Comment: Possibilities endless as clean-energy tech advances

The development of cheap and clean energy sources will lead to innovations in other fields.

By Tyler Cowen / Bloomberg Opinion

The nuclear fusion startup Helion announced last week that it has developed new technologies that may make nuclear fusion viable; practically, economically and environmentally. It is too early to tell if its claims will pan out, but there have been so many breakthroughs lately that they cannot be dismissed.

The possibility of carbon-free energy generation raises a seldom discussed question: Just how much would it change the world if cheap and clean energy sources were truly abundant?

Keep in mind that one source of cheap, clean power will lead to others. Maybe nuclear fusion cannot be used to fly a jet plane, but perhaps it could be used to produce relatively clean hydrogen fuel, which could then be deployed in ways fusion could not. A chain reaction would occur, eventually bringing cheap, clean energy across the economy.

As an inveterate traveler, my first thought is that I would be able to get everywhere much more quickly. How about a supersonic or perhaps suborbital flight from Washington to Tokyo? A trip to Antarctica would no longer seem so daunting. Many remote places would be transformed, one hopes for the better.

One second-order effect is that countries with good infrastructure planning would reap a significant relative gain. The fast train from Paris to Nice would become faster yet, but would trains on the Acela corridor?

Next in line: Desalinating water would become cheap and easy, enabling the transformation and terraforming of many landscapes. Nevada would boom, though a vigorous environmental debate might ensue: Just how many deserts should we keep around? Over time, Mali and the Middle East would become much greener.

How about heating and cooling? It might be possible to manipulate temperatures outdoors, so Denmark in January and Dubai in August would no longer be so unbearable. It wouldn’t be too hard to melt snow or generate a cooling breeze.

Wages would also rise significantly. Not only would more goods and services be available, but the demand for labor would also skyrocket. If flying to Tokyo is easier, demand for pilots will be higher. Eventually, more flying would be automated. Robots would become far more plentiful, which would set off yet more second- and third-order effects.

Cheap energy would also make supercomputing more available, crypto more convenient, and nanotechnology more likely.

With the relative plenty of material goods, however, people might invest more resources in status-seeking. Buying memberships into exclusive clubs — that select group of people who own an original van Gogh, say — might become relatively more expensive.

And limiting climate change would not be as simple as it might at first seem. Yes, nuclear fusion could replace all of those coal plants. But the secondary consequences do not stop there. As water desalination became more feasible, for example, irrigation would become less expensive. Many areas would be far more verdant, and people might raise more cows and eat more beef. Those cows, in turn, might release far more methane into the air, worsening one significant set of climate-related problems.

But all is not lost! Because energy would be so cheap, protective technologies — to remove methane (and carbon) from the air, for instance — are also likely to be more feasible and affordable.

In general, in a carbon-free energy world, the stakes would be higher for a large subset of decisions. If we can clean up the air, great. If not, the overall increase in radical change would create a whole host of new problems, one of which would be more methane emissions. The “race” between the destructive and restorative powers of technology would become all the more consequential. The value of high quality institutions would be much greater, which might be a worry in many parts of the world.

At least in the short run, fossil-fuel-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia and Russia would be the losers. Over the longer run, many commodity-producing nations would have to worry, as nations like China might find it easier to grow more of their own soybeans and stop buying from Brazil and Argentina. Drought-stricken areas with deserts and water problems but decent institutions could be some of the major winners; perhaps the American West would continue to gain economically on the East. All that extra land could be put to more productive use, but improving New Jersey might prove tougher.

As is so often the case with new technology, the challenges are real but the potential is enormous. I’m looking forward to whenever this new world comes to pass.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

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