Ignoring carbon, is energy use bad or fine?

15.12, Thursday 17 Jun 2021

This is a gap in my mental systems model of the world, so any references appreciated:

Let’s say we have extremely cheap, zero carbon electricity.

I’m not bothered by the mechanism but say for argument’s sake: super efficient biophotovoltaics – sufficiently advanced versions don’t exist yet, but imagine we invent what are essentially solar panels but instead of electronics they host water and thin sheets of genetically engineered algae, drinking the sun and pissing out electricity.

(I’m not clear on the carbon cost of manufacturing regular solar panels, but they include enough weird materials that I want to factor that out. I’m assuming that our fictional future algae can be bred simply with plant mass, light, and water, so there are minimal carbon or extractive problems. i.e. if you want more power, you buy any sort of tray, fill it with water, scoop in some existing algae from an existing tray along with a food solution, and dip a couple of wires to join it to the circuit.)

Assume we’ve all got these on our roofs, and there are fields of them everywhere. Also ignore batteries: with abundant production, unused energy is just thrown away. Electricity is now crazy cheap to buy, and there’s next to no carbon impact.

Does that mean it’s ok to run my tumble drier 24x7, have a thousand drones swarming round my house just for entertainment value, drive everywhere all the time in my own personal electric vehicle, run a massive Bitcoin farm in the attic, and spin up a fleet of mining robots that continuously fuse sand into giant transparent cubes and build kilometre-tall solid glass pyramids in the Sahara, just for kicks?

Because of our focus on carbon, and the fact that carbon is still a huge cost of electricity, I’ve gotten accustomed to the idea that electricity use is, in itself, something to be minimised. But maybe not?

Maybe energy use is actually fine, if the carbon footprint of energy production is zero, and we ignore the manufacturing footprint of the powered items? That’s how it seems but perhaps I’m missing an externality somewhere.

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