Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dreaming of Cheap Power

I'm having a dream of cheap electric power and wondering what it would mean...

Ok, so presume an electrical generation technology, whatever technology it is, goes into massive production. Let's pick one for giggles - solar. What it is doesn't matter - the power it generates and the socioeconomic consequences are the interesting thing to me.

Our "giggles" tech is solar, in the form of solar panels that can be manufactured for 1 cent a kilowatt or less in very large quantities. This is not that far off, really. See this National Renewable Energy Laboratory NREL Presentation . It says on Page 15 that the break even for electricity from PV instead of coal / nuclear is $2 per Watt-peak. The 'Watt-Peak' measurement is the amount of electricity in watts that a module can generate in full sun.

Okay, say it's 5 years from now, and Obama has won and put a signficant budget into renewable energy tech, and it has yielded the somewhat predictable result of lowering costs consistent with the last 15 years of experience curves (see wikipedia for 'experience curve').

This means US production capacity of solar is about 320,000 MW, which is about 33% of our usage. This curve gets nicer the next 2 years, and we're looking at a shutdown of all coal-fired, oil-fired, and natural-gas fired power plants for daytime base load. Existing nuclear plants can handle nighttime loads.

What has just happened to the domestic economy?

1. Coal mining in the Appalachian range ceases. Miners are out of work, which is probably beneficial to their health. Government programs step in but only partially help. Depression hits in isolated areas around these plants.

2. Installation of commercial and residential solar and wind calls for large numbers of qualified electricians.

3. Many houses decide to go off-grid. Others install larger systems and generate power to sell to the utilities.

4. Coal-fired plants going offline leads to sharp drops in carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. becomes compliant with the Kyoto Treaty even though we never signed it.

5. Mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants cease, leading to cleaner air all up and down the eastern U.S. seabord (coastline).

6. Residential and commercial installation of batteries for nighttime use drive experience curves for batteries, specifically lithium ion batteries. This drastically lowers costs for this early technology. PHEV (Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) or EV (battery-only electric vehicles) become much more popular due to their simplicity and lower cost.

7. Detroit (the big 3) stop production on the last direct-drive internal combustion engine since it is cheaper and easier to create hybrids.

8. Some large disasters happen with home battery installations causing large fires (LiOH batteries can do that, especially cheap ones). Standards change to put batteries in fireproof rooms or in concrete/metal cases outside the home much like air conditioning condensers.

9. Someone figures out how to use electric energy to create natural gas out of air, water, and coal. Many cars switch to natural gas.

10. American spending on Iraq, a credit crunch, and bad inflation combine to produce a drop in the stock market as global investors turn to expanding economies instead of the USA. Gradually the business cycle returns to normal and the economy expands again. Luckily, there is production of PV locally, and there's many jobs to be found due to green energy investments (due to high prices on the international market for oil).

11. Global oil consumption is way down due to the fall in exchange rate for the dollar. This reduces demand, which drops price. However, inflation raises prices again, and consumers feel the pinch.

12. Less real money for oil is going to middle-eastern countries, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and Russia. These economies suffer greatly. Saudi Arabia and several other governments have revolutions which put reactionary, fundamentalist governments in place. These could have been prevented by transitions to J-Curve power-sharing governments with checks and balances. Loss of income destabilizes the ruling elite, but in the end the power devolves to the masses and slowly stable democracies or balanced monarchies emerge.

13. China emerges as the largest economy in the world. PV output from Chinese plants exceeds any other countries. Large installations in the Gobi desert power much of China's infrastructure.

14. India surpasses the USA in size of the economy, due to U.S. shrinkage as well as Indian growth. Indian wealth drives up demand for finished goods, moving production plants (industrial manufacturing) for ultra-cheap goods to Africa. Low wage jobs in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, start migrating to Chad, Niger, Liberia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, etc.

15. China launches several probes of the moon, Mars, Venus, etc., showing off economic strength and technical prowess.

16. A medium-size epidemic kills several hundred thousand in southeast asia, and the rest of the world is scared. There is talk of requiring health checks and quarantine areas to international airline flight arrangements.

17. The Artic sea becomes ice-free in the summer. Ellsmere Island and Greenland start to slough off large icebergs. There is serious talk of global sea level rises of feet, not fractions of an inch. Belgium, Italy (because of Venice), and Bangladesh start shouting about global warming instead of just being "very concerned".

18. Due to decreasing income, Russia decends into instability along the left of the J-Curve. Authoritarians win there, but lose control of the security situation due to insufficient funds and a sprawing country with a bad economy.

19. Primarily due to bad economics, a Russian nuclear weapon (from the former Soviet Union) is stolen/purchased and detonated somewhere in the world, for political reasons. Tens of thousands are killed and a city decimated. Suddenly, cost becomes no object in the search for and sequestration of all remaining nuclear arsenals as well as chemical and biological weapons.

20. The nuked city and global reaction to it drastically reduce demand for nuclear power plants; some in the process of being constructed are stopped.

21. Global carbon dioxide production starts to decrease but just barely in 2018. It then falls sharply as developing nations turn off coal and turn on to the now-cheaper renewables.

22. Existing CO2 in the atmosphere raises temperatures enough to melt and split off a sizeable chunk of the West Antartic ice sheet, raising global sea levels over 1 foot inside of 3 years. Panic ensues in low-laying countries. Bangladesh starts a war with India for resettling rights on higher ground. Several pacific islands are lost entirely.

23. CO2 emissions rights are traded on all world exchanges. The Arbor Day Foundation (ADF) becomes the largest recipient ever of a corporate donation, $4 billion, from the government of Belgium. ADF starts planting trees worldwide, including massive numbers of almond, olive, and palm trees across the middle east.

24. A category-4 hurricane strikes Philadelphia and causes large scale destruction in nearby states as well, including New Jersey and even into New York. Increasing numbers of severe hurricanes are blamed on global warming.

25. Britain's summer, and that of western Europe, is noticibly foreshortened and sea temperatures are blamed. The EU makes a deal with Brazil to purchase, cease development on, and put under military control an increasingly large section of Amazon rainforest, to prevent deforestation.

--- That's it for today. lots of bad news. But lots of good news, too. The average people living in the middle east are going to be better off, with more of a chance at representative governments, but it's also riskier for them if they make autocratic choices along the left side of the J curve. People the world over are in worse shape environmentally from the effects of the changes, but they are forced to make better ecological decisions by obvious circumstances affecting their checkbooks.

As the problems mount, the onus for green change becomes huge. On the other hand, so many changes in so little time present vast problems for maintaining stability. Reactionary conservatism is usually the result of this kind of instability, but the conservatives can take the "green" label away from the left in the name of religion, less government interference (deregulation of energy production and distribution), etc.
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