Cheap Power = Prosperity

Energy is the pillar upon which economic growth is built. “The difference between the developed world and everybody else,” says author Robert Bryce, “is [affordable] electricity.” But simple math and basic physics show that chasing energy sources with low power densities will not get us to where we need to be.

“Two hundred years ago, 85 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (defined as less than $1 a day); that number is now only 16 percent.” Other examples of innovative technologies that allowed us to do more with less include:

  • Over four decades, Americans have tripled the number of miles flown; yet domestic oil consumption increased just 30 percent.
  • In 1970, it took 4,842 BTUs to move a single passenger one mile in a car. By 2008, that figure had declined to 3,501 BTUs, a reduction of about 28 percent.
  • In 1990, sulfur dioxide emissions were 23 million tons. In 2005, they were just 14.7 million tons, according to the EPA.
  • Between 1978 and 2013, Intel increased the computing power density of its best chips 78,000-fold, while shrinking its circuits more than 130-fold.

Like them or not, argues Bryce, hydrocarbons and nuclear materials are denser sources than renewables. They allow us to produce large amounts of energy from relatively small pieces of land. If you want to replace U.S. coal-fired capacity with, say, wind, then find a land area the size of Italy—or the combined area of Kansas, Missouri and Iowa. Keep in mind that the U.S. already has more wind capacity, about 60,000 megawatts in 2012, than any other country.

“Regardless of what you think about carbon dioxide or climate change,”says Bryce, “the best way forward is to embrace natural gas and nuclear.” Fortunately, business is pioneering new technologies such as TerraPower, a private company, bankrolled in part by Bill Gates, that is pursuing a novel traveling wave reactor design. (The company’s vice chairman is Nathan Myrvold, former Microsoft CTO and holder of a doctorate in theoretical physics from Princeton.)

Such initiatives, he says, will further propel the competitiveness of the U.S., which already enjoys the cheapest cost of electricity among the 27 member nations of the EU.

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