I thought I’d do a thought experiment. Suppose tomorrow morning a hypothetical university—let’s call it T.I.M.—sends out their weekly press release claiming a “revolutionary breakthrough” that will change the way we think about energy. Unlike every other time in the past decade they’ve made this claim, though, suppose this time it’s actually true: they’ve discovered a way of producing extremely cheap energy—as near to “free energy” as can be imagined. Specifically, they’ve invented Mr. Fusion, a system that can turn anything—trash—into energy via a form of cold fusion. While it can’t be done on a small scale, it’s expected to have an EROEI of more than 100, producing power at a cent per KWh. The plants are expected to last 40 years at the minimum, but nobody quite knows—maybe they’ll last 80. And best of all, the research team is only 5, not 15, years away from commercialization.
Let’s start the clock at the time the press release hits the inboxes of technology journalists. What might happen after after that?
1 day later: Wired and other tech sites pick up the story, hailing the invention as a breakthrough using the language from the press release almost verbatim with the same stock photography as every other energy article. Blogs and other online media pick up the story, omitting pertinent details.
1 week later: Some folks at The Oil Drum are showing some surprise at the results, which have supposedly been verified by other scientists. Perpetual cynics dismiss it as yet another free energy hoax. At this point it’s still hard to tell that this development really is the game-changer that is claimed.
2 weeks later: A number of blogs begin proclaiming this discovery as a turning point for humanity, but most energy blogs exhibit skepticism.
28 days later: The viral meme spreads.
2 months later: In an attempt to quell growing skepticism about the project, the original team of researchers holds a Q&A session for interested parties. Representatives from ExxonMobil and Massey are present, asking about commercialization; the team says they have a startup company underway and hope to start taking orders in a year. Physicists try to identify holes in the project, but come away empty handed. The corporate presence triggers some mainstream media coverage of the event, and a few major news channels do a short piece on it. Sentiment among energy analysts shifts ever so slightly away from disbelief.
6 months later: The Guardian picks up a story that several big energy companies, including ExxonMobil and Massey, made bids to buy Mr. Fusion and were turned away. Both companies immediately deny the story. A week later the founders of Mr. Fusion write an editorial describing the buyout attempts and saying that they will see the company through themselves.
8 months later: The Wall Street Journal runs an editorial by Daniel Yergin, who describes Mr. Fusion as a bad idea; he also calls into question the ethics of the scientists involved (ominously noting the government funding that enabled the research); he claims that we have more than enough oil for the foreseeable future and thus don’t need to rely upon untested technologies. “Even the New Republic” echoes Yergin’s message; other papers cover the coverage.
9 months later: Several large environmental groups, along with a few backers of the photovoltaic industry, begin to publicly question the safety of Mr. Fusion. They note that since it harnesses nuclear reactions to produce electricity, it should be placed under the same scrutiny as any other nuclear plant. The Mr. Fusion team does a few interviews to try to quell any concern, noting that no long-lived radioisotopes are produced in the reactions. They conduct another round of demonstrations to show that the radiation level inside of their test facility is lower than inside a coal plant.
10 months later: Senators from Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas, North Dakota, and Montana—states with significant fossil fuel interests—issue a joint press release announcing congressional hearings on Mr. Fusion. The press release cites Yergin’s editorial as exhibit A. They also note the huge capex of the fossil fuel infrastructure ($10 trillion, according to Paul Roberts), and observe that they supported the idea of Mr. Fusion until they found out what it would cost in lost investments. They announce a plan to require testimony from each of the researchers and members of their startup company; they also plan to call representatives from several large energy companies as expert witnesses.
1 year later: Several investors for Mr. Fusion back out, citing increased investment risk due to political opposition and increased scrutiny.
2 years later: The Guardian runs a story, citing a leaked diplomatic cable from the previous year, indicating extreme displeasure shown by Saudi Arabia regarding Mr. Fusion. Their ambassador is quoted saying that the country will begin to severely limit oil exports in response to the development and deployment of Mr. Fusion. However, no changes in their export volumes are apparent in the preceding months.
3 years later: After significant lobbying by the American Petroleum Institute, the NRC issues a ruling that Mr. Fusion must meet the established suite of nuclear safety standards—those developed for conventional nuclear fission plants—including those rules on containment, redundancy, hardening, and safety protocols. The Mr. Fusion team appeals the ruling while they continue plans for construction.
5 years later: Oil exports from most net exporters begin to decline steeply and prices rapidly begin to rise.
6 years later: The NRC dismisses the appeal, and reiterates its original ruling.
8 years later: Construction on the first full-scale plant complex is begun. (The recent recession made the commission of more than one financially infeasible. Energy demand is down, and few utilities have the money to do more than maintain existing infrastructure.) Mr. Fusion’s investors are frustrated, and some openly discuss the idea of selling the technology and patents off to the highest bidder. Except for periodic news about dissent within the ranks, Mr. Fusion is largely forgotten by the press and the public.
12 years later: The first Mr. Fusion plant complex comes on-line with some, mostly muted fanfare. However, due to years of slowly declining energy demand there is little immediate need for such major new capacity. Nevertheless, the lower electricity rates are cautiously welcomed by households in New England. Orders for Mr. Fusion plants begin to trickle in, but mostly from the few nations that are still growing economically.
13 years later: Regional coal plants, natural gas plants, and their related industries begin to shut down, devastating the economic base of the small towns in which they are located. Politicians begin to question the wisdom of building more Mr. Fusion plants given their economic impact.
14 years later: New plant construction is begun in China and India, which are struggling to maintain growth in the face of high oil and coal prices. A few plants are commissioned in California and the member states of the RGGI as Mr. Fusion has very low life-cycle carbon emissions, but fear about the short-term economic impacts of the plants, combined with their up-front cost, tempers interest.
20 years later: Several dozen Mr. Fusion plant complexes are operating worldwide, producing on the order of 100 GW of electricity, about 2% of global electricity consumption.
I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: “when the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” If we had a (nearly) free energy source that was discovered overnight, and all that had to be done was to build the plants that would produce it, it would be seen as a major threat to entrenched interests. Fossil fuel companies would try to buy out the technology to sit on it, and failing that, would use their considerable political and media clout to throw up roadblocks. Fossil fuel exporters would panic—entire nations like Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Canada would fear being thrown into crisis, as would many states within the United States. Environmental fears would be raised, legitimately at first, though after contrary evidence is presented the fears wouldn’t be assuaged. And even in the best case the transition to the new energy source would try both the patience and the finances of those involved during a time of slow economic contraction. Despite this, it’s likely the technology would be adopted over a long period of time, but not at nearly the scale or impact initially assumed. It’s this combination of tensions I’ve tried to capture.
Of course it’s impossible to know if this is how it’d play out, but one thing is quite clear: our society isn’t set up for rapid change of the sort presented by a new energy breakthrough. Institutional and social inertia can sometimes be a good thing, but here it’s a major drawback.