Clean energy becomes abundant and cheap: How does the world change?

At the end of the movie “Back to the future” we see a device called “Mr. Fusion” on the back of the Delorean. What would happen if someone were to invent a coffee pot sized source of effectively limitless energy? Our mad scientist discovers some way to meet all of the worlds energy needs 1000 times over in a clean and dirt cheap (nearly free) manner.

War? Global collapse of economies? All of the sudden the whole oil industry is rendered useless by this device. The middle-east now has lost their biggest chip in the global economy. The flip sides are nice: Cleaner environment, plenty of food, space colonization. Something tells me it wouldn’t be a smooth transition however. I would go so far as to suggest that there are those who stand to lose so much , that they would do anythng (including murder) to see that such a device never hit market until they sold every last drop of the oil.

What do you think?

DaLovin’ Dj

Even with free clean energy the oil industry wouldn’t collapse. Crude oil is a feedstock in hundreds of industrial applications. So long as we still need to make plastic, motor oil, and countless other products based on petrolium byproducts, the oil companies will stay in business.

Coal miners might be a bit put off however.

This is an interesting topic, as I’ve seen a van that runs off of grease. Which got me thinking, why isn’t a fast food chain leaping on this, because then not only could they feed the public but also use what they don’t need as a gas station? It seems utterly senseless that we haven’t seen a McDonald’s Car or KFC Van, I mean, why don’t fast food companies leap on this new form of engine? It makes no sense people! :slight_smile: I for one would buy a car that runs off grease, because they could sell their grease for up to half the price of gas, which in turn would allow not only a competitive market to cripple the gas companies, but also it would be an already stable and set up coporation(s) that would be investing this. Thus, if it didn’t work out they don’t go bankrupt. Afterall, how much money can they be making, if any, at all for their grease in the current system? So, in conclusion, Grease Engines should become the latest in car manufacturing, if only for their waste reclaimation abilities.

I get a cheaper Hydro bill at the end of each month. Sounds good to me! Sign me up for this clean Energy dealie!

It’s not exactly Mr. Fusion, but there are facilities that generate their power from waste materials, like the Unisea plant in Dutch Harbor that mixes fish oil with diesel fuel in their generator.

AndrewL, I disagree with your statement about the petroleum industry. Sure, they provide raw materials for plastics, lubricants, asphalt, etc. But without the hungry energy market, they’d be up s*** creek.

Hopefully, the magical energy source will also be cheap enough to provide power for Africa and South Asia. This would enable those developing nations to leapfrog into parity with the developed world. Which could bring problems of its own…

And what would Greenpeace have left to do, if all their dreams came true. “Well, it’s back to harassing whalers.”

About a century ago, there was this invention called the car. Until the car, people had to get around by riding large animals. Cars didn’t replace the horse and ox overnight. The world economy didn’t colapse. People didn’t go to war to get their hands on cars.

What generally happens with any new technology is that it gradually replaces old technologies over a period of time, not instantaneously. The reason is that most new technologies don’t operate in a vacuum. They generally require significant infrastructure to support the technology. Cars need gas stations. Airplanes need airports. And so on.

Cars that run on alternative fuels have been around for years. The reason they aren’t more popular is that other than a few innovators, most people want the convenience of being able to refuel in minutes at the local gas station. It would cost billions to simply replace every gas pump and combustion engine with water, hydrogen or fry grease systems.

Discovery of new energy sources can have a destabalizing effect on the political environment. It is unlikely, however, that some backward third world nation will sudenly discover the secrets of cold fusion or some other clean energy source. Even if they did, they would still require significant invenstments in infrastructure in order to transmit the energy where it can be used.

Presuming that oils companies could somehow keep such a discovery under wraps (unless they discovered it) gives them too much credit. Especially in light of the Enron fiasco. Such things were tried in the past (FM radio for example) and it can work for a time, but eventually a superior technology displaces an inferior one. And this change generally happens gradually enough that the world is not thrown into termoil.

Laws of supply and demand would take effect. The lowered demand for oil would cause its price to drop. That would stimulate the use of oil in other areas. Plastics would get cheaper, leading to more use for plastics. There might even be new markets for oil. An eventual equilibrium would be reached at a lower price point, but with cheaper goods all around.

Countries that rely predominantly on oil exports would be hurt. Countries that are net oil importers would be helped.

The sudden availability of inexpensive or free power would cause the prices of almost all goods and services to drop, perhaps leading to a period of deflation. Eventually, all of these things would correct themselves, and the world would stabilize around the new energy situation. Small cars would go out of vogue in areas with lots of space. Airline ticket prices would drop in half. Companies that make energy efficient materials would lose huge market shares.

Over the very long run, many things that owe their design to energy concerns would change. Housing construction might change. Home refrigerators might have ‘air curtains’ like grocery store freezers do, rather than doors that close. A million liitle new applications for energy would pop up, like instant water heaters under the tap or constant-flow plumbing so that the water always comes out hot (they have those now, but the market is limited).

The big picture result would be more wealth, but not THAT much more. World oil consumption is around 30 billion barrels a year right now. At a cost of about 25 dollars a barrel, that means the world’s oil consumption in a year costs about 750 billion dollars. In contrast, the world GDP is something like 20 trillion dollars, meaning that the total cost of oil is about 3.75% of the world’s annual output. So eliminating it completely, even without considering the shocks to the various industries, would only gain you a couple of percentage points in economic growth.

Of course, oil isn’t the only thing that we use to generate our energy needs. But hopefully you get the idea. Not armageddon, not riches beyond your wildest dreams.

In the case of the last one how exactly would it cost a fast food chain billions to put a tank outside their building, put their grease in it and pump it on as fuel? /=) And they’d make that money back quickly if they did it right.

I suspect that in this case the billions in costs would arrive in the form of pollution controls, not gas pumps <g>. Seriously, I’m having a difficult time imagining a clean-burning engine that runs on grease drippings.

Let me ask you a question - what is your basis for assuming that operating motor vehicles off of grease from fast food restaurants is 1) economical, 2) convenient, 3) works, or 4) can replace or supplant enough of the energy needs of the US, in final form, such that it is feasible? You’ve presented absolutely no arguments on your behalf other than “It seems utterly senseless”.

You claimed that “they could sell their grease for up to half the price of gas”. Where do you get that from? How much does it cost ot modify or produce a car that runs off of grease? What is the brake specific fuel consumption of such a car, and the power output? How much grease can they supply? Unlike most people here, I actually worked my way through college, and a lot of that was at fast food - how much grease comes from a single fast-food restaurant in one day? It’s not nearly as much as you think - at Wendy’s, it was around 10 gallons a day at most, with an average closer to 5-7. At Pizza Hut, an awful lot less - maybe a gallon at most? Assuming an equal energy density to gasoline, the company can spend a few thousands of dollars (estimating) to install a grease pump station, so maybe 1 single modified car per day can fuel up…?

Don’t get me wrong, but as an energy expert I am tired of people who put forth ideas that sound like “they ought to work” so they do. Like the 5th-grade teacher who insisted to her class in front of me that energy from lawn clippings could “replace all of our nuclear and coal plants” but that “Republicans wouldn’t like that”.

In Sao Paulo the shanty towns have a system of recycling – a scheme called “Veg for Waste” This involves rewarding ‘recyclers’ who bring back separated waste to designated spots with fresh fruit and vegetables. This not only helps the quality of life increase for those who participate, but encourages the cleaning up of the area and locals recycle neighbours items in order to increase their vegetable quotient.

In Havana, Cuba, the city has over 50% of its land given over to urban crops and garden centres (intermingled with the housing estates in city centre areas) which produces all the necessary vegetable intake for the city). Urban Agriculture is key to life in 3rd world cities.

Photovoltaic cells are still 8 times more expensive than conventional power, but cost is dropping rapidly, due to current government policy and support.

Wind turbine Technology is fully cost effective (Denmark, as World Market Leader, provides something like 40% of the countries power needs from Wind turbines). The main argument against the use of this technology is the feeling the turbines are an unsightly eyesore. Why??? Do they not match the beauty of a coal-fired industrial power station? Which would you prefer? Are they ugly? I believe a field of slow-turning wind turbines can have a level of calm dignity and majesty, they can induce calm and provide an interest to otherwise barren landscape.

Solar steam engines (parabolic mirrors focused on copper pipes with water) can make incredibly efficient and cost-effective methods of generating energy. The best area in the world to use these would be in the Middle East, where the sun shines constantly all year round. One of the reasons they are not used more is due to the Oil Companies blockading their building and financing to suit their own needs – this also avoids the need to lower oil prices in order to compete on an open market. The multinational corporations what to retain their power supplying monopoly. Only when oil prices permanently rise from over-demand will the true benefit of this cheaper and infinite power be harnessed and sold.

Fuel Cell Technology can be utilised to run all manner of appliances within a domestic situation – and can provide up to 70% of a standard household electric needs. This technology is scheduled to be used in taxi-cab services in many countries – Electric cabs in large cities could greatly help to reduce energy (oil) usage, not to mention air & noise pollution, increasing the quality of life for pedestrians and city-dwellers.

Now, if only Cold Fusion works…

Pumps costs money. Rebuilding drive thrus and parking lots to handle diferent traffic patterns cost money. Cannopys so customers don’t get wet while fueling costs money. I’m sure the fry grease needs to be processed somehow and that costs money. Multiply that times 1,000s of McDonalds and Burger King franchises and you get millions, if not billions of dollars. Or did you think that people would just fill us your Fatty McFrymobile with by scooping grease out of the fry-u-lator with a 32 oz super-size soft drink cup?

Don’t forget maintenance. Most mechanics are not trained and most garages are not equiped to repair grease powered cars. It costs money to retool and train. Once again, multiply that by thousands of auto mechanics.

New technology is always a chicken and the egg problem. Fast food restaurants won’t invest in burger grease fuel distribution systems until there are enough people driving grease powered Ford Fattywagons and White Castle Cruisers to garantee a return on investment. And most people won’t buy Lexus Lardus’s and McSUVs, other than for the novelty, unless they can conveniently refuel and maintain them.

Why is it fully cost-effective? Because Denmark uses it?

And I’m sorry, but 40% is not truthful. According to the DOE’s International Energy Outlook 2002, page 109

So where’d 40% come from?

Who says this is the main argument?


Who says they are incredibly efficient and cost-effective?


Who says up to 70%? How is this defined?

Are you are quoting a published article here? If so, can you reference it?

The main argument against wind technology is that 1) it is dependendt on the wind which is not always reliable and 2) in order to power a small town, you need a field of windmills nearly the size of the town itself.

IIRC, there is more than one petroleum company, which by definition makes the petroleum industry something other than a monopoly. Are the coal and nuclear companies part of the power supply monopoly? How about hydroelectric companies? Are natural gas and oil the same monopoly or diferent monopolies?

There is also nothing preventing someone from going out and building one of those solar plants if they raise enough capital. There are plenty of places in the SW USA where its sunny all the time.

Fuel cells (I assume you are talking about the ones that convert hydrogen into electricity) are a means of storing energy, not producing it. Energy has to be used to create and charge the fuel cells. Hydrogen doesn’t just grow on trees. The only advange of fuel cells is that they are clean (not taking into acount the power plants that generates the energy stored by the cells.

You might want to take a look at the following thread from which went over some of the possible implications of cheap energy about a month ago.
(click on the link, then click on ‘view thread’)

“Until the car, people had to get around by riding large animals.”

:confused: Unless you’re counting the “iron horse” as a large animal. :slight_smile:

In effect, threads like these are sorta unanswerable. If energy suddenly becomes abundant, cheap, and non-polluting, then it likely means that either their has been a profound and era-changing breakthrough in technology, or we are talking about a fantasy scenario. In either case, it’s difficult to say what exactly the effects would be.

This really might go into a similar but alternate debate - “If some source of cheap, abundant, non-polluting energy becomes available, what are the barriers to using it?” Legally speaking, let’s say that a “Mr Fusion” is invented by a small company in Scranton, PA, and they hold so many patents on it that it is absolutely impossible for anyone else to legally produce one without patent infringement. And let’s say that this company, based on advance/actual sales, has the lawyers required to put weight behind their patent defences.

What happens then?

Does the Government “sieze” the technology, keeping it for itself, out of “national defence” concerns? Or out of “security against terrorists”? And when they seize it, do they keep it for themselves under a “national electric company” (and I’m not talking TVA), or do they make it public domain?

Do companies just willingly violate the patent, making Mr Fusions themselves? Do people, assuming it is possible, start a grassroots Napster-like rebellion to make garage Mr Fusions? Do we start hearing on the news every night about “energy pirates illegally downloading instructions to make Mr Fusions”? Jesus, it could happen.

What does the rest of the World do? In the non-public domain scenario, it could be sold for extortionist prices to other countries. Let’s say that the cost is $10 trillion - China basically says “kiss my ass” when it comes to intellectual property rights - can you imagine they would pass up stealing Mr Fusion for its 1.2 billion or so people? What about India?

Lots of issues here.

I think the “grease drippings” (actually deep-fry oil) first is converted into diesel fuel and this needs a diesel engine. The exhaust supposedly smells like french fries! The problem is in the fuel conversion: it uses caustic lye, and leaves gallons of nasty chemical waste for each tankfull of fuel produced.

Well, as far as governmental seizure, that would happen in the patent office, and everyone involved would be required to keep it secret forevermore. There are currently several thousand patents which have been siezed. Is “Mr. Fusion” already among them? I doubt it, but it’s hard to tell with the Unknown. I think these siezures typically happen when someone independantly discovers a current military secret and tries to patent it. See:

SECRECY ORDER (Title 35, United States Code (1952), Sections 181-188)

If we’re lucky, the discovery will be made in academia and the secrets published widely. This doesn’t stop the discoverers from eventually taking out patents (witness the Laser, transistor, etc.)

Me, I wouldn’t be suprised if something like “Mr. Fusion” is already in the public patents, but everyone thinks it’s a perpetual motion machine and therefore ridicules it without ever testing it. There are a LOT of perpetual motion patents, after all. Here’s an interesting story (what if Feynman had actually TESTED the engine rather than judging it before even seeing it?)

Feynman and the Papf Engine: Dr. Feynman triggers a lethal accident