use lasers to spark a fusion reaction. And it works. But of course, it's wildly expensive. These are very, very powerful, highly-tuned lasers and it's very difficult to do. They knew there was no way they could afford that kind of equipment, so they decided just to fire projectiles at targets. And what they use is an electromagnetic railgun, where you use extremely powerful magnets to accelerate a small disk - maybe the size of a quarter - at the target. And it's relatively straightforward. It's like firing a gun. It's repeatable and they can know they can work with that technology. So that was one reason they went down the road, because it was relatively simple and relatively cheap. And the other reason that their approach is interesting is that all fusion companies have a problem with- many have a problem with what's known as the first wall problem, where when you create a fusion reaction, what is generating the heat are neutrons flying out of the center of the reaction and they're highly charged, very energetic particles. And that's where you get the heat from you can use to generate electricity, but they also are capable of destroying all known materials. So a lot of the fusion companies that are going down the path of creating Tokamak reactors, they've got to figure out how we're going to stop the reaction destroying our reactor. And I've heard people say that, at the moment, you can only expect the reactor to last a couple of years, so they've got to work that out. Whereas the company I spoke to, First Light, because their approach is different, what they will have is a wall, a liquid wall of liquid lithium, and that will absorb the neutrons and the energy. And they can then pump that liquid lithium out and use that to generate electricity. Now, the beauty of that is that there's already something similar existing. Existing nuclear power plants use- some of them use molten sodium, I think, and you can just use that technology. You can more or less take it off the shelf and adapt it to your purposes. So you don't have to create a whole new material, whole new technology like the Tokamaks guys do. And I'm sure they'll eventually find ways around it, but it is potentially a deal breaker for them, because if you have to stop and rebuild your reactor every two years, then that's not economically viable. The guys going down that path have got to answer that question: How are you going to do that? And they will argue, Well, look, we're still a long way from actually building the reactor that works, so we've got time and we will come up with something. Whereas, other approaches like First Light, they say, Well, look, we're doing things that we know are possible. We're shooting projectiles, that's a known technology. We've got this system, this kind of heat exchanging system that we know works from existing fission power stations. Yeah, you're right. The commercial imperative forces people to keep things simple as you can, when you didn't even pass the physics.

Ben Morris
I mean, well, and it's not just these companies that are in early stages of technology development on the technology readiness level that are nowhere where they'd be there as the demonstration phase. So you have the engineers and scientists working on creating potentially commercially viable products. At the same time, you also have government fully aware that this is potentially a game changing technology and making these types of investments, like in the UK with STEP, already looking for sites. Even though those sites might not be developed or that site might not be developed for another five or 10 years, folks are recognizing that this is coming. And this is a future that really would be- I said game changing, but it really would be for the future of clean energy and reforming society.

Ben Morris
I mean, that's a good point, in a way. I mean, I spoke earlier about the companies being in competition to each other, but yeah, national governments are- they're looking at this and they don't want to be left behind. China has been making big steps forward with its own fusion program. And I don't know a huge amount about that. And I'm not sure anyone does, but we know they're working on Tokamaks. Germany has a very promising technology that they're working on that's a different approach. And of course, there's the big international project ITER which lots and lots of countries have a hand in. So you have competitions among governments, as well, and they're all spending serious amounts of money. And so, I guess sooner or later, the problem will be solved. But maybe we'll have this conversation again in 10 years. We'll be no further forward. But it just seems there are so many wildly talented scientists working on this now - physicists and engineers - that you'd think that the critical mass is there in terms of money, expertise, and time that they'll crack what's been a very difficult problem. And the rewards could be huge: a green, unlimited source of energy that uses very little fuel, certainly, in the actual process - when the reactors are running - does not produce CO2. Although, obviously building the power stations themselves might be carbon intensive. I mean, it would be a huge breakthrough for humanity to have this very cheap, abundant source of electricity.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
I guess I'm curious kind of what your perspectives are, given that you're such an expert, even though you won't say it, on this type of technology that's coming out in the future, on kind of what the near term future is going to really need to look like. And kind of how- we talked about renewables, a lot of challenges with the scale of offshore wind in the UK, maybe the non-availability of sun for really large solar projects. We have in the UK, a lot of nuclear power plants, right, that are currently operating, but that are going to be turned offline in the next few years and will have to be replaced as you know, by another clean source of energy. And then we have small nuclear energy - fission, not fusion - there's a lot of innovation in as well. Do you also cover nuclear fission?

Ben Morris
I've just commissioned a piece on small nuclear power plants. I think there is pressure to find some kind of way of generating the baseload. In the UK, they have commissioned- well, one nuclear fission plant is under construction and others are in the pipeline, although we've had problems in this country working out the financing. It has been different. At the moment, there is something of an energy crisis here in the UK, but it's more of a problem with policy in that the government guaranteed, or at least trying to protect consumers from big jumps in energy prices. But in the process of doing that, set up a system that has bankrupted lots of small energy suppliers, because we import so much of our gas, where the UK is very vulnerable to changes in the international price for fossil fuels. At the moment, electricity and gas prices are shooting up here in the UK, and small electricity and gas providers are going out of business. So we're in a transition period, really. Renewable energy is expanding really, really super quickly, but not quickly enough, and will probably never fulfill all our energy needs here. So there is a need for a stop gap for the next kind of 10, 20 years, or however long it takes for fusion to get going or some other technology to come along that can fill that that gap. And it's difficult. It's something that policymakers are very bad at dealing with, because governments here work in four or five year cycles and it can take 10, 15 years to build a big power plant. And they're expensive. So it does feel that there is a bit of a- we're in a bit of a trap at the moment. But money will go into the sector. But as consumers, does that mean we're going to be paying extra money on our gas electricity bills? And it's a hugely political thorny question here, how to bring together the kind of green ambitions of governments and many people with the fact that people need affordable electricity and gas, particularly business. I mean, British businesses who use a lot of electricity, they are furious that their bills are so much higher than companies on the continent where electricity is much, much cheaper. So a lot of it is policy-driven here. We're waiting for the technology, but in the meantime, governments have to make difficult decisions.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
As do businesses, right? And it's not just their electricity that they have to worry about, and maybe even having to pay carbon taxes or whatnot, but it's also the need for heat which is currently provided by a very expensive natural gas. And as that is phased out, you're gonna have to have some some sort of heat source, probably from nuclear that is maybe near your factory, or you're going to have to completely transform society in some way or another. So it's absolutely- it's a challenge. It's kind of scary to think about, but it's also, I think, very exciting to know that it is technology that is going to have to enable this transition. And there's, like you said earlier, a ton of really amazing, brilliant scientists and engineers who are working on this type of problem. They aren't just thinking about it from that. We have to transition the political lens, but we have to do something that kind of meets all of the needs of society: provides clean, cheap electricity where it's needed and heat throughout the country. So yeah, absolutely. Need some sort of-

Ben Morris
We're very lucky. We live in wealthy countries that can afford to help out their population with their electricity bills and they can invest in power grids. I just commissioned a piece on South Africa where the National Energy Company Eskom, they have tremendous debt. Meanwhile, the electricity grid is creaking. The nation suffers a lot of power cuts. There's a lot of very, very poor people there who can't afford electricity bills anyway and hook up illegally to the grid. Meanwhile, the government wants to switch away- most of the electricity comes from coal, which is obviously very polluting, very carbon intensive. So the government and Eskom, the central company, wants to switch to renewables. But the sums they need, it's not clear where that money is going to come from or whether it's going to be enough. And even once you've built it- South Africa is a fabulous place to build solar power and wind power. They've got a very long coastline, more than 2,500 hours of sun on average every year. It's got so much potential, but getting the money to build these plants is expensive. It's not just building the plants. It's then hooking them up to the grid. The entire grid needs refurbishing and upgrading. It's not clear that they'll have the money to do this. They've kind of committed 7 billion to it, but people think they might need a lot more than $7 billion. But at least, in our wealthier countries, we can make that transition. Maybe we should be helping the less well-off countries to make that transition as well.

Ben Morris
Let me ask you, kind of getting back to the journalist perspective here, when you are working on a piece like that, how do you kind of also point out these societal kind of ethical dilemmas as well that readers need to be thinking about? It's not just talking about the facts on the ground - energy need, energy demand, technology gap. There's a need for financing. How do you kind of sew that thread and also help the readers get to those same types of conclusions?

Ben Morris
Yeah, it's a good question. And maybe we don't talk about that enough. As technology journalists, maybe we talk too much about the actual- the nuts and bolts and the wires and chips, but maybe not enough about the kind of ethical areas around technology, and who gets it, who profits from it. And we do introduce that into articles, but it'll come at the bottom of the piece and not everyone reached the bottom. So, maybe it should be higher up. It's certainly the kind of- the ethics and access to technology is a really big issue and so dominated by the wealthy countries who already- they're the ones who are going to reap the benefits from this new tech when it comes. And it's a well-rehearsed document. I mean, there are policy makers out there and there are NGOs who flagged this up the whole time. And there's always more you can do. But I guess, if someone does invent a very cheap, scalable source of electricity, then that's good for everyone in the world. And if that can be licensed affordably and built all over the world, then everyone benefits. But yeah, access to that technology is going to be the key. Yeah. It's a big issue.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
It is. Well, I guess as we wrap up here, are there any other kind of parting thoughts that you'd like to leave the listeners with, or even maybe things that you're currently reading or currently thinking about?

Ben Morris
I'm thinking about next year. One of the areas I'm interested in is, obviously the private space industry is very interesting. And there are a couple of companies going to the moon - at least they're promising to go to the moon - next year. Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic, I believe its name is. I'm thinking about writing about them. It seems like an interesting area. Quite why anyone other than big nation states would want to go to the moon, I'm not entirely sure, but I guess that's an interesting area. In terms of energy, I think, obviously, batteries are always a big deal. We write a lot about that technology. If someone can make- when we can move away from lithium ion and to a more solid-state battery, that's not as combustible, is lighter and more powerful, I mean, that's a big breakthrough. We've been writing about that for years and I think it'll come. Maybe not next year, but within the next five years, because so much money is going into - particularly by the carmakers - into battery development. You've got to think that we're going to see big improvements in that. Yeah, I guess we'll be writing more stories about batteries.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
That sounds great. Well, thank you so much, Ben. It's been a pleasure speaking with you and getting to know your work and your perspectives. I really appreciate you coming on.

Ben Morris
Thanks, Michelle.

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