Is Mankind ready for "cheap and clean" energy?

If polywell fusion is developed, in what ways will the world change for better or worse? Discuss.

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ltgbrown
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Is Mankind ready for "cheap and clean" energy?

Postby ltgbrown » Tue Aug 31, 2010 2:56 am

I have been wondering for some time about the above question. What if Polywell, or Focus Fusion, or some other source of "clean" and cheap energy is discovered? Are we "ready" for it?

First, what do I mean by clean and cheap. By cheap, I mean so inexpensive, that people can begin to discount the cost of energy in doing any and everything. In the US, energy is already cheap, releatively speaking; i.e. gas here is (today) around $3 a gallon, Europe a heck of a lot more. So cost here to drive a car 30 miles is about $3 (if you have an average or slightly above average mpg car). What if energy, electricity, was so cheap it was $.03 to drive 30 miles? Or $.03 to drive 300 miles! (Inconceivable? Check out what Telsa motors says the cost per mile to operate their car.) That is what I mean by cheap. By clean I mean it is essentially non hazardous material producing, no radiation (or so short lived that the generation that produced it deals with it, not 100,000 generations), and no CO2 (or at least CO2 neutral) or any other green house gas. What environmental impacts there are from making the powersource and fuel (read Polywell reactor and associated equipment and the H2 and Boron 11) are easily rectified using some of the energy produced.

Would having such a "cheap and clean" source of energy reduce war or increase it? Do we need to find some better mechanism for building, securing, and maintaining peace first, or will cheap and clean energy be a catalyst to achieving peace (like removing all possible cover stories for pursuing nuclear weapons by claiming the need for nucluer fission power) and impower the mechanisms and tools in place (the UN, the US (I know, how arrogant!), the EU, NATO, etc)?.....

While technically speaking, we cannot destroy the environment (the Earth has always had an environment, just not always one hospitable to mankind), we sure as hell can make it not as nice for us (requiring more air conditioning, more refrigeration, higher levees, more water pumps, more distillation, more concrete buildings, moving to other regions, etc) and in the process destroy a lot of what is already out there. Generally speaking, one can equate what is better or worse for mankind with what is better or worse for the planet; i.e. the environment. So, if mankind creates/discovers a power source that meets the above, will that ultimately be better or worse for mankind? Will being able to more cheaply and widespread provide "more air conditioning, more refrigeration, higher levees, more water pumps, more distillation, more concrete buildings, move to other regions, etc" ultimately benefit mankind, despite whatever impacts doing all of that has on the environment? Or will those impacts on the environment (albiet different) of doing more ac, refrigeration, distillation, concrete, moving, etc cause more damage than is eliminated by having "cheap and clean" energy? Do we need to care about what "damage" is done to the environment not withstanding direct impacts to humanity (i.e. loss of arable land causes reduction in food supplies causes staravation among people)?

So, before we have a "cleaner and cheaper" enabler to fighting amoungst ourselves and using/abusing/destroying our environment, do we need to first to change our relationship with the environment and/or with each other?

Deep thoughts by Jack Handy! :D
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jsbiff
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Postby jsbiff » Wed Sep 01, 2010 4:16 am

Do I think fusion power would bring an end to war and international conflict? No.

Do I think it could potentially make the lives of billions of people better, especially the poorest? Maybe

However, I also realize it's not a given. Very likely the rich will keep getting richer. . . but just maybe the poor will, while still being poor, be able to have slightly better living conditions. . . clean water, basic electric light fixtures that are powered by dependable power.

Unfortunately, even now, most of the suffering in the world isn't really caused because of lack of resources (though that's a problem) - much of the suffering is inflicted by people on each other. I think there's a lot of third world nations with corrupt, abusive, and completely ineffective governments which will *still* have corrupt, abusive, and completely ineffective governments even if fusion power becomes viable.

But, let me pose a counter-questioin: Do you think the world is *better off* without clean, cheap fusion power? With things continuing as they are - coal and oil providing most of the energy? Do think it's better that we burn coal and gas and oil to generate electricity to run the Air Conditioners which we are using *anyhow*? To refine metals, manufacture things, create fertilizer and other useful chemicals?

Also, there is a fundamental question I'm a bit puzzled about with regards to your question: You seem to assume that the use of more energy would be a bad thing. Now, one can argue that using energy from geological hydrocarbons is a bad thing because it hurts the environment in multiple ways (starting with the drilling/fracturing/mining or other extraction process, pollution, greenhouse gases, etc), and because there is conflict over access to commercially useful (e.g. large) deposits.

But, I ask you - if we have clean, safe, cheap fusion power - where any and every nation has access to abundant, cheap fuel supplies, where is the harm in using that energy? You haven't explained exactly how using more air conditioning powered by fusion, as one of your examples, or driving more miles on an electric vehicle, is itself a bad thing?

I suppose, maybe outside of the energy itself, that manufacturing air conditioners, cars, batteries, etc can involve hazardous chemicals (e.g. air conditioners leaking harmful coolant compounds - although, I believe that in much of the world, air conditioners have switched to using coolants which are not harmful to the environment?).

I guess what I'm saying is that (and this might just be a failure of my own imagination), I dont' see the *downside* to fusion power? I mean, I dunno, maybe some crazy warlord will use the abundant cheap power to electrocute millions of people. But what can you do? Crazy warlords will find one way or another to kill millions of people, if they have the chance - the solution to that problem isn't just keeping the whole world from having access to fusion power; I'm not sure what the solution is (other than, maybe something like the U.N. intervening, but history shows that most nations are hesitant to intervene in even the worst situations, for various reasons).

I don't think fusion power will exactly be a panacea - my glasses aren't rose colored; but, it does seem like it could really change a lot of the current 'status quo'. In many cases that will be beneficial, but in others, it may make things worse. Perhaps some 'oil-curse' nation that's currently in bad shape (say, Nigeria for example), might plunge into complete economic freefall once the oil revenues that prop the country up fall out from under them. Mideast nations that seem to hate us so much because we buy their oil might decide that they hate us 1000 time more without Billions in in oil revenue pouring into the country every year.

But, I still think, *long-run*, we need some source of cheap, safe, abundant, and environmentally friendly energy, or things will just get worse and worse if the 'status quo' is maintained.

kunkmiester
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Postby kunkmiester » Wed Sep 01, 2010 4:50 am

Arthur C Clarke wrote a few sequels to 2001. One of them speculated on vacuum, or zero point, energy becoming available. The theory was that global warming became rampant not because of CO2, but because thousands of gigawatts of electricity in various uses led to gigawatts of heat waste being put into the atmosphere, and thus warming things up.

I'm not sure we can cook ourselves, but it is a concern, I suppose. It's about the only thing I can think of that doesn't sound Malthusian.
Evil is evil, no matter how small

ltgbrown
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Postby ltgbrown » Wed Sep 01, 2010 11:12 am

jsbiff wrote:Also, there is a fundamental question I'm a bit puzzled about with regards to your question: You seem to assume that the use of more energy would be a bad thing.

But, I ask you - if we have clean, safe, cheap fusion power - where any and every nation has access to abundant, cheap fuel supplies, where is the harm in using that energy? You haven't explained exactly how using more air conditioning powered by fusion, as one of your examples, or driving more miles on an electric vehicle, is itself a bad thing?


My wording was not perfect (I know, hard to believe) so I did not intend to suggest that using more energy was an "inherently" bad thing. What I was trying to allude to was this: we are learning some tough lessons right now as we watch the oil spill, the loss of artic ice, the disappearance of glaciers (and the fresh water they provide or rising sea levels in the case of Greenland and Antarctica), increasing severity of storms, etc. Those that believe mankind is responsible for these things see a direct link between our need for energy and this "bad things". So, just as you percieved my comments to suggest that I think using more energy is bad, many think that the energy we use today (and for the forseeable future) is bad. My question is more fundamental than energy being bad. It is does mankind need more time to learn how better to live and grow within the environment? We damage the environment in more ways than from drilling and then spilling oil and pumping CO2 gases into the atmosphere. We treat the environment in a non chalant (sp?) way. "Get what we want and don't think or worry about how that impacted the environment." My talking about war was two fold: first along the lines you discussed and the second an attempt to see if anyone else would see a connection between how we treat the environment and how we treat each other. We, the US, get our energy without really thinking about how our need for it, ability to pay a lot for it, and the impact of our doing this affects those that we are getting it from. So, before we "fix" our energy problem and therefore (in eyes of many) our environmental problems, do we need to learn a more fundamental lesson first? Our we at a unique tipping point?

Or am I just drinking too much?
Famous last words, "Hey, watch this!"

Aero
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Postby Aero » Wed Sep 01, 2010 2:19 pm

Or am I just drinking too much?

I don't know about that, how's your liver?
You're thinking to hard though. Think of it this way. If nothing else changes, and all we get from polywell is clean energy, not more of it, not less of it, not more or less expensive, but exactly the same amount of clean energy, then that must be good, mustn't it?

Now, if we get the same amount of energy generated at a lower cost but which I predict we will buy for the same price, well, that's good too, from a different perspective. Now if a new company starts building and selling polywells world-wide, then I predict they will be bought out by existing economic powers, just as Dr. Bussard didn't want, and the power plants will be sold for all the market will bear, with manufacturers certified fuel sold really cheap at around $100 gram. But it is certified to be pure enough to work properly with the polywell.

In other words, the economic wolves will twist the polywell into a cash cow for their benefit, to the detriment of the consumers of the world. That is, the consumers will benefit just enough to support the trend, the wolves will skim all the gravy. But they will pay taxes, so that will help from another perspective.

The more open polywell is, the more widespread the manufacturing, the more widespread the benefit to the economic wolves will be. As for the consumers, what are they going to do? Boycott?
Aero

jsbiff
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Postby jsbiff » Wed Sep 01, 2010 3:53 pm

Aero wrote:In other words, the economic wolves will twist the polywell into a cash cow for their benefit, to the detriment of the consumers of the world. That is, the consumers will benefit just enough to support the trend, the wolves will skim all the gravy. But they will pay taxes, so that will help from another perspective.


I tend to agree with Aero, but I also think that history shows us the trend with this sort of thing will be something like this:

* You can't build lots and lots of these overnight, and at first, investors will want to see results before building more. So, initially a few will be built as proof-of-concept. They may, possibly, suffer from some first-generation technical problems that keep them from being as cheap as they otherwise might (due to maintenance shutdowns, costs associated with repairs, etc). Also, first-generation will likely not be highly optimized. Additionally, the construction costs of the first generation will likely be higher than subsequent building

* But, assuming that even the first generation is able to produce energy at substantially reduced costs vs coal, nat. gas, oil, fission, wind, etc (I don't really know what the average cost of a kWh is, but let's say it's about 6 cents, just as an example). Let's say that the first generation of fusion reactors can produce electricity at a cost of around 3c kWh. Then I would expect the fusion producers to sell electricity, not based on the production cost, but based on the fact that the cheapest competitor is, say, 5.5c kWh, so they sell for like 5.0, or maybe 4.9. A significant markup, BUT, the important thing is that it would still be a price reduction as far as the consumer is concerned - so in a way, everyone wins - the consumer is paying slightly less (though not as cheap as they could, theoretically, because the corps/investors are skimming the gravy as Aero says - but that's just good business sense).

* As time goes on, economies of scale should come into play as more and more reactors are built by more and more companies. The initial cost to install a reactor may either remain fairly constant (e.g. doesn't increase with the rate of inflation, and so in real terms, becomes cheaper) or even drop somewhat. Also, probably, the cost of refined fuel will get cheaper as the companies involved in the fuel production and distribution process begin to get economies of scale in producing the fuel (although, since the fuel is such a small part of the cost, this might have a negligible impact on the cost at retail of the power).

* Also, the companies that took higher profit margins early, may pay off their reactor early from the initial high profits, and decide to implement further price cuts to undercut all the Johnny-come-latelies who just built new reactors, and still need to pay them off, and who will have to pay them off with lower profit margins (but who might have the advantage of having reactors which cost less to initially build, and might be better designed, so they can still compete with the older reactors).

* There will be still be a lot of 'legacy' gas, coal, and oil electric plants in existence for awhile. At first, there will be too few fusion plants to really make the legacy plants reduce their prices (much) - because there will be far more demand than the fusion plants can provide. At some point, as more fusion plants are built, there will be enough fusion reactors to force the other electric generation companies to reduce their prices, so coal/gas/oil sourced electricity will come down in price also. These legacy plants will start to be shutdown as the price per kWh their owners can sell the electricity at gets too low. Even as plants are shutting down, however, the reduced demand for coal/gas/oil will probably bring the price of fuel down, allowing a reduced number of hydrocarbon plants to keep operating at lower costs, again reducing the price of electricity for end-users. Eventually, almost all the hydrocarbon plants will probably be shutdown, but I would expect that to take 20-50 years.

* And. . . finally, the really big thing is that, eventually, patents expire - somewhere in the 20-50 year range after the first reactors are put online, the technology will become open to any company which has the technical means to manufacture them. Expect whoever is the equivalent of today's China/Mexico (that is, an economically depressed nation which has the capability to do lots of manufacturing much cheaper than most other nations - which might be the U.S. or Europe in 50 years, who knows) to start manufacturing them much cheaper. This will lead to a lot more reactors being built and installed by lots and lots of companies, governments, etc, and will probably lead to the floor falling on electricity prices as a glut of supply hits the market.

In summary, what I would expect is an initial slight reduction in price, followed by a relentless stair-case cycle: a period of price reduction, followed by a period of stable prices (neither rising nor falling, but remaining constant, even as inflation reduces the 'real' price of the electricity), followed by another cycle of price drop, then stability. Eventually, though, the price will get to a natural 'floor' - where the cost really cannot get any lower, because people won't want to invest in building additional fusion reactors anymore because there's no more profit to be had. That is, there will become an equilibrium between supply and demand where the price is high enough to be 'worthwhile' to the companies that operate and own the reactors, but not high enough to justify increasing market demand and thereby causing the price to go down more.

I might be completely, totally, wrong, but that seems, from my understanding of the history of industrialism and market economies, to be the sort of general pattern for how these things unfold.

Edit: Obviously, there are a huge number of variables which make it almost impossible to predict how things would actually unfold. For example, I should mention a (previously) unstated assumption which I just realized I made, and may not be true: I assume that whatever company(ies) hold patents on the fusion reactor core technologies will probably license their patents to more than one builder/manufacturer. The reason I assume this is that, at some point, there's going to be so much market demand for these things that any one manufacturing partner would not be able to fill the demand, so in order to increase revenue during the patent protection period, whoever holds the patents would probably want to license to as many companes as they can. That *might* be wrong, and could increase the costs and keep the costs high for a longer period of time.

Another unstated assumption I make above, is that only one fusion technology turns out to be viable. But, now, let's say that both Polywell and Focus Fusion work out, so we have two competing reactor designs - the competition might tend to lower prices that generation companies pay to have the reactors built and installed. Or it might not, but it could be a factor. Also, the people on these forums frequently discuss various fusion-fission hybrid reactor concepts, and Accellerator-driven fission being investigated (thorium, etc). If you have one or more fusion reactor designs also comepting with one or more fusion/fission and/or accellerator-driven reactor designs, that could bring prices down a little bit more also.

Aero
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Postby Aero » Wed Sep 01, 2010 4:18 pm

I might be completely, totally, wrong, but that seems, from my understanding of the history of industrialism and market economies, to be the sort of general pattern for how these things unfold.

I think you're mostly right to the extent that the market for electricity is a free market. Unfortunately it is regulated at the consumer who still must pay delivery fees to the one and only local utility. My delivery fee runs about 8 cents per kwh, with the electricity another 8 cents, and I don't expect the delivery fee to go down.

Of course the wholesale energy traders can compete for customers at the wholesale level but I don't expect to see a lot of benefit from that on my monthly bill.

I do expect to see major benefits from polywell for other than utility applications. I have high hopes for spaceships, sea ships, high speed rail and other fixed installations discussed before in this thread.
Aero

clonan
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Postby clonan » Thu Sep 02, 2010 3:41 pm

kunkmiester wrote:Arthur C Clarke wrote a few sequels to 2001. One of them speculated on vacuum, or zero point, energy becoming available. The theory was that global warming became rampant not because of CO2, but because thousands of gigawatts of electricity in various uses led to gigawatts of heat waste being put into the atmosphere, and thus warming things up.

I'm not sure we can cook ourselves, but it is a concern, I suppose. It's about the only thing I can think of that doesn't sound Malthusian.


Well obviously we move the planet out about 20 AU, then grab a few other earth sized worlds for farm land, putting them in a Klemperer rosette configuration with earth. Then when the core explodes we will be in an ideal position to scoot out to the Large Magellanic Cloud.


Yes, everything I need to know I learned from SciFi...Thank you Niven!

jsbiff
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Postby jsbiff » Thu Sep 02, 2010 5:13 pm

Aero wrote: Unfortunately it is regulated at the consumer who still must pay delivery fees to the one and only local utility. My delivery fee runs about 8 cents per kwh, with the electricity another 8 cents, and I don't expect the delivery fee to go down.


I think you're mostly right about the delivery fee, but. . .

Transmission costs are largely a 'fixed' cost, that is, you can deliver more electricity without the actual costs of maintaining the infrastructure going up much (well, maybe not completely - I'm sure there's some 'upper limit' on how much electricity the existing infrasctructure can deliver, and if demand grows near to that, then the local monopolies will have to upgrade their infrastructure; also, natural disasters can occasionally do substantial damage to the infrastructure, but I think utilities take that into account in their pricing models).

My point is, however, that I believe in most States (in the U.S. at least - not sure how this works in other countries), such utility monopolies are regulated by each State. For example, I live in Ohio. I suspect that if electricity usage started to grow quite a bit (people charging electric cars, industry using more power, etc), there would be political pressure on the PUCO (Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) to lower the allowed transmission rates to be inline with current demand levels (that is, so that customers aren't paying significantly higher amounts of money per month on transmission fees).

Hard to say though - I'm sure that, at least at first, as demand grows, the utility companies probably would argue to the PUCO that they need to maintain current fee rates, even as demand grows, so that they can afford to upgrade the grid. But, if they start to get large increases in net profits, the pressure on the PUCO to lower the legally allowed rate will mount. If they *really* are spending the money on upgrading the infrastructure, well then I suppose that proves that we need to pay those high transmission rates because it really reflects the true costs of the service.

BenTC
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Postby BenTC » Fri Sep 03, 2010 11:54 pm

jsbiff wrote:Transmission costs are largely a 'fixed' cost, that is, you can deliver more electricity without the actual costs of maintaining the infrastructure going up much (well, maybe not completely - I'm sure there's some 'upper limit' on how much electricity the existing infrasctructure can deliver, and if demand grows near to that, then the local monopolies will have to upgrade their infrastructure.


Not true. The transmission lines certainly have a fixed limit, with build cost optimised to match required capacity + growth-factor versus installation cost and payback period. Based on how long the transmission lines ahve been installed, the growth-factor may well all be all used up. Larger centralised power production will require additional transmission lines. There are limited locations for thermal power plants to simultenously satisfy being close to water, fuel supply and population centres. However distributed generation using Polywells will effectively sidestep infrstructure issues.
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