Thursday, March 09, 2006

Toward A Much Cheaper Lunch

In the course of a recent scan through last year's postings, I ran across one on a real long-shot: so-called "sonofusion", which would use sound waves to fuse hydrogen atoms and release significant net energy without the elaborate apparatus of other high-temperature fusion techniques--and potentially at much lower cost than any current energy source. This got me thinking about the consequences of an order-of-magnitude breakthrough in energy cost. Clearly, it's going to take a lot more work on sonofusion to see whether it can deliver that, or if it's yet another dead end. But that doesn't prevent us form considering what might happen if it or some other energy "wild card" appeared in the next few years.

Start with the present slate of alternatives. Whether we're looking at wind, solar, biomass, wave power, or even Clean Coal, oil sands, and advanced nuclear fission, they all offer, at best, the potential to be roughly competitive with current oil, gas and coal. They may hold out the promise of fewer environmental consequences, including greenhouse gas emissions, but no one is talking about a factor-of-ten cut in the price of energy, even after applying efficiency improvements.

Why is that significant? It makes all the trade-offs difficult and the rate of change inherently lower than if an innovation were really being pulled through the market, rather than relying on subsidies and mandates. For example, it keeps hydrogen for cars expensive, after factoring in the energy losses associated with producing and distributing it. A radically cheaper primary energy source would put hydrogen into the game much quicker, by enabling it to be burned in internal combustion engines at a lower cost than gasoline. Of course, H2 would still face the infrastructural and social hurdles I mentioned two weeks ago, so our hypothetical quantum leap might be even better news for plug-in hybrid cars, which use existing gasoline and electricity infrastructure. Who could argue with shifting the transportation energy burden to electricity, if it were backed up by cheap, clean and limitless power from a new source?

Looking beyond transportation, dirt-cheap energy could create an economic revolution. Energy is still a key economic input, even though the marginal energy consumption for a dollar of GDP has been falling steadily, at least in the industrialized countries. The impact would be biggest in large developing countries, which are still well behind on that curve, and stand to burn vast quantities of incremental oil, gas and coal as they move towards Western levels of per capita income.

OK, we've heard all this before. I can remember the promotional films in grade school (on actual 16mm acetate film, not video) about nuclear power that would be too cheap to meter. Why even bother thinking about this, now? For several reasons. First, I think we're falling back into an economics of scarcity and the mindset that goes with it. We may have a few rough years ahead, but that doesn't mean we've looped back to a 1970s, "Limits to Growth" world. In addition, while we can't bank on a breakthrough and must certainly make plans that are workable without one, we shouldn't plan our energy future in such a way as to make it much harder to accommodate a breakthrough, should one occur. This goes back to the "options thinking" I'm so fond of. Pathways that create multiple possibilities--more branches--are generally worth more than those that don't. It also says that as a society we should continue funding a reasonable number of real long-shots, particularly if the up-front cost is low. Sonofusion sounds wacky, but it sure would change the game.

Update: A reader kindly pointed me to this, reporting that one of the sonofusion scientists is under investigation. While this makes sonofusion look even shakier, I don't think it changes my basic point about long shots.

No comments: