Culture

Making energy too cheap to meter

The great slowdown began when we started rationing energy. Restarting progress means getting energy that is so abundant that it’s almost free.

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12th October 2022
Special Issue 01

The great slowdown began when we started rationing energy. Restarting progress means getting energy that is so abundant that it’s almost free.

Culture

I have a confession: I’m an ergophile. I love energy-intensive processes and increasing the amount of power (in the physics sense) each of us can access. But given the realities of past and present problems created by ever-increasing energy use, it’s reasonable to think I’m either crazy or evil. Let me explain why energy abundance is not only compatible with concerns about the environment and humanity, but critical for a flourishing future where we aren’t fighting over a fixed pie.

I wasn’t always an ergophile. As a California child of the 1990s, I was raised on Captain Planet, Fern Gully, and parking-meter-like machines that let you deposit a quarter to save a tree in the Amazon. ‘Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!’ was our rallying cry. It was clear that energy-intensive processes meant rapacious industry stripping pristine environments, birds dying in black gunk, decay, radioactive waste, smokestacks, war over burning oil fields, and an overheating planet.

Those aesthetics of decadence and destruction still drive opposition to increased energy use today. They’re also backed up by facts. Energy production, energy-intensive processes, and applications that demand power density (e.g., transportation) are the largest contributors to climate change. Putting more literal power in the hands of individuals does mean they need to do less work: We use machines and energy to do many things that were once done by hand, from washing clothes to ascending buildings. Power in the hands of individuals does increase their ability to do damage: With the advent of small nuclear weapons, an individual can conceivably destroy a chunk of a city. These last two represent literal decadence and destruction. It’s no wonder that many people (primarily in the developed world) either implicitly or explicitly have taken a stance against increased energy consumption.

In Where Is My Flying Car?, J. Storrs Hall dismissively refers to this attitude as ergophobia – literally fear of work. In this, he is both right and wrong.

Sources of carbon. Chart from IPCC.

Hall is right that ergophobia is real and common. You can see concrete examples of ergophobia playing out everywhere: nuclear plant shutdowns from California to Germany, canceled pipelines, calls to conserve energy, and the fact that sustainability is nearly universally seen as virtuous. If you reacted to any of the items on that list with ‘that’s a good thing!’, then you have at least light ergophobia, and that’s okay. Because Storrs Hall is wrong that ergophobia is irrational and dismissible. Like other phobias, ergophobia is rooted in real experiences and facts. Spiders do kill people; airplanes do crash; mean dogs bite!

Ergophobia has a long history. The first ergophobes were people like the textile workers who adopted the label Luddite, whose livelihoods were destroyed by a combination of steam power, the Jacquard loom, and other technologies. The coal-fired boilers that powered those life-upending machines and the by-products of energy-intensive processes made nineteenth-century factory cities like Liverpool into polluted hellscapes. The Romantic movement fought back against the environmental damage caused by ever more energy-intensive processes: strip-mined mountainsides, rivers filled with industrial waste, and smog from trains that turned views of far-off mountains into flat gray nothingness.

Despite those problems, energy consumption continued to rise. If you plot historical energy use per person over time from the invention of the steam engine, it grew at about two percent per year for hundreds of years. Storrs Hall calls this exponential trend the Henry Adams curve after the economist who first noted it. You’ll note that unlike the similar Moore’s law, energy use is no longer tracking this curve.

Actual energy use per person and the Henry Adams curve. Graph from Where’s My Flying Car?

The atom bombs that ended World War II marked an inflection point not only in geopolitics, but in societal attitudes toward energy-and-power-intensive processes. Nuclear weapons are the most power-dense devices we have ever created – a clear reminder that not only can energy-intensive processes have detrimental side effects, but they can pose an existential threat as well. The generation that grew up in the twin shadows of the the bomb and smog ran headlong into the oil shocks of the 1970s. This marriage of economic reality to the aesthetic distaste for energy-intensive processes created a cultural and technological inflection point away from increased energy and toward greater efficiency – the ability to do the same things with less energy. Notice the obvious elbow in the energy-per-person plot. To top it off, we now know that the combustion of fossil fuels that drives most of our energy production and transportation releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, altering the planet’s climate in potentially disastrous ways.

Given the massive downsides to increased energy and power, how can you not want to reduce our collective energy use to build a sustainable future?

Sustainability means different specifics to different people, but to everybody it roughly means ‘hold our current levels of energy consumption constant while shifting how we generate that energy to wind and solar while making existing processes more efficient so we can do more with the same amount of energy’. Sustainability is both reasonable and ergophobic.

The optimistic vision of a sustainable world could be beautiful. If you draw the thread of sustainability out into the future, you get a small, consistent population with moderate ambitions living in a few places around the world. Fields of solar panels and wind turbines producing a sustainable amount of energy. Aesthetic, plant-covered buildings that produce food for the local population. Solarpunk.

However, choosing a sustainable world is choosing to put an upper bound on humanity’s physical capabilities.

The amount of energy we can access, how densely we can store it, and how quickly we can deploy it are the closest things to measures of our ability to manipulate the physical world. Energy creates a ceiling on what we can do – Leonardo da Vinci could never have implemented his famous helicopter designs with the energy technology available at the time. Even the most powerful AI in the world wouldn’t be all-powerful given a finite energy budget. In the extreme, energy is the only scarce resource. With infinite energy, it is possible to realize the dreams of the alchemists and transform one element into any other element. Nuclear fusion and fission aren’t magic; they’re just energy intensive. Energy is the difference between lead and gold. To cap our energy ambitions is to commit to permanent scarcity.

Through this lens, the energy-curve inversion of the 1970s and the shift to efficiency-type innovations looks different. Both increasing energy output and increasing efficiency are types of progress. Indeed, from an economic point of view they’re indistinguishable. However, from a physics and engineering point of view, they’re entirely different beasts. Regardless of whether you think we’re in a broader technological stagnation or not, energy, and therefore the upper bound on our ability to manipulate the universe, has stagnated.

Our civilization is built on energy. In our personal lives – light, heat, cooking, transportation, and cleaning. Behind the scenes, almost every material you use besides wood has involved melting something (and thus a lot of energy): metal, ceramic, concrete, glass, plastic.

Aluminum foil is now a disposable product, but people like Napoleon III of France once chose cutlery made of aluminum over gold to show off their wealth. Energy-intensive processes like aluminum smelting turn precious metals into disposable commodities. Aluminum smelting requires 14,000–16,000 kWh per ton of aluminum (almost 1.5 times the average American household’s yearly use) and yet, a 250-square-foot roll of aluminum foil costs just $10.

The Haber-Bosch process uses energy to pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere, creating the fertilizer that feeds the world. Silicon purification to create both solar cells and computer chips requires tons of energy. And, of course, transporting all of these things once they’re made requires not just energy, but power (which technically is the amount of energy used per unit of time) and power density (how much power you can deploy per unit of mass or volume). The faster you want to get from one place to another, the more you need.

But you know this. The point is not just that our civilization rests on energy-intensive processes – in a sustainable world you could imagine them becoming more efficient over time to keep us within an energy budget. The point is that more energy unlocks previously unimaginable possibilities.

Let’s imagine for a moment.

The way to address the real problems behind ergophobia is, counterintuitively, more energy. With enough cheap energy, we could literally pull excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it again. Fresh water isn’t actually scarce; it’s a matter of the energy to pull it out of the atmosphere or desalinate ocean water. Energy could make water crises a thing of the past. Orders of magnitude more energy can solve waste problems as well: At high enough temperatures, everything breaks down, so trash and harmful waste problems could disappear. More energy means more fertilizers and more food grown and more construction so it doesn’t even impact land use.

That energy needs to be generated in ways that don’t re-create the problems it’s solving, but that is entirely within our grasp. Modern nuclear reactors are different beasts than their more-than-50-year-old ancestors. And uranium is not the only energy source below our feet: Thanks to advances in drilling technology, geothermal energy has made massive leaps. Perhaps most heretically, not all fossil fuels are equally bad as short-term bridges to other energy sources. Natural gas is abundant and produces far less carbon and other pollutants per unit of energy than coal or oil. [1] Although, as Audrey Sculman points out, recent evidence suggests that leakage from natural gas production may cause significant greenhouse gas emissions. Longer term, fusion power can enable us to build miniature suns and space-based solar can tap into more of the actual sun’s power than land-based installations. None of these magically create infinite free energy: Capital, maintenance, and infrastructure costs are real. Energy will always cost money (remember, it is the ultimate scarce resource) but we could drive it to a point where, like data plans, you could pay a flat fee for as much of it as you can use – in other words, make it ‘too cheap to meter’. The universe is awash with energy, we just need to be clever about harnessing it.

Building a world that prioritizes energy production, an ergophilic world, can unlock far more than just solutions to problems. An ergophilic world would put no upper bound on our ability to manipulate the physical world: continuing the exponential growth in energy use and power density that continually enabled things that, to past generations, would be indistinguishable from magic. An ergophilic world is the only way to defeat scarcity, unlocking non-zero-sum games instead of fighting over the pieces of a fixed pie. An ergophilic world opens new frontiers: At the end of the day, energy and power density are the reason space exploration is expensive.

In an ergophilic world, you could wake up in your house on the beautiful coast of an artificial island off the coast of South America. You’re always embarrassed at the cheap synthesized sand whenever guests visit, but people have always needed to sacrifice to afford space for a family. You say goodbye to yours and leave for work. On your commute, you do some work on a new way of making high-temperature superconductors. You’re a total dilettante but the combination of fixed-price for infinite compute and the new trend of inefficient but modular technology has created an inventor out of almost everybody. Soon enough, you reach the bottom of the Singaporean space elevator: Cheap space launches, the low cost of rail-gunning raw material into space, and decreased material costs made the whole thing work out economically. Every time you see that impossibly thin cable stretching up, seemingly into nothingness, it boggles your mind – if that’s possible, what else is? You check out the new shipment of longevity drugs, which can only be synthesized in pristine zero-g conditions. Then you scoot off to a last-minute meetup with friends in Tokyo.

As you all enjoy dinner (made from ingredients grown in the same building and picked five minutes before cooking) a material scientist friend of a friend describes the latest in physics simulations. You bask in yet another serendipitous, in-person interaction, grateful for your cross-continental relationships. While you head home, you poke at your superconductor design a bit more. It’s a long shot, but it might give you the resources to pull yourself out of the bottom 25 percent, so that your kids can lead an even brighter life than you do. Things are good, you think, but they could be better.

You didn’t deal with customs throughout your day because the importance of Westphalian nation states contracted when anybody could be anywhere within two hours. They’re still around, but exert an amount of control on where you can live, work, and travel similar to twentieth-century cities. Flying cars aren’t about flying or cars: They’re about the power to collapse the distance between any two points on the planet. And that requires massive per-person energy expenditure and power density.

This snapshot is obviously optimistic and it’s impossible to predict the future. Nevertheless, energy-enabled physical capabilities are the only way that the future world will look drastically different in a good way. A sustainable world, on the other hand, implies that our capabilities are now good enough. Many people have given up on the idea that the world our grandchildren live in could look radically different than the one we live in. The ergophilia of the past is what transformed a world that looked roughly the same for thousands of years into the one we recognize today. The Romans and Aztecs thought their (undoubtedly impressive!) capabilities were good enough too.

For a more quantitative perspective consider that, as of 2019, the average person in the United States used 12,154 kWh per year. The average person on planet earth used a quarter of that: 3,081 kWh. You, dear reader, probably used more – perhaps closer to a resident of Qatar (15,316 kWh) or Norway (23,210 kWh). (Let’s be honest about the sort of people who read articles about abstract ideas like progress. If you’re reading this, you’re probably traveling more and doing pretty well even compared to many Americans.) Instead of those numbers being a source of shame, let’s use them as a North Star. An ergophilic world is the only way that everybody can have the quality of life that we few enjoy today.

If we draw the thread of ergophilia out into the future, we can build a world where energy too cheap to meter unlocks technology that is indistinguishable from magic. Chunky, fixable technology unconstrained by the need to make everything as efficient as possible. A return to the belief that our children will have better lives than our own. Airships sailing the sky, hypersonic craft skipping along the atmosphere, and ion-belching behemoths plying the stars. Fusionpunk.

It is a possibility.

But we are not on a trajectory to realize that possibility. Shifting trajectories will require another inversion in energy use – a return to the Henry Adams curve. Like every other shift in history, there is no magic bullet that can drive that change. Change will come about through some feedback loop of culture, economics, technology, and governance that has real, tangible effects on people’s lives.

What are some concrete things that you and I can do to get back on the Henry Adams curve? Here are some places to start:

  • Adopt a ‘Yes, and . . .’ attitude toward building new energy sources: It’s critical to build more solar and nuclear and geothermal and do more fusion research and all the other things.
  • Demand cheaper energy – constant or increasing energy prices are not a law of nature. The actions to make energy cheaper aren’t immoral or decadent; the opposite, in fact.
  • Deploy your own time and money toward ambitious projects to research and build new energy systems. But simultaneously don’t let new systems get in the way of building more proven solutions.
  • Poke people’s heuristic that things that use more energy are inherently bad and things that are more efficient are inherently good. Vibes are important! Put in a more spicy way: Stop putting the ideas of sustainability and efficiency on a pedestal. This move doesn’t need to be adversarial – efficiency and sustainability address serious problems. However, so much of it is ergophobia-propagating theater that letting it sit unchallenged locks us further into an energy-bounded future.

Exponential energy use per person has created real problems, to which ergophobia and sustainability are reasonable responses. But those problems are not fundamental to energy production, and flattening our energy use puts an upper bound on what is possible. Sustainability means perpetual scarcity – in our ability to explore, build, and create. It means a fixed pie, and the conflicts that inevitably erupt from it. You may believe that there is an inherent moral valence to energy use or being closer to a state of nature. If that’s the case, we must respectfully part ways. But for everybody else, consider that a renewed trend of exponential energy can both solve problems of the past and enable so many possibilities for human flourishing.

I want unbounded possibilities for humanity. That is why I am an ergophile.

Further Reading

Benjamin Reinhardt works on accelerating science and blogs on his website. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The illustration was created by Joshuah X. Miranda, a designer at Stripe Press. It was an early cover for the Press edition of Where is My Flying Car. You can find more of his work here

The animations in this piece were created by Venus Kreir. You can find more of her work here.

Correction: This article previously stated that historical energy use per person grew at a rate of seven percent each year, while the reference said two percent each year (pg. 33, J Storrs Hall). This has been corrected.