Beyond the Energy Race

24 April 2013 by Graham Morehead, posted in economics, optimism, peace

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
― Richard Buckminster Fuller

A long time ago, wars were fought over, of all things, salt. Examples include a war Venice fought with Genoa, and various wars in and around France during the time of the gabelle -- a hated salt tax. Could you imagine fighting a war over salt today?

What changed? Why don't we fight over salt anymore? The world has changed. Now salt is cheap. You don't start a war to get something that costs 85 cents at Walmart.

What do we fight wars over now? It's fairly obvious that oil plays a role (See middle east). It's mostly about energy. Of course people say we also fight wars for human rights and freedom (another day's discussion). The country that controls the most energy will be the most powerful.

Think about the last century. Our cheapest source of energy was a limited carbon-based chemical. We wanted to be the country with the most energy. We were successful. We became the undisputed kings of the world. We were more able than anyone else to push our machines and people all over the world and exert our power. We also used our energy to make even more machines. Other countries aspired to be like us.

Last century saw men go to space and the moon for the first time. The US and the CCCP kept trying to outdo each other. We call it the space race for a reason. However, we spent way more effort drilling for and transporting petroleum products throughout a developing complex global network. They should call it the energy race instead.

We knew that those who control the most energy will win the wars, so we fought wars to maintain our control of the energy. It's almost like we were fighting to maintain the ability to fight. What's going to happen when petroleum products are no longer the cheapest source of energy? It's going to happen, and it's going to happen soon:

      Kurzweil: Solar will power the world

After all, what is fossil fuel but solar energy stored chemically? All physicists know that energy is lost every time you transfer from one form to another. An enormous amount was lost going from solar to chemical energy. Burning this fuel is a second transfer. Why not get it directly from the source? Not only is it free, it's everywhere! (except during night-time and polar winters).

How will our world be different when energy becomes "too cheap to meter?" (as the old joke goes…) Kurzweil's data indicates that the cost (per KWH) of solar energy will be cut in half every two years. He predicts that in 16 years we will have enough solar panels in place to meet 100% of the worlds demand. What?!? 100% ?!? I find it hard to believe that panels will be that cheap and ubiquitous that quickly -- extraordinarily hard to believe.

Renewable Energy

For the sake of argument, let's say Ray Kurzweil is way off. Let's call him an extreme optimist and say that the growth curve for solar is actually twice as slow as he says. In his words, we need "eight doublings." If Kurzweil is off by a factor of two, then it will take 32 years for us to experience eight doublings in the output per dollar spent on solar energy. Even if he's way off, it's still just a few years away.

It's what happens next that's really intriguing. Once we are off of a linear growth energy source (e.g. petroleum) and onto an exponential-growth energy source, energy becomes even cheaper very quickly. Remember, even if Kurzweil is way wrong, once solar becomes as cheap as fossil fuels, it goes to half price in four years, and half of that four years later. With that much energy we can do almost anything we want. We can use a tiny percent of that energy to sequester as much carbon dioxide as we want. We'll just pull it out of the atmosphere. We have this technology already. When energy is cheap enough, we will be able to set gas levels in the atmosphere to whatever we want.

When energy becomes cheap enough, we will pull water out of the air for large de-desertification projects. We'll desalinate as much ocean water as we need (giving us salt as a byproduct! :- )

More and more people will have the financial means to travel anywhere they want. Moving goods and food will become so cheap as to be negligible. Couple that fact with the intelligent routing mechanisms of the "internet of things", and we will see prices become flat worldwide. A one-cent difference in the price of a commodity might become rare between any two countries.

What will the world look like a few doublings later? When energy becomes cheaper, so does EVERYTHING, including R&D that makes energy even cheaper! Who's going to want to go to war in that kind of world?

The only resource we have that is truly restricted is land. However, I am not worried about that. Our earth-bound population won't grow forever. Heck, we've already reached "peak-child":

      Rosling on babies (see 10-minute mark)

We have enough space. We will have enough energy. What will we do with ourselves? Do we really want to work for money forever? If you won the lottery, would you still go to work every day? These life-changing differences are in that ballpark.

If I won the lottery, I wouldn't stop working, but I would stop working for money. I'd work on writing, painting, and travel. I'd devote myself to my hobbies, and whatever else I santed to. Could Star Trek actually provide a hint of the future?

     Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The economics of the future are       somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th       century.

     Lily Sloane: No money? You mean, you don't get paid?

     Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The acquisition of wealth is no longer the      driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of



Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky

2 Responses to “Beyond the Energy Race”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.

    That's interesting. We'll all become socialists or communists! ;)

  2. Katie Dobies Reply | Permalink

    Your article leaves me with exciting things to think about. The first thing you make me want to do is run out and buy stock in solar energy. No wait. Money won't matter, will it? Actually I am left with a feeling of hope that when the veil of fighting to control is lifted, we will collectively SEE each other and realize that true value lies in life...and sympathize that all human life has the same basic needs. Your perspective leads me to meditate on the mystery of how our Creator anticipates and provides for our needs well ahead of when we are even aware of them. I love your full circle idea of desalinating ocean water and getting salt as a biproduct, showing just how that old war was fought in vain..."the joke is on them now", God must often think.

    If I "won the lottery" I would also still work because of the idea of the Ying and the Yang. It is impossible to know without knowing the other...Or you must give in order to receive.

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