The power to control ever-greater amounts of energy is a hallmark of civilization's progress, and humanity is poised to take the next big step
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There’s a giant work of art in the desert of Morocco.
The Noor Solar Power Station, near the town of Ouarzazate, is a sea of mirrors. Thousands of them stretch toward the sun, aiming at an 800-foot central tower that glows and shimmers white with reflected heat.
It’s the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant, a technology that focuses sunlight on a central point to collect heat which drives a steam turbine. The advantage of CSP is that it still works when the sun’s not shining: during the day, it stores heat energy in molten salt, where it’s released after dark to keep generating electricity.
Noor (Arabic for “light”) produces enough energy to supply the needs of a million people. It’s modern-day alchemy on a grand scale, capturing the burning Sahara sun and transmuting it into lights at night and computers and air conditioning and electric cars. It’s a monument every bit as grand and awe-inspiring as the pyramids, but one that serves the needs of people rather than the egos of rulers.
I’ve written about why trying to predict the future is a fool’s errand. Human decisions can never be anticipated perfectly, and the most seemingly insignificant choices can change the course of events in unknowable ways.
But there are general trends that can be discerned. It’s like the difference between predicting next week’s weather versus next decade’s climate. One is a small-scale system, where countless tiny and random events add up to a chaotic result. The other is a large-scale system, where tiny perturbations average out and only the larger trends need to be considered.
One such predictable trend is humanity’s ability to harness and control ever greater amounts of energy. When the only power at our disposal was muscle power—ours or animals’—we were limited to subsistence agriculture and crude blacksmithing, requiring backbreaking labor that filled almost every waking moment. But since the Industrial Revolution, people’s lives have been getting easier and better as we climb the ladder of more abundant energy sources: from wood, to coal, to oil and gas, and now nuclear power, solar power, and wind.
You and I owe our lives to this trend. About one-third of all human beings exist only because of the Haber-Bosch process, a chemical reaction that we use to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer, which in turn makes agriculture feasible on an industrial scale and allows us to feed billions of humans. Since the reaction requires high temperature and pressure, this could never have been achieved without the ability to direct vast quantities of energy. (The Haber-Bosch process alone consumes about 1-2% of the world’s energy budget.)
Like climate, this is a bigger pattern where individual choice can be discounted, because having more energy available is such an overwhelming advantage. It makes everything else easier, whether it’s feeding more people, or producing more goods, or traveling further and faster, or waging war. Societies that make these choices will outcompete and dominate those that don’t.
This isn’t my insight. Many futurists treat energy use as a proxy for technological advancement. For example, the physicist Nikolai Kardashev proposed a scale for ranking a civilization based on how much energy it can capture and control. A Kardashev Type I civilization can use all the energy available on its home planet; a Type II can capture all the energy radiated by a star; and a Type III can utilize the energy of a galaxy. Carl Sagan enhanced the Kardashev scale by plotting a logarithmic curve that includes intermediate values, by which measure humanity would be Type 0.73.
A Type III civilization would be effectively omnipotent, and even a Type II would be advanced almost beyond our power to comprehend. We’re nowhere near that point, but we’re rising rapidly. And there’s no limit on the horizon ahead.
The Sun delivers more energy to Earth every hour than humanity uses in a year. It’s the ideal power source: free of pollution, available everywhere, and inexhaustible. Although we’ll never capture all of it, as the strict definition of a Type II would require, it’s clear that in terms of energy, there’s no ceiling to how high humanity can go.
Moreover, as the technology continues to mature, renewable energy becomes cheaper even as it becomes more abundant. This is the so-called “learning curve” effect, which doesn’t apply to fossil fuels. As we exhaust the easy-to-get sources, coal, oil and gas grow increasingly scarce and the remaining deposits require more effort to extract, meaning the price stays the same or even goes up. By contrast, the more solar and wind we build, the more efficient our manufacturing becomes, in exactly the same way that computers get cheaper even as they become more powerful.
Although fossil fuels still generate the majority of the world’s energy, it’s clear that they’re facing inevitable extinction, and sooner rather than later. The nations that are first to cut their fossil fuel ties and take full advantage of better sources will, in the long run, be the superpowers of the world.