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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Tyler Cowan: Nuclear fusion is close enough to start dreaming

Nuclear fusion startup Helion, which announced a $ 500 million raise this month, says it has developed new technologies that could make nuclear fusion viable – from a practical, economic and environmental standpoint. It’s too early to tell if his claims will come true, but there have been so many breakthroughs lately that they cannot be dismissed.

The possibility of carbon-free energy production raises a rarely discussed question: How much would it change the world if cheap, clean energy sources were truly abundant?

Keep in mind that one source of cheap clean energy will lead to others. Perhaps nuclear fusion cannot be used to fly a jet plane, but perhaps it can be used to produce relatively pure hydrogen fuel that could then be used in a way that thermonuclear fusion could not. A chain reaction will occur that will eventually bring cheap, clean energy to the economy.

As an avid traveler, my first thought is that I can get anywhere faster. How about a supersonic or possibly suborbital flight from Washington to Tokyo? A trip to Antarctica will no longer seem so difficult. Many remote places will be transformed, hopefully for the better.

One second-order effect is that countries with good infrastructure planning will reap significant relative gains. The fast train from Paris to Nice will get even faster, but will there be trains along the Acela corridor?

Next in line: desalination will become cheap and easy, allowing you to transform and terraform many landscapes.

Nevada is about to boom, although a fierce environmental debate could ensue: how much desert should we leave behind? Over time, Mali and the Middle East will become much greener.

How about heating and cooling? It may be possible to manage the outdoor temperature so that Denmark in January and Dubai in August will no longer be so unbearable. Melt snow or create a cool breeze is easy.

Wages will also rise significantly. Not only will more goods and services be available, but the demand for labor will increase dramatically. If it is easier to fly to Tokyo, the demand for pilots will be higher. Eventually, more flights will be automated. There will be many more robots, which will cause even more second and third order effects.

Cheap energy also to make supercomputers more accessible, cryptocurrencies more convenient, and nanotechnology more likely.

However, with a relative abundance of material goods people can invest more resources in looking for status. Buying memberships in exclusive clubs – for example, this select group of people who own the original Van Gogh – can be relatively expensive.

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And limiting climate change will not be as easy as it might seem at first glance. Yes, nuclear fusion could replace all these coal-fired power plants. But the secondary consequences don’t end there. For example, when desalination becomes more feasible, irrigation will become cheaper. Many areas will become much greener and people will be able to raise more cows and eat more beef. These cows, in turn, can release much more methane into the air, exacerbating one significant set of climate-related problems.

But all is not lost yet! Because energy will be so cheap, protective technologies – for example, to remove methane (and carbon) from the air – are also likely to be more feasible and affordable.

All in all, in a carbon-free energy world the rates will be higher for a large set of solutions. If we can clear the air, great. Otherwise, the general intensification of radical changes would create a whole range of new problems, one of which would be methane emissions. The “race” between the destructive and restorative powers of technology will become even more serious. The value of high quality educational institutions will be much higher, which may be a concern in many parts of the world.

At least in the short term, fossil fuel-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia will be the losers. In the long run, many commodity producing countries will have to worry as countries like China may find it easier to grow more of their own soybeans and stop buying from Brazil and Argentina. Drought-affected areas with deserts and water problems, but worthy institutions may prove to be some of the main winners; perhaps the American West will continue to win economically in the East. All this extra land could be used more productively, but improving New Jersey could be more difficult.

As is often the case with new technologies, the challenges are real, but the potential is enormous. I look forward to seeing this new world come true.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog. Among his books is Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

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