13 May 2010

A Few Thoughts on "Power Hungry" by Robert Bryce

I've just finished reading Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, by journalist and author Robert Bryce.

Bryce's book is generally well-written and well-argued, if sprawling and at times more pastiche than systematic argument. His book has three parts. The first surveys our demand for energy and why it is inevitably going to increase. The second seeks to dispel a slew of "myths" about green energy -- 13 myths in all. His overall argument is that many of the present notions being discussed of replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, biomass, efficiency or reducing emissions via carbon capture and storage or fiat, are just that -- myths. The third part argues that natural gas and nuclear power are the fuels of the future and, in his view, offer the only plausible paths for a significant decarbonization of the global economy.

There is a lot to like in this book -- he relies heavily on the arguments of Vaclav Smil and Jesse Ausubel, while poking some fun at the inanity of Joeseph Romm -- its hard to go wrong with that approach! He bases his arguments in numbers and simple math, which demands critique in similar terms. Yet, even with his attempts to present simple math, the book contains a dizzying array of units, concepts and arguments that remain difficult to engage without some effort. For those willing to engage the details there are some delightful nuggets of information about energy, such as the fact that all of France's nuclear waste -- from its 50-odd nuclear power plants -- is stored in a single facility the size of a soccer field.

Power Hungry will not be very satisfactory to those concerned with limiting the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Bryce is a committed agnostic on issues of human-caused climate change -- itself enough to put off some potential readers -- yet is supportive of efforts to diversify energy supply and ensure its security. Bryce never really engages the mathematics of emissions reductions, focused instead on energy supply, cost and security. He also never really engages issues of technological innovation in the energy sector aside from potential advances in the nuclear sector. This oversight makes it appear that he has prematurely written off technological innovation with respect to other alternatives to fossil fuels. The book has a decided US focus, though not exclusively.

Bryce has produced a well-argued set of challenges to much of conventional wisdom in popular discussions of energy policy. For this reason, I will be adding this book to the syllabus for my fall graduate seminar as a way to introduce students to challenges of energy policy and to get their attention. Power Hungry with do both. Bryce's arguments force a reaction that requires engaging the simple mathematics of energy and emissions. In the end, whether you wind up agreeing or disagreeing with his policy arguments, engaging the arguments and the numbers on which they are based is well worth your time.