Forget about ‘peak oil’ and global warming. What about two centuries from now, when we’ll really need help?
Many environmentalists believe that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels will cause a climate crisis toward the end of this century. Environmentalists also raise the alarm that we have reached “peak oil” and that fossil fuels will run out by the middle of the century. That both views cannot be true rarely seems to bother those who hold them. Either consequence, we’re told, makes the world’s conversion to a low-carbon energy system an urgent matter.
Robert Laughlin, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum physics, takes a rather different view. He thinks that “one can’t find much actual global warming in present-day weather observations” and that “the final demise of carbon burning is so far away, perhaps ten generations, that it’s quite irrelevant to energy problems of today.” And so in “Powering the Future” he takes up the problem of energy use two centuries from now, on the assumption that it will take that long for us to run out of, or give up, fossil fuels.
The book is written with a cheerfully can-do brio and is full of fascinating calculations—he says that damming Canadian rivers and flooding 0.5% of its land surface, for instance, would provide hydro-power to meet all the world’s electricity needs for a month. As a physicist he brings useful insights to the solar, nuclear and even garbage-incineration debate.
His discussion of thermal storage is especially engaging. One of the challenges of large-scale solar-energy plants is what to do with excess heat generated during the day and how to keep the power going at night. Molten salt (a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate) turns out to be an excellent candidate for storing heat. The Andasol-1 solar-power plant in southern Spain and others like it are making promising use of the technology, he says. “The beauty of thermal storage is that it has virtually unlimited expansion capacity. One simply gets bigger tanks and puts more salt in them.” An even more adventurous storage idea: using the ocean floors for “lakes” of saturated, heavier-than-saltwater brine, which could be pumped from a lower-level lake to one on a higher level and allowed to flow back downhill, releasing energy.
Mr. Laughlin’s feet are planted too firmly on the ground for him to get carried away by such schemes; he recognizes that the ocean floor is always going to be an expensive place to work. Such levelheadedness leads him into the trap that snares many futurists—his theorizing assumes a souped-up version of today’s world rather than a radically changed world. Mr. Laughlin insists that he is considering the energy scene two centuries from now, but he sometimes seems stuck in today’s debates about biofuels, uranium supplies and solar panels.
He assumes, for example, that the end of fossil fuels will mean more expensive energy. That’s what today’s energy alarmists insist, but over the course of the next two centuries it’s just as likely that some form of nuclear or solar or geothermal power will become cheap and plentiful. Nuclear power from fusion might one day be an especially promising field, as may be the use of the radioactive chemical element thorium, which is more abundant than uranium and awaits harnessing. Mr. Laughlin is surprisingly incurious about thorium’s potential.
He is also disturbingly cavalier about the problem that attends all discussion of a non-fossil-fuel world: land use. Every renewable-energy scheme for the future entails huge land grabs, because of the inherently low density of the power. As a Californian, the author recognizes solar power’s “voracious appetite for land,” but he also airily suggests that we can grow biofuels on lands “presently too poor to farm”; that we can dry huge quantities of cattle dung “in the sun”; that “shoreline estuaries” might be suitable for “great farms” of algae, another biofuel candidate; and that nuclear waste should be dumped in the “truly awful” lands of the Russian far east.
Imagine the effect that such an approach would have on national parks and wildernesses (too poor to farm) and on the rich biodiversity of estuaries. Or imagine huge quantities of manure trucked into the desert—you wouldn’t want to be stuck in mid-August traffic with one of those truck convoys, and you wouldn’t want to stand anywhere near a cow pie the size of Rhode Island. A note worth remembering: One of the marvelous benefits of fossil-fuel use has been the way it has reduced our need to wring energy from the landscape by damming rivers, felling forests and planting feed for horses.
Even Mr. Laughin’s ingenious schemes for energy storage might leave readers scratching their heads. Why fill caverns with molten salt or pump compressed air to the seabed when Mother Nature has created a remarkably efficient form of stored energy called natural gas? The author reckons that we will need to use the ocean floor for energy storage by the turn of the century. He might have also mentioned that, according to the International Energy Agency, we’ll still have 15 decades of shale gas waiting to be tapped. “Powering the Future” doesn’t even discuss shale gas—that extraordinary transformer of the energy debate over the past three years—much less envision it powering the future.
But at least Mr. Laughlin brings a refreshing, upbeat outlook for our energy future. His oversights and overreaching can be pardoned: All forecasts miss their mark. After all, a book written 200 years ago imagining today’s energy needs would discuss coal, but oil, gas and even electricity would not feature in the index. Most of the discussion would probably be devoted to the looming problem of hay scarcity.
Mr. Ridley, who writes the Journal’s weekly Mind & Matter column, is the author of “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.” He is a member of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council.