Powering the Future: A Nobel-Prize Winner Takes a Look Deep into the Future

By: Paul SanGiorgio

Have we hit peak oil? How long can we rely on cheap coal for power generation? Is hydro-fracking worth the environmental impact? To each of these pressing and controversial questions, Nobel-prize winner and Stanford physics professor Robert Laughlin would respond that, in the long run, what’s the difference?

Powering the Future: How we will (eventually) solve the energy crisis and fuel the civilization of tomorrow is Laughlin’s audacious attempt to look past the haze and uncertainty of short-term political and technical questions and predict how we’ll power our civilization in the centuries to come.

He starts with the seemingly irrefutable idea that although there are many varieties of fossil fuel, from natural gas to coal to oil, in the ground right now, eventually we will dig them all up, use them one way or another, and that’ll be that. Although whether we do this over the next 20 years or next 200 years might have important consequences for the environment, eventually the supply of fossil fuels will be exhausted and we will be left considering other options.

Given that there are more than enough problems to go around in the next 5, 10 or 20 years, why should we be particularly concerned right now with what will be happening in 200 years? Laughlin argues that although the energy future is both a political and technical question, it makes sense to attempt to separate the two issues and consider only the technical issues first. He claims, “To build a power plant, we need both enough votes and enough concrete, but if there isn’t any concrete, we’re simply not going to build the plant.”

Laughlin considers a number of different energy sources and storage technologies – some familiar (solar, nuclear, wind) and some unusual (algae farming, energy storage in compressed air tanks on the ocean floor) – and calculates the potential available amount of power, production costs, and storage densities each provides. And by calculates, I mean calculates. The book weighs in at a slim 224 pages, fully 92 of which are extensive footnotes and calculations. Not content to merely parrot official numbers or rely on sketchy internet references, Laughlin attempts to actually calculate as many of the relevant numbers as possible from primary sources. Just picking a footnote at random, one note has Laughlin calculating the power carrying capacity of a high-voltage power line. Starting with the Maxwell’s equations and going through a bit of math that will be over the head of anyone without a degree in physics, he comes up with a value of 1.4 x 10¬9 Watts. Almost offhandedly, he then mentions that Hydro Quebec quotes a value of 2.0 x 109 Watts, just in case you weren’t convinced by his calculation. Of course, the footnotes are just notes and actual math hardly makes an appearance in the main text, but in a way, it is reassuring to know that – at least when it comes to the numbers – Laughlin knows what he is talking about.

The pacing of the book is brisk and the writing is clear and interesting even if the occasional bits of humor come off a touch stale. Unable to hide the professor within, though, Laughlin’s tone can occasionally be pedantic and lecturing. Things just are what he says they are and any misconception you might have is probably due to naïve ignorance. This attitude is especially frustrating when it reflects Laughlin’s pessimism with regard to human nature, government intervention, and the possibility of socially conscious action in general, but for the most part, his authoritative tone begs the reader to argue and proceed critically, becoming an active participant in the book. Although readers might find themselves occasionally shaking their head (or fist), Laughlin does his best to be clear about his sources and calculations so readers are forced to either accept his conclusions or mentally prove him wrong. Either way, even the most knowledgeable reader will most likely both learn a great number of new things and also rethink a number of things they thought they already knew.

In a crowded idea space, Laughlin manages to look at humanity’s energy needs from a fresh and interesting perspective. He has no horse in the race and isn’t interested in lauding or burying any particular technology or fuel and, unlike many other prominent scientists-turned-authors, he isn’t desperately trying to stake out a position as a contrarian genius. Powering the Future is entertaining and informative and something that anyone interested in the long-term future of society should read.

Paul SanGiorgio is a Physicist from Oakland, CA who briefly worked with Professor Laughlin many years ago, which undoubtedly, Professor Laughlin does not remember.

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3 responses

  1. Professor Laughlin seems awfully optimistic.

    You say “eventually the supply of fossil fuels will be exhausted and we will be left considering other options”, but what if we’re not left?

    Isn’t it just as likely that one of the many crises we face will decimate humanity? Or that as a result of using all the fossil fuels, runaway climate change will render vast swaths of the planet uninhabitable, leaving the humanity without the means to seek viable solutions?

    I don’t think technology will naturally fill the void fossil fuels will leave. I think we need to move quickly to develop alternatives, or the dearth in energy may render us incapable of acting effectively.

    1. Scott – Professor Laughlin is at least somewhat optimistic in that he doesn’t predict wide-scale doom or devastation, preferring to adopt an attitude of “we’ve come this far, we’ll make it through one way or another,” which may or may not prove very tenable. On the other hand, he is extremely pessimistic about human nature in general. I think he feels that any progress that is made in one country or another to limit emissions or improve efficiency will be undermined by other countries who just want the cheapest possible fuel they can get. Even if the US (or any other country) switched tomorrow to entirely renewable resources, all that would mean is that the price of gas in the rest of the world would go down and consumption there would go up. Now, eventually, those other countries will run out of cheap fuel and the US (in this totally hypothetical example) will be way ahead. So, the book really tries to look at which technologies and ideas we should be trying to advance now and which ones will be able to provide the power we need in the future.

      If “technology will not fill the void fossil fuels will leave,” what will? What alternatives are there? What should we develop? It’s true that any number of man-made (or natural) disasters could do us all in between now and the end of the fossil fuel era, but if you’re interested in thinking about how we can adapt, I definitely recommend checking out the book.

      1. Oh, I think that if we are to adapt, technology will play a crucial role. I meant that I don’t think the natural pace of technological progression, left alone, will resolve the energy crises. I think there needs to be a more-or-less global effort to invest in the research, development and deployment of the appropriate technologies.

        That said, on my more positive days I like to consider that dwindling fossil fuel reserves will inevitably constrain our energy consumption, thereby buying us the time to seek alternatives. And rising gas prices will necessarily reduce consumption in general (of unnecessary consumer goods, for example), which will reduce our ecological/environmental impact.

        But I fear the reality is closer to what you described–that it would take the cooperation of practically every country on Earth to leave any amount of fossil fuels in the ground. And if we extract all the fossil fuels, will our climate still resemble that of a liveable planet?

        At any rate, whether or not the assumptions Professor Laughlin’s argument entails prove valid, his book sounds intriguing. I’ll definitely be checking it out.

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