Think of this as Volume 15, Number 26 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
Global warming means there is more energy in the air than there was. How can there be an energy shortage?
What we're short of is stuff we can burn. Stuff we can burn is how we've defined energy throughout the eras we've called “civilization.”
Can you really call yourself civilized if you define energy the way cavemen did – as stuff you can burn? Didn't civilization start with farming?
Fact. There is abundant energy all around us. The Sun shines. The wind blows. The tide rolls. The Earth we know is a skim coat on top of molten rock.
What we're not doing is harvesting this abundance. Civilization has barely begun.
We know what has delayed the day of harvest. Fading industries always capture the political system to forestall their demise. But in the end technology wins out, then economics wins out. Massive factories became the Rust Belt, production without consumption became the Great Depression, unregulated utilities were harnessed by the Progressive Era, and we fought a Civil War to free human labor from southern planters, unleashing America's machine age.
This is what I have learned in my study of history. American history is a process. Technology leads, the economy follows, and politics struggles in vain to catch up with it all.
Where is the change happening? It's happening all around us.
It's 1971 for renewable energy.
What will change our view of all this is scale. Our solar energy industry, in particular, has yet to scale. But all other barriers to exponential growth have been breached. Prices are in freefall, with many producers now delivering cells and panels that cost just $1 for each watt of power, or 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
True, that's manufacturing cost, not installed cost. But grid power in Hawaii today costs over 30 cents per kwh, and remember that installation, distribution, and permitting costs are also falling.
The government's “SunShot” goal of “grid parity” by 2020 with coal is well within reach. In fact we're going to blow right by it.
And here's the punch line.
What happens next?
It's the economics of grid parity that no one has yet examined. Once solar costs go below those of grid energy, they keep going down. Even before parity is reached, renewables will be putting downward pressure on prices for fossil fuels. Once you have taken out the capital costs of a solar or wind installation, you get power for only the maintenance cost of the system. Not free power, but damned cheap power.
The only arguments against renewable energy are political, written by politicians, for political purposes. As I said, not unexpected, not surprising. Fossil fuel companies value themselves based on what they can get for “proven reserves,” stuff they can burn that remains under ground they control. What happens to the value of those reserves once safer, easily-harvested alternatives can compete on price?
They go down.
Today's oil companies are as desperate as steel companies were a generation ago to protect the value of their investments. They have captured our political system. Oil money calls the tune, marketers and politicians dance, the rest of us become depressed and angry.
But history tells me that marketing has never defined our future. Politics has never defined it. Technology and economics have defined it. And what those forces tell us is that the Oil Patch is the next Rust Belt. Remember that. It will become obvious by 2016. And everything will change.
That's because all the problems we now see as intractable are caused by caveman energy. Economies can't grow when each move up is matched by the rising price of oil. Global warming is produced by burning stuff – think harvesting and warm air becomes a resource. Deficits can turn to surplus when we're no longer bound by the search for oil. Wars for oil? Gone. Wars for rare earths? Not when we can replace rare earths with other materials.
Now look what happened in the last few moments. Depression has become optimism. We've become Americans again, as we always do once solutions to our problems become obvious. Prosperity is coming.
There will be a price. Turn today's world upside-down and you have labor shortages, not unemployment. You have to take terraforming seriously, or see global cooling. All the temptations of ennui and prosperity will dog our grandkids. We will leave them with big, big problems.
But consider the opportunities. Opportunities for robotics to replace labor in all sorts of areas. Opportunities to finally explore space, through materials that give us a space elevator, through abundance that gives us rocket fuel – liquid oxygen and hydrogen explode into flames and water.
Utopia can replace dystopia. All we need do is embrace civilization, harvest the abundant energy all around us, and bring our children the better life they deserve.