Sunday, 6 March 2016

Energy is an engineering problem

It'll be interesting to see how these low oil prices affect the process of innovation, especially in energy. Some energy ideas will develop faster, but a lot are poised to stagnate or be permanently mothballed. Those ideas aren't all good (some are sheer baloney), and those the ideas need to die. But there's a real sense of despair around that this oil price dip creates a pivot in human progress. I don't see it. Despair shouldn't be wasted on whether we're running out of resources. It should be about where the incentives lie.

We haven't used up all our resources, we're only using up the cheap and easy options. We know how to get energy from water. Do you know why we don't? Because it's currently cheaper to draw sludge out of the Saudi desert - refine it, ship it (or vice versa) extract fuel and burn it in an engine to drive a turbine - than it is to extract hydrogen from water.

And when the balance of that equation tips to the other side, watch what happens. We almost saw a shift over the past decade, but there's still too much cheap oil around.

There are staggering amounts of energy all around. We simply don't have a way to exploit them, which is an engineering problem. We have no motivation yet to solve these problems because substitute sources, like oil, are cheaper. When oil is not cheaper, we will solve these problems. I can state this with certainty, because it is not a problem of basic science, just of engineering.

This is true of every problem like it. Arguments assuming that the status quo somehow represents an excess, or too much progress or technology are simply wrong. The problem is that there isn't enough progress. We need more technology, more manipulation, more exploitation. The way forward is not backwards, that is idiotic. The past could barely support the population that existed then, it can't possibly support the population now.

One idea: we need more nuclear power. All the Fukushima disaster taught us is to build better reactors, and not to build them on fault lines, or where natural disasters are likely. The lesson is not that reactors are bad. 

Second idea: we need more GMO corn, soy, rice, etc. so the cereal staples feeding the world will require less water and be more resistant to disease and pests. And while we're add it, let's genetically modify them to absorb more CO2. The solution to the food crisis is not organic farming, that's insane! The reason people stopped growing food "organically" is because it was grossly inefficient back then. And people want to go back to that?

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