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cheap energy

2011-01-18 18:49:46.428799+00 by Dan Lyke 13 comments

So one of the big questions is: is energy going to get more expensive, or less expensive? Those of us who haven't bought photovoltaic arrays yet are betting on less expensive. Drop the question on any far left self-proclaimed "progressives", as I've run into occasionally, and you'll hear "OMG peak oil!", or "more expensive".

Patent #7785861, "Hyperphotosynthetic organisms", was issued August 31, 2010

... Also provided are methods of using the engineered organism to produce carbon-based products of interest, biomass or pharmaceutical agents. ...

The company is Joule Unlimited, founded by George Church. A puff piece in the Globe and Mail shows that they're looking for funding.

(Via MeFi)

But things like this also show that if you're going to make the case for alternative transportation infrastructures, energy may or may not be a compelling argument.

[ related topics: Intellectual Property Invention and Design Current Events Photovoltaics ]

comments in descending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-20 16:55:42.397176+00 by: other_todd

I prefer the "let's ACT like these are the end times and we're all gonna die so we finally get motivated enough to change our collective behavior, and then when something happens so we didn't need to panic after all, that's gravy" narrative.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-20 01:26:17.190997+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, but the history of the past century or so has been certain doom averted by a series of scientific breakthroughs. So the question is do you prefer the "This is the end times, we're all gonna die" narrative or the "if we figure it out things will continue pretty much as they have, and eventually people will stop having all those kids or we'll postpone doom 'til after I die of other causes so I don't really give a shit" narrative.

I'm headed towards the latter.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 21:06:25.69393+00 by: other_todd

I wouldn't bet one way or another on energy getting more or less expensive in terms of per capita consumer costs. What worries me is that all the lines of prophecy for energy getting less expensive, or even holding reasonably steady on cost, seems to be predicated on [INSERT BREAKTHROUGH THAT IS ALMOST HAPPENING ANY MOMENT NOW].

Which is swell, and, frankly, I believe those breakthroughs WILL happen if they haven't already. But it feels a whole lot like "We are going to keep refusing to take this petroleum drip out of our vein and we're going to wait for Technology to Save Us," rather than taking sane and currently-possible steps to reduce oil use, and save the oil for more important things (we KNOW it's finite, after all, even if we disagree on how long it will last).

We're like alcoholics who talk a lot about getting off the bottle but never take real, harsh steps to actually do it. We're just waiting for a different drug.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 18:56:26.171672+00 by: ebradway

Can you tell if that Average Cost table is in inflation-adjusted amounts? It says "Current cents".

As for inflation rates, how much did you pay for that 33Mhz 386 with 16MB of RAM?

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 16:52:32.680538+00 by: Dan Lyke

While we're throwing numbers about gasoline costs around, Average Cost of Owning and Operating an Automobile 1975-2009, including gasoline as a percent of total cost.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 14:44:52.972611+00 by: m

Pardon my skepticism, but I will believe in synthetic fuel for $30/barrel when I pay for it. Though it is an easier sell that Second Law violations which still crop up every year.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 14:41:56.518041+00 by: Dan Lyke

Looks like it strongly depends on what you use for your inflation adjustment: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/ve...els/facts/2005/fcvt_fotw364.html puts the historical low in 1998.

(Which brings me to another thing I'd like to dig into some time: Everything I can remember the price on is roughly 4x what it was in 1985 or so, but most inflation stats say that we should be at roughly 2 to 2.5x...)

Jeff, great look back in the time capsule of "real soon now" technologies!

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 11:09:52.643818+00 by: jeff

It looks like this was reported back in 2003? Where is it now?

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 07:25:00.379661+00 by: spc476

And here is 30 years of gas prices in Texas for a few data points. The data is available for downloading so you too, can play with it.

Looking at the inflation adjusted graph, it looks like prices fell from 1980-1986, where pretty much flat til about 2004 and since then has fluctuated wildly, and are now back to where prices were in the early 80s.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 05:36:42.539751+00 by: dexev


I'm going with this graph when I say prices have been rising for forty years:


Prices in the 80's and 90's never came back to their pre-70's lows.

But to your larger point -- agreed. The unknowns are big enough that prices could just as easily go down as up from here. Much depends on the eventual peak and the depletion rate of conventional fuels.

Another good source for energy information: Stuart Staniford at


#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-19 01:24:33.906862+00 by: Dan Lyke

Thanks for the heads-up on http://www.consumerenergyreport.com/blogs/rsquared/

Until 2000 or so, gasoline prices adjusted for inflation had a pretty strong falling trend line down, modulo a bulge in the great depression and a blip in 1980 for the Iran-Iraq war.

And I've no idea if this patent is "the one", or even if energy is going to get cheaper, but it's not an unreasonable scenario that gasoline falls back down to roughly the $2/gal that it was (inflation adjusted) in 1970s.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-18 21:56:17.294445+00 by: dexev

Suggest Robert Rapier's "R-Squared Energy Blog" if he's not already on your reading list. He's a chemical engineer with experience in petroleum and alternative fuels. Yours is the second link I've seen to that patent in as many days, and I'm hoping he'll do a post on it.

As I understand it, the problem with most bio- and algal-fuels is that the biological process produced small percentages of fuel in large volumes of water, which then need to be boiled off, requiring large quantities of energy.

Also, "more expensive" or "less expensive", measured how? Real oil prices have been rising for forty years and I don't see that stopping until petroleum is replaced as the primary transportation fuel. (Hey -- that's an argument for electric rail [and vehicles]. The grid doesn't care what spins the generators. I can't pour coal into my gas tank.) Recent 'shale gas' finds have collapsed the natural gas price in the US.

The future -- who knows? My probability distribution for the future is bimodal.

#Comment Re: made: 2011-01-18 20:18:18.205242+00 by: meuon

Seat of the pants SWAG for the next 10 years: "Energy" (as a sum of all sources) will become more expensive. Some sources may get cheaper, but will not affect the overall trend at the point of use.

Algae based systems like Joule Unlimited are proposing are viable and real, several sizable bio-algae plants exist, and there are a bunch of pilot projects out there. They all look good on paper, some actually work in the real world. It will take quite a few years for them to reach a scale that would impact what a consumer pays for energy, if ever. ie; They might work great and reach scale, but the consumer will pay market price and the systems in place will make more margin.