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This week, world leaders are gathering in Paris to discuss climate change. In concert, a group of wealthy investors, including Bill Gates, launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which will fund risky, early-stage technologies that offer the promise of clean energy.
The prime suspects for a sustainable future continue to be solar, wind and nuclear fission. But as the public and private sectors collaborate on energy and climate matters to help slow carbon emissions, it is worth pondering other technologies and how they may affect the future of energy. After all, what’s considered fringy today may prove to be mainstream tomorrow. The two areas I’m watching are nuclear fusion and methane hydrates.
For a sustainable, almost Utopian option, nuclear fusion has long been touted as a panacea to our energy problems. For decades, scientists have claimed we were on the cusp of a fusion revolution. It hasn’t panned out (yet). The world’s most ambitious fusion project, the $14 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is attempting to effectively put a star in a bottle. Originally begun in 1985 as a Reagan-Gorbachev initiative, ITER is today funded by many nations and has endured frequent delays. It’s still under construction. Fusion would provide abundant clean energy, but many fear proponents are restoking the same false hopes of the past.
Just because something hasn’t ever worked doesn’t mean it never will. There’s a new wave of optimism surrounding fusion, and startups such as General Fusion, Tri Alpha Energy and Helion Energy are trying to locate this holy grail of energy production. They’re also getting noticed by some of tech’s most innovative thinkers; billionaires Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen and Peter Thiel are investing in fusion. Can Silicon Valley crack the energy and climate change nuts in one effort?
Just think about the fact that a mere 15 years ago, few professionals paid meaningful attention to energy’s fringy folks fiddling with hydraulic fracking technologies. It’s too bad more of us didn’t, because the U.S. energy renaissance unleashed by the fracking revolution has had global ramifications as low oil prices disrupt government budgets from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to Russia. It’s probably also hurt the commercial viability of many alternative energy projects, as cheap fossil fuels are economically addicting to developed and developing nations alike.
Methane hydrates is another fringy technology that should we watch today and that may change our energy future tomorrow. This flammable ice is effectively gas trapped by water crystals under the seabed. The magnitude of the hydrocarbons contained in these resources is enormous; methane hydrates are believed to contain between 100 and 3 million times the energy America consumes annually. It’s also global with deposits near some of the world’s largest energy importers. Harvesting flammable ice is no trivial undertaking and has yet to be perfected, but then again, neither was fracking 15 years ago.
The global distribution of flammable ice also offers the prospect of significant geopolitical disruption. Meaningful volumes are believed to be near China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey. Some have speculated that China’s aggression in the South China Sea has been motivated by a desire to secure the energy resources contained in the flammable ice underneath. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China has plans to bring methane hydrates to market by 2030. How might energy independence embolden currently energy-dependent countries? It’s not surprising to me that energy-deficient Japan has been a leader in developing methane hydrate production capabilities.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is a realistic energy source anytime soon. The technical hurdles are daunting. As soon as samples are brought to the surface, the ice melts and releases methane into the atmosphere, creating large climate impacts over time. It’s believed by some that a pound of methane can trap 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. And while burning methane will lessen this impact, let’s not forget that it is just another hydrocarbon and will have an environmental impact — something that leaders in Paris should address before the energy source is developed. Just as with fusion, it’s worth watching methane hydrates, because they might meaningfully impact the lives of every human being on this planet. But unlike fusion, an energy future dominated by flammable ice will most likely be harmful to our planet.
Ultimately, navigating uncertainty is difficult. There’s no way around that. But paying attention to today’s fringy ideas may help you identify tomorrow’s needle-moving developments. And when it comes to energy and its environmental impact, fusion and methane hydrates may make the shale revolution look like a warm-up act for the two main events — putting a star in a bottle and lighting ice on fire.
Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is also the author of “Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst” and is a regular commentator in the financial and business media.
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