Over the centuries, people have invented many different kinds of machines that help us do things and improve living standards. But in a very general way, what most of these inventions do is let us substitute some form of power for human effort. And as long as we were totally ignoring the costs of burning coal and oil, this was a great mechanism for progress — you invent new ways to do things by burning coal and oil, so then you burn more coal and oil.
But since the mid-1970s we’ve been increasingly aware of the limits and problems with this model, and it’s put us on an energy diet. Now when we invent something cool, we often have to say “too bad the energy requirements are so high.”
But as Ryan Avent (from whom I borrowed that chart) and others have written, this is a backward way of looking at things. The turn toward conservation and efficiency was a necessary evil in an era when we couldn’t come up with a better way to deal with geopolitical instability linked to oil and pollution linked to all forms of fossil fuels.
Instead, we should raise our clean energy production ambitions. We don’t want to replace 100% of our current dirty energy — we want to generate vastly more energy than we are currently using and make it zero carbon.
What difference does it make in how you look at it?
In the “energy is a necessary evil” frame, we look at our current electricity needs and then ask, “How can we generate all that from zero-carbon sources?” In the alternate framing, you say that to the extent we can develop affordable, zero-carbon sources of electricity, we want to generate tons and tons of electricity. Ideally, we would want to replace much more than 100% of current gas, coal, and oil with zero-carbon sources of electricity and use that to literally power a bold new era of rapid economic growth.
I find that this vision tends not to be intuitively compelling to a lot of people who are accustomed to living in the efficiency era. But let’s just imagine a world with small modular nuclear reactors and advanced geothermal energy production — a world in which we have plenty of baseline power. As our ability to make batteries gets better and better, we can put them all in vehicles rather than using them to address intermittent renewables. Then when the sun shines or the wind blows, we have even more power that we can use for stuff that doesn’t need to be on all the time. It’s a world of energy abundance — Lewis Strauss’ dream of electricity that’s “too cheap to meter.”
What can we do with that?
Water, water everywhere
Artists’ renderings of elaborate vertical farming operations look cool, but is there any real point to them?
I think Amanda Little’s recent piece for Bloomberg about AeroFarms’ operation makes a pretty compelling case that there is:
Yet the technology AeroFarms and other market leaders are pioneering very well might — especially in regions that have increasingly limited water and arable land. Aeroponic farms use up to 95% less water than in-field vegetable production and grow food 30% to 40% faster. They use as little as 0.3% of the land of a field farmer, according to AeroFarms Chief Executive Officer David Rosenberg: More food can be grown inside the space of a soccer goal net than can be grown in five soccer fields outdoors. The plants are grown without herbicides, fungicides or insecticides, gains for both the economics and human health.
Right now, they basically only grow broccoli and salad greens, but the principle should be adaptable to other crops.
The problem — and it’s a big one — is that while sunlight is free, the lamps vertical farmers use to catalyze the hyper-fast growth of their crops require tons of energy. The companies in this space are plugging away at improving the efficiency of their systems, but energy abundance would make that irrelevant. And instead of working harder and harder to make more efficient lighting systems, engineers could focus on improving crops.
Reducing water usage would be a huge deal. Whenever I write about building more housing in California, people start talking about water. But urban areas only account for about 10% of California’s water use. It’s not the people using all that water; it’s the farms.
And of course, water usage is also a huge deal in places like Australia and an even bigger deal in true desert countries like the UAE.
But not only could energy abundance let us get by with less water for our farms, but it could also get us much more water. The oceans are full of water, after all, and we have facilities that can desalinate them. The problem is that desalination is incredibly energy intensive. But with abundant energy, there’s no problem here. You could have lush lawns in the suburbs of Las Vegas.
Even beyond water usage, vertical farms could also get us food that’s much better. Right now a lot of mass-market crops (tomatoes, most infamously) are optimized for long-distance transportation rather than flavor. And while it’s great that today’s advanced global supply chains let us eat out of season strawberries, they’re honestly not that tasty. Energy abundance would let us have fresh, local, “seasonal” produce all year round anywhere there’s a significant number of people.
Solving the hard carbon problems
One of the trickiest pieces of the climate puzzle is heavy industry, where certain processes require extremely high temperatures.
Jet fuel, as we know, can melt steel beams. But electrical coils cannot. The best way to do certain things in the industrial space, by far, is to set something on fire. Nuclear reactors generate a lot of waste heat, and for some industrial processes, you can create a dual-use setup in which you’re supplying a factory with both electricity and heat. But even so, a lot of our current industrial processes use even higher temperatures than that.
David Roberts wrote a long piece about this that has lots of great details, but here’s the most important part for our purposes:
In terms of ability to generate high-temperature heat, availability, and suitability to multiple purposes, hydrogen is probably the leading candidate among industrial-heat alternatives. Unfortunately, the cost equation on hydrogen is not good: the cleaner it is, the more expensive it is.
Basically, you can set hydrogen on fire (just like fossil fuels) and generate tremendous heat. But unlike with fossil fuels, there are no carbon emissions. The problem is getting the hydrogen; the cost-effective ways of doing that cause a lot of pollution.
But the keyword is “cost-effective.” Just like you can get the salt out of ocean water if you’re willing to spend enough energy, you can separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. Right now this is hideously expensive, and a lot of effort is going into figuring out ways to make it cheaper. That’s the efficiency paradigm. But in a world of energy abundance, you turn your solar and wind farms into hydrogen-making facilities, and then hydrogen can smelt your metals and make your concrete.
Cleaning the air
One convenient fix for climate change would be large-scale direct air capture technology where machines act like supertrees, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere.
Such a technology would have a lot of virtues. Because greenhouses gasses added to the atmosphere stay there, even reaching global zero emissions won’t stop global warming. It would halt the acceleration of global warming (which is good and important), but the ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would let us go net negative and try to halt the warming.
A related issue, as the Georgetown philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues, is that carbon capture is a means for developed countries to pay reparations for our outsized role in contributing to the global stock of emissions. Right now America’s idea of global contribution to the fight against climate change is to push development banks to stop financing fossil fuel projects in poor countries. We got rich burning fossil fuels, but it’s now bad if others do the same. China is the biggest emitter right now, but if you look at total emissions, the United States has still doubled Chinese emissions with a much smaller population.
Direct air capture is a way to make it right.
It’s also, of course, a way to get to net zero without totally eliminating fossil fuels.
That would be nice for weird edge cases. Obviously, it’s not like humanity needs to burn charcoal for cookouts, but it’s fun and tasty. But there’s also the rather large practical problem of passenger aviation. I don’t want to say that electric planes are impossible (never say never!), but it’s a challenging problem because batteries are so damn heavy.
A lot of climate hawks don’t like to talk about direct air capture because they fear it gives people an excuse to avoid decarbonizing in the here and now. More prosaically, they point out that direct air capture uses so much energy that it doesn’t make sense as a strategy. And it’s a completely fair point. We should keep researching direct air capture and funding pilot work, but based on what’s currently available, it just doesn’t seem to work at a mass scale.
But just like with hydrogen, if we had electricity too cheap to meter, this problem would be solved.
In other words, the normal way of looking at climate change is something like “electrify everything we can and then get all our electricity from zero-carbon sources, and then kind of pray something works out in the edge cases.” But if you had much more zero-carbon electricity than that, you could solve all the hard cases or simply keep burning some fossil fuel where you really need it and use more electricity to solve your problems.
If you read science fiction written before the great energy diet, the presumption was that in the future people would be able to travel much faster — maybe even faster than the speed of light.
I can’t promise you a warp drive. But I can say that here on Earth, we generally don’t fly airplanes at their top speed because it’s not fuel-efficient and the extra money spent on jet fuel isn’t worth it to go faster. But if we don’t need oil to run our cars, jet fuel will be very cheap. And if electricity is too cheap to meter, we can use direct air capture to neutralize the emissions or even manufacture jet fuel out of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
In a world like that, you just fly the planes faster.
But beyond that, all current efforts to revive supersonic air travel are built around the difficult economics of an inherently fuel-intensive enterprise. If jet fuel becomes really cheap, then supersonic isn’t just a potential premium product on high-demand routes. It’s the smart way to connect any two cities beyond a certain distance. We’ll be zipping around the earth like it’s nothing. And while this probably won’t get us out exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations, the same principle applies to the basic mechanics of the suddenly-growing rocket industry.
To be really fanciful about it, if nuclear microreactors start rolling off assembly lines, we could use them to power cargo ships in just the way we have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. That would eliminate a major source of pollution. But of course, the Navy didn’t nuclearize its carrier fleet to reduce emissions — it’s a way to let the ships run faster and longer. In a world of energy plenty, we’ll have more air cargo but also 50% faster maritime shipping.
More clean energy faster
Making as much zero-carbon electricity as possible as quickly as possible is substantially more important than trying to stamp out fossil fuel use. In part, that’s because energy abundance has important upsides for humanity. We’ve been talking here about the upside for rich countries, but in some parts of the world, people don’t have any electricity at all.
Beyond that, it’s the scarcity of clean electricity that prevents us from unleashing some of our most promising technologies for both the mitigation and adaptation sides of things. An important question, of course, is how you actually accomplish this. That’s going to have to wait for later posts.
But the big picture question of how we orient ourselves is important. We shouldn’t be looking at our current energy usage and asking, “How can we get this much energy, but cleaner?” We should be looking at a 45-year energy diet and asking, “How can we use clean energy technology to shatter this barrier and open up incredible new vistas?”