The good news is that the world will be flooded with clean, cheap energy; the bad news is that utopia may be a century away due to government drag. Too many people think that one can simply wish or legislate outcomes, such as “zero carbon emissions by 2050”, while ignoring the technical, economic, political and legal realities.
Most of our electrical energy will likely be produced by nuclear fusion, geothermal energy, and existing hydroelectric power plants early in the next century. As it has for the past 150 years, the demand for electrical power is almost certain to grow much faster than population for the foreseeable future.
Last year, only 18% of total global energy consumption came from carbon-free energy sources (i.e. Coal, natural gas and oil account for more than 80% of global energy consumption. Thus, for achieve carbon-free power generation by 2050 (as required by some of the current mandates), over 80% of current generating capacity is expected to be replaced over the next 28 years, plus possibly at least one equal amount of new production to meet electric car and other demands.It won’t happen.
The share of global energy consumption from carbon-free sources has slowly increased over the past quarter century, from 14% to 18% today. To achieve zero emissions targets, this growth rate would have to be multiplied by around 20, not counting new capacities. As the world has learned, there are major issues with wind and solar – cost, reliability, etc. The Germans had tried to go totally green this way, and now reality has hit. They have now stopped dismantling their nuclear plants and are rapidly returning to coal-fired plants.
Again, the good news is that major breakthroughs have been made in fusion technology – likely to make it a reality within the next two decades – that will give the world an almost unlimited, low-cost and safe power supply, without waste problem. (The long-running joke is that the merger is still 30 years away – that may be true now.)
The other big breakthrough is geothermal energy. Some geothermal power plants have been around for about a century in places where the “hot rocks” are close to the surface. As almost everyone knows, the Earth’s core is made of molten rock, and the deeper you drill, the hotter it gets. There are places, usually with active volcanoes, like Iceland, where hot rocks are easily accessible with relatively shallow wells. Injection of water into wells can produce steam or superheated water to power power generation turbines. The problem is that these hot rock fields are relatively rare and often not in convenient locations.
If it were possible to drill 12 kilometers, most places would be suitable for geothermal energy. With conventional drilling, the drill bits and necessary electronics degrade as the temperature increases in super-deep wells, among other issues. However, MIT engineers believe that millimeter wave RF sources could penetrate hard rock more than 10 times deeper than is currently possible with mechanical drilling systems, faster and at lower cost. They have developed devices (i.e. a gyrotron) capable of drilling holes in hard rock. Field trials are expected to begin next year. If it works, unlimited geothermal energy!
No one knows for certain which of these technologies (and others under consideration) will prove economically viable, but the bet is that one or more will – given people’s ability to constantly innovate. In the meantime, there are already proven carbon-free technologies that should be used until fusion reactors come on stream. Nuclear reactors have been used safely and economically for more than seven decades at fixed sites and on naval vessels. Great advances have been made in the design of reactors, making them much safer and more resistant to melting, more cost effective and with much less waste.
These new models are known as “Generation IV”. Despite advances in design, the United States still uses only “generation II” technology with its 93 commercial reactors (and around 100 naval reactors). China has 55 commercial reactors, including two generation IV sodium-cooled fast reactors (SFRs), and is building one small modular reactor (SMR). Russia has 35 operational Generation II commercial reactors. It has also deployed two SFRs on a floating nuclear power plant and built a Generation IV plant. Although they were the early leaders, the United States is lagging behind.
There is great interest in the construction of SMRs and Generation IV microreactors. These would be very safe and could be built quickly using common design and components. They would be ideal for powering remote defense and mining sites. Much electrical energy is lost during transmission, so distributed electrical networks using SMRs would increase network reliability and redundancy and reduce transmission costs.
Due to the weight of the battery, electric planes are unlikely to fly long distances. But low-cost electricity would dramatically reduce the cost of producing hydrogen that could be used to power aircraft turbines.
Inexpensive, clean electrical power has almost limitless economic and environmental benefits. It will come sooner if the government stops “trying to help” by stifling progress with excessive regulations and the legal/environmental cabal.
• Richard W. Rahn is President of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and of MCon LLC.