12
$\begingroup$

I'm writing a near-future story in which a form of teleportation has been invented. It's only been around for few decades, and is still very complicated (and expensive) to build, so it's only used for large-scale industrial and governmental purposes. The average civilian's life hasn't been greatly impacted at this stage.

That was my initial plan, anyway. I just realized my version of the technology would definitely allow for perpetual motion, so potentially infinite "free" energy. Most of my story takes place in an impoverished Appalachian town. Assuming I don't rewrite the tech, I'm wondering how this would impact the characters' standard of living. As I said, it requires a significant investment upfront, but definitely feasible for major corporations/organizations/governments.

My gut reaction is that a $0 energy bill would be very helpful for many people, but not necessarily enough to lift them out of poverty. But I feel like I'm probably missing a lot of indirect effects this would have. How do you think the living conditions of my characters would compare to the present day?

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 18, 2023 at 21:08

12 Answers 12

19
$\begingroup$

Cynically, it will likely not affect them at all at this stage of the technology. At least based on the standards of living today.

Profits Over People

While large and cumbersome, there is still the infrastructure surrounding the power generation. The turbines that spin to make the power, the lines to transmit it, and the facilities that make the power. As such, most of the costs of the power are still there, it's the manner of generation that has changed.

As such, the corporation that runs the power plant will not lower prices. The public company might not raise them as fast later which could be a small boon, but a private company will absolutely just pocket the extra profits and still keep their price hikes on schedule.

As anecdotal proof, my family has gotten a gas bill demanding money for administrative charges for sending them a bill to tell them they used no gas in the month. Likely an automated process to boot so I doubt that any person actually touched those bills outside giving them to the post office.

Depending on the limits of these teleportation machines, there could be an argument that there are some interesting transit applications using one to be able to teleport people to a larger centre where jobs are more available.

Considering your definition of the setting, it is unlikely that an impoverished Appalachian town could afford to have one built for transit purposes or would be of strategic value enough to warrant one being placed.

On Free Energy

Now the overall availability of free energy may have its own implications to the setting as a whole. Being independent from needing a particular strategic resource means that a power plant could be built wherever it was most profitable to build one instead of close to where the resources are. Depending on how clean the teleporting technology is, they may be able to be built anywhere where there is need for tele-power.

With a potential higher availability of cheaper power, certain things that might have been infeasible before enter the realm of possibility. A cascade of invention based on a perpetual and stable power source could follow if it is allowed to. It is those inventions that might lift impoverished communities out of the poverty they are in now. It is an optimistic view of how such a thing would go down.

But I remind you that we are discussing America (or Canada technically). It is likely that oil and coal lobbies will be advocating against this technology to protect their profits unless they already have a vested interest in this. Their money will speak louder than the millions that would benefit from any of this.

But that is my cynic's answer to this question.

$\endgroup$
5
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ This isn't cynical, it's realistic. $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2023 at 7:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Hans-MartinMosner they go hand in hand when both pop people's delusions. $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2023 at 12:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, there's nothing cynical about people expecting to be paid for their products and services. If you could easily make your own electricity, then you would pay a lot less for someone else to do it for you. The modern utility is, however, superbly cheap compared to what they do and the multiple technical expertise positions required along the way. It's one of the few truly successful socialized programs, even if the companies are privately owned and run for profit. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Aug 17, 2023 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ If you had even 'simple' free energy, then you could probably fashion a vehicle that could charge itself (something alleged to the actual N. Tesla). So that would mean oil is less valuable, and since it charges itself, the charging infrastructure would not be there to be controlled, etc. by the powers that be. So, people would enjoy that, and oil would lose favor. Not all of it, but quite a bit of it. Would probably not be good news for the petro-dollar. So some panics and collapses until things got figure out. IMO. $\endgroup$
    – Jiminion
    Aug 17, 2023 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ I can really see American politics voting to leave their economy in the dark ages by refusing to adopt a new energy source. This would of course leave America completely on the back foot in the global economy. $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Aug 18, 2023 at 6:22
11
$\begingroup$

Your teleportation machines are expensive to build. They may be able to be used to generate 'free' energy, as part of a machine that generates a net surplus of energy as a consequence of its operation, but since the machinery is expensive, the energy it produces will never be economically free.

This answer presupposes that a teleporter-generator machine can produce a sufficient surplus of energy in excess of that required to operate the teleporter. Fusion power research has shown that a theoretical energy surplus does not mean that a practical energy surplus can be obtained.

The companies that produce teleporters and teleporter-generator (telegen) sets will most likely be private companies interested in profit. That means that as they either own the telegens or sell them to a utility company, they - and the utility companies - will try to make a profit from the relevant transactions.

A best-case situation for energy consumers may be if the telegens are government owned and operated and the energy surplus they produce sold at break-even cost. Just because the energy is laws-of-physics-free doesn't mean that even a government can afford to just give it away for $0.00/kWh.

This means that energy produced by telegens will still have a monetary cost to those that consume it.

Now, we might assume that if we price energy from telegens the same as from traditional energy sources, there may be a point at which the energy produced and sold will cover the startup costs. However, there are still the telegen maintenance costs to consider, as well as the costs associated with the energy distribution infrastructure. These costs will still have to be covered and a well-run company will pass on these costs to energy consumers.

If we are considering the effects of telegens on an 'impoverished Appalachian town', we must consider the political situation. Is the town in question attracting sympathy for its situation, or is it just one of a multitude of similar places?

If the town has rich and powerful people sympathising with it, the place may have been supplied with free telegens with sufficient capacity to power the town, in which case, the only costs to the residents would be for maintenance of generators and transmission infrastructure. This would lead to cheap but not free power.

Otherwise, it seems likely that the townsfolk would be paying the same for energy as anywhere else.

In neither case will the impoverished townsfolk's energy bills be $0... unless they are living off the grid.

$\endgroup$
10
$\begingroup$

Solar power is "free," too, in that way. It didn't slash energy bills for consumers.

Where your teleport device will matter is not energy supply but transportation/commute. Your impoverished Appalachian town might experience that a commercial teleport device goes online in the next time over, and that people with New York salaries show up and buy up most decent houses with decent views. They flash their money and price locals right out of the markets. The old residents either work for them, or resent them, or both at the same time.

$\endgroup$
10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Solar power is not free, is pretty expensive to exploit and isn't very efficient. I don't think it's a good comparison to what OP has in mind. $\endgroup$
    – Jemox
    Aug 16, 2023 at 9:52
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Echox On the contrary, I would say that solar is the perfect analog. The mechanism for exploiting solar energy is expensive and requires lots of up-front investment and maintenance. It's cheap enough to be in the reach of many middle-class American homeowners, but most don't bother because free electricity for the next 20 years isn't enough to offset the cost of installation and maintenance $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    Aug 16, 2023 at 14:33
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @Echox you can replace the word Solar with Perpetual and everything in your comment would still be true. Perpetual energy still needs a machine to exploit it and that machine is just as 'free' as a solar panel and there is no telling how much maintenance on it will cost. $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:44
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @John, that's actually not correct. Getting nuclear fuel is a significant cost factor. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Aug 17, 2023 at 4:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @o.m. nuclear fuel costs $0.000015/kWh for a breeder reactor, 2000 times less than the cost of coal, nuclear looks expensive until you realize how little fuel the reactor needs. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 17, 2023 at 12:23
4
$\begingroup$

Some real improvements this provides

  1. Water stops being a limiting resource. Desalination is as easy as purification, the amount of drinkable water on earth just became basically infinite, transportation costs for water are just material and maintenance cost. There is now vastly more arable land and drought is not a factor. For billions of people their standard just drastically improved. It is the green revolution all over again and will come with many pros but also some cons.

  2. We don't have to burn coal or gas for power anymore, so we drastically reduce the impact of and on climate change.

$\endgroup$
6
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Again, this is all achievable with solar now. The cost of the equipment is the important question. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Aug 17, 2023 at 1:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ No it s really cannot, solar cannot operate 24/7, has pretty heavy output limitations, cannot work at all latitudes, and is also takes up a great deal of space which limits it by terrain. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 17, 2023 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ None of which matters at industrial/utility scale. HVDC transmission means that you can take power from favourable locations to where it is usable (as we do now when siting thermal plants), the space is negligible when compared to (for example) agriculture which uses the same power source, and CST can operate 24/7 readily. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Aug 17, 2023 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop at a majors loss over long distance, which for solar means it quickly becomes negligible. This is why to solar desert plans always fall though, too much is lost during transmission. And CST is even more limited by location than photovoltaic. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 17, 2023 at 18:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ nonsense. HVDC losses are ~3.5% per 1000km. If you were so inclined, you could situate a utility-scale solar plant in San Diego and power New York with only 14% losses. That would be kind of silly, but illustrates that "quickly becomes negligible" is baseless. Solar desert plans are largely held up by a) situating something that requires maintenance a long way from where people live, and b) thermal load on PV panels, not transmission losses. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Aug 17, 2023 at 18:36
3
$\begingroup$

eyelash, welcome. We have actually run a similar experiment in the 19th century with coal, which was not strictly speaking infinite nor free but it was plentiful and much, much cheaper than the alternatives for the amount of work that could be done with it. In very broad strokes, it went like this:

First, coal-powered mass production outcompeted small-scale production, throwing most people into poverty.

Second, coal-powered mass production allowed mass production of armaments, which were then used to conquer/subjugate countries that have not yet industrialised. Those unfortunate countries were then used as a source of cheap raw materials for the industries at home.

Third, on the back of those additional resources it became possible to pay the factory workers adequately, and things started consistently improving (at least for the people living in the industrialised countries; it was only possible on the backs of their colonies being thrown into poverty).

Fourth, the whole thing dissolved into a bloodbath (we know it as the 1st World War) when coal at a price that the economy of the time could afford started to become slightly scarce.

Fifth, an energy source even cheaper for the amount of work done was found in oil, which allowed a return to point 3 above (after another bloodbath unimaginatively called a 2nd World War), and in time even allowed industrialisation to spread to some of the former colonies.

So based on this, we can assume that adpoting perpetual motion will have similar effects - except that it will stop at point 4, because there will be no cheaper energy source to supplement it. But this will not be relevant for your setting, which takes place in the near future i.e. during the events of point 1 or perhaps early point 2. So think of your Appalachian townspeople enduring a life of ever greater deprivation, while some of them enlist to fight resource wars in faraway corners of the globe using fancy-tech weaponry. As I understand, this is a fairly accurate description of the most recent 50 years of the region's history.

$\endgroup$
16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A lot of WW1 was because the energy was not infinite and more importantly not everyone had coal that they did not have to buy from other countries. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 16, 2023 at 14:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The reasons for WWII were far more complicated than people fighting over the control of oil. Even if the importance of oil was not realized in time, WWII would have still happened. $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:54
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I get what others are saying about the World Wars connection, but I still really like this analogy. You're absolutely correct that even though coal and oil are not infinite resources, people in the 19th century certainly treated them like they were, so they're a fairly decent case study for how the world might react in my fictional scenario. I think this is great starting point, thank you! $\endgroup$
    – eyelash
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @John, thank you. It wasn't as much about having coal as such, as more specifically about having plentiful and cheap coal. Throughout the 19th century, Great Britain was the biggest exporter; but towards the century's end it was matched an then replaced by the USA and the newly united Germany. The great power alliances shifted to match this new reality (why else would France ally with their traditional enemy the UK, if not to counter the growing German threat?), and the rest is history. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Aug 16, 2023 at 19:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Your first point is a little too surface-appearances level. The small-scale producers were already in poverty. The shift to mass-production brought them into the cities where the intellectuals who wrote things down could see them regularly and complain about them, but their standard of living generally went up in the process. The percentage of their income they were spending on essentials like food and clothing dropped significantly. They were still desperately poor by our standards, but every new labor-saving device that frees up a worker, also frees up the money to pay them for other work. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Aug 17, 2023 at 23:52
2
$\begingroup$

It strictly depends on how much the energy output is. I can gift you a hamster on a wheel - to you it's free, also useless.

In realism terms, I think other answers don't sufficiently acknowledge (1) future; (2) teleportation. Simplified, their analysis is "investment cost != free" - which is true and consequential, today, but also assumes the energy output isn't that great.

Suppose we have literally infinite energy. Energy-matter conversion is a thing. Accounting for (1) and (2) (if not today already) there already likely exists technology to simply will stuff into existence (make atoms, 3D print, etc). Free energy of sufficient magnitude is, for most purposes, economic utopia - assuming non-dystopian government.

Now, teleportation isn't just "thing moving things A to B" - it's a huge deal. The technology is extremely sophisticated. It's much easier (scientifically) to build a Dyson Swarm, which will have tremendous output - but perhaps harder logistically (distance, tons of materials, etc).

A thing I dislike about sci-fi is neglecting such things. "We have a teleporter but we can't do XYZ" - yes, you absolutely can. Buuut realism isn't top priority for a good story (and considering you say "near future", it's certainly one of those stories, unless GPT6...).

Some may object - "realism is irrelevant since perpetual motion isn't possible" - but we don't need truly free energy. Black hole farming is more than sufficient. It all depends on how the teleporter works, and I'm granting some room for fiction.

This is more of an extended note on realism - other answers/comments give much better story material. (They're also more "realistic" with the "near future" assumption, assuming non-tremendous energy output).

$\endgroup$
1
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for this answer. I definitely agree with your perspective on realism and "good" storytelling. That's the entire reason I framed my question the way that I did; I know I can just tell the audience "this version of teleportation can't X" if I don't want to disrupt what I've already written. But I always want to at least explore the realism angle, because who knows, it may wind up inspiring an even more interesting story. $\endgroup$
    – eyelash
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:28
1
$\begingroup$

Your perpetual motion machines can produce all the energy you want for free but they will not provide free power to the masses unless they can be produced on a scale that can be given to the masses. The underlying problem will be the costs to manufacture the machines, perform maintenance on them, distribute it as needed, pay for distribution maintenance, and various other expenses.

While the costs are likely to be lower to the energy producers the fact that they can get the energy for free won't reduce the other costs associated with it.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Zero energy bill is unrealistic, there is no imperative to give it away. More likely the bills will be the same and the companies who invested in it will make larger fortunes.

If there was a zero energy bill, then the impact would be huge. A lot of people could run businesses and produce products that they couldn't previously, and the standard of living would leap forwards.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ you could probably have a look at Iceland (The country not the supermarket chain) as a Real World example of how they manage to harness Geothermal energy to essentially offer Energy at 0.00 $\endgroup$
    – Raisus
    Aug 16, 2023 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Raisus nice example, and Iceland has one of the highest standards of living and a very robust economy. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Aug 16, 2023 at 11:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Makes a lot of sense, although is the cost of energy really the only thing standing in the way of many would-be small business owners? I would imagine rent/lease and all other resources would still be an issue, but I've never run a business so I don't know much about the typical expense distribution. @Raisus I really appreciate the Iceland example, I'll definite read up on their energy infrastructure. $\endgroup$
    – eyelash
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @eyelash it depends on the business of course. But it would open a lot of doors for a lot of people. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Aug 17, 2023 at 3:39
1
$\begingroup$

All poverty is essentially energy poverty in some form or shape. So perpetual motion, aka, ifinite storage of power, makes low energy inputs harvestable.

So you have a sort of farm energy to device, that ocassionally is moved towards the grid or the end-user. And then you run smack first into the fact that most societys needs for energy are exponential. Society demand will always outgrow the supply.

Thus, unless you can generate a perpetual motion that creates energy.. fundamentally nothing changes.

$\endgroup$
3
  • $\begingroup$ "All poverty is essentially energy poverty in some form or shape." I can see ways this is not true, and I don't see any ways that you illuminate that it is true. Wealthy living has predates the energy economy. Unless you're going to really bend the definition to include hay for horses, wheat for armies, and more. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Aug 17, 2023 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ Thats chemical energy, and yes its not bend. Its just the fact. In the end, all things you desire, are energy stored in one way or another. A tree is just solar energy stored as chemical energy in sugar aka wood. The rest holds true too. Even complex artifacts, can only be created by societies with a energy surplus to devote to them. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Aug 18, 2023 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ Fertilizer is a great example. Its is greated using natural gas, which is just solar derived energy, chemically broken down into easier useable forms. You can even create it solar-electrically.. food is thus.. just energy and its transformation. $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Aug 18, 2023 at 8:18
1
$\begingroup$

See Robert Sheckley's short story 'The Laxian Key' (minor spoilers follow).

The protagonists buy a machine from Joe's Interstellar Junkyard that can apparently make something for nothing. Reasoning that anything for nothing must be worth having, they turn it on.

I don't want to give away too much, but the Laxian Key in the title is the thing that turns it off.

Are they siting the gadget that makes infinite free energy in this Appalachian town? If I lived there, I would want to know what else it makes. Heat? Pollution? Radiation? Wrath of the Gods of Physics? Why not put it somewhere more central and export electricity on the grid?

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ I really enjoyed 'The Laxian Key' a lot, thank you for that! It does seem very relevant to the principles at play here. I figured I was probably being overly short-sighted or optimistic, which is why I asked this question, and it seems Sheckley would agree haha. $\endgroup$
    – eyelash
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:33
0
$\begingroup$

I just realized my version of the technology would definitely allow for perpetual motion, so potentially infinite "free" energy. Most of my story takes place in an impoverished Appalachian town.

A bit cynical but hey: if you do not want it, it will not effect your story at all.

Reasoning: even today some countries offer benefits (free healthcare, unemployment money, pensions, ...) for residents. Just because some countries offers those, it does not mean those are available worldwide, everywhere to everyone.

The same goes for your "expensive" form of free Energy - especially if a significat amount of money has to be spent as buy-in to make it feasable.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, and those analogies are great; I might throw in a line or two about some Scandinavian country offering free teleportation-based power to its citizens, despite it not being that way in the States. $\endgroup$
    – eyelash
    Aug 16, 2023 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @eyelash And they have the taxes to match. No free lunch, and all that. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Aug 17, 2023 at 16:11
0
$\begingroup$

So you mention a big investment up front. But then the maintenance is? How long does the generator last?

That's really what's going to drive the effects. It's "free" as in "it comes out of nowhere". But it still requires some effort to harness. So what form does the free energy take, and how hard is it to get and transfer around.

For example: You could get practically infinite "free" energy delivered to your doorstep simply by teleporting a cubic inch out of the core of the sun and plopping it on your front lawn... This would not end well for you.. Or your neighbors... Or probably anyone on your half of the planet...

On the bright side, that would technically eliminate poverty entirely within the affected area...

So you've got thermonuclear bombs at-will... And at any size you like. Obviously you can probably figure out a way to harness this. Or if you were thinking more like self-powering water wheel that's fine too. All a matter of scale really.

But there you're just looking at a highly efficient generator. It still needs to be built. It still needs maintenance. And unless it's small enough and cheap enough that you can just slap one in everything you're still going to need to deal with some kind of transmission infrastructure.

So basically look at the economy and set the price of fuel to zero. That's definitely going to make pretty much everything cheaper. Everything getting cheaper tends to make the lives of the poor easier. But fuel is only part of the cost of producing usable energy. What the end price of harnessed energy will be is a fairly simple finance calculation based on the cost and longevity of the equipment and what the people with money to invest in building it are willing to work with in terms of interest rate on their money. That last will depend largely on how risky they think it is.

How much that helps the poor will depend on why they're poor.

Poor because they live in the middle of nowhere and the cost of shipping their output to market eats up all their profits? Cheaper energy will probably help them substantially.

Poor because they live in a third-world dictatorship and the thugs at the top just come and take everything useful they try to build? They might end up worse off if the thugs get free energy first and use it to consolidate their power. On the other hand, the teleportation aspect might let them just leave... On the gripping hand the teleportation aspect might let the warlords hit anywhere they like, any time they like... This gets really messy really fast unless there's some kind of counter for it.

Poor just because somebody has to be at the bottom and their skills aren't all that useful at the moment? They'll probably stay at the bottom in the short-run, but the bottom will be easier living that it was before.

Long term? Long-term is where it gets interesting. Long-term is where you see things like the local recycling plant being just a big incinerator which burns hot enough to separate the waste into individual atoms. Then you just centrifuge those atoms to separate them by type and use them as feedstock for your atomic-scale 3d printers to create anything you want. Long-term is where you see all the basic necessities of life becoming as cheap as air. Relative poverty will still exist, but nobody's going to be starving to death.

For a peek into what kind of society might form around such a mighty power source once fully developed, check out James P. Hogan's "Voyage from Yesteryear".

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .