Zero

For a number of reasons the recent halving in the oil price is undoubtedly a good thing. Most obviously because it’s a direct cash transfer from the bad guys (loosely Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran) to the good guys (the rest of us).

But more importantly energy bills are something that we are simply better off without. It’s like a tax, only it’s sent offshore and vanishes into the maw of a handful of sexist, violent and viciously homophobic despots.

If energy prices went all the way to zero this would be swimming. All goods would become cheaper and more available. The economics is a little confusing but this still holds if you use a not-money measure like hours-worked.

It’s interesting to consider what else we’d like to go to zero. Obviously all commodities come to mind, and the human and financial capital sucked into those industries would be redeployed. What else? I’m not sure.

As a flipside, the one thing we want to go up is wages (again, doesn’t need to be in monetary terms).

Tragically it’s always going to cost something to dig ore out of the ground, much as the Aussie majors would like to test how far they can push the price down.

But energy? Maybe that can go close to zero. Every solar farm that’s built adds 40 years of capacity with only minor costs added. Over a million houses in Australia now have panels on their roofs. The key dynamic here is that once solar is installed it pumps out free electricity indefinitely, or for the rest of our lifetimes anyway.

As the price of PV solar approaches dirty coal, we can expect installation rates to increase steadily, and the total installed capacity to increase exponentially (ok so technically that means both have to increase exponentially, whatever).

Short of a wide-spread shift to electric cars this should over the next two decades place firm downward pressure on electricity prices.

For all the green movement’s heart-felt angst at capitalism, when the prices finally reach that tipping point, where it always makes more sense to install solar over coal, the shift will happen overnight, with an economic force that noone will be able to resist (without losing their money anyway).

The prospect of fusion adds a further dash of spice to the mix. It’s too hard to assess something that’s always five to ten years away, but no doubt we’ll get there eventually.

If the world was run by solar and the transport and storage problem was solved physically (hills, fly-wheels etc) or chemically (hydrogen, batteries etc) what would happen if we were plunged into a nuclear, astro or cyclical winter?

Technically society can last on electricity alone. We can grow all our food hydroponically, live underground and create our own light… with enough time. If we lost all power things would be difficult. At least the fusion plants might keep going.

Which brings me to my next point. There are a number of times (blessedly fewer as time rolls on) when society collectively decides to be totally irrational, and aggressively attacks anyone who speaks sense. Some examples are drug incarcerations, forcing people to use helmets on bicycles and, ofcourse, nuclear power.

There’s a great quora response that compares the tens of thousands of people that die every year in the coal industry, to the handful that have died in nuclear power.

What about Chernobyl? There were 60 immediate deaths and 4000 direct cases, perhaps another 4000 from those exposed. If you include everyone in Europe who died of cancer and was exposed to low level radiation, you get a higher number, but you don’t need me to point out why that’s poor science and even worse maths.

These are tragedies, ofcourse, but over a million people die in coal mines every year. This is a direct result of the anti-nuclear. What about Fukushima, which lead to Germany basically mothballing its entire nuclear industry? The toll from radiation exposure is precisely zero.

By the way, this includes twenty five thousand deaths in the US and Europe a year.

You just can’t argue for nuclear and saving the lives of these millions without sounding like a right wing capitalist bastard.

Ofcourse, it’s probably the name itself that’s so toxic, linking incredibly safe power generation to our most feared weapons. My favourite example of this kind of thing(though it certainly wasn’t my favourite subject) is the reaction to one of our greatest achievements: Nuclear Magnetic Resonance . Naturally this had to be rebranded as MRI, since who would dare slide into a Nuclear treatment machine?

It would be almost as bad as eating chemicals.

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