I recently was very intrigued by this recent article in Popular Science about Lockheed-Martin developing small-scale (~100 MW) fusion power plants which can fit on the back of a truck. The implications of this are staggering. First, consider that on average 7% of the power generated in the United States is lost in distribution. That may not sound like a lot, but the U.S. used 25,776 TWh in 2010. That would be terawatt-hours, as in 1,000,000,000 kilowatt-hours. So 7% of that is 1804 terawatt-hours. To put that in perspective, that’s about enough to power New York City for six months. Why is this important? If you think about it, there are relatively few nuclear and coal powerplants which supply power to a myriad of people. They are centralized production centers that distribute their product for miles around. If, instead of centralizing power production, it is distributed closer to where it’s used, much of that 7% waste would be eliminated. I happen to be a firm believer in the future of fusion power. I believe it can free us from a future of devastating global warming with its exceedingly low-carbon yield, will eliminate the political issues associated with current reactor power generation and with the capability to have portable, truck-sized generators will make power available to the roughly 1.6 billion people currently without power in the world. Power will become ubiquitous.
So if one can buy into the assumption that power will eventually be easily available, what are some of the consequences of that?
The Coal Industry Will Be Decimated
The primary use of coal is power generation. Fusion power will eventually be much cheaper to produce, easier to distribute and far more environmentally friendly. The current world production of coal in in excess of 6.5 billion tons per year. From a safety perspective, while the industry has been getting safer overall, thousands of people still die every year in China and approximately 4,000 people per year in the U.S. are diagnosed with black lung disease. Additionally, there is an unknown impact on the health of the world’s population. So when this industry kicks the bucket, billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants will cease entering the atmosphere every year, thousands of people will not die from coal related issues, and the planet will become significantly healthier. On the bad side of things, most of the people currently employed in the industry will have to find another line of work. In the U.S. this amounts to nearly 200,000 people and, while it is difficult to say exactly, as many as 5 million in China.
Power-related Technology Will Advance Dramatically
I believe the biggest beneficiary of the power revolution will be battery technology. If power is ubiquitous and cheap, coming up with new storage technology is a natural extension of advances in its generation. Storage will be miniaturized and more capable at the same time. This will spark a whole host of advances in other technologies which rely on power storage.
Oil Influence Will Wain
Once storage technology advances sufficiently, the need for oil for power generation related to transportation goes away. Smaller transport such as automobiles, trucks, smaller watercraft and aircraft will no longer need oil. Batteries will be able to provide all the energy the petroleum products provide today. Larger transport such as ships will rely on fusion power. I won’t go into the geopolitical ramifications, but suffice to say that certain areas of the world currently relying on oil export as a primary source of revenue will have to find alternative sources.
Transport Costs, Cost of Goods Drop – Personal Income Sees a Boost
With power costs plummeting and battery technology and miniaturization allowing transport without fossil fuel, the cost of transporting people and goods will drop accordingly. For example, depending on the aircraft type, as much as 40% of an aircraft’s operating cost is related to fuel. If such cost is effectively removed, air travel suddenly becomes more viable for more people and air cargo prices drop significantly. Transporting goods across the oceans will become dramatically cheaper as well. Fuel accounts for approximately 60% – 80% of daily costs of operating a transport ship (depending on type). Turn today’s oil-burning vessels into fusion-powered freighters, not only do you take that cost directly out of cost-of-goods-sold for items so transported, but it suddenly becomes economically feasible to increase the speed of travel, further reducing shipping costs, not to mention time to market. Furthermore, reduction in personal travel costs will represent an improvement in the financial status of much of the world’s population. In the U.S. the median income in 2012 was $50,100 (pre-tax) and the average amount spent on gas was about $2,000 (post-tax). The average power bill in the U.S. was $103.67 based on 2009 census data. Take most of the cost of power out and that puts, call it another $1,000 (post tax) in today’s dollars back into the average citizen’s pocket. If fusion power and cheaper, easier to load, battery-operated cars were to suddenly spring into being today, every wage-earning worker in the country would see the equivalent of as much an 8% salary hike. Not bad. So put 8% more money in the pocket of every working American while at the same time dropping the cost of almost everything he or she buys thanks to reduced shipping costs and you have a very nice quality of life boost.
The Planet Will Begin to Heal
Even most previous deniers of global warming now at least acknowledge its existence – though some still think man has nothing to do with it. If you’re one of those people please stop ignoring the science. Global warming is likely the biggest threat to the future of mankind, not to mention most other species on the planet. Fortunately, accessible fusion power will start to reverse the slide we began with the beginning of the industrial age. Fusion power has very limited negative effects and will displace coal and oil power. The planet will start to eat away at the built up CO2, temperatures will begin to drop and the world will start to heal. The big question is whether this will happen before we do irreparable harm.
People Without Power Suddenly Get Access to It
The impact of this is too great to explain in-depth in the time I have to write this post. Individual productivity, quality of life, education, etc. will go up dramatically for up to a quarter of the earth’s population. The effect this will have on the world should be obvious.
I believe fusion power can be the savior of the planet and the human race. Its potential impact to the inhabitants of earth are dramatic in their scope. It may sound like I’m being hyperbolic in my fervor, but time will tell that this single technology will do more to advance humanity than anything else in modern history while at the same time saving the planet we live on from our own unforgiving footprints.