A Cocoon of Technology
One of the visions of cold fusion was to create small, self-contained energy sources that would cost very little to fuel and maintain. This vision has been a long time coming, but it will come at least in some form eventually. Light at the end of the tunnel indicates that there is an end of the tunnel even though the technology might be far from that envisioned by the first pioneers. Some combination of material with small scale geometry, electric and magnetic fields possibly with high rates of change, electrolyte or gas and temperature, will extract energy from a poorly understood source and change the world.
The change will not be as first envisioned by some who thought the technology would be developed fast and be a device that essentially had no competition. The 23 years of development have allowed time to reflect on the impact of a given technology and has generally tempered the idea of no competition. Competition is one of the most powerful and fundamental forces in life and in human society. Some of the ideas that might result in a fuel-less energy device might not be patentable due to the long development process that has gotten a lot of technology in the public domain. This would enable competition even on the particular operating principles and minimize differentiation of design so that competition would quickly drive down margins. It is also likely that more than one technology will produce useful devices which would offer a greater variety of choice and greater application.
This would spread the technology more rapidly due to more companies working on it and lower costs to the consumer. The rapid development would impact the conventional energy suppliers, but some might be able to transition to the new technology if not prohibited by patents. Technology would be applied where most cost-effective first, for example heating a building if it was primarily a heat producer or driving a car if it produced mechanical or electrical energy. Home heating equipment makers or auto manufacturers would have to act fast, but there would be opportunity if they did. Since the essence of the new technology would be the ability to function without fuel or very little fuel, it is the fuel suppliers that would be most affected.
Fuel or its equivalent in hydro, wind or solar power is the part of any energy-driven product that needs sustained supply and often represents more material or cost than the original product. The fuel oil to heat a house will represent more mass than the whole house after ten or 20 years and the gasoline to power a car throughout its normal life will exceed the mass of the car by a factor of ten or more. This would be also true with similar values if these were powered by natural gas. The hydro powered product would depend on a massive supply of water and the wind powered one a great volume of air driven by natural forces. Solar energy would need many hours of sunshine and the expensive equipment to capture and use it.
This need for a great deal of material to supply energy makes living off the grid difficult. Power grids and fuel supply organizations satisfy these needs, but at a cost. One can’t just put a lot of effort into a house, for example, and then live in it without cost and attention. Supplying the energy is a continuous cost or effort and is the same with transportation. The organizations that supply the energy have a lot of influence on how the owner of the equipment acts. Many governments regulate, tax or even supply energy. One of the greatest changes that a self-contained energy producer would facilitate would be the ability to live with greater independence from the grid structures of society. This is an important consideration when society is not investing enough to build or maintain the grids at high levels of reliability and economy.
Many parts of the world have very poor energy grids and independence from them can make the difference between a good life and suffering. Even in the developed world there are significant interruptions and costs can be high. Back-up systems are increasingly common and essential for applications where loss of power is life threatening. In many cases, even with conventional technology, distributed power systems are being employed. If a back-up is desirable anyway it is less of a step to a full-time local power system. Often the biggest difference is the fuel consumption. The central systems are still more efficient than small systems and are generally perceived to be less of a problem. That is changing because small engines are getting more efficient and reliable and there are fuel cell systems being developed that would be more than competitive with central systems in cost of fuel and would be more reliable.
The systems being sold today and the ones foreseen in the next ten years or so based on known technologies under development will not offer the independence of the self-contained units that are being considered possible given evidence over the last few years in the new energy field. However, they may help facilitate the market for future machines by enabling people to live more comfortably without the power grid, which would reduce some of the incentive for high reliability and quick repair service. This could lead to poorer service that would be an incentive to simply bypass the service if a good alternative was offered. If an increasing number of customers left, the remaining would be still supporting the grid and central systems which would drive up cost and hasten the decline of the central approach. Attempts would be made to prop up the old and increasingly obsolete systems until they collapse, giving the market to the distributed systems.
This would be a serious disruption but no more so than any number of technological advances made over the last few centuries. The difference in this case is that since these are government regulated and sometimes government owned systems they will not shrink in an orderly way but will be propped up until collapse is more catastrophic. They are also supported by large companies that will resist the change. The combination leads to distortions that make the existing system even less efficient than it would otherwise be. For example, the subsidization of solar and wind power is increasing the stress on the electric grid so attempts are being made to make it “smart” but the smart grid is dumb because it is built on a poor foundation. Widespread use of electric cars will greatly stress the grid and often substituting gasoline for coal or nuclear power and more of it due to the inherent inefficiencies of distant generation and extra energy converters (motors and batteries) in the loop.
An independent power system would enable the powering of other household systems that would further make the home independent and self-contained. One of these systems would be a water treatment system that would enable a high degree of recycling of water and eliminate the need for a central sewage system and central water utility. This could be very important where water is scarce or contaminated. Water in many areas is becoming increasingly contaminated with a wide variety of new chemicals, including pharmaceuticals. These chemicals are not being successfully contained and are not being removed from most water supplies. A sophisticated water treatment system could both remove and contain the contaminants. Solid waste is difficult to convert to energy and harmless remains in a small system, but the size of systems that can do it is decreasing. Eventually even a single building will not have to contribute to a landfill or send trash a long distance to a central processing system.
In an urban environment the size of systems would be determined by the tradeoff of system cost involving economies of scale and the cost of distribution of the power and/or water. In a rural environment a system that serves a single house will be the optimum choice in many cases as systems get more efficient in smaller sizes and are mass-produced. The technology exists today to allow a single building to be off the electric grid, water grid and sewer. It would still be dependent on a supply of fuel such as natural gas via gas line or fuel oil via truck delivery. The chance of disruption would be much less and this is a very viable solution for a large building but these systems are still far from optimum for a single family house. Single house systems that would be suitable are being considered, but the fuel dependency would remain. Single house systems that utilize solar or wind power locally collected can be fully independent but these systems are still expensive and their performance varies greatly with climate location. Long-term seasonal storage of energy is still not feasible so the systems need to be designed for worst case conditions to enable full independence. They also generally need serious compromises in lifestyle.
Eliminating the need for fuel would enable the forming of a cocoon of technology to isolate housing units from external disruptions. These disruptions could be caused by poorly maintained or designed systems, by acts of nature such as storms and earthquakes or even war. Large central systems with extensive grids are inherently more vulnerable than thousands of small systems over a wide area. The trend toward distributed systems is driven by technology and is inevitable. It will be resisted strongly by those that will be disrupted either for economic reasons or control reasons but all they can do is slow it up to the detriment of society; they cannot stop it.
The early adopters of these systems will pay a higher price and will have more technical difficulties but they will be able to install them without drawing too much attention. In fact, utilities under pressure to avoid additional capital cost and to help reduce energy demand may encourage the first wave of systems. When the second wave of consumers arrives it will be much bigger and will draw offensive action from the status quo as it awakes to the reality of the situation and their inevitable decline in revenue and control. Forward thinking utilities may adapt by buying systems in quantity and then leasing to individuals at little or no cost and getting paid per unit of energy or water used.
The market for small distributed systems that need little or no fuel has the potential of being huge but it must grow on the basis of economics to become the accepted way of providing energy and the related services. In developed areas security alone will only sell to the relatively wealthy. In both developed and developing countries economics will be the overwhelming factor. Locally generated solar or wind power can provide independence and security but it is so expensive compared to the alternatives that it is rarely used except where there is no good alternative and then often with tax credits. People’s view of the future will be very influential in the early sales driven by the desire for independence and security. Concerns about the power grids and the ability of the region to maintain them and the perception of future energy costs will drive sales. These perceptions can change fast. A few years ago the idea of peak oil would have sold a lot of systems but today we have a glut of cheap gas. However, we have had a series of very disruptive storms which also would be a motivation to be independent.
There are two radically different approaches being taken to provide energy to consumers. The dominant system today depends on a very complex electric grid that is becoming more complex in an effort to account for extremely variable inputs from renewable energy sources and an attempt to promote electric vehicles. In the meantime it has not been sufficiently maintained and upgraded. It has been vulnerable for decades and that vulnerability will increase with age and complexity. The other approach is distributed systems. It is gradually taking shape in the form of thousands of backup generators that continuously get better and lower in cost. Distributed systems will soon be good enough to stand alone but will still have a major fuel problem except for natural gas which may be low in cost for a long time. There will eventually be enough installed to be a good example, providing a great market for the future new energy systems that will greatly diminish or eliminate the fuel problem.