The Future of Energy: Things Never Change So Much …


Things never change so much as they stay the same. That’s the saying, anyway, and I figure I’ll see how things balance out if I stick around long enough.  I expect that there will be surprises, and some advances people expect won’t happen, or will be disappointing, while other inventions will become mainstays of our civilization.  Inevitably, the deciding factor behind the decision to discard or keep something involves money, and I believe that will extend to our energy infrastructure.

Fundamental infrastructure tends to persist. For example, you may have heard the idea that modern roads and the width of railroad tracks derive from horse-drawn wagons, which were dimensioned to be just as wide as two horses pulling them.  Similarly, our current energy supplies such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and natural gas have proven to be extremely cheap to ship in bulk, and the systems of pipelines, storage facilities, and other infrastructure developed for them will likely persist, but could be adapted to new liquid bulk products, a category that could continue to be dominated by fuels .  There may be a few decades to research alternative energy sources before fossil fuel sources will become too short and expensive  to support the kind of use patterns we enjoy now, but an earlier need for liquid or gaseous forms of alternative energy would make the use of current infrastructure all the more imperative.

As energy becomes cheaper, more loss can be justified in its conversion. An exceptionally cheap form of energy, electricity from fusion reactions, for example, could justify storing the energy in other forms such as liquid hydrogen.  There would be a huge loss of efficiency in the conversion process, but the loss could be overcome by the low cost of the source.  Such a fuel could then use existing pipeline and storage infrastructure to reach the points of use.

Work is proceeding on alternative energy sources. While the United States is apparently not investing in fusion research, probably due to the inordinately strong influence of existing energy suppliers on the government, the Europeans are proceeding with a program that could produce extremely low cost electricity within 30 to 50 years.  While their technology aims to design huge and extremely expensive reactors that will produce large quantities of electricity, other simpler, smaller, and far cheaper concepts for fusion power are being worked on with a lot less publicity.  Hopefully fusion power in one of these forms will become a reality before the global economy is crippled by dwindling and ever more expensive fossil fuel supplies.

Other technologies for new sources of energy are possible. Tomorrow’s great ideas always seem crazy today, I have long said, or we’d already be using them.  Humans have amazing imagination, ingenuity, and energy, especially in the face of necessity, and it is hard to imagine what is to come.  My hope is that we’ll see our current energy per capita rate flatten and eventually fall, and then the global energy use, though the latter will probably not occur until the global population peaks and begins to decline.  I also hope that new energy sources will satisfy increasing proportions of our total needs, and that the curves will all cross in such a way as to minimize crises and general negative impacts on humanity and all life on the planet.

Chicken Little had an important job. While one’s first impulse might be to put down those who predict doom and gloom, it is those people who sound the early alarm that gets us moving in better directions as a civilization.  I would personally like to be able to look back, thirty years from now, and say that the doomsayers were wrong, but in reality it is the alarmists that get the rest of us motivated to mitigate our problems before they become catastrophically severe.  I consider what the “chicken little’s” say, and understand their place in the way civilization works and progresses.

We are not powerless, and it is our duty to life on the planet to learn and contribute what we can. One of the ways we can help is to make our wishes known to our elected representatives.  While powerful corporate entities are focused only on making money, and usually pay little heed to individual citizens, our elected officials have to have votes to keep their positions, and their staff members keep tallies of the opinions they hear from constituents.  Communicate with your representatives and ask for more research into alternative energies and conservation.  Ask them why no funds are being committed to fusion research, while Europe is pulling away from us in developing this promising technology.  Thank them for serving their constituents instead of big, wealthy corporations.  If enough of us take on this important responsibility we have a chance to speed our progress towards a sustainable future with a minimum of crises along the way.

As always, I welcome your comments.   – Tim

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