As the long anticipated July demo of their Orbo free energy technology approaches, Steorn’s silence becomes deafening. CEO Sean McCarthy dropped by the company’s online forum only twice over the past month, leaving behind a few short posts conveying nothing of substance but a general sense of confidence (bordering on giddiness) about the impending demo. What we do know is that the demo will take place indoors at a single location in London, possibly the Kinetica Museum, and will last 10 days. Sean has stated that it will begin in the first week of July, and that it is intended to coincide with (and ride the wave of environment-friendly media attention generated by) Al Gore’s Live Earth concert on July 7th. Free T-shirts will be handed out.
All of this waiting leaves us with little to do but speculate. So I thought I’d take this time to sit back and ask, “What if?” Steorn’s claim may be impossible, but Sean seems intent on forging ahead nonetheless. So, what if it’s true? What if we’re on the brink of having a revolutionary new energy source that’s cheap and requires no fuel? What if oil, natural gas, coal, wind, solar and nuclear power are all about to become obsolete?
The many benefits that make free energy the stuff of utopian dreams are well known. Our current sources of energy are dirty, dangerous, destructive and expensive. Fossil fuels such as coal and oil fill the air with soot as well as carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas that threatens to bring about catastrophic global warming. Harvesting and transporting fossil fuels also wrecks havoc on the environment, as strip mining, the controversy over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the occasional accident such as the Exxon Valdez demonstrate. No one wants a nuclear power station in their neighborhood due to the propensity for disastrous slip-ups as with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. After decades of development, solar and wind power aren’t yet inexpensive enough to begin to compete. Ethanol from corn crops is a much touted false promise, because even if we were to convert all of our corn crops to energy production we couldn’t replace the need for fossil fuels, and in the meantime we’d starve. Free energy would enter this scene as a magic elixir; it would end global warming and allow for a cleaner and better protected environment. This would be especially beneficial to nations with burgeoning economies such as China, which could continue its exponential growth unhindered by energy limitations and the associated environmental concerns.
Besides providing free and clean energy for existing uses, Orbo has the potential to open up entirely new possibilities. For example, the potential for desalination to provide clean water to dry areas of the world is strictly limited now by the energy needed both to desalinate and to transport that water. Free energy could change the economics of desalination, allowing desert regions to become fertile and green. Likewise, both the coldest and warmest parts of the globe would become more livable as heating and cooling technology lose their dependence on an expensive energy infrastructure.
In fact, the elimination of the need for an energy infrastructure would bring a new empowerment to the individual. The basic necessities of heat and electricity would become available even to the poor without a monthly energy bill. No more power lines criss-crossing the streets; no more oil deliveries or gas stations. Each home and each vehicle would become energy independent, as would each individual. This change alone could go a long way toward reducing poverty and perhaps even redefining the relationship between the person and the state.
Free energy could usher in a greener Earth where the basic needs of life are more easily met for the poor. Is there any downside? Probably not for you and me. But many people, some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet, have a lot to lose should free energy become a reality. From George W. Bush’s closest pals to Osama Bin Laden, there are dozens of billionaires and probably thousands of millionaires who owe their wealth to oil and today’s other dirty, non-renewable energy sources.
Spencer Johnson’s popular book “Who Moved My Cheese?” is a parable about how the sources of reward in our lives change over time. This is a problem that everyone deals with, either by trying to prevent the cheese from moving, by moving with it, or by ignoring the whole thing and watching the cheese run out. Well, free energy would threaten to move more cheese than perhaps any other single development in history. This is why I’m convinced that it doesn’t require a proclivity for conspiracy theorizing to imagine that some very powerful people would try to prevent the enormous shift from the status quo that free energy would provoke.
Who stands to lose as a result of free energy? First, there are the energy companies who produce our current energy supplies, and all of their distributors down to the local power company, oil delivery service, and gas station. Along with these are the entire industries that support these services, such as those that build everything from oil rigs to furnaces. Then there are the individual and institutional investors in these companies, and the politicians they support. Next are the millions of employees of these companies, few of whom will be celebrating when they lose their jobs. Then there are the entire nations whose wealth, and in some cases whose very existence depends on their oil revenue. These include most Arab nations, some South American and European nations, and most notably Russia.
If it turns out that Orbo is a reality, how would these people with vested interest in the status quo try to keep their cheese in place? The simplest solution would be to buy the technology from Steorn and bury it, or to do away with everyone who knows how it works. These sound like wild conspiracy theories, I know; but with thousands of people having trillions of dollars to protect, there’s bound to be a few who would be willing to take either of these steps. Thus far Steorn has shown absolutely no interest in selling their technology. If this attitude remains intact, then there may be no way to keep Steorn from going public with Orbo outside of physical threats, or worse. The question then becomes whether Steorn makes enough information about their technology publicly available before they attract the attention of those who would like to nip it at the bud. Once the “secret” is out to more than a handful of people, there’s no more burying it.
If Orbo does make it out to the public, then the options of its opponents are fewer. We will probably see many of the same politicians who have shown a complete disregard for the contributions of the current energy industry to global warming suddenly take a keen interest in the many possible hazards of free energy. Perhaps, they’ll say, free energy will accelerate global warming by introducing runaway amounts of heat into the Earth’s atmosphere “out of nowhere”? Or maybe, the mysterious magnetic interactions at work in Orbo cause cancer? Or sabotage the food supply by disrupting the ability of bees to navigate?
However, fear-mongering and limited political attempts at suppression would not be sustainable, because some countries such as China stand to benefit so much from free energy that they would be unlikely to play along with this tactic. In a competitive world environment, once one country has free energy all of its competitors will need to have it as well, lest they fall behind economically. So it’s an all or nothing situation – either free energy is widely adopted, or it is suppressed worldwide, and the only way to do that might be with force. Hopefully even the parties that stand to lose the most if free energy becomes available will be unwilling, or unable, to start World War 3 in hopes of preserving their fortunes.
Even if the shifting of so much cheese doesn’t provoke widespread war, it’s bound to result in some chaos, if only temporarily. Much of the world’s money is invested in energy interests, and the sudden devaluing of current energy resources is likely to produce some degree of economic collapse, possibly even worldwide depression. Some nations will be hit especially hard, such as Russia, whose economy has become largely based on oil revenue. If the Russian economy collapses, it may mean revolution; in the chaos, the security of Russia’s enormous nuclear stockpile may be compromised. A nightmare scenario would see desperate Russian factions selling off nuclear weapons to Al-Qaeda style terrorists.
If a genuine free energy device is demonstrated by Steorn this week, the course of history will be altered. Some of the implication would be, in the words of the science fiction author David Brin, “worrisome and disturbing.” In the short term, free energy may result in economic collapse, violence, and starvation. But I think that in the long run, once society has had a chance to reorganize, free and clean energy may be a building block of very bright future.