Structural Impacts of LENR

I sometimes read comments that I consider worthy of being placed in a post of their own. Here’s a comment that has recently been submitted by ECW reader Oaklandthinktank, which sets forth an interesting analysis of how LENR could impact structural factors around the world.

LENR impacts structural factors, which are the long-term determinants of our future states, rather than the actions of individual players. If I can produce a fusion reactor, I could sell its power onto the grid – but what is my ROI and velocity of return? If anyone can produce a fusion reactor, energy markets would see a glut, and your personal fusion device is unlikely to be profitable for energy sales, though it may have utility to you. Personal energy is unlikely to be a major sector of the market, because consumer power demands are low per capita, and represent a fraction of personal expenses.

‘Free’ energy lowers the cost of energy-intensive activities most, and is most efficacious when concentrated around the capital used to process raw materials, or service locations which require high power: aluminum-ore processing, data servers, desalination plants… We can expect LENR to bubble up in many small places, but the largest capital investment will be around dense power centers, near centers of material throughput or service locations. These concentrated power sites will see a higher capital-use rate than private or rural reactors, and will be able to supply power to industries with higher-value outputs. LENR is most profitable when agglomerated.

A few hyper-urbanized centers would command most industrial production; demand for goods and materials from these centers would increase the skew between core and periphery. Big winners will be those cities which can adapt to the material flux and heavy industry of LENR, especially those cities which would rely upon or profit greatly from reactors – Dubai would see great benefit in desalination, Kiev would benefit from heat cogeneration.

Lower cost transportation, and affordable private production, /would/ make it easier to ‘bug out’. But, lower cost transport will primarily increase transit of rural populations to core cities – urban dwellers can already afford a plane ticket, while rural populations currently travel little. Cities with more than ten million people will become common, and urbanization can be expected to increase dramatically.

Also, power can be used to synthesize nutrients. When the cost of synthesizing carbohydrates drops, food production must shift from high-calorie foods to specialty items. We can expect an increase in farming for luxury export markets, and a drop in area under cultivation. Rather than turning switch grass into biofuels, we’ll be converting coal tar and shale gas into sugars.

My bet is that blimps will rule intercontinental transport – they overcome the logistical bottlenecks of seaport-to-highway and highway-to-airport. Expect massive, heated blimps to deploy glider-containers which flutter to nearby destinations as the blimp passes overhead.

The heat problem will become a critical component – when cost of power drops, we use it as a substitute for more stuff, and the average utility of our energy usage drops. LENR will have a high portion of heat exhaust; I recommend covering mountainous regions with reflective umbrellas, to reconstitute glaciers. Glaciers absorb local temperature swings – heat is absorbed by melting ice, chills are mitigated by re-freezing. Sub-arctic latitudes would be able to moderate seasonal temperature, and resources in those areas would come under heavier cultivation and extraction.

Industrialization followed the dramatic drop in cost of energy with coal and oil. The increase in productive potential didn’t improve the standard of living for people in industrialized areas: Londoners, circa 1860, had a life-expectancy of just 3 years. Expect job-loss and movement of labor into less stable or profitable occupations. LENR reduces the competitive advantage of labor compared to energy-intensive substitutions.

LENR also makes space travel much more affordable – the primary cost of launch is fuel, and with higher power density than chemical sources, the logistics of launching a rocket with cargo AND fuel is much simpler. But, we won’t be mining the moon or asteroids – the Mitsubishi experiments are prelude to the coming material-synthesis industries, feeding industrial/computer/chemical demand for rare elements much faster and more reliably than an orbital station. Expect cheap satellites and telescopes; the combined depth and resolution of our sensors will increase dramatically. We will identify hundreds of thousands of exoplanets, and astronomers will be busy with a glut of cosmological data.

For the most part, LENR will act as a cushion: local flux in food, water, energy, and processed materials can be absorbed by reactor production, and transport of these resources will be cheap. The only barrier to disaster relief and supplying basic needs will be political.

This cushion effect, combined with increased profit margins for major industries, has an unfortunate side-effect: it allows industries to survive and thrive DESPITE poor management, corruption, and heavy loss rates. When energy is scarce, people have to plan wisely and work together. When energy is cheap and stocks are growing, parasitic forms become abundant first. (Notice the dead zones and red tides created by zooplankton, feeding on algal blooms.) With energy independence, we can expect more callous, super-rich industrialists, and more wasteful boondoggles.
Whether a country chooses libertarian markets, corporate kleptocracy, state-sponsored industrial zones, or militarized theocracy, these structural pressures still hold, and will shape the kinds of solutions that everyone chooses.