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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.

Until next time...

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Comment Preferences

  •  Embracing the idea of free energy is scary . . . (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath

    unlike the suggestion of going to war, which sells like hotcakes.

  •  For a hypothetical to be credible (0+ / 0-)

    it needs some basis in reality.

    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.
    As to Mr. Fusion:
    The Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor is the name of a power source used by the DeLorean time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy
    Sigh...

    Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

    by EdMass on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 09:28:05 AM PDT

    •  Nope - that's the point (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Odysseus, G2geek, SolarMom

      The point here is that even if the technology itself is some fictional idealized energy source that can produce electricity from trash at a cost once operational that's a small fraction of the cost of energy today, it'd still have a huge number of institutional and societal hurdles to jump.

      contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 09:31:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Including what happens (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        barath

        to the millions of workers involved in energy exploration, development  and distribution around the world.  

        Much to "jump", agreed.

        Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

        by EdMass on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 09:35:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I doubt it. (0+ / 0-)

        Disruptive technologies have been developed before (e.g. computers, internet, robotics). They did not face significant institutional or societal hurdles that I am aware of other than the failure of institutions and society to recognize their potential early on. The significance of clean free energy would be wasted on no one.

        Such a technology would be a true game changer if it existed and the first companies and countries to embrace it would have a competitive advantage over everyone else. Unfortunately, this diary comes off sounding like a warmed over variation of the 100 mpg carburetor conspiracy theory.  

        •  Um... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          G2geek, SolarMom

          I'm not saying that people wouldn't recognize it, nor that such a technology exists and that there's some conspiracy holding it back.

          Just that even in the best case scenario a new energy technology will take a long time to be adopted and make an impact, and we don't have a lot of time to move away from carbon-based fuels.

          contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

          by barath on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:29:05 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I agree insofar as if Mr. Fusion required (0+ / 0-)

            quantities of unobtainium to catalyze the reaction and the world reserves of unobtainium was low (because previously there was limited commercial demand for it) and it would take geologists several years to identify new deposits and even more to generate the capital, then clear the licensing and permitting to mine it, then yes it would take a long time. On the other hand, if it was just based on a clever use of off-the-shelf technology I suspect manufacturing could begin production in a matter of years, although catching up with demand could take over a decade. Comparatively speaking, projects to build natural gas plants can happen in under 10 years from inception to connection to the grid and if it was really game changing governments would slash the red tape to encourage them to be built as quickly as possible.

            Your statement that Exxon or Massey, fossil fuel companies, would try to buy it as opposed to technology companies like GE or Westinghouse or Toshiba, and your statements about Saudi Arabia are what led me to believe you were hinting at conspiracies to bury it or slow its development.

        •  One thing... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          offgrid

          the technologies you reference were actually developed over decades.  The technology the diarist posits would be instantaneous and likely generate worldwide mayhem.  Not that I am fundamentally opposed to worldwide mayhem...Heh!

          Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

          by EdMass on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 11:13:26 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I like your thought experiment (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, 6ZONite, rmabelis, G2geek, SolarMom

    though I think you may be insufficiently paranoid about what entrenched interests might do to eliminate such a threat.

    I would like you to carry your thought experiment a little further. What if Mr Fusion did quickly lead to nearly unlimited power that was too cheap to meter? Would beneficial uses be made of the new technology?

    Also, what if, instead of Mr Fusion, it was Mr Battery? Say your researchers find a cheap and compact way to store energy almost indefinitely, would that technology be a boon or a curse?

    " 'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me." Elwood P. Dowd

    by paulbkk on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 09:40:01 AM PDT

    •  And a step further (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      6ZONite, SolarMom
      I would like you to carry your thought experiment a little further. What if Mr Fusion did quickly lead to nearly unlimited power that was too cheap to meter? Would beneficial uses be made of the new technology?
      Would having such a huge power source drive the industrial machine into overdrive, stripping the planet of all sorts of other resources (since energy as a bottleneck would be removed).

      contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:26:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  some other resource limit will kick into place. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        SolarMom, barath

        Per The Limits to Growth, removing one resource constraint, in the absence of a general strategy to live within our ecological means, only results in growth up to the limit of the next resource constraint.

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 12:01:08 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Six weeks after the initial announcment, a (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rmabelis, wblynch, G2geek, SolarMom

    traffic/small plane accident kills the entire T.I.M. research group on its way to another demonstration of the technology.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

    by Greyhound on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:30:26 AM PDT

    •  Heh... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      G2geek

      Sounds like the premise for a summer blockbuster movie.

      contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 10:33:58 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  i know someone who could turn it into... (0+ / 0-)

        .... a graphic novel.

        And I could think of a few intriguing plot twists to make it weirder and weirder:-)

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 12:20:39 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  word to the wise: (0+ / 0-)

      People involved in anything that could disrupt the political or economic order in a serious manner, should avoid small planes like plague.

      Do not allow your schedule to be made so tight that you have to take risks to keep up with it.

      Take commercial flights, take the train, or drive if you have to (with a couple of your friends or associates to be sure), but avoid the small planes.  

      While we're at it, avoid food sources that you can't be sure are safe.  Better to eat at McDonalds on the road, than to take up an offer of a "friendly supporter" you don't know very well, for dinner at their house, only to discover that they didn't cook the chicken quite well enough and you're down with salmonella.

      "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

      by G2geek on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 12:17:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Existing society just isn't capable (0+ / 0-)

    of rapid change in direction. This is one reason why we  will do nothing about climate change until it is far too late.

    •  do you have a degree in prophesy? (0+ / 0-)

      Or is your precognition score better than p < .01 ?

      Or perhaps the pre-emptive defeatism is just a case of serotonin levels out of adjustment?

      "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

      by G2geek on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 12:19:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  This from someone living through the Internet (0+ / 0-)

      Revolution.  

      20 years ago, cellphones were relatively uncommon, but now practically every 7-year-old has one.

      The iPhone came out about five years ago, yet now small, powerful, wirelessly communicating computers that fit in our pockets are everywhere.

      The Internet was just the domain of some geeks, scientists, and college students until about 19 years ago.  In a few short years it has radically altered the face of life and business in the US.

  •  Two days later... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SolarMom

    A mysterious blast burns all the labs and notes and all the scientists working on the project are found dead.

    Three days later... no on enotices and all is back to normal.

  •  nice emotional roller-coaster. (0+ / 0-)

    plane accident, mysterious blast... ?
    or assange's icy caves of safety ?

    define your own dreams: mine are -- we can learn faster than you think we can learn.

    Addington's Perpwalk: TRAILHEAD of Accountability for Bush-2 Crimes.
    Give: NETROOTS FOR THE TROOPS 2012 * Join: OBAMA'S TRUTH TEAM

    by greenbird on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 11:42:06 AM PDT

  •  Have you ever seen the movie (0+ / 0-)

    "The Man in the White Suit"?

    It's an old English comedy made in the 1950's with Alec Guinness.

    It's about a guy who invents a new fabric that is indestructable and never needs cleaning. It ends up causing all of the troubles that you describe with Mr Fusion.

    Great movie, and well worth the watch.

    http://www.imdb.com/...

  •  Free Energy News (0+ / 0-)

    For those who are interested in developments like "Mr Fusion" and other free energy prospects, check out Free Energy News at http://www.peswiki.com/...

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 01:21:03 PM PDT

  •  A for Anything (0+ / 0-)

    Damon Knight's novel A for Anything is a more fully explored  examination of the possibility you offer.  Someone invents a replicator, a device that can reproduce anything.  Place one anything in one side of it, turn it on and poof! you have another.  It destroys society when the idea gets out to the public.

    And then the real fun starts.....

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Tue Mar 20, 2012 at 01:25:13 PM PDT

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