Can the World Afford `Free' Energy?

AS the debate rages among chemists and physicists over how man can create more energy than he expends, a fundamental question needs to be raised - regardless of whether the new cold fusion or some other source ultimately dominates the scientific enterprise. What does a world of potentially ``free'' energy portend? While cheap energy may be good news on its face, limitless energy may add to the destabilization of society and the environmental degradation of the globe - rather than be the dream of so many experimenters in the modern era. We may be facing the most extreme lesson in the ``no free lunch'' classroom.

The costs associated with a cheap and readily available energy source may be one of the great burdens of the new millennium.

Consider first some of the environmental impacts. If energy can be made available to a mushrooming world population - within a time span a fraction of that of the Industrial Revolution - the insults to the natural environment could be mammoth. The sheer increase in heat that would result from the innumerable activities fueled by the new energy is one source of concern. Regardless of how clean the fuel may be theoretically, if it is provided inexpensively and, in historical terms, within a relatively short time, chances are it will be put to use immediately on the basis of what is valuable in the short run - not on the basis of what is good for the environment.

Imagine the impacts - for that's all we can do now, speculate - of the third world's becoming rich in a quarter of a century. How much heat will their automobiles, air conditioners, earthmoving equipment, paving and driving and building produce? How many waste products will the new activity generate? Where, in the closed system of the globe, will they be disposed?

What will be the relationship between cheaper energy and the depletion of the ozone layer? Theoretically, one can conceive of scenarios where pollution-free energy production would stimulate invention of substitutes for substances linked to atmospheric destruction. But those substitutes are not on the commercial horizon now.

With less-expensive energy, will there not be a greater push for the products - refrigerators among them - linked to the degradation of the earth's protective shell? We are having a difficult enough time convincing the lesser developed nations that they should forgo the luxuries of modern life to protect the earth when the option of providing consumer products is not yet real. (China, with its billions of potential freezer door openers, comes to mind.) The argument will be even harder to make as we multiply our own production of industrial goods.

The environmental benefits of stopping the use of conventional nuclear fission, and the burning of fossil fuels and other energy sources, have to be factored in, of course. Certainly the benefits of a switchover in energy production could be immense. But in a world of limitless energy, a switch would likely not be the result. Instead, much more energy would be expended by many more people (historically, cheaper energy has been associated with rapid population growth) across much more of the world. More energy would be available to cut down more trees, to mine more raw materials, to create more chemical reactions, to produce more goods.

The social effects of cheaper energy also may not be unalloyed good news. Won't the ultimate validation of experiments that produce new energy lead to strong arguments both to centralize and to decentralize energy production? Either route, when traveled at a rapid pace, can be destabilizing.

If energy can be produced in dramatically new ways, what will be the incentive to support the existing systems of energy production and transmission and all the power relations associated with them? Nationally, the reaction of the existing energy producers can be expected: arguments for centralization and the economies of scale in maintaining a central role in the utility world. But what if there are no economies of scale, as the recent pictures of a hand-held fusion cell imply?

How would the world economy adjust to an almost overnight termination of investment from the Arab world? Can a world of decentralized energy production create the wealth to foster research and development? Can it create institutions to regulate the awesome weapons our friends and enemies would be able to create?

These notions may seem elitist. Aren't we concluding that free energy is a problem because it will be made available to people who are not yet ready to control it? To some extent the answer is yes. But another answer is that, just as the more developed countries are beginning to see that conservation and more limited exploitation of resources may be the routes to global survival, the economic incentive to conserve may be swept away with a palladium electrode or whatever technology prevails in the alchemy of the scientific age.

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