Tag Archives: Energy

Elois Ate Your Flying Car

J Storrs Hall’s book Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past, told me new things I didn’t know about flying cars. The book is long, and says many things about tech and the future, including some with which I disagree. But his main thesis is a contrarian one that I’ve heard many times from engineers over my lifetime. Which is good, because by putting it all in one place, I can now tell you about it, and tell you that I agree:

We have had a very long-term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. …

One invariant in futurism before roughly 1980 was that predictions of social change overestimated, and of technological change underestimated, what actually happened. Now this invariant itself has been broken. With the notable exception of information technology, technological change has slowed and social change has mounted its crazy horse. …

In the 1970s, the centuries-long growth trend in energy (the “Henry Adams curve”) flatlined. Most of the techno-predictions from 50s and 60s SF had assumed, at least implicitly, that it would continue. The failed predictions strongly correlate to dependence on plentiful energy. American investment and innovation in transportation languished; no new developments of comparable impact have succeeded highways and airliners. …

The war on cars was handed off from beatniks to bureaucrats in the 70s. Supersonic flight was banned. Bridge building had peaked in the 1960s. … The nuclear industry found its costs jacked up by an order of magnitude and was essentially frozen in place. Interest and research in nuclear physics languished. … Green fundamentalism has become the unofficial state church of the US (and to an even greater extent Western Europe). …

In technological terms, bottom line is simple: we could very easily have flying cars today. Indeed we could have had them in 1950, but for the Depression and WWII. The proximate reason we don’t have them now is the Henry Adams curve flatline; the reasons for the flatline have taken a whole book to explore. We have let complacent nay-sayers metamorphose from pundits uttering “It can’t be done” predictions a century ago, into bureaucrats uttering “It won’t be done” prescriptions today. …

Nanotech would enable cheap home isotopic separation. Short of that, it would enable the productivity of the entire US military-industrial complex in an area the size of, say, Singapore. It’s available to anyone who has the sense to follow Feynman’s pathway and work in productive machinery instead of ivory-tower tiddley-winks. The amount of capital needed for a decent start is probably similar to a well-equipped dentist’s office.

If our pre-1970 energy use trend had continued, we’d now use ~30 times as much energy per person, mostly via nuclear power. Which is enough energy for cheap small flying cars. The raw fuel cost of nuclear power is crazy cheap; almost all the cost today is for reactors to convert power, a cost that has been made and kept high via crazy regulation and liability. Like the crazy restrictive regulations that now limit innovation in cars and planes, destroyed the small plane market, and prevented the arrival of flying cars.

Anything that goes into a certificated airplane costs ten times what the thing would otherwise. (As a pilot and airplane owner, I have personal experience of this.) It’s a lot like the high cost of human medical drugs compared with the very same drugs for veterinary use.… Building of airports remains so regulated (not just by the FAA) that only one major new one (KDEN) has been built [since 1990]. …

It seems virtually certain that if we had had [recent] cultural and regulatory environment … from, say, 1910, the development of universal private automobiles would have been suppressed. … By the end of the 70s there was virtually nothing about a car that was not dictated by regulation.

With nuclear power, we’d have had far more space activity by now. Without it, most innovation in energy intensive things has gone into energy efficiency, and into smaller ecological footprints. Which has cut growth and prevented many things. The crazy regulation that killed nuclear energy is quite unjustified, not only because according to standard estimates nuclear causes far fewer deaths, but also because standard estimates are greatly inflated via wide use of a “linear no threshold model”, regarding which there are great doubts:

Several places are known in Iran, India and Europe [with high] natural background radiation … However, there is no evidence of increased cancers or other health problems arising from these high natural levels. The millions of nuclear workers that have been monitored closely for 50 years have no higher cancer mortality than the general population but have had up to ten times the average dose. People living in Colorado and Wyoming have twice the annual dose as those in Los Angeles, but have lower cancer rates. Misasa hot springs in western Honshu, a Japan Heritage site, attracts people due to having high levels of radium, with health effects long claimed, and in a 1992 study the local residents’ cancer death rate was half the Japan average.

To explain this dramatic change of regulation and litigation, Hall says culture changed:

Western culture had essentially succeeded in supplying the needs of the physical layers of [Maslow’s] hierarchy, including the security of a well-run society; and that the shift to the Eloi [of the Well’s Time Machine story] could be thought of as people beginning to take those things—the Leave It To Beaver suburban life—for granted, and beginning to spend the bulk of their energy, efforts, and concerns on the love, esteem, and self-actualization levels. … “Make Love, Not War” slogan of the 60s … neatly sums up the Eloi shift from bravery to sensuality. …

The nuclear umbrella meant that economic, political, and moral strength of the society was no longer at a premium.

I’ll say more about explaining this cultural change in another post.

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When See Solar?

Paul Krugman:

Progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that … prices adjusted for inflation [have been] falling around 7 percent a year. … If the downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal. And if we priced coal-fired power right, taking into account the huge health and other costs it imposes, it’s likely that we would already have passed that tipping point.

Joshua Gans responds:

According to Ramez Naam in Scientific American, the cost of solar photovoltaic models has been falling at an exponential rate since 1980. Installation costs have been falling too. So much so, in fact, that in a decade, solar would outperform the average kilowatt energy cost in the US. A decade after that and it will be approaching the cheap baseload fuels.

Tyler Cowen responds:

If a solar breakthrough is now likely, in which market prices do we see it reflected? It is true that fossil fuel prices took a steep tumble in the last few months, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest that price plunge had to do with a forthcoming solar revolution. … Those shale oil and natural gas discoveries … will further raise the bar against solar power. … Is there a bubble in the stock prices of solar power specialists?  What’s the total market cap of companies selling solar panels?  Or is there a bubble in the share prices of companies which supply cheap and reliable power storage?  The evidence on these points seems weak to say the least.  Keep in mind that other countries can make the switch even if you think political conspiracy will prevent it here. …Is there any reason, based in industry-wide market prices, to be optimistic about the near-term or even medium-term future of solar power?  I don’t see it.

(I posted on this in March.)

When solar is cheaper than coal or oil, that will include the cost of supporting infrastructure, such as building power plants. But since we’ll still have lots of old plants and infrastructure, we’ll still use a lot of carbon. And since places vary in the relative attractiveness of using carbon or solar power, we may even build more carbon plants after that point. Solar getting cheaper than carbon would show up in a gradual fall in global investment in coal infrastructure relative to an alternative still-full-carbon history, and a gradual rise in investment in solar infrastructure.

A transition driven by price lines crossing in twenty years would have very little impact on current stock or commodity prices. At ordinary discount rates used for business investment, returns after twenty years hardly matter. And changing tech and business conditions make today’s top solar firms a poor vehicle for investing in a transition twenty years hence. Of course current stock prices would probably show signs of a price-line crossing if investors expected it to happen in five years. So that scenario can probably be excluded.

This is one of the reasons we could really use long term prediction markets, to more clearly see our distant future. They only require that enough folk care enough about that future to pay to create and subsidize such markets. Alas, few care.

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