If Only We Had Free Energy

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.

Leave a Reply


Responses to “If Only We Had Free Energy”

  1. Nice job, Barath. This is how the juxtaposition of net energy and a contracting economy will roll out, even without the occurrence of “a miracle.”

    I would add that we need to start asking ourselves about technology, “Even if we could, should we?” What restraints does a capitalist industrial society hellbent on growth and wealth acquisition have, that protect us from ourselves? We’ve removed all regulatory inhibitory feedback, and this sucker is going to spin until it explodes. We don’t need more fuel for the fire.

  2. Mary -

    Good point. It does seem that if such a technology were adopted quickly (rather than slowly as in my scenario) it’d just enable the ever more rapid extraction of other resources, both renewable and non-renewable. Only with very careful regulation that ensures that inflows of resources and outflows of waste are fixed could this be completely avoided, at which point we arrive back at Herman Daly’s SSE.

  3. Dennis Peterson March 20th, 2012 - 10:40 am

    All true, except I think China would start new plant construction much, much earlier. They’re desperate for new energy sources, and have a top-down policy apparatus run by engineers. Since their energy usage is expanding rapidly, they can build new power sources without getting rid of old ones. (But they’d also like to get rid of their exceptionally dirty coal plants, whose emissions kill several hundred thousand Chinese every year.)

    Don’t believe me? China’s the first to build AP-1000 nuclear plants, and a year ago committed a billion dollars to developing liquid thorium reactors. They’re also the world leader in renewables production.

  4. Interesting take. From a social standpoint though, Ivan Illich makes some interesting points about too much energy:

  5. Dennis -

    Good point, and I agree that China would want to deploy such a technology sooner rather than later. Though I do wonder how quickly an American startup would be willing to set up shop in China, given likely concerns over intellectual property theft. (Not saying that it wouldn’t happen, nor that those concerns are always well founded.)

  6. Saurabh -

    Interesting – I’ll check it out.

  7. Or they could set up shop in some First World country without a native resource extraction economy. France, Germany, Sweden, Israel…

  8. drs -

    Definitely, though I’m sure there are some institutional barriers there too that I’m not familiar with…

  9. Suppose this had already happened, but by a guy working out of his garage without decent backup, science fraternity support or big bucks.

    What would have happened – what would that look like?

    What evidence would exist now?

    What would their reputation be?


  10. Steve -

    Good question. I guess I’d still think it would have gone through much the same process, though perhaps more slowly. If the invention really worked, I think eventually it’d eventually be accepted and would be used. Though it’s possible that someone with more institutional support and/or public reputation would receive credit for the commercialization and/or invention itself.

  11. You’re going to have to type faster in order to keep up with reality, Barath.

    The super-circulation flywheel global economy spins faster and faster, spinning off wealth to the already wealthy, and pipe dreams of a growth economy to the media, while slaughtering the real wealth of the economy.


  12. Mary -

    I think you’re probably right about that, though I’m not sure that link is supporting evidence. I don’t trust the Washington Examiner to report accurately on just about anything, and it looks like as usual with their articles, there’s no there there.

  13. LOL. I agree with you about the Washington Examiner as a source. I did not do any fact checking on the article–I took it at face value using an assumption of photovoltaic as net-emergy-negative. Anything that is net-emergy-negative at this point in overshoot will only be produced by dreamers and schemers using ponzi scheme financing, borrowing from money that represents a future that isn’t there? As you said, we may manage to produce a few here and there as pilots, but get-rich-quick schemes will quickly be abandoned as reality doesn’t pan out?

    The energy intensity for development of photovoltaics and nukes is badly miscalculated by a range of methods including net energy (as opposed to net emergy). At this point, no matter what the media spin suggests, real outcomes will dictate overall production and scaling of “renewables.” Just use empirical testing at this point; scan your local horizon for presence of solar panels and wind turbines? Do you see any? Given the condition and trending of the global economy and the petrodollar, what are the chances we’re going to scale up borderline or net negative alternatives?

  14. I’m curious about your observation re: the difference between net energy and net emergy calculations when evaluating photovoltaics (or any other energy technology). Are there any good articles / blog posts that provide an introduction to that distinction? (I say introductions because I’ve found that a lot of the emergy literature is impenetrable without spending weeks and months picking up background understanding.)

    On a related note, Ugo Bardi had a post a few months back in which he observed that our perception of photovoltaics as low EROEI is out of date, and that modern photovoltaics have quite good EROEI. (His post certainly challenged some of my thinking.) Ironically, the panels he discusses are CdTe thin film, the kind First Solar makes.

  15. Very interesting thought experiment, Barath. I think things would likely unfold in a manner pretty similar to what you described, if for no other reason than “free energy” (and cheap energy at that) would pose a huge threat to many entrenched in today’s power (both literal and figurative) structure. Thanks for some thought-provoking ideas.

  16. You ask really good questions.

    Embodied energy analysis and EMERGY analysis: a comparative view
    M.T Brown, R.A Herendeen, EcoEco 19(3), December 1996, Pages 219–235.

    “Yet, we recognize that at any one moment in time, one might observe an expenditure of energy that does not, in any way, appear to maximize power. And while such circumstances may seem a violation, they are things that are tried, but do not maximize power. Some examples are inventions, random chance events or choices generated by the universe that fail eventually. If they do not maximize power they will be selected against. The speed with which that will happen depends on many things, not the least of which is the degree of subsidy involved in the trial.”

    And we are subsidizing photovoltaics and nukes heavily now, with large subsidies to PV and a pass on the maintenance, decommissioning, and waste issues for nukes.

    “Fig. 10 illustrates the fundamental reason that recognition of the differences in form energy is necessary. From a thermodynamic perspective the system is correct, having all energy accounted for because the inflows equal the outflows. However, when evaluated in heat energy (as the diagram is) energy flows to the right are so small as to be insignificant when compared with the flows farther to the left. Yet it is apparent from a systems perspective that the processes and flows to the right cannot exist without the inputs, nor since there are feedbacks, can the processes to the left exist without those to the right. In other words since the system is interconnected all components and flows are necessary, yet when evaluated in their heat value, many flows (especially those at the top of energy hierarchies) seem insignificant and of little importance. EMERGY evaluations make the assumption that they are essential for the entire system, their value is the total EMERGY that contributes to them.”

    “Most embodied energy evaluations researched in the literature do not include labor, or if it is included, only a portion of the energy of a human is considered as an input to the process (Costanza and Herendeen, 1984; Hall et al., 1986). In general, there is much debate over whether or not labor should be included, and if included, how to account for it.”

    “The most important difference that results when the two accounting procedures are used is that on pathways from lower order components the embodied energy is about 1.8-times as much as the EMERGY, but on the highest order pathways, the EMERGY is 1.1-2.0-times as great as the embodied energy. The significance is that the differences between lower and higher order pathways are amplified between the two accounting systems. Embodied energy accounting gives more weight (more relative importance) to lower order pathways over higher order ones, while EMERGY accounting gives more relative importance to higher order pathways.”

    Thus net energy fails to accumulate all of the contributions to complex alternative technologies. It is the idea of hierarchy that is so important. If we do not see the quiet contributions of Nature’s power at the lower ends of the hierarchy, then we devalue the degree of complexity of information and technology at the higher end, thinking that the complexity is a function of man’s technological prowess rather than incredible development of power over time using the powerful multiplier of fossil fuels.

  17. Shirley – Thanks.

    Mary – Would a fair summary be that most net energy calculations don’t recursively consider contributions back to some natural energy input, and that failure leads them to underestimate the true energy input required? That is, emergy calculations benefit from the fact that they are rooted in a common and well-specified unit like solar-equivalent Joules rather than embodied energy analyses which use an amalgam of incomparable quantities like electricity and liquid fuel inputs (unfortunately my analyses have fallen into this latter trap, usually because it’s the easy way out, even though I try to acknowledge labor and other factors).

    Some day it’d be great if someone translated the key ideas from the body of emergy literature into a form that’s easier to understand for those with other engineering and scientific backgrounds. That way such insights could be conveyed to a broader audience.

  18. Barath, your summary covers the difference nicely. Also from the paper:

    “Probably the most significant difference is related to the ‘form’ of EMERGY and embodied energy. EMERGY is defined as the energy of one type (usually solar energy) that is required to produce something. Energies of different types (i.e., solar, tidal, chemical potential energy in rain, fuels, or electricity) are expressed in the equivalent solar energy required to make them. Embodied energy analysis, as practiced, uses strictly the heat energy of fuels and does not include environmental energies. The embodied energy in goods and services, for instance, does not include the environmental support that is derived from solar, geophysical and tidal energies that drive all economies. It is suggested that these energies could be included, but there is no formal way of including them, no intensities have been calculated for them, and the fact that the biosphere is a single process with multiple outputs precludes the use of the matrix inversion process for their calculation.”

    Distilling the principles is a good idea. It just got moved to the top of the list. Conversations like this help, thanks.

  19. There’s one big flaw (amongst many) in your hypothetical situation. First, you said an “EROEI of more than 100, producing power at a cent per KWh”. Aside from the fact that the laws of physics state this is impossible, if an EROEI of greater than 100 was possible, the cost would be below zero, not $0.01 per Kwh. Think about it.

  20. Brett -

    Hmm…so since the post was premised on suspending the currently-known laws of physics to explore a possible best-case scenario, I’m not sure it matters that the current laws state it’s impossible to build a Mr. Fusion. That and there have been energy sources in history with EROEI greater than 100, and EROEI doesn’t tell you anything (directly) about exactly what it would cost…