The world has seen a tremendous wave of technological development over the past few decades. The development of the technologies most of us have access to today began many decades ago, in some cases more than a hundred, and has been fueled by continuous, large investments in development projects and the implementation of technologies and systems.
The growth of technologies such as computers, aviation, nuclear power and the Internet has been fueled in large part by heavy government investment both in development projects and by funding the implementation of new technologies.
During the 1950s through 1970s and 1980s, many of the first releases of new computer models and software were commissioned and purchased by the US military or government agencies for various military purposes. The development of the technologies behind nuclear power has been funded in large part by the US government, and so have the technologies that make up the Internet. Most of these were developed as part of the development of the ARPANET, a network connecting American universities to make them less vulnerable to a Soviet attack. The idea was to store strategic information in multiple locations on a network, rather than just one location.
In the case of aeronautical technologies, they have been developed through extensive government funding. Governments are the only customers that buy military aircraft, and the countries that buy military aircraft bear all the costs of this development. The development of military aircraft largely spills over into civil aviation, as for example with the development of the first passenger jet 707 by Boeing. It was based in large part on the development of military jet aircraft.
The development of these and other technologies takes fifty to more than a hundred years and is in an advanced stage of maturity. Computers are so cheap today that microprocessors are found in all kinds of products, from toys and household appliances to industrial machinery, cars, computers and smartphones. A new car contains 1500 processors worth $500 and by 2030 the number is expected to increase to 3000 and the value may increase to $1200.
The process of computerization may still take some time, but it is fair to say that computers and microprocessors are mature technologies. In fact, the size of semiconductors is reaching the limits of what is physically possible, as the linewidth of semiconductors is rapidly approaching a nanometer. Chip designers are now stacking transistors in layers to fit more of them on a single chip. Semiconductors are almost made by adding atoms and molecules to the product. From the 1950s through the 1990s, computers took up entire rooms, although their capacity was small compared to today. Now an entire computer system fits on a single silicon chip, which is manufactured in a fully automated manufacturing process in clean room factories known as FABs.
Experts and laypeople alike now expect that artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, biological materials and other new technologies will revolutionize the world as computers and other technologies have done in previous decades.
What most people don’t realize is that these new technologies are in an early stage of development, much like the situation of computers or airplanes in the 1960s or 1970s. Computers and airplanes were in use in those decades, but they were still quite expensive and could only be used for a narrower range of applications at the time.
We are seeing rapid growth in e-mobility, artificial intelligence and other immature technologies, but the growth of e-mobility is largely subsidy-driven. To bring these technologies to maturity, very large investments will be required.
The world is facing a situation where people will likely have to wait several decades for these new technologies to mature and contribute significantly to economic growth. Like it or not, the current economic system is based on economic growth, and without growth our economy cannot provide us with the necessities of life.
In order to advance the development of future technologies, large amounts of electricity are required. Many countries will need to double electricity generation to implement electric mobility, and even greater expansion will be required to fuel the development of hydrogen-powered transportation, steel production and industrial electrification.
These developments will be necessary to create the sustainable society of the future, and to make them a reality, power generation must increase dramatically.
There are clever ways to do this, as well as less intelligent alternatives.
Countries that succeed in establishing low-cost and stable power generation will experience economic growth. Their industry will become more competitive and these countries will become more and more influential.
The economic growth that will be created will translate into greater influence and power in international arenas, just as oil-exporting countries have strengthened their positions in the past. Cheap oil fueled economic growth in the United States and other oil-producing nations, and the Soviet Union held together as long as Russia could supply the rest of the Union and the Soviet bloc with sufficient oil. In the 1980s, oil production stagnated and Russia’s power began to crumble. As oil production began to grow again, oil production becoming more market-oriented than before, Russia regained a position as a superpower that it had lost in the war against Ukraine.
Although electricity cannot be exported in the way that oil could, countries that can reliably supply their industry and society with cheap electricity will gain power and influence. Countries that fail to do this are likely to lose both competitiveness and international influence.
Reliable and inexpensive infrastructure has been a competitive weapon throughout history. The road network was an important factor in Rome’s growth and power. The same applies to modern states. Well-developed railroads, air transport, and other types of infrastructure have been key to economic growth in recent decades.
Electricity means power in more ways than one. Energy infrastructure will become more important and countries must learn to build stable and efficient grids.
Many countries have invested heavily in expanding intermittent generation technologies such as wind and solar power over the past few decades. Although these energy sources are environmentally sustainable, they do not provide the reliable power supply that countries need to remain competitive. They don’t contribute to carbon emissions, but we see large swings in energy prices, and the lows of low production send prices skyrocketing and unbalance the power grids.
There is no alternative to electricity and the countries must manage the expansion of generation and grids without creating major financial and supply-related risks for society. As countries double their electricity generation and triple, quadruple, or quintuple their reliance on wind and solar power, they will dramatically increase the amplitude of price and supply swings.
Stabilizing the supply through the use of battery storage may be possible, but battery storage is also a technology that is in an early stage of development and is still very expensive. Car batteries can be used to some extent, but only a small fraction of the capacity of car batteries can be used for this purpose, and the number of vehicles connected to the grid during peak periods is lower than the number during connected to the rest periods -peak periods, since more vehicles are used at peak times than at other times of the day or night.
It seems that nuclear power is the only technology that can reliably and cheaply deliver electricity on schedule without emitting carbon dioxide. To expand energy use to the levels under discussion, countries will likely need to dramatically increase nuclear power generation and use modern, safe reactor designs.
The alternative seems to be unstable supply and prices, a situation that is very costly for developed countries.
The debate must take into account the whole range of aspects. Experts need to discuss these issues based on a holistic view of the alternatives.
Mats Larsson’s latest book on innovation and the sustainability transformation is The Blind Guardians of Ignorance – Covid -19, Sustainability, and Our Vulnerable Future and the first of these was The Transparent Market co-written with David Lundberg. In “The Transparent Market” we discussed the future of electronic commerce. The book was published in 1998, when most pundits didn’t realize that most companies would soon be doing business on the Internet. My first book about the transformation to e-mobility was “Global Energy Transformation” from 2009.