Martin Fleischmann, one of the team of scientists who announced a successful implementation of cold fusion back in 1989 died last week. In their Notable Deaths in Schience-Technology article, UPI wrote:
Researchers around the world attempted, without success, to replicate the simple experiment that seemed to promise almost unlimited cheap energy and the concept of fusion in normal laboratory conditions was discredited, amid accusations of “sloppy” work or even outright fraud.
The promise of cold fusion, which is a form of nuclear energy, was that it would provide power too cheap to meter, ushering in a new age of civilization by removing the energy cost component of everything from travel to food production to heating and cooling our living spaces. Fleischmann’s passing briefly puts cold fusion back in the news, if only to remind us it never panned out and looks today like it never will.
That’s good news because if we had energy too cheap to meter, we would use it to test the theory about boiling a frog, with ourselves as the frog. Hopefully, all this cold fusion nonsense is behind us and energy will continue to be increasingly expensive. Our lives depend on it. Best-case scenario, gasoline (petrol to my EU friends) will double in price. In fact, I’m OK with the governments across the globe doubling the price immediately via additional taxes, provided they invest the additional revenue into improving the efficiency and cost of ambient power conversion and energy storage.
Why? Let’s take the usual global warming arguments completely off the table and consider what’s left.
Stipulation: Earth exists in a state of perfect energy equilibrium
At this point, I pose one simple question: If I release some “new” energy on the face of the Earth, where does it go?
That’s pretty vague and hypothetical so let’s look at a practical example. Suppose I burn a bunch of coal to make a kilowatt of electricity. What happens to the energy? Conservation of energy says that Earth’s total amount of energy has not changed. But we have certainly transformed it from inert coal to useable power and waste heat. Some of that energy is running through my PC as I write this. After it gets done in the CPU, memory and so forth, where does it go? Heat. The fans in my PC run cold air through the case to remove the heat so some of the electrical energy going into the PC is converted to motion. If you turn off a fan, does the air keep moving indefinitely? No. Why not? Friction. What does friction do? Convert motive energy to heat. When you turn off a light switch, does the room go dark all at once? Why? Because what little energy the light has is absorbed by the surfaces it strikes and converted instantly to…. you guessed it, heat.
In fact, unless I sequester some of that energy in a battery, by pumping water to an elevated tank, or otherwise storing it as potential energy, 100% of it can be accounted for as heat. It may pass through numerous transformations first, but eventually becomes heat. Powering non-moving things such as PCs, lights and televisions is a slightly indirect conversion to heat. After I convert power to work, friction assures that the work eventually becomes heat. Whatever energy I store, such as in a battery, is merely time-released heat.
Where does all that heat go? Can it get off the planet? The science of thermodynamics tells us the heat can escape through conduction, convection or radiation. Conduction requires contact so, short of parking the moon in one of our ocean basins, we aren’t getting rid of heat that way. Convection gets the heat up into the atmosphere, but again it only gets so far because convection doesn’t work in the vacuum of space. Once I release that heat onto Earth’s surface, the only way it gets off the surface is through radiation. Awesome! Or is it?
In order to radiate that heat, the Earth must “glow” hotter in the infrared. So what’s wrong with this? The radiation is driven by the heat. In order to glow hotter, the Earth has to first be hotter.
For the sake of argument, let’s say global warming deniers are not merely right about greenhouse gasses, but spectacularly so. Completely cede the argument and stipulate that humans have had zero impact on greenhouse gasses and that the observed changes are completely natural. Even in that best case, sequestered or nuclear energy released to the surface as heat has nowhere to go except to raise ambient temperature, in turn driving an increase in radiant output, such that Earth achieves equilibrium at the higher temperature.
This conclusion should be uncontroversial for anyone, regardless of their position on greenhouse gasses. It is just basic physics.
At this point you might make the argument that Earth’s radiant capacity is so great that the total amount we add to the energy budget is negligible. The number I found is that our current energy usage accounts for 0.007% of Earth’s energy budget, which indeed seems small. However, the subset of the world’s population with access to (relatively) abundant energy continues to increase their demand, and that portion of the world population is by far the minority. Energy too cheap to meter, as promised by cold fusion, would electrify the globe and do so with no incentive for efficiency. Here in the US we’d all have electric cars, but they’d be the electric equivalent of a muscle car getting 8 miles to the gallon. Perhaps 0.007% sounds like we have a lot of wiggle room, but consumption is constrained by the cost of extraction and transportation of energy. We don’t know what demand would be if energy were cheap but an increase of one or two orders of magnitude does not seem implausible to me. Given that experts say only another 1.4 degrees in temperature rise would be catastrophic, and being largely unpowered today, two orders of magnitude begins to sound more like a slim margin. And that’s without considering any effects of greenhouse gasses.
The only sustainable energy strategy is one which seeks to maintain the natural equilibrium. The energy from solar power is offset by shading whatever lies below the solar panel, preserving the energy budget in equilibrium. Wind and tidal energy are also part of the natural equilibrium. These are intermittent so efficient and cheap energy storage is required to level out supply. These are our future.
The conclusion of this analysis is that any unsustainable power technology must sooner or later be abandoned. Technologies based on the release of sequestered energy such as coal, oil, or gas, are unsustainable. Technologies that convert matter directly to energy such as fission or fusion are also unsustainable, but at a considerably accelerated rate compared to fossil fuels. Something like cold fusion would be unsustainable almost instantly because energy too cheap to meter would remove all incentives to use it efficiently. The retail cost of energy constrains our consumption of it. An unlimited supply would result in unlimited demand.
Personally I think the problem is urgent without cold fusion but, once again for the sake of argument, let us suppose that it would take an entire millennium before global power consumption, considered in isolation, could account for 1.4 additional degrees in ambient temperature rise. Even with 1,000 years before catastrophe, our current technology is still unsustainable. We’re just arguing about the slope of the curve. If we accept that we will eventually be forced to develop technologies that do not disrupt the planet’s energy budget, the only question is whether we are morally justified to fund research today on anything else.
Viewed from a different perspective, why do we like the status quo? What are the incentives favoring continued investment in fossil fuel technologies? For starters, these perpetuate the existing corporate structure. Part of the reason we continue down this path is the influence the energy industry exercises over our political process. The political discussion of where to drill and where to build pipelines completely eclipses the discussion of whether these are the right things to be working on in the first place. If we restricted fracking, offshore drilling and opening up new reserves, energy would become more expensive, and alternatives such as solar become more cost effective. But nobody wants higher energy prices and the energy company certainly doesn’t want you using an energy source it doesn’t supply.
But there’s a larger perspective in that our geopolitical framework is built out of oil derricks and drilling platforms. Energy contained in physical media such as oil and coal becomes a tangible good. Those who control the source and transport, or who posses capacity to stockpile reserves, control the world. Building a new power plant in the desert preserves the current political structure because the power plant requires a constant supply of fuel. The plant actually makes the owner more dependent on fuel producing countries. If highly efficient solar cells were cheap to produce, building a new power plant in the desert would liberate the owner from dependency on fuel-producing countries. It would be necessary to literally keep people in the dark to maintain coercive power over them. Once the technology existed, the only way to maintain the balance of power would be to keep it secret and it’s a lot easier to steal technology than to steal a mountain of coal. Your own government doesn’t want you using an energy source it doesn’t control.
- Sustainable technologies are those that maintain the equilibrium of Earth’s energy budget.
- Technologies that disrupt Earth’s energy budget bear a cost in that they raise Earth’s temperature, potentially to the point of making the planet uninhabitable by humans.
- Our choice to continue down our current path is one of convenience in that it temporarily preserves the current corporate and geopolitical power structure.
- The rising temperature is a hidden externality incurred for the convenience of stable corporate and geopolitical regimes and one that future generations will be forced to repay on our behalf.
- We will eventually be forced to live within Earth’s energy budget, regardless of the corporate or geopolitical impacts, because rising temperatures will threaten our continued survival on the planet.
On what grounds do we justify incurring this external cost rather than closing the gap today on solar, wind, tidal and other energy-neutral technologies?
Extinction is just genocide on lay-away.
We don’t get to say later that we didn’t deliberately choose this course.
I believe we have a moral imperative to direct virtually all of our power generation research into solar, wind and other technologies that preserve Earth’s energy budget, and to increase funding for storage technologies such as supercapacitors and efficient batteries that are required to render sustainable power generation practical. Further, I believe that this argument is sound in the absence of any discussion of the effects of greenhouse gasses. To the extent these are factored in, the horizon of necessity is diminished.
As with all my arguments, I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong. If you believe I am, please let me know your reasons but be prepared to back them up. I can be convinced but not based on how loudly or often the opposing argument is presented. If you believe this makes sense, then it is up to you to change our energy policy. Write to your government representatives. If you are a student, discuss it in class. Spread the word, including sending a link or liking this post. I’ll maintain a list of links to references so send me more of those if you like. Whatever you do, don’t stop working to make a change. The government, energy companies, and your local utility all believe the status quo keeps them in power. Make them believe the opposite.
Yes, I know some of these are to Wikipedia. That’s not because I believe it to be authoritative but rather because I’m too lazy to copy their reference source links here. That and the fact that the Energy Budget article is amazingly good.