Monthly Archives: July 2014

What will happen when electricity is free?

What will happen when electricity is free?

I Google’d this phrase and found nothing of interest, except for the auto complete suggestion:

“What will happen when electricity runs out”

How silly. There are plenty of ways that resources to generate electricity can be depleted, but electricity itself is not a resource and cannot be depleted. It’s much better to imagine what will happen when electricity is available to everyone at relatively little to no cost.

Truly free electricity? What will happen then? To answer the question, we could look at a similar question.

What if ice could be made available to anyone at an instant?

It already can be? Well at some point it wasn’t possible… Maybe the history of ice could shed light on the future of electricity!

Dr. John Gorrie

In the late 1840’s a doctor by the name of John Gorrie saw his patients suffering greatly from yellow fever. In an attempt to ease their pain, he needed access to large quantities of ice. Ice, as you can imagine, was difficult to come by in the 1800’s it had to be “farmed” from nearby rivers by companies that employed experienced men of the trade. Ice had to be stored in ice houses which used materials such as sawdust for insulation. Gorrie sought another way. He invented a refrigerator of sorts, a machine that was capable of making ice for whenever it was needed. Can you guess what the public response was? 

After his device was criticized as blasphemy and the ice companies lobbied against the device, Gorrie died in 1855. Depressing yes? Unfortunately, this is foreshadowing for many of the devices and vital inventions that humanity has created since the dawn of time. Now, 159 years later ice is produced easily and available quickly.

While ice is still farmed in parts of the world, to most, the notion of ice farming is considered somewhat archaic. All of the companies, logistics, and work involved all seem a little… unnecessary. We’ll get back to this later.

When looking at the future of power we need to look at the history of modern electricity,  When it’s capabilities were truly realized, the inventors that struggled to make it widely available and the many, many problems that get in the way of any and all progress. We also need to look at current energy solutions, their impact on society and alternative resources.

The History of Modern Electricity

A quick look into current renewable electricity sources begs the question where did they all start out?

Obviously, before the widespread use of electricity, experiments in both generating it and harnessing it were already underway. In 1836 the first practical battery was invented and  as early as 1839, Photo voltaic cells for solar power were being experimented with.  Both of these technologies are a fantastic start, but the batteries were a one shot, after they were spent they were discarded, and the amount of electricity generated by the solar cells was insignificant. Maybe this wasn’t so practical after all.  Rechargeable battery cells were introduced in 1859, if electricity could be generated cheaply and stored in a cheap rechargeable cell for later use, all kinds of new possibilities are on the horizon!

Later, in an 1887 experiment, the power of the wind was harnessed using a windmill and a generator. Wind is free, however the cost of energy is often overlooked by the initial cost of the materials, aesthetics and the opposition of environmentalist groups.

Tesla

Tesla is regarded as being both directly and indirectly (read directly) responsible for mostly all of the electrical technology we use today.  It was his last endeavor to provide the world with free electricity.

Short Summary

In the early to mid 1800’s electric motors and even electric cars were being prototyped and built but battery capacity was terrible and they required electrified tracks that made them both dangerous and not technically feasible.

Amazingly, the petrol engine wasn’t introduced until 1876. The world was entranced by the idea of electricity, as was Tesla. Until he came to the United States, Inventors were pursuing direct current as a means to transmit and use electricity. Alternating current was scoffed at and not even considered to be a threat because there was no way to use it at the time. When Tesla demonstrated the invention of an AC generator and challenged Edison’s entire DC model, Edison realized that he could lose on an unimaginable scale. He went on a smear campaign to discredit Tesla and win the favor of the public’s view.

The campaign worked until Tesla proved that AC was both effective and in more ways than one better than DC transmission.

After becoming successful in using hydroelectric generators to harness the power of Niagara Falls, Tesla began to think about other ways to use electricity, he began investigating the possibility of wireless power transmission without the knowledge of his investor. When it came to light that Tesla was in fact working out wireless power transmission and not working on transmitting messages across the Atlantic,  his finances were terminated.

What would have happened had Tesla succeeded?

His wireless power system would have changed history overnight. While it is an amazing idea, this is not a true statement. Simply because wireless power the way Tesla envisioned it is not technically possible. He believed it was just a feat of physical engineering until his death on January 7th 1943. But the death of the idea of free electricity did not die with him.

History repeats itself.

As Dr. Gorrie and Tesla found out the hard way (a few times) The United States (along with people in general) can certainly be tough to persuade let alone be convinced that their way of doing things is most certainly not the best way. While both of these men had great visions of improving society on long terms, most 19th and 20th century influential figures and their followers tended to be short sighted.

So where are we at?

Dr. Gorrie sees a problem -> invents a solution -> is opposed by longstanding competition -> dies.

Tesla sees a problem -> is opposed by longstanding competition -> invents a solution -> is opposed by longstanding competition -> proves them wrong -> is a huge public success -> sees another problem -> is abandoned financially -> dies.

There’s a trend to be seen here… somewhere.

What exactly is the problem?

Edison made it big by marketing an inferior product, still at this time the best the world had ever seen, building an entire industry on it in fact. To have it challenged by a foreigner? Out of the question. Edison and Ice companies were too big and important to fail; so both they and the public thought.

The problem in these cases may be the illusion of some divine right of a company being longstanding being confused with superiority, as well as the public backing it without so much as a thought.

America’s past, present and future

Settlers of America in 1500’s were allowed to be here on England’s terms. For them. Not as a new country but as an extension of the old. How did that turn out?

Right now, we have a big issue. A problem that has been building like a storm over decades but conversationally is still being avoided like the plague. We are at a crossroads. We’re clinging onto the old world while wanting to embrace the exciting, scary and new. While some would argue we have no idea where to start towards this future, others are asking themselves what we can do to stop it from coming.

Today, instead of stubborn people like Edison, and stubborn companies like the Ice associations, there are corporations that are unwilling to change. and it is to the public’s detriment.

For the greater part of a century, companies have arisen from nothing, been in competition with other companies, bought out the competition, and fought tooth and nail to stay relevant. Start-ups have been either absorbed or have failed to take off, dying and taking their dreams with them. In short, the current mindset of the world is:

If it doesn’t print money, either let it die or kill it.

This makes it very difficult for anyone to oppose the current system or to coordinate change on any level unless it involves a massive amount of money.

If history of innovation does repeat itself here’s what we have to look forward to:

Dr. Gorrier’s case:

People own companies -> companies make the rules -> rules benefit people at said company and their way of life -> earth shattering innovation is born -> companies kill innovation -> people suffer

Tesla’s case:

People own companies -> companies try to make the rules but fail -> companies attempt to kill innovation -> innovation thrives -> people benefit

20th and 21st (but most certainly not 22nd) century America’s case:

Corporations own politicians-> politicians make the rules-> the rules benefit corporations -> people suffer

WAIT!

people suffer?

No we’re not exactly dying in the streets from the oppression of great ideas (some are, but that’s a different blog for a different day). Again, people are often short sighted and don’t realize they are suffering comparatively and blindly agree with the guys with infinitely deep pockets running the show.

Dr. Gorrier’s case:

People were afraid that a fancy little (huge) box could replace manual labor and cause a paradigm shift in a niche market. In the end, people suffer.

Tesla’s case:

20th century folk were enjoying their electricity, “ahh this is the life. Too bad there’s a hideous power station every 12 blocks but hey, it’s what we have to put up with to get a little luxury around here.”

Literally, every mile. Power station. Unnecessary. Tesla. Fix. It.

And even though this problem was fixed, the solution worked too well. It was so efficient that it put many companies and people out of jobs almost overnight. It’s the same with any necessary invention though.

Taking a step back.

What is the goal? What are we trying to accomplish with new technology? Are you trying to put people out of jobs? Sure, we’ve improved the lives of a significant amount of people with the inventions we’ve developed and the barriers that we’ve, quite frankly, destroyed whether it was by accident or otherwise. But now that we’re here we can stop right? Guys?

Fortunately for all and unfortunately for some, innovation will always find a way.

So, what will happen when electricity is free?

Much like the struggle of Tesla against Edison, there is a new struggle.  Almost 100 years later we have benefited from the widespread adoption of electricity and everything that has come with it.
It has aided in the growing and production and transportation of food, water, clothing, virtually every aspect of both the needs and wants modern life is complimented or completely replaced by electricity in some way.

Consider the following:

Refrigerators did end up putting a lot of ice makers out of business.

A simple change in the way electricity is distributed changed the face of the world forever and forced many to change their business model or go down in flames.

Automobiles were welcomed by the public but they put a lot of blacksmiths, farriers, and horse thieves out of business.

We’re almost to a critical turning point where self driving cars are an every day reality. This will destroy the taxi industry.

When electricity is free…

A lot more is at stake at making electricity so cheaply and efficiently that it is effectively free. Just think about everything that needs electricity:

Food. We grow food with electricity. A General Electric farm in Japan comprising of 17,500 LED lights on 18 cultivation racks reaching 15 levels high can produce 10,000 heads of lettuce a day. All of this is done indoors where pesticide and herbicide is not a problem, factoring out the maintenance costs and taking into account that LEDs are already low power, it’s still not low enough to be considered free, regardless of how many salads it can make a day.

Travel, specifically electric cars: Some say this isn’t a necessity, just a fad and it will pass, but the reality is people do need to travel and when they can travel for free, what’s stopping them? No longer holding back or worrying about the financial variables in taking a quick trip or long vacation.

Battery tech is already on par with gasoline for range of a vehicle, and that’s saying something considering electric vehicles are so much heavier than their gasoline powered rivals.

But who’s to say that someone won’t make an all electric commercial airliner someday? Granted current battery cells are extremely heavy,  super-capacitors are light, anything a battery can’t do a super-capacitor can and will.  The best part is, other unimaginable technology is right around the corner.

Water filtration: It takes huge amounts of power, time and effort to filter water. Clean water is something that every human on earth needs. Sure technologies like Graphene will solve this problem in the future, but for now we need electricity.

Along with Graphene and Stanene will come a revolution. The decrease in power consumption should already visible with computer processors that keep getting better and better while using less and less power. Super-capacitors will be a fantastic combination with mobile phones, tablets and laptops and every other device that uses a battery.

Also, there’s everything else that doesn’t need electricity that will replaced little by little. The list goes on and on, forever in fact.

What’s it going to take for electricity to be free?

Acceptance. A lot of companies stand to lose a lot of business if electricity is available to everyone at any time. As we know, business equals money and money equals power. Production of earth shattering technologies have been and will be bought out and stifled, Or developed in secret and put off for as long as possible, then pulled out at the last minute to keep companies relevant and to make sure they still have power. They’re too big to fail, or so they think. When all is said and done, the consumer will eventually benefit, gasoline prices will plummet, and the exhaustion date for gasoline will increase 60+ years.

Time. Not a lot of time though. A lot is going to change in a very short amount of time.

What about current electricity tech? Isn’t it good enough?

Not really, the main sources of power in the U.S. are oil, gas, coal and nuclear.

Oil is dirty, it’s expensive to refine but some nice products like plastic can be made from it.

Gas is mainly just dangerous, but it is also expensive to extract and contain.

Coal has served it’s purpose, it’s done very well, but there are cheaper cleaner ways to produce energy.

Nuclear is pretty volatile and major disasters are caused by meltdowns.

So what do you propose?

I propose nothing. Lucky for us, smart people are proposing we try Thorium. Thorium is one of the most abundant element in the US, it’s clean, energy dense,  but is sadly overlooked. Since 2011, China is experimenting with Thorium and India is building the worlds 1st full scale Thorium reactor and the world is waiting to see how it turns out. If successful every other developing country will most likely scramble to copy their success.

Germany is currently banking on solar power, electricity was mainly provided by the country’s own low grade coal supply before their aggressive solar investment. Germany is currently the global leader in clean energy because of this reform. Keep in mind that the current generation of solar panels only have a life expectancy of 22 years. Factoring in the cost of installation and manufacturing compared with electricity produced only exceeds the cost for a few years before they are 1.) paid for and 2.) need to be replaced.

The U.S. however is not doing so well. Right now we’re doing a little better than Russia, Brazil and Mexico. Which gives us the opportunity to make an example for other countries if we choose to do so, but we won’t. We won’t because of the jobs that are at stake. We won’t because of the initial cost of green reform. We won’t because we’re stubborn, thick-skulled and blind to evidence that we need to change.

In combination with Thorium reactors, renewable energy and storage breakthroughs, you can look forward to some cheap if not free power coming to your neighborhood very soon as long as we can take a step back and focus on the big picture.