Tom Evslin: Energy superabundance is within our reach

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

Solar and wind generated electricity has gotten cheaper by orders of magnitude in the last couple of decades; fracking has made oil and gas cheaper (remember the fear of peak oil?) except when we decide to restrict drilling. We know how to build small, even safer, and relatively inexpensive nuclear fission plants. Tidal electrical generation has hardly been tapped but will be. There is tremendous potential for geothermal energy as well as the use of hydrogen produced by hydrolysis. We may well be on a twenty-year countdown to practical use of fusion as a clean energy source.

Tom Evslin

Our use of energy has become much more efficient. I get the same light from a 6.5-watt LED bulb that I used to get from a 100-watt incandescent bulb. Electric cars require less energy to move them than their gasoline predecessors, assuming an efficient source for the electricity they consume. Modern induction electric motors use much less energy than their predecessors. Heat pumps in all but very cold climates are more efficient ways to both heat and cool than traditional furnaces, radiant electric heat, and earlier air conditioners (which have always been heat pumps). More efficient use of energy reduces the cost of everything we use energy for as well as keeping energy demand and cost lower.

There’s no question that lower cost energy means more use of energy, sometimes even more money spent for energy in the aggregate (this phenomenon is known as Jevons Paradox after William Stanley Jevons who first wrote about it in his 1865 book The Coal Question). There’s also no question that standard of living including adequate food, mobility, clean water, temperature control and most other material things we value goes up with the availability of affordable energy. Climate alarmists are right to point out that people emerging from poverty will use much more energy than they used to when abundant energy was not available to them.

Climate alarmists also worry that world population growth leads to an unrelenting and unsustainable growth in energy demand. That particular Malthusian nightmare should be allayed by the now acknowledged fact that world population is on track to stabilize and then even decline this century, largely because women who have a choice don’t usually choose to have many babies and because more and more women are able to make that choice thanks to education, emancipation, birth control, and affluence. We will all use more energy in the future but there will be less of us.

Researchers Austin Vernon and Eli Dourado at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University have written a fascinating paper, “Energy Superabundance: How Cheap Abundant Energy Will Shape Our Future.” They meticulously document superabundant energy as a cure for much which ails us. A few examples:

  1. Water. We know how to desalinate sea water; the only obstacle is the cost of the energy required. Without that obstacle water will be readily anywhere remotely close to the sea. We can also extract water from the air. Really takes a lot of energy but becomes a practical solution inland if energy is cheap enough.
  2. Think how much more land becomes available if the cost of transportation is near zero (yeah, I know, suburban sprawl). Think how many places become habitable with more fresh water and inexpensive cooling and heating – even if the climate continues to change. Think how much of the cost of building is directly or indirectly the cost of energy.
  3. Water, of course, is key. But indoor agriculture, so-called vertical farms, are practical where land is scarce if artificial light is cheap enough to compete with sunlight. Indoor marijuana growers, who use enormous amounts of electricity, already know that. But cheaper electricity is required for crops which don’t command as high a price.
  4. The Environment! Given superabundant energy which does not add greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, we can use that energy to remove atmospheric CO2 and either sequester it or use it to make plastics or netzero fuels. Once CO2 removal is cheap enough, there need be no net addition to greenhouse gas in the atmosphere when fossil fuels are used wherever they are the most practical alternative. Problem solved!

How do we get to that nirvana of superabundant energy. The authors of the paper say:

“To achieve this level of energy abundance, we need to remove the obstacles to building in the physical world. Power plants and transmission lines continue to be plagued by red tape from environmental review requirements, the siting process, and veto players at the local, state, and federal levels. Transportation infrastructure that is needed to allow us to step into our newfound energy prosperity suffers from similar issues. Smart policies like congestion taxes that could increase throughput and therefore increase demand for transportation languish because of a lack of political will. A high-speed tunnel that would connect DC and Baltimore in 15 minutes is languishing in environmental review. New aircraft types face regulatory obstacles at the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was spun off from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1975. In the entire history of the agency since then, it has never approved a reactor license from start to finish, from initial application to beginning of operations. Without reform, the obstacles to miniaturizing nuclear technology to achieve a portable source of high-density power are significant.”

My hope is that 2023 will be the year when the quest for superabundant energy and all its benefits replaces climate hysteria as a driver of public policy and private investment. We’d get a long way along the path if we fix our “build nothing never” permitting process. Happy New Year.

Image courtesy of Public domain
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9 thoughts on “Tom Evslin: Energy superabundance is within our reach

  1. Here us an example of “superabundance”

    EXCERPT from:

    GRID-SCALE BATTERY SYSTEMS IN NEW ENGLAND TO COUNTERACT SHORTFALL OF ONE-DAY WIND/SOLAR LULL
    https://www.windtaskforce.org/profiles/blogs/grid-scale-battery-systems-in-new-england

    Electrical System Cost Impact of Integrating Wind.

    The first few percent of annual wind contribution make little difference to overall costs, so the cost is about the all-in, levelized cost of energy, All-in LCOE

    Add a few more wind percent, and you start to need to invest in additional grid stabilization to cope with flicker.

    Add a few more wind percent, and you start to adversely hit the efficient operating regimes of other power plants on the grid, which are:

    1) Are forced to operate at reduced outputs, while counteracting the ups and downs of wind, which is less efficient; more Btu/kWh and more CO2/kWh, and more c/kWh
    2) Subject to increased wear and tear that adds to maintenance cost; increased c/kWh
    3) Increases the frequency of plant start/stops, which is inefficient; increased c/kWh
    4) The reduced running hours means costs, such as for capital, O&M, and all other costs, must be recovered from reduced electricity sales volumes; increased c/kWh.

    Add a few more wind percent, and you reach the point at which wind has to be curtailed to ensure the availability of adequate, grid-stabilizing inertia.

    Add a few more wind percent, and wind has to be curtailed, because it exceeds demand during low-demand hours and energy storage is unable to cope economically.

    Add few more wind percent, and the hours of curtailment increase, and the amounts of curtailment during low-demand hours also increase. Overall curtailment increases quadratically, and Owners need to recoup costs from un-curtailed output; increased c/kWh.

    Meanwhile periods of surplus imply zero or negative spot prices, which requires extra subsidies to ensure the availability of adequate grid-stabilizing inertia.

    Supply on windless days is barely affected by all the increased wind capacity.
    Storage, other than as an aid to grid stabilization, remains uneconomic.

    Adding more and more wind percent, will more and more decrease the usefulness of its output, because more and more of it will be curtailed.

    The net result of decreasing the usefulness from increased wind (ignoring the costs for increased grid expansion/augmentation, and the adverse impact on the economics of the other power plants, etc.) becomes a rapidly escalating multiple of All-in LCOE.

    It can reach up to 10 times All-in LCOE, and still fail to replace the need for almost 100% standby/backup generation.

  2. Adding to the growing list of obvious things which need changing is the chicken little obsession with climate change. This article explains in clear concise language why:

    “Climate change is a complete, government funded HOAX of the greatest magnitude of almost any scientific hoax AND Global warming is very real, and very small. This is a scientific FACT, proven by all available observations of science.

    It is also embarrassingly obvious. Humanity needs to improve intellectually or we will never achieve the best of our imagination.”

    Read https://wattsupwiththat.com/2023/01/09/climate-embarrassment-anthropogenic-climate-change-is-a-hoax-but-global-warming-is-real/

    The article puts the entire issue into perspective.

  3. Always an interesting take on things Mr. Ecslin. Hopefully some of your positive scenarios will come about.

    Difficulties ahead are that we are already seeing the effect of climate change in the intensity of weather events in the U.S. and around the worrld. Clmate change is perhaps best described as ‘the weather on steroids” and wild swings from severe drought to atmospheric rivers as we are now seeing in California are likely to become more frequent.

    Really dumb things like crypto currencies which require massive amounts of energy and are subject to fraud and use by criminals do not help. Then there are those who still use the force of arms to try to subjugate others.

    Perhaps the biggest implementt to the future you envision is the inability of many (of all political perspectives) to get beyond their own narrow ideological confines and find the common ground we need to move forward.

    Difficulties are not impossible to overcome. It may mean recognizing that none of us have a corner on the whole trurth and liistening to all perspectives. An ablility to compromise at times might have some value in creating a brighter future for those who come after us.

  4. Just to be clear we did have energy independence and it was cheap until a illegitimate potato head was instilled as a puppet of the WEF one world order… with the help of a few brain dead lefties who didn’t like having a smoking economy, world peace, booming IRA’s and our money helping Americans not the rest of the world..

  5. I encourage everyone to check out author and commentator Alex Epstein re: debunking/reframing energy hysteria and economics as related closely to morality.

    The absurd goal of zero human impact on the environment…CO2 is NOT the boogey man, for example. We are being lied to on multitudinous levels.

  6. “We know how to desalinate sea water; the only obstacle… ” – What do you do with the resulting brine?

    • Why, just dry the brine out over time… then sell the dried salt to Hippies. Libs & Enviros who want “Sea Salt” and will pay a handsome premium for it versus mined salt 🙂

      • Well, you can pump it back to the sea…way far out with miles of undersea pipeline….after all, oceans cover about 72% of the earth’s surface. But the Hippies will be upset….so then.. after Hippies buy dried sea salt from it…you can do this:

        “Multiple minerals and metals can be extracted from brine. In addition to the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph, calcium carbonates and sulphates used in the construction industry can be obtained by chemical precipitation (Ramasamy, 2019). Acids and bases, such as hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, can also be produced from brine by electrochemical technologies like bipolar membrane electro dialysis (Kumar, Phillips, Thiel, Schöder & Lienhard V, 2019). Similarly, another valuable product, sodium hypochlorite, has also been obtained through an electrochemical process (Malvi Technologies LLC, 2017). Furthermore, less expected elements like uranium (Wiechert et al., 2018), cesium and rubidium (Chen et al., 2020) could also be extracted from the brine by adsorption and ion exchange processes.”

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