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It's twenty minutes in the future, and farmers across the 'big countries' (USA, Australia, etc) are facing a new scourge: light poachers. Every summer hordes of self-driving trucks crash into fields and deploy vast photovoltaic cloths over the nice flat, clear ground, covering up to several acres of cropland each. The cloths capture the solar radiation to the detriment of the crops growing underneath, and the power (up to several megawatts on a 'good day') is collected by the trucks, and... what?

What can my poachers profitably do with up to ten megawatts of free electricity within a volume the size of a shipping container, to either store the electricity to be utilised later, or manufacture something that can be subsequently sold? The factory will have no external connections of any sort other than power in and air in/out, so any raw materials will have to form part of the payload (it would be reasonable for them to need to be un/re-loaded up to once a day).

I'll handwave the economic implausibility of the capital cost of these automated factories, or the fact that there are plenty of 'legal' places where such a thing could be set up without trespass. I'd like to avoid the obvious answer of "mine bitcoins", or other virtual commodities, and have the factories produce a physical, tangible product.

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    $\begingroup$ 5g networks service $\endgroup$ – user6760 Dec 11 '19 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ I am confused. The way it is shown in the movies, all American farmers have shotguns. Is this no longer true? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 11 '19 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ A shotgun will be of limited utility against an unmanned, moderately armoured vehicle which high-tails it back to the road and away if disturbed, leaving the farmer with acres of solar cloth to clear off their crops. I'm imagining that this happens in areas where the farms are so massive that fields are not visited for days on end, and where local law enforcement is limited and slow to respond. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Dec 11 '19 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Stephen farms may be massive, but the roads are not. As soon as the farmers would spot those vehicles driving down the road, the hunt will be on. If the vehicles are armored, and farmers for some reason don't have rifles that can damage them, I suppose they would just lie the spikes across the road to puncture tires. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Dec 11 '19 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ "Sorry, friend. I have no idea what happened to your autonomous truck-factory rig. However, you're in luck, My cousin happens to fix rogues that go haywire and wander off the roads in this part of the state. She can make you a nice deal on a 'repaired' late-model rig." $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 13 '19 at 2:22
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Even better answer thanks to @StarfishPrime

They produce nitrate fertilizer out of water and atmospheric nitrate, by using tremendous amounts of power to split and rearrange water and molecular nitrate.

Then they offer it to the very farmers, to whom this is a sound proposal actually, as plants are often much more constrained on nutrients than on sunlight. Might need to balance that.

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    $\begingroup$ This should get bonus points because they sell their product to precisely the same farmers they pissed of to make it. $\endgroup$ – quarague Dec 11 '19 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @quarague Yes, but they supposedly make profit, "out of their lands", which may piss some farmers off more. $\endgroup$ – alamar Dec 11 '19 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ the farmers may not know that they are buying the fertilizers to the vandals. After those actions started, as they were struggling, a company appeared offering those much-needed fertilizers. Plus, there would be enough intermediaries so that it is not discovered after several (the last?) chapters of the story. $\endgroup$ – Ángel Dec 12 '19 at 0:32
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They make aluminium from clay (Bauxite) and then sell aluminium appliances to farmers.

Pots, rakes, utensils, etc.

This process requires tremendous amount of power but not much else, to my understanding.

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    $\begingroup$ The value-density of aluminium is rather low, and you'll have to haul around an awful lot of heavy ore with you. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 11 '19 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ It can only work in scenarios of industrial scarcity anyway. In developed economics, centralized plants will always out-compete drones' production. $\endgroup$ – alamar Dec 11 '19 at 15:27
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They use the electricity to transform water into oxygen which is released and hydrogen which will be the standard fuel of all vehicles '20 minutes into the future'. Hydrogen won't be particularly valuable but used everywhere (including for the trucks themselves).

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  • $\begingroup$ Packaging hydrogen is the problem. $\endgroup$ – alamar Dec 11 '19 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @alamar getting the free hydrogen is the most awkward (read: energetically intensive) bit. There's plenty of scope to stick the hydrogen into some other more easily-disassembled or more useful molecule, eg. ammonia which you can relatively easily decompose into H and N, or run in a fuel cell, or use for fertiliser, etc. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 11 '19 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ They can produce fertilizer all right! $\endgroup$ – alamar Dec 11 '19 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Or it could be converted to methane using CO2 and the Sabatier process or other organic chemicals based on the methane... seems like an interesting high fantasy idea. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Dec 11 '19 at 17:40
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Bitcoin

They will use electricity to mine cryptocurrency. This requires little infrastructure, and resulting commodity is "liquid", meaning they don't have to worry about how to sell it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I specifically asked for a physical commodity, because I want to end up with the protagonists raiding the 'main base' and finding a vast storage area full of it. Bitcoin wallets are not good locations for gunfights... $\endgroup$ – Stephen Dec 11 '19 at 19:00
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War profiteers

These megabatteries are much desired by both rebel factions and the underfunded official troops of the country where these sun pirates operate. Megabatteries can power hungry energy weapons capable of amazing feats: microwave antipersonnel actions, frying surveillance drones or even taking down an orbiting weapons platform (it takes several batteries for that).

These energy weapons were developed by and for an advanced polity with cheap plentiful fusion energy but that polity is far away (or possibly extinct). In the present place and time, fixed installations for charging batteries rapidly become targets and so the sun pirate strategy is successful.

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They contract their services to the movie and TV industries, and run CGI rendering server clusters (and the necessary air conditioning) in their trailers. No material requirements at all.

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