Anyone have sources for information on possible effects of the cost of energy dropping to zero?
November 6, 2008 7:16 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have specific sources of information and speculation regarding the effect of the cost of energy dropping to near zero? I am specifically looking for anything like studies done on possible economic or social effects, but even interesting speculative fiction might be useful to me. I am not particularly interested in how this might happen, more about the aftermath of such a change.

I am having some trouble formulating a Google search so it comes up with anything relevant, so if anyone has any suggestions in that direction that's great too.
posted by jefeweiss to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You should take a look at last week's I, Cringely. Check out the links on the right-hand sidebar too.
posted by pwb503 at 7:30 PM on November 6, 2008

Do you mean what if the energy companies suddenly decided to give it away for free?
Or that someone discovered some scientific advance that produced energy from nothing?

If the energy co's could produce it for nothing, it would probably still cost us just as much to buy it from them.
posted by robotot at 7:48 PM on November 6, 2008

On re-reading my answer, they're pretty much mutually exclusive aren't they.
posted by robotot at 7:51 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: James P. Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear is a good treatment of virtually unlimited resources (both energy and materials) via controlled fusion.
posted by Mitheral at 7:52 PM on November 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A search you want to look for is "post-scarcity economy"
posted by Lemurrhea at 8:13 PM on November 6, 2008

I think you would have to place some parameters on exactly how close to zero it were to drop. I mean, if there really was literally an unlimited amount of power available we'd be able to do insane things, like fix global warming with air conditioners. (On the other hand, depending upon exactly how much power was expended and how, waste heat might increase global warming. This was a problem for an alien civilization called the "Pierson's Puppeteers" in Larry Niven's science fiction Known Space universe... at a certain point the biggest and most pervasive problem was figuring out how to vent all the heat their technology produced off into space.)

It seems to me that one of the most significant effects of a relatively small decrease in price would be that large-scale desalination of water for drinking and crop irrigation would become affordable. That would improve human life around the globe in lots of ways and could have major environmental effects. The Sahara desert was once more like grassland and if desalination became cheap enough irrigation it could be restored to that; there was a civilization in the middle of it called the Garamantes that collapsed when they depleted their aquifers. Same with the rest of the deserts in the world, of course.

Power would make the production of nitrogen fertilizer, the most essential sort of fertilizer, via the Haber process easier. Between that and having more water available, I'd think there'd be more food available and so the global population would rise.

At some point electrically producing hydrogen from water and liquefying it would be inexpensive enough to render petroleum unimportant for power, which would have major economic effects globally and consequently politically; the various oil states and oil-rich countries would lose their political clout. (But would they need it if they had unlimited power?)

High-speed mag-lev trains would be practical.

It seems like the consumption of every raw material would increase in pace...

Landfills could be reclaimed because any kind of trash could be affordably incinerated...

If we didn't care about environmental effects we could build dams and drain all of the water out of places like the Mediterranean and the Gulf of California to make more land available. People have proposed doing this in the past, I forget what those projects were called.

There's probably all kinds of weapons you could make with unlimited power... yeah, we'd probably destroy the world, either accidentally or on purpose.
posted by XMLicious at 8:24 PM on November 6, 2008

Best answer: There are two ways energy can become cheap: supply-side, or demand-side.

After a traumatic run with global warming, the world might turn to Buddhism and start running its affair like Bhutan where the main values are happiness and contentment, not profit and consumption. The world's energy usage would plummet, and what little energy we would need could be produced with easy-to-reach local sources, and so it would be cheap.

That's the demand-side, and I don't think that's what you have in mind. On the supply-side, we might discover a way to build 1MW fusion power plants for 10$ each, on sale at Walmart. That would transform the world.

  • You would get a second global warming problem, this time caused directly by waste heat from all the consumption, rather than caused indirectly by the greenhouse effect.
  • You would have problem with terrorism. It is easy to do a lot of damage when you have a lot of energy at hand.
  • Transport would be cheaper than ever, so you would see epic urban sprawl everywhere.

  • On the plus side,

  • Shipping and cooling would be so cheap, you could send your leftovers to a starving kid in Africa.
  • You would grow your own food in your closet (cheap hydroponics for everyone.)
  • People would build settlements anywhere you can build such closets, such as in deserts.
  • World peace would be assured once everyone developed the habit of flying across the globe every two month, from the strength of the resulting international friendships.
  • We would fly to Mars immediately.

  • Essentially, whenever you spend money, it goes toward one of three things:
    1. A lease on a pile of atoms (natural resources)
    2. A lease on someone else's time
    3. Energy
    The 10$ fusion plants makes the third item disappear.
    posted by gmarceau at 8:38 PM on November 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

    interesting speculative fiction might be useful to me

    Everything involving space travel then. Merely getting out of a gravity well requires a LOT of energy. Current spacecraft barely get off the planet and then shift into neutral to go where ever. Per XMLicious's comment, the issue then moves to one of heat dissipation as opposed to energy delivery as the vacuum of space is a mighty good insulator. But basically everything we see in sci-fi is predicated on limitless, zero-cost energy.
    posted by GuyZero at 8:59 PM on November 6, 2008

    Response by poster: Post-scarcity economy is right up my alley. It's a pretty non-obvious term that produces a lot of results.

    I guess to be more specific I was looking for thinking that people had done about what would happen during the transition from an economy where energy is scarce and costs a lot to an economy where energy is bountiful and costs very little. Or to answer XMLicious, I want to know what people think will happen as the cost of energy goes from what it is now and approaches 0 over time.

    BTW, I think this is pretty much inevitable. The speed at which it occurs depends partly on how much we invest in making it happen and partly on getting lucky with discovering things.
    posted by jefeweiss at 5:44 AM on November 7, 2008

    Best answer: BTW, I think this is pretty much inevitable. The speed at which it occurs depends partly on how much we invest in making it happen and partly on getting lucky with discovering things.

    I hope you're right but I'm scared that so many people think what you just said. I thought there was a specific cognitive bias that would explain at least some of why I feel this way, but I can't find it at the moment so I guess I'll explain at length.

    I'm an engineer, a nerd, and not, I think, a hopeless pessimist. I really, strongly hope for the good of the future of humanity and on a personal level that we will find a way to drive the cost of energy toward zero -- or even keep the cost close to what it is now -- going forward on a long-term basis. I don't claim that we won't be able to do this, but I don't think it's especially likely, let alone inevitable.

    I think people have become used to the amazingly rapid rate of technological progress that we've seen in the field of computers in the last 20-30 years, and have come to expect a similar rate of change in other fields of science and technology. I don't think this is at all realistic, and I think that looking back at the history of scientific and technological innovation illustrates this point.

    The way I see it, our likelihood of obtaining a long-term cheap-or-free source of energy depends primarily on:

    1a) How much we invest in making it happen (as you said), but perhaps in a broader sense than most have in mind
    1b) How effective those investments are
    2) Getting lucky in discovering things (as you said)
    3) The nature of physical reality

    Regarding investment (1a): What types of things are we able to "invest" in scientific and technological progress? Money, certainly. Time, in the sense that it takes time to convert money into scientific progress - equipment must be made, buildings must be built or adapted, people must be educated and trained, and so on. Time, in the sense that scientists and other researchers must spend time working in order to make discoveries and build things. But there's also time in the sense that we must complete or make significant progress on research into new sources of energy in the time that our current sources of reasonably-priced energy last. And I don't mean "last" as in "until the last drop is exhausted." Long before that would happen, the aspects of civilization that allow for things like advanced scientific research and technological progress to occur would begin to fall apart.

    At first, this could be a matter of reduced national and corporate budgets for research due to the increasing prices of energy and food. If energy (and hence, food) continued to become more scarce, peoples' and governments' focus would shift toward basic survival. Eventually, there wouldn't be enough food to go around and mass starvation would likely ensue, and I don't foresee much research getting done under such conditions. Granted, this would get worse in some parts of the world before others, much as it is now, but civilization as we know it certainly cannot endure without relatively widespread and inexpensive energy availability.

    I have no prediction about when things would get this bad. Obviously, it would depend on the rate of progress that is made in discovering and obtaining new energy sources, among many other things. It could well be some hundreds of years before energy gets scarce enough so as to form a basic impediment to further research, or it could be sooner; I really can't say. But, I think there's definitely a point where we could encounter a time constraint of this nature, no matter how many (remaining) resources we choose to throw at the problem at that time.

    Regarding the effectiveness of investments (1b): Statistics such as "amount of money spent on scientific and technological research, worldwide, 1800-present" probably show more-or-less continual increases in funding, but they by no means tell the whole story. For one thing, there's the issue of basic versus applied research. Applied research is no doubt both good and necessary; it's how new products, processes and machines are developed. In recent years, it has also tended to be quite lucrative to a wide variety of firms on a short- to medium-term basis. But, what can be made via applied research depends almost entirely on what has been discovered through basic research. Additionally, even within the field of applied research, it matters whether we are expending resources on researching energy-related technologies or on other fields of inquiry -- worthy or not -- such as medicine (drugs), computer technology, television transmission encoding schemes, and so on.

    It is my understanding that both government [1] [2] [3] and corporate [think Bell Labs, etc] funding for basic research is declining and has been declining now for quite a few years. I worry that this trend will serve to hamper progress toward the types of energy sources that we are discussing.

    I also see trends like the declining esteem in which societies seem to hold science and scientists, the notion that there's "no money" in being a scientist (whether true or not), the expectation that scientific advances will "just happen," and so forth as worrying signs. If people don't want to "become scientists" or engage in scientific research for social or cultural reasons, I think it could take a long time before almost any amount of money could change this significantly.

    Regarding "getting lucky in discovering things" (2): I'm sure this is important, but I'd like the future of humanity to depend on luck as little as possible, which is why I think the factors in (1) should be addressed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The longer we wait, the more I think luck will come into play.

    Finally, the nature of physical reality (3): It appears -- at least when investigated through scientific means -- that nature and reality are what they are and that there is nothing we can do to alter the laws upon which they operate. If this is true, it means that no matter how much we hope or wish for something to be discovered or invented, it can only be discovered/invented if reality permits it. Even if new discoveries are made which radically alter our view of this type of thing, I don't think these discoveries will come because we want or need them to. I think they will have to come through the processes in (1) and (2).

    This has turned out to be quite long and didn't really address your question very much. Maybe it's time to re-start my [own] blog, but hopefully you'll find at least some of this interesting.
    posted by Juffo-Wup at 7:58 AM on November 7, 2008

    BTW, I think this is pretty much inevitable. The speed at which it occurs depends partly on how much we invest in making it happen and partly on getting lucky with discovering things.

    I really do not think that the way things are going this looks at all inevitable.

    There are trends to do more with less power, energy-efficient devices and things like electronics that require virtually no energy (for a good example see the new electronic paper technology, like Amazon's Kindle or the larger and cooler Plastic Logic reader - which not only save energy over something like an LCD display, but will reduce the consumption of energy in the production, transportation, and storage of paper.

    There's also distributed power production through technologies like wind and solar, which has a number of advantages in not being centralized and is greener, of course. But the amount of energy generated by those technologies really doesn't compare to being able to easily yank plentiful petroleum and coal and uranium out of the ground. For example, you're never going to have something similar to a nuclear-powered submarine powered by wind or solar technology, even if we developed 100% efficient versions of that technology.

    I think the future is more scarce energy that is utilized more efficiently.

    The one exception I'd make is if we figure out some way to do fusion power that can recoup the ramp-up costs within a feasible period of time. But we've been working on that for quite a while.
    posted by XMLicious at 10:46 AM on November 7, 2008

    Response by poster: @Juffowup

    Indeed it didn't answer my question, but indeed it was interesting. I guess I hadn't really considered the possibility of some sort of societal collapse.

    Also in part to address what XMlicious says above, I think that looking back on the 20th century we are probably going to look at our current state of affairs as being some sort of local minimum with respect to the cost of energy. Most of the 20th century energy was about as cheap as it can be if you get it from digging things out of the ground and burning them. There's still a good amount of things in the ground that we can dig up and burn, but it's going to get more expensive to do so.

    It's likely that the cost of energy is going to go up before it goes down again. I think that even now there are any number of candidates for producing energy cheaper then we currently do.
    posted by jefeweiss at 1:08 PM on November 7, 2008

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