Friday, June 17, 2011

Would free energy save us all?

Over at the Prospect, Paul Waldman asks whether "thorium will save us all." Apparently, thorium can be used in conjunction with super hi-tech particle accelerator thingamajigs to create a cleaner, safer, more efficient form of nuclear fission. Some scientists have gotten pretty excited about the process. Naturally, this also has the potential to excite climate hawks, because cheap, clean energy would, for the first time since the industrial revolution, disconnect economic growth from carbon emissions. If thorium reactors work, and if they're adopted rapidly enough, and if they're paired with a transition to electric transportation, this is a technology that could reduce global carbon production pretty much to zero.

Paul gives a verdict of "maybe." Not being a nuclear physicist myself, I'll side with him.

But I've long thought that people are actually much too sanguine about the environmental value of free or cheap energy. It's true that energy production and exploration consume massive resources and produce toxic substances. And it's true that one of those substances, carbon, causes the most pressing current environmental issue in the world.

But people also do lots of other things that destroy natural resources and produce toxic substances! Low-density development takes up space, ruins habitats, consumes water, and produces waste. So does the production of consumer goods. So does food production. So does building transportation infrastructure. And so on.

Free energy gives societies much more flexibility in how to approach these other tasks. But it doesn't replace them. We're still going to need food and places to live. Presumably, even in a world where energy is free, we're going to want new clothes and gadgets and gizmos for ourselves. And when addressing these needs, we're still bound by technological and physical limits. No matter how much energy we can produce, or how cheaply, we still aren't able to manifest food out of the void, a la Star Trek. All the clean, free energy in the world wouldn't make you a steak dinner -- you still need a cow (not to mention food for the cow itself).

On top of that, cheap energy actually has the potential to exacerbate other environmentally damaging activities. Right now, energy production is just one more bottleneck on economic growth. It limits how much stuff we can build, and how fast we can build it. Ease that bottleneck, and growth potentially increases in tandem -- until we reach the next bottleneck. There's no telling what it could be: lack of raw materials? Unavailability of fresh water? Or perhaps something even less foreseeable?

Of course, none of these obstacles is insurmountable, either -- particularly if you have extremely cheap energy. And maybe one day a fleet of robots will sort through the world's landfills, recycling every object, in order to ensure the constant of availability of resources for the underground factories building the iPhone 40GS.
But while carbon-free energy creates the potential to address new environmental issues, we still have to actually build the infrastructure and develop the technology to do so. In other words, no matter what happens in the field of energy production, environmental thinking is here to stay. And the sooner we solve the energy problem, the sooner we're going come face to face new challenges.


  1. "All the clean, free energy in the world wouldn't make you a steak dinner . . . ."

    But it may power a computer that can plug into your brain and perfectly simulate a situation where you are eating a steak dinner.