The Man Who Built in the Sahara

“And to think,” the man sitting in the leather-padded chair across from me commented, his lips twisting up into a little smirk of self-satisfied humor, “they all thought that I was absolutely crazy.”

I nodded, not quite sure how I should respond to this comment.  Throughout the whole interview, I’d always had the slight, sneaking suspicion that my subject was, in fact, just the slightest bit crazy.  But I knew better than to say this out loud.

Fortunately, the man just chuckled a little to himself, and then leaned forward to pour himself another glass of champagne.  Beneath our seats, I felt the private jet shift slightly as the pilot adjusted the course.

“Shouldn’t be much further, now,” my interview subject commented, sparing a quick glance out the jet’s nearest window.  “It’s a bit out of the way, I know – but that’s part of how I became so successful in the first place, isn’t it?”

I nodded again, mentally telling myself that I had to pull this interview back on track.  “So, Mr. Gibbs, did you see something in the tech world that tipped you off, something you spotted before anyone else?” I asked him.

Across from me, the man’s smile faded somewhat as he leaned back in his chair, interlacing his fingers behind his neck.  “A hole,” he commented at length, his brows furrowed a little.

Jefferson Gibbs was not a small man.  From the moment that I had arrived at the airport for this interview, I had felt slightly dwarfed by his presence.  Even as he leaned in to shake my hand, I felt like I had stepped into a circus, like I was up on stage with a trained bear.

Initially, I had worried a little about conducting this interview on a jet – would Gibbs even fit inside the private plane?  But once we had climbed the steps, I saw that the man had completely redone the interior, replacing the rows of smaller seats with just a couple larger swiveling leather monstrosities, in which we now reclined.

“Saved so much on fuel that I could afford the whole interior being redone,” he explained to me, as we settled into the seats and prepared for takeoff.  “But with energy so cheap now, well, gotta put that money to use somewhere else!”

The man maintained a ferociously genial attitude, and he seemed to keep grinning at me no matter what question I asked.  Once again, as I saw him flash his wide, white teeth at me, I had the feeling that Jefferson Gibbs had a screw loose.

“A hole?” I repeated, hoping the man would elaborate.

And for just a second, that smile went away.  “Yeah, that’s what I said, isn’t it?” Gibbs growled, leaning forward aggressively.  I kept my face neutral – a well-practiced skill as a reporter familiar with the rich and powerful – and the man relaxed after another minute.

I don’t know if he decided that I wasn’t a threat, or he just wanted to brag some more, but Gibbs’ anger vanished as quickly as it had appeared.  “See, everything was in place except for one missing piece of tech,” the multibillionaire elaborated, glancing again out the window.  “And I knew that, if I could push the demand for that tech high enough, someone would figure it out and make the rest of my investment profitable.”

At face value, the strategy sounded absolutely insane.  But there was no denying that it had worked for Gibbs.

When he started, the whole world deemed him crazy.  A minor player in the computer science world, whose singular claim to fame was a patent on improving microchip density, Gibbs stunned the world when he announced his plan to build several geothermal heat engines out in the middle of the Sahara desert.

Admittedly, the idea had several merits.  Geothermal heat engines, which relied on using the temperature differential between the hot desert surface and the much cooler interior of the Earth to generate power, were some of the cleanest and most efficient energy plants in history.  Land in the Sahara was incredibly cheap, and once the high initial cost of the engine had been paid, the device would run for many decades without needing more than routine maintenance.

“But there’s no need for power out in the middle of a desert!” critics pointed out in the papers around the globe.  “Forget the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ – the guy’s building a power plant for nowhere!”

And indeed, without a market, Gibbs’ investment seemed doomed to failure – until, just weeks before the plant was set to come online, the Tesla Motor Company announced that they’d made a huge leap forward in battery technology.

Suddenly, batteries were smaller, lighter, and capable of holding hundreds of times their previous charge.  Everyone wanted to switch to battery power – and they needed someplace to charge those tanks.

Gibbs had the cheapest fuel line for that demand – and as power poured out of the Sahara, the man shot to the top of the Forbes 400 Richest Individuals.

“Ah, here we are,” Gibbs interrupted my thoughts, nodding towards the window.  I turned and looked as the jet banked in a descending circle.

Down below us, in regular lines across the undulating tan sand of the Sahara, steel towers rose up from the ground.  Each tower was topped with an array of black panels, gathering in the heat of the brightly burning sun above us.  That heat, I knew, would be conveyed down into the earth, where it would mix with the cooler air rising up from the bowels of the earth and would drive a series of electricity-generating turbines.

Across from me, Gibbs stared out the window at the source of his great fortune.  The expression on his face was unusual.  He looked almost hungry, desiring, as he stared out at his power plant.

The man had taken a great risk building this plant, I knew, no matter how vociferously he insisted that the strategy made sense.  I wondered what his next leap would be – and whether he’d be able to get lucky twice in a row.

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