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Eventually we’ll have unlimited cheap clean energy. But that will not help us or our kids.

Summary: Optimists about energy give glowing forecasts of new technologies, often with wildly underestimated estimates of when when these can generate substantial fractions of our energy. In the real world technologies take decades to evolve from the laboratory to commercialization. And then building new energy sources on a large scale takes decades. Here we sketch out realistic timelines.


  1. Time, often the missing element from analysis about the energy problem
  2. The path from lab to megawatts
  3. Where are the hot new energy sources it the R&D development process?
  4. How long will it take to scale up successful new energy sources?
  5. So when should we get started?
  6. For more information

(1) Time, often the missing element from analysis about the energy problem

There are two common errors about time when discussing new energy sources. First, exaggerating how quickly new technology develops from lab to commercialization. That’s the subject of this post. But optimists often make a more fundamental error.

“Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”

— John Maynard Keynes in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

Much of the cornucopians’ optimism comes from confidence that eventually new energy sources will be found. I agree. Future generations will use energy sources beyond anything in our science fiction. But that probably will not help us or our children. Our prosperity almost certainly depends on what we do. Trusting to the invisible hand (an exaggeration of what Adam Smith said) means that either we’re lucky — or our children might be poorer than us.

More specifically, the energy sources we will rely on in the next 25 (probably even 50 years) have already been discovered.

(2) The path from lab to megawatts

  1. Laboratory: testing proof of concept.
  2. Pilot Plant: A larger unit built to generate information. Such as about the optimal engineering design, impact of operating parameters on process efficiency and product quality, qualification of input requirements, development of safe operating procedures, and estimates of capital and operating costs.
  3. Demonstration plant: A larger scale plant that generates significant quantities of product, testing decisions made at the pilot level.
  4. Production and commercialization.

There are no agreed-upon definitions for each of these stages.

(3) Where are some hot new energy sources in the R&D development process?

Enthusiasts often exaggerate when cheering their favorite technology’s state of development. Here’s a quick review of some energy tech:

New tech, especially break-through technology, usually takes decades to evolve from the lab bench to commercial use.

(4) How long will it take to scale up successful new energy sources

Politicians often speak of energy independence for America. Unfortunately it’s an absurd dream, except perhaps over several generations. The US imports roughly ten million barrels of oil per day. Nothing will replace imports during the next 10 years, and probably during the next 20 years. There are no fast solutions.

Considered the microwave oven (from Wikipedia):

  • 1934 – first patent on the technology roughly
  • 1945 – a discovery of the heating effect of microwaves at Raytheon
  • 1947 – Raytheon builds the the first commercial microwave oven. The Radarange was 6 feet tall, weighted 750 pounds, and cost $5,000 (the cost of a home).
  • 1967 – the first microwave with large sales, costing $500 (average cost of a car was $2800)
  • 1971 – aprox 1 percent of US homes have a microwave oven
  • 1986 – aprox 1 in 4 US homes have a microwave over
  • now — aprox 90% of US homes have one

Look at bitumen (oil sands) mining in Canada. The first mine opened in 1967; the third in 2003. By 2005 (aprox) Canada produced over one million barrels per day (MBD), and 1.4 mbd in 2009. Their goal is 3.3 mbd by 2020 (down from a 20 mbd target a few years ago). Perhaps 4.2 mbd by 2030. But the next development is new technology tap deeper deposits (in situ mining), and progress is slower than expected.

China planned to build plants converting coal to liquid fuels producing one million barrels/day by 2020, before putting most of the program on hold (see yesterday’s post for details).

And large projects require more time to build in the US. A new mine in the US takes 7-10 years from initial application. If needed to move the coal from mines to the CTL plant, a new railroad can require 5 or 10 years to build, depending on the location (people hate dirty, noisy coal trains running through their neighborhoods).

Of course, we could do crash programs. Which have some serious side-effects. Most important, accelerated programs drive up costs. A lot, as companies operating in the Albert oil sands boom discovered. WWII is not a useful comparison. Not only was cost not a factor for the US (great news for the war contractors), but the Great Depression resulted in vast idle resources (both plant and people) that could be quickly mobilized.

For more about this see Could a new “Manhattan Project” produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010

(5) So when should we get started?

“Knowledge is the great sun of the firmament,” said Senator Daniel Webster. “Life and power are scattered with all its beams.”

In its light, we must think and act not only for the moment but for our time. I am reminded of the story of the great French Marshal Lyautey, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”

Today a world of knowledge — a world of cooperation – a just and lasting peace — may be years away. But we have no time to lose. Let us plant our trees this afternoon.

— President Kennedy, speech at U California at Berkeley, 23 March 1962

(6) For more information

Some posts about the Energy Crisis

  1. Links to articles and presentations of some A-team energy experts , 11 November 2007
  2. Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead , 10 February 2008
  3. Fears of flying into the future , 25 February 2008
  4. Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war), 4 May 2008
  5. Good news about oil, but for our grandkids – not us , 14 July 2008
  6. An atomic solution to the energy crisis, 11 November 2008
  7. A long-shot project for fusion power: the Polywell, 30 September 2008
  8. Coal-to-liquids as a case study of how excessive optimism is our enemy, 14 February 2011

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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