Question: what technology could turn the global economy upside down? Read on for an answer, but suffice to say, it's heading for Northern Europe.
Solve the problem of energy storage and you practically solve everything. They used to say that about nuclear fusion, but then the riddle of how to generate energy from that source has already been solved. There is already a somewhat large nuclear fusion reactor nearby, it is called the sun. The only snag with this particular source is that it is less effective at night-time, and while it can provide energy indirectly via the wind, that's not so effective when the wind is becalmed
The cost of energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines is falling rapidly, and wind is already cost effective compared to traditional energy sources in many parts of the world. If the cost can continue to fall, then that means only one thing stands between us and a very cheap and clean source of energy. And that thing is the intermittent nature of renewable energy, alas this means that we need traditional sources of energy as back-up, and the economics of using traditional energy as back-up is not good.
So solve energy storage and we create very cheap energy.
One way to do this is to pump water up a hill, and release it back down when we need it. So reservoirs at the top of hills or mountains is one form of battery. To do this, however, you need lots of water, lots of hills/mountains and lots of space. In fact, fjords would be useful, which may explain why Norway is often described as Europe's potential battery.
But now Scandinavia has moved into poll position for being the location of another battery empire.
A company called Northvolt, set up by the Swede Peter Carlsson, a former top man at Tesla, is looking at building a giant lithium ion battery in Scandinavia, with Sweden itself as the favourite to provide the location.
The plan is for the factory to make 32 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production. That will make the factory only marginally smaller than the 35 GWh giga factory that Tesla and Panasonic are building in Nevada.
So why is Sweden the favourite? In part, it's because clean sources of energy including wind and hydropower are close at hand, and also because of the proximity of appropriate mining operations in Finland.
Back in the summer of 2016, IDC published a report predicting that global battery capacity would rise from 1.5 GWh in 2015, to 20 GWh by 2020.
See the Northvolt project in this context. 1.5 GWh total installed base in 2015, versus annual production of 35 GWh at this one factory alone.
Northolt has to raise some $4 billion first and concedes that this won't be easy.
But consider the economies of scale that will result from such a massive increase in lithium ion battery production.
The cost of lithium-ion batteries fell from $1,000 a kilowatt hour in 2008 to around $200 recently. It is thought that once the cost falls to $100, electric cars will become cost effective compared to internal combustion engine cars.
But such an enormous increase in production will surely lead to costs falling much further than that, and if the trajectory of falling costs can follow the course seen since 2008, then within a few years lithium-ion batteries will be so cheap that the cost of taking some of the surplus energy from that massive nuclear fusion reactor, based some 95 million miles away, storing it and using it when the sun doesn't shine, will be low enough to create all kinds of new opportunities.