What are the implications of free energy?

Let’s assume that fusion power becomes 1) feasible, 2) ridiculously cheap and 3) widespread enough that energy is no longer a scarce resource. It seems to me that the cost of production of many (if not most) goods would plummet, bringing about a number of changes to the way the economy works.

A few big changes spring immediately to mind:
[li]Energy production would cease to be profitable, so governments would likely have to take control of the industry.[/li][li]The fact that fuel cells are glorified batteries would become irrelevant, since “recharging” is free.[/li][li]Resources like time and craftsmanship would become comparatively scarcer, perhaps making skilled labor more valued.[/li][li]Pollution would be largely eliminated.[/li][li]Similarly, “environmentally friendly” technologies like solar and wind power would become dead-ends overnight.[/li][/ul]

Your thoughts?

You must still have to start with a possibly finite raw material to make stuff from - note that plastics still largely need hydrocarbons. Recharging may be free, but who makes the longest lived, highest output battery? Also, fossil-powered vehicles will still outsell electerics until performance is much nearer equal. I can’t see electric planes for centuries. There would still be plenty of scope for innovation.

Wouldn’t you need something more along the lines of a Douglas-Martin solar screen for this than practical cheap cold fusion? Something where you don’t even need a distribution system for the power, just a way to make it, preferably out of common materials? And as SentientMeat said, just because energy is no longer scarce doesn’t mean that other materials are no longer scarce.

#2 is very unlikely. Barring the invention of a “Mr. Fusion” mini-power plant, fusion reactors will probably cost billions apiece, at least at first. Then of course there’s the cost of actually running a power plant-salaries, etc. Lastly there’s the cost of the infrastructure that gets the electricity from the plant to your house. That said, fusion power could well be cheaper than conventional power (fission is if you don’t factor in waste disposal and the government covering the overhead cost of producing enriched uranium). Probably never “too cheap to meter” but economical.

The biggest advantages of fusion power are:

  1. That the fuel is plentiful enough that no foreseeable human activity is going to deplete it.

  2. Less pollution, mainly irradiated machinery from worn-out reactors.

  3. A self-sustaining fusion plasma would be the ultimate incinerator, breaking anything down to elemental atoms, so handy for disposal/ recycling of wastes.

I don’t think fusion power will radically impact manufacture, so I don’t know about the “skilled labor” arguement. Solar and wind will live or die by cost, pure and simple. A few people would like to see solar and wind as alternatives to the entire central-generation paradigm of power production, but that’s another issue.

Production might be cheap (by your premise, which I find unlikely) but distribution costs will remain; running the power grid is nowhere as simple as just stringing a bunch of wires, and assuming that electricity is going to largely take over for fossil fuels in transportation means that the demands upon it are going to be magnified manyfold. Whether coping with the additional demand would require re-regulation or not if a larger issue, but there is still profit to be made.

First of all, fuel cells are not “glorified batteries”. A battery–that is, an electrical energy storage device–can be a type of fuel cell, but it can also be a galvanic cell, a capacitor, or even a mechanical battery like a freewheel. I’m not sure about how they would be “irrelevant”; you’d still have to produce a fuel and oxidizer for them and distribute that, and the resulting byproducts thereof. There is some concern with a hydrogen economy that volitile escaping free hydrogen could have adverse effects, and in any case, portable fuel cell technology is still a very immature field; materials and effeciencies are nowhere near what they’d need to be in order to have the reliability of galvanic batteries.

:confused: Just :confused: I’m not even sure where you’re coming from with this one.

Nope. Energy production is still going to produce waste heat; industrial manufacture will result in chemical byproduces; a demand for batteries and fuel cells would increase that. You wouldn’t be burning hydrocarbons, of course (or at least not as much) but pollution is hardly eliminated.

It depends; solar and wind are quite useful for off-grid applications where connecting to central power isn’t practical. If your free energy source is compact and scalable so that you could set it up in a remote location then it would largely supplant renewable (but nonsustainable) technologies. If it requires large scale centralized facilities and a distributed grid then independent sources will still have their niche applications, though clearly solar and wind farms would be pointless.

As for the impact upon the cost of goods, I find the conjecture that they would plummet to be overreaching at best; energy costs are typically a small part of the overall manufacturing cost; more costly are materials, labor, facilities and overhead, distribution, marketing, end-sales overhead, and of course, markup (which varies widely as a percentage of total cost). There’s no reason to expect, for instance, that food would become significantly cheaper; ditto for textiles, construction materials, et cetera. The biggest savings would possibly be in physical distribution, but even if you eliminate fuel costs you still have labor, maintainence, and infrastructure costs.

There would also be a massive logistical cost of infrastructure modification and construction to make use of this new energy source, which in the near-term might offset cost savings…but would also stimulate new industries, so the economic impact is uncertain in extent and development but likely to be positive. Overall, it would be a good thing for humanity, but hardly the Horn of Amalthea that some would assert. Human nature being what it is we’d still find something to fight over, gouge each other about, and otherwise waste and worry.


I asked a similar question a couple months back. Several people pointed out that global warming would increase, since power consumption would be greater, particularly in the third world. But perhaps we could have a massive reforestation project to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere?

Not necessarily; these technologies find themselves implemented out of pure curiosity by hobbyists at the moment, even though cheaper and more reliable sources of power are readily available.
Solar power certainly wouldn’t disappear altogether, at least not immediately because it’s actually a great way to power pocket calculators; better than rechargeable batteries, no matter what you’re recharging them by - because you don’t have to remember to do anything to make the calculator work.
Solar and wind power would probably also maintain a fairly strong hold on niches that were geographically out of economic reach of power distributed from fusion power stations; remote monitoring stations, power supplement systems for small boats, etc. Oh, and satellites.

Free Energy? Nothing is “Free,” as there is some cost to get to the point of cheap energy. There remains costs for amortization, distribution, maintenance etc. etc.

The very use of the term “Free Energy” raises a big red ‘BS’ flag that you are referring to “Free Energy,” the energy from the vacuum, overunity, and other such nonsense.

Fusion power when attained in the distant future will require generation plants scattered across the landscape, much as steam/electric plants are now. Production is ony a part of the problem. Distribution area are limited by several factors.

Distributed generation utilizing CHP units is being scrutinized as to how it can/will solve the energy problem.

How would global warming increase? What carbon [dioxide] are you releasing into the atmoshphere?

Reforestation wouldn’t help, forests are close systems in the sense of converting CO2 to O2.

I probably should’ve left out mention of fusion, per se, and stuck with my original premise, which was more along the lines of “what are the economic implications of free (that is, really cheap) energy?” since I’m not that interested in the specific implications of switching to fusion. I’ve got to run, but I’ll post replies in a few hours.

The general opinion expressed in the thread that I started asking a similar question is that extremely cheap electricity would result in a massive increase in usage, and the resulting waste heat is released into the atmosphere.

Nay. Waste heat .ne. global warming as long as you can radiate away the additional heat. Whether you can do that or not depends on the composition and temperature of the stratosphere. Since our current set of atmospheric models don’t correlate well to both surface temperature and stratospheric temperature changes, it’s hard to say what exactly is going on. I’m not saying it’s not an issue, but it’s far more complex than just assuming that additional heat would result in global warming.


In the long run global warming would be curtailed due to Fusion power replacing dirty petroleum based technologies.
But, I wonder if this would make things like desalinization plants cost effective enough to start beating back desertification that is going on around the world?

I probably should’ve realized that using the term free would indeed set off BS alarms. I really shouldn’t’ve mentioned fusion, since I’m talking about what can only be hypothetical conditions: a gee-whiz power source complete with frictionless gears, 0-resistance wires, constant returns to scale, etc. That is, I’m not arguing that such a technology would or could ever exist, just speculating about what its effects on society might be. I’m not a quack, I swear!

On the other hand, if the cost of energy is trivial, what would otherwise be impractical methods of synthesizing certain materials might become feasible options

No argument here. I wasn’t saying that innovation would come to a halt so much as I was saying that not having to worry so much about the energy efficiency of creating fuel cells might, I think, give fuel cells the edge they need to compete with fossil-powerd models in certain applications. Even if raw performance were somewhat lower, I could see fuel cells edging out fossil-burners in devices where the disparity in performance wouldn’t matter so much, like lawnmowers and other small gas-powered engines. Of course, you can’t drive a lawnmower to work, so continued development would still be necessary for wider adoption of the technology.

The point that I was trying—and apparently failed—to make is that if energy is no longer a scarce resource, inefficiencies in storing energy (such as in a fuel cell) become less important since they cost you nothing. I wasn’t saying that fuel cells would be irrelevant; I was saying that some of the current problems with them (i.e. energy loss in creating them) would be irrelevant if the cost of energy is approaching zero.

It seems to me that abundant energy would encourage a greater degree of automation since the cost of running the necessary machines would drop. The result would be that human labor would become relatively more expensive than automation ; that is, the absolute cost of automation drops while the absolute cost of labor stays constant, so the relative cost of labor goes up. Goods that cannot be produced via automated means would therefore become relatively more expensive. How drastic the effect would be, I haven’t a clue.

You’re absolutely right. I was thinking only about large-scale use of these technologies; they’d certainly still have niche applications.
I think I’ve learned my lesson: sleep, then post. My apologies for the poorly-worded OP, and thank you for the replies so far.