Cheap Power is Progressive

According to a statistic I just made up, 97.3% of all technical “breakthroughs” trumpeted in press releases turn out to be either wrong or minor. Moreover, it’s well known that fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be. When I was ten years old, economically relevant fusion power was thirty years away, and that number hasn’t changed in the half-century since.

Still, the folks at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works aren’t very likely to be either fools or hoaxers, so when they say they’ve figured out how to make magnetic-confinement fusion practical and that they think they can have a prototype in five years and a production model in a decade, that’s worth paying attention to.

The gimmick, if it works, would have all the features that have made fusion such a dream: no greenhouse-gas emissions, no meltdown risk, no waste-disposal problem, no weapons-proliferation issue, and effectively unlimited fuel supply. Even better, they’re talking about 100-megawatt reactor that fits on a flatbed truck, not a 1000-megawatt behemoth like the current generation of fission reactors. That would make producing the devices a manufacturing problem rather than a construction project. (Even more so if you could retrofit a power plant now running on coal by simply substituting half a dozen of the new gadgets.)  With luck, this could put a big hole in fossil-fuel production and the environmental and political disasters it creates.

Of course the Lockheed Martin folks could turn out to be wrong about the physics (though that doesn’t seem especially likely), or (much more plausibly) one of the ancillary problems such as materials development could turn out to be insoluble or too expensive to be economically practical.

But the only reasonable reaction to this from someone not invested in Exxon or Koch Energy or Putinism is a (somewhat hesitant, because the idea is still more likely to fizzle than to work) “Yippeeeeee!!!!”

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will. Since there’s no way a patent-holder could possibly internalize the social gain from making this work, the case for public funding is overwhelming. The social value of the discovery, if it can be perfected, couldn’t possibly be less than $10 trillion,  so spending $10B or so on even a 1% chance of success is an obviously positive-expected-value gamble.

Of course, if we have to triple energy prices in order to prevent a global-warming disaster – which might well prove to be the case – we should accept that, and the economic disruptions that would result, rather than accepting a 3-degree-Celsius rise in average surface temperature and the catastrophes that would result from that. But I’d rather not, thanks.

If cheap energy gets to be real again, that will be a tremendous boon to the planet, and especially to its poorest inhabitants. And if as a result we have to stop saying that 40,000-square-foot mansions are environmentally unsustainable, and have to go back to saying that they’re grotesque and vulgar, is that really such a steep price to pay?

A progressive movement that, in its heart, prefers scarcity is not one I really want to be part of, and it’s not one likely to command majority support.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.