A Bold Prediction: (Almost) Free Energy in 20 Years

Today is the second of my “Prediction Saturday” blog posts. The intent of my “Prediction Saturday” posts are to put forward bold predictions about the near future, e.g. 15 – 20 years from now. These tie into the sci-fi novella that I am writing, “2030 ET: Tribulation.”


Last week I predicted that an unconditional basic income is inevitable because it is the cheapest form of wealth preservation for the elite. The trend of increasing automation of jobs, with software/AI now taking the jobs of white-collar professionals and service workers – whereas it was robots replacing blue collar jobs twenty years ago – may lead to unemployment rates of 40% in the next 20 years (source: McKinsey). The social disruption this could cause suggests two paths by the elite (the owners of capital/the robots/software/AI): 1) build and live in fortress communities while the rest of the urban environment turns into slums rife with crime 2) pay off the unemployed as cheaply as possible to placate them enough to prevent revolution.


Unfortunately, my crystal ball (I noted in my previous post that my prediction methodology is as much Nostradamus as Malthus!) suggests that the second is more likely. The next 20 years may even be a transition from the first scenario to the second as the rich figure out that payoffs are cheaper than security.


Today I make a bold prediction regarding the future of energy. The prediction is that over the next 20 years, the price of oil will crash as demand for oil will virtually be non-existent. Oil will only be used for specialized applications such as (older generation) military equipment and aircraft.


My take on why oil producers today continue to pump out oil at close to maximum capacity in spite of oversupply and dramatically reduced prices (price of oil ~USD 100 per barrel in June 2014; ~USD 50 in June 2016) is because the penny has finally dropped that most of the oil in their reserves will remain in the ground. Thus for the low cost producers it makes economic sense to pump as much as possible and gain market share at the expense of higher cost producers.

Global Crude Oil Inventories
Global Crude Oil Inventories have been on the rise (indicating oversupply)


Saudi Arabia is the second largest producer of oil in the world (after the US) at 11.9 million barrels per day (Source: US Energy Information Administration) and they are also the lowest cost producer. The collapse in oil prices (H2 2014 through 2015) is largely due to Saudi Arabia’s insistence to keep pumping at close to capacity in spite of the excess supply brought to market by the US shale oil revolution of the last 10 years.


Yes, there are other strategic reasons that Saudi Arabia is pumping at close to maximum capacity. Their marginal cost per barrel is very low compared to other producers. This gives them the ability to use oil as a powerful foreign policy tool.


Cost of Supply Curve Global Oil 2020
Cost of Supply Curve Global Oil 2020


Saudi Arabia wants to reduce the profitability of oil for their regional rival Iran as Iran continues to rebuild its oil infrastructure. Saudi Arabia wants to punish Russia for propping up the regime of Assad, the leader of Syria backed also by Iran. Yes, Saudi Arabia also wants to put as many of the shale oil players in the US out of business as well so that it can maintain its strategic position as the swing oil producer.


But I argue that there is another reason that Saudi Arabia has the oil taps wide open; which is that Saudi Arabia (and other oil producers) realize that in the next 20 years alternative energy is going to replace oil as the cost per kilowatt of alternative energy plummets to virtually zero.


If they don’t pump the oil out now, even at USD 50 per barrel or lower, the oil in the ground will be worth next to nothing in 20 years. Note: there may be oil price spikes in the short to mid – term (5 to 10 year horizon) due to supply – demand imbalances and/or geopolitical considerations. However, my estimate is that beyond 10 years the transition to renewables and other alternative energy sources will be sufficiently advanced enough that the price of oil will only head down to its marginal cost of production. I apologize to my friends in the oil and gas industry but perhaps you should begin to think about other career choices if you haven’t already.


That’s right you heard me say it. I’m talking about (almost) free energy within 20 years.


And I foresee this coming not from the fusion reactors being developed at the costs of untold billions at ITER, or NIF, or the Max Planck Institute or any other compact fusion reactor or cold fusion dream. The energy revolution will happen as we learn to efficiently exploit the only fusion reactor that matters, the Sun.


To be specific, I think that 3D printing and advancements in material science will make solar technology as cheap as chips. Every household will be able to print their own solar panels.


Also, scientists will have figured out how to efficiently harness the power of photosynthesis. Algae are already developed that can turn light into ethanol. Once the algae are developed, what is the incremental cost of creating more algae? Nothing.


Power will be decentralized. Battery technology would have evolved to affordable levels. There will be simpler bio-batteries or chemical batteries or mechanical batteries (e.g. pump water up to a tank when the sun is out; let water out of the tank to drive a generator when there is no sun) to complement Lithium and/or rare metal batteries.


Here are several articles to back up my prediction. If we are reading about these technologies now, we can expect to see them commercialized in approximately 10 years plus or minus 5 years.


These articles are just the tip of the iceberg; there is so much innovation going on with solar and biofuels (and other renewables), it is really exciting to think that we are going to finally wean ourselves off oil within a generation.


New solar project to provide less expensive power than coal

Dubai has announced a new upcoming solar project that should deliver less expensive power than a recently approved coal-fired power plant in the area — a third less expensive.

New solar project to provide less expensive power than coal, but will it last?


New material combines photons for big solar energy gains

An innovative new approach to solar energy from the University of California Riverside could dramatically increase the amount of light available to contemporary solar panel designs. Rather than widening the absorption spectrum of the solar panels themselves, this new study looked at taking currently inaccessible infra-red light and turning it into visible light. They hope that by directing this newly fabricated light onto conventional solar panels, the efficiency of solar power could be greatly improved, for an affordable price.

New material combines photons for big solar energy gains


More Powerful Solar Cells

An MIT researcher has found a way to significantly improve the efficiency–a measure of the electricity generated from a given amount of light–of multicrystalline silicon solar cells by 27 percent compared with conventional ones.

Commercial solar cells made from multicrystalline silicon are normally far less efficient than more expensive ones made from single-crystal silicon, but they’re cheaper. The 27 percent improvement will bring multicrystalline cells to efficiencies about the same as single-crystal cells–around 19.5 percent–at the lower costs.



Flexible, Nanowire Solar Cells

Researchers at McMaster University, in Ontario, say that they have grown light-absorbing nanowires made of high-performance photovoltaic materials on thin but highly durable carbon-nanotube fabric. They’ve also harvested similar nanowires from reusable substrates and embedded the tiny particles in flexible polyester film. Both approaches, they argue, could lead to solar cells that are both flexible and cheaper than today’s photovoltaics. LaPierre says that the aim is to produce flexible, affordable solar cells composed of Group III-V nanowires that, within five years, will achieve a conversion efficiency of 20 percent. Longer term, he says, it’s theoretically possible to achieve 40 percent efficiency, given the superior ability of such materials to absorb energy from sunlight and the light-trapping nature of nanowire structures. By comparison, current thin-film technologies offer efficiencies of between 6 and 9 percent.



Nanonets Snare Energy

One problem with solar cells is that they only produce electricity during the day. A promising way to use the sun’s energy more efficiently is to enlist it to split water into hydrogen gas that can be stored and then employed at any time, day or night. A cheap new nanostructured material could prove an efficient catalyst for performing this reaction. Called a nanonet because of its two-dimensional branching structure, the material is made up of a compound that has been demonstrated to enable the water-splitting reaction. Because of its high surface area, the nanonet enhances this reaction.



Experimental battery uses bacteria to charge and recharge

Rechargeable battery technology has been improving incrementally in recent years, but we’re still working with the same heavy, dangerous, expensive materials. A group of researchers from The Netherlands has devised a new biological battery that charges and discharges with the aid of bacteria.

Experimental battery uses bacteria to charge and recharge


MIT develops material that stores sunlight and releases it later as heat

Most methods for storing solar energy are based on batteries, which have been notoriously slow to improve. This new material could make the process more efficient by storing energy via a chemical reaction for later release as heat. At that time, you could use the heat for anything you want. It’s an incredibly adaptive material as well, in the form of a transparent polymer film. It could be built into car windshields to remove ice, or as a layer in your favorite sweater to keep you warm on a chilly day.

MIT develops material that stores sunlight and releases it later as heat


Genetically Engineering Algae for Better Biofuel

In 2009, a Boeing 737 powered partly by algae took off from Houston and circled over the Gulf of Mexico. The 90-minute test flight was a success, bolstering hopes that algae biofuels, which emit much less carbon than standard gasoline and diesel, could soon power everything from jets to cars. But scientists have struggled to find a way to produce and process algae cheaply enough to compete with petroleum fuel. Now, thanks to advances in genetic engineering, filling up your car with algae-derived biofuel is a step closer to reality.



UC Davis Researchers Engineer Blue-Green Algae to Make Fuel From Sunlight

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have engineered blue-green algae that could help replace fossil fuels as raw materials for the chemical industry. The researchers engineered algae, or cyanobacteria, can be used to convert carbon dioxide into a chemical used to make paint, solvents, plastics, and fuels. Using carbon dioxide as a raw material for reactions powered by sunlight, cyanobacteria, also known as “blue-green algae,” can make significant amounts of chemicals that can be converted to chemical feedstocks. This new three-step chemical pathway allows the cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide into 2,3 butanediol, which can be further used in the chemical industry, in the form of solvents, plastics, and fuels.



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