Dec 8, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I don't disagree with any of its descriptions of current trends or predictions. Nonetheless, it is bizarre to read the history presented in the energy section and not see a word about hydraulic fracturing or the natural gas revolution in the United States.

The history presented reads as if written from another universe, where the oil shock of the 1970's actually was an "energy stagnation" - and we only are beginning to overcome it today with the developments in renewables and batteries.

The 1970's were not yesterday, and we have not experienced an energy stagnation since then.

Most simply and recently, thanks to hydraulic fracturing "King Coal" was finally dethroned as our leading fuel in electricity generation. Concretely, coal accounted for approximately half of our electricity generation for decades. Thanks to fracking it began to decline in 2008/09 -- falling from 50% in 2005 and 48% in 2008 to less than 40% only five years later, and the low 30% a few years later.

This brought us cheaper electricity. It also brought us our first decrease in CO2 emissions in essentially forever.

Nobody - of either political persuasion or any background - was predicting these possibilities just a few years before. Most experts thought it was not possible, and certainly not likely until many years from now and then only at tremendous cost, to decrease our emissions while also decreasing electricity prices. But we did it.

In this context, the story that is the focus of this piece is one of continuity and continual change, not finally making an advance after stagnation in the 1970's. Coal had already been dethroned and our emissions were already declining when the innovations discussed here began to come online. Those new advances are what brought coal to its knees - to under 20% of our electricity generation, almost unthinkable very recently.

Again though, this was a next step in a process - it brought coal down to under 20% from 30 something percent, after the hydraulic fracturing revolution knocked it off its pedestal, bringing it down from ~50% to the 30's.

Expand full comment
Dec 8, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

As an early subscriber, who identifies as a techno optimist, I appreciate this return to your roots.

Expand full comment

Look, I'm pretty optimistic about the next decade of technical progress.

But, in the interests of putting a contrary view on some of the specifics:

The thing with fusion is that unless you're just looking for process heat you've still got to turn it into electricity. With D-T fusion (the most plausible first cab off the rank for a fusion reactor) the only way to do that is let the neutrons slam into something, get it hot, and use that heat in some kind of heat engine. In other words, we're back to steam turbines.

My understanding is the vast majority of the cost of a coal-fired power plant is in the parts other than the parts that pulverise and burn the coal - it's in the steam turbine, generators and all the other parts that aren't dependent on the fuel source, As such, it's hard to see how a fusion power plant with a steam turbine could ever be cost-competitive with solar and wind given the maturity of steam turbine technology.

Furthermore, cheap electricity won't give us cheap longhaul or medium-haul air travel, or cheap bullet trains. Even the next generation of solid-state batteries aren't nearly energy-dense enough for airliners, making synfuel from cheap electricity won't be cheaper than fossil fuels for some time, and storing sufficient hydrogen to power an airliner is a real challenge. The vast majority of the cost of bullet trains is covering the ridiculously high fixed costs of building the track.

As for Starship - cheap space travel for scientific space probes is great. Starlink is great. Depending on the environmental impact, I can believe suborbital intercontinental travel might be a thing some day. And there is clearly a demand for space tourism if you can get the costs down low enough. And, transforming your own slice of Mars into your personal Garden of Eden sounds like a fun thing for our great-great-grandchildren to do if they're bored. I certainly wouldn't discount the idea of space Pilgrims at some point. But from any conventional economic perspective, none of the potential space industries suggested make any sense any time soon. Not mining, not manufacturing.

But, regardless, it'll be fun to find out what of these possibilities actually come to fruition!

Expand full comment

In the second chart, who's the genius who made solar black, hydro grey, nuclear blue, wind green and coal and gas orange and yellow?

Expand full comment

On the front of ever more costly drug discovery, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has recently launched a new venture, Isomorphic Laboratories, an “AI-first approach” to drug discovery. [1] This builds off their revolutionary work in protein folding structure prediction using AI, AlphaFold. See Nature’s Nov 2020 article entitled, “‘It will change everything’: DeepMind’s AI makes gigantic leap in solving protein structures”. [2]

As someone with an academic background in computational chemistry, I’ve seen a lot of hype around the promise of computational drug discovery. While computational methods have played an increasingly larger role in drug discovery for at least three decades, these previous methods didn’t drastically change the economics of the process. Yet Alphabet’s DeepMind has shown that they can revolutionize computational biochemistry with their AlphaFold project and I’m tepidly optimistic that Isomorphic Laboratories and related ventures will play a role in massively decreasing the cost of discovering new drugs.

[1] https://www.isomorphiclabs.com/blog

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03348-4

Expand full comment

I love the optimism, Noah. We need more of it. I'd love to see a deep-dive on carbon capture and other climate change mitigation technologies, too. There's so much promise (and potential profit) in engineered climate change mitigation, but it always seems to be dismissed by well-meaning but overly conservative environmentalists. Also, drought mitigation/water storage is going to be huge in the west. The combination of cheap energy, more flexible energy storage and material science present really exciting opportunities to green arid land or make marginal land more viable. Thanks for an upbeat signal boost!

Expand full comment

This is why I subscribe and read! Great article!

Expand full comment

Good read. Noah talking about technology and the future always brings me back to the idea of wizards and prophets when thinking about solutions to growth in energy, water, food, etc. Noah is a great example of the Wizard mindset.

Expand full comment

Another item for the space section is the (hopefully) successful launch of the James Webb telescope later this month and its resulting discoveries.

Expand full comment

I'm sort of with you, but also not. All of these are amazing technological advances, which *should* be able to massively improve human well-being.

And yet, I'm cynical.

I can't help but think that most of these will lead to a sort of "futurama" type future, where there are amazing technologies but it's all used the stupidest, most banal purposes.

Energy. Great, who doesn't love energy? Except that lots of places will still be burning coal, oil, and gas. All the new solar and wind will be used to power things like crypto-currency and server farms for ML devoted to tracking people's shopping habits. Or just wasted all together.

Biotech. A few heartwarming stories of disabled people getting healed. But I'll bet it doesn't work for the vast majority of cases. Instead we'll get animated tattoos and obsessive parents gene-editing their babies to look like movie stars.

Space. Very neat! But wildly impractical for most people. We'll set up a theme park on the moon, and it'll be awesome, but there won't be much to do there once the thrill of bouncing around in low-gravity wears off. All the natural resources and nice living places are here on the Earth. Outer space doesn't provide much except better solar energy- which, as you mentioned, is quickly becoming plentiful here, too.

What we really need is something to lower the cost of housing, healthcare, and education. Otherwise, those three things are going to suck up any and all economic growth.

Expand full comment

Technotopian nonsense.

Energy use: The reason why US energy use plateaued is because all of the energy intensive manufacturing was offshored to China. And the consequence was the hollowing out of the American job base and its hinterland all at once.

Renewables: Europe, particularly Germany, has spent enormous amounts on renewables and also have done all they can to reduce energy usage via taxes - hence $12+/gallon gasoline costs.

The result of all this? Energy security at all time lows - with the entirety of Western Europe facing sky-high natural gas costs due to insufficient supply vs. demand. Doesn't look like a win to me.

Batteries: costs are lower, sure. But so what?

Storage of solar PV and wind generated renewable electricity is the only place batteries really matter; your iPhone - the battery cost is insignificant. Even if the cost is $0.15 per kwh - the cost is irrelevant when there is simply not enough lithium in the entire world to convert 10% of the existing car population in the US alone to EV.

I just read another article looking at the technotopian fantasies of yore - take those stories and replace "steam" with "lithium battery powered electricity" and the result is equally laughable.

Expand full comment

Love this - nice work! Even though some of these may flop, I appreciate the breadth and speculation of could be game-changers.

Expand full comment

I love techno-optimism. :)

I would say though that you pretty carefully avoid the impact of inequality on all this though, most specifically here:

"it’s not yet clear whether the most successful ventures will be capital-intensive projects like pharma or low-overhead synbio stuff that can be done in a basement."

Regardless of what is more 'sucessful', low-overhead stuff is going to be vastly more widespread. It's like how most people can't afford access to the legal system, so no one ever uses it for anything except the rich and the government.

Expand full comment

to the landlords go the savings!

Expand full comment

Noah, how do you see any of these innovations impacting our built environment? In other words, what changes do you see in the way we live in our cities, suburbs and rural areas and how will they look different?

Expand full comment

If batteries actually become "cost effective", and we can make enough of them, then problem solved.

Here in Australia, companies aren’t buying off that chart, they are paying much more.

The expansion of the SA “world's biggest battery" (as it was called when it was first installed):

"Neoen announced that it would increase the battery capacity by 50%. [20] The expansion cost €53 million ($A82 million.."

That’s a 65MWh expansion in 2020, costing, at market rates, US$ 62M, so about US$1000/kWh.

I found a couple more recent projects here, also similar costs.

Lots of spruikers. But where are the people buying grid scale batteries and paying sub US$200/kWh?

As a couple of datapoints:

1. The NEM (eastern half of Australia) uses about 500GWh per day. So at the apparent actual prices, one day's storage would cost $500bn, or $100bn per year with a 5 year life. That’s around the cost of the entire health system in Australia.

2. The "world's biggest battery", now expanded, installed in South Australia, has enough capacity for about 7 minutes of SA electricity. The grid operator (AEMO) describes it as for "fast frequency response". It takes the edge off the sharp transitions, to give it a simpler description.

I’d love to find that we’re just out of touch with commercial reality here and have just overpaid by a country mile. But I fear that reality is more likely to be high battery prices.

Hopefully Noah, or one of the commenters, can help to explain the disconnect. Appreciate any help.

Expand full comment