Book Review: Power Hungry
As I began to work on my review of Robert Bryce’s latest book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, it became less a traditional review and more a summary/commentary on some of the key points in the book. For most readers of this book, there will be things you will strongly agree with, but also things that you think he gets wrong. There will definitely be things that you are surprised to learn, and there will be things that you won’t believe. But if you approach this book with an open mind, you will find yourself reconsidering some things you have taken for granted.
The book is divided into four parts. In Part I, “Our Quest for Power”, Bryce puts our energy usage into context. He spends some time explaining different units of energy — what they are, what they mean, where they came from, and how to convert them — and then attempts to convey the scale of our energy usage to readers. Bryce demonstrates a very good comprehension of the issues of scale and energy density. Part I is not controversial and will be very educational for many people.
In Part II, Bryce starts getting into “The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy.” The discussions in Part II focus on wind and solar power, T. Boone Pickens, Denmark, energy efficiency, electric cars, cellulosic ethanol, carbon taxes, and carbon dioxide sequestration. (For balance, I would like to see “Myths of Fossil Energy.”) He touches upon practically every renewable energy media darling, but his wind power critique was especially pointed (more below).
Part III, “The Power of N2N”, discusses the the future, which Bryce believes will be dominated by a continuing movement toward natural gas and nuclear power. Finally in Part IV, “Moving Forward”, Bryce puts forth some ideas on policies that would result in a more “forward-looking” energy policy.
On Wind Power
Bryce leaves no doubt where he stands on wind power. First let me say that I am not an expert in wind energy, so perhaps the wind industry has rebuttals to Bryce’s claims. But he details several potential issues with wind power, including noise, bird kills, and intermittency that leads to inefficiencies as conventional power plants are cycled up and down.
He cited a report that said that the resource requirements for wind power are very high. In comparing a wind farm to a nuclear power plant, the report stated that per megawatt of power produced it takes 9.6 times more concrete and 11.5 times more steel for the wind farm.
Bryce points out cases in which ExxonMobil and PacifiCorp were successfully prosecuted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) for inadvertent bird kills in their operations, cases that were “clearly justified” according to Bryce. He then points out that the number of birds killed by wind turbines dwarfs those killed in these two cases, yet he says that the wind industry has been exempted from enforcement action under both the MBTA and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Bryce points out the apparent double standard: ExxonMobil was prosecuted for killing 85 birds, and the wind farm at Altamont Pass, California kills more than 100 times that number every year without fear of prosecution.
Here, Bryce takes on what he argues are energy myths in Denmark — “Myth: Denmark Provides an Energy Model for the U.S.” (As with my arguments around Brazilian myths, the criticism is the myth that what they have done is a model for the U.S.). He first points out that it is true that Denmark doesn’t import oil, but cites the fact that their offshore oil developments in the North Sea bring in as much oil as the citizens use (similar to Brazil where per capita consumption and production of oil are similar).
Bryce writes that the Danes get 48 times more energy from hydrocarbons than from wind. On the topic of coal, he argues that the Danes are more dependent on coal than is the U.S. The Danes get 26% of their primary energy from coal (all imported), while in the U.S. coal’s share is 24.3% (mostly domestic). However, I would point out that our primary energy usage is much higher in the U.S., and therefore our usage of coal is far greater. In the U.S., our coal usage in 2008 was 564 million tons, versus 4.1 million tons for Denmark.
To be fair, he gives the Danes plenty of credit as well for their energy policies. He points out that electricity consumption is up in Denmark while they have kept their carbon emissions flat. He points to several possible reasons for that, including high energy taxes.
As an aside, Jeff Rubin recently weighed in with his views on Denmark’s emissions in an article in The Globe and Mail:
While North American carbon emissions have risen by around 30 per cent since 1990 (the reference point for the Kyoto Accord), Denmark’s emissions are actually lower than they were two decades ago. That’s generally ascribed to the fact that a world-leading 20 per cent of the power generated in Denmark comes from wind. Less commonly known is the source of the other 80 per cent. I was surprised to discover that it comes from good old King Coal. In fact, coal’s share of power generation in Denmark’s power grid is basically the same as it is in China.
How, then, has Denmark been so successful in managing its carbon emissions? The answer lies not with the source of power, but with the price of power. At 30 cents per kilowatt hour, electricity costs anywhere from three to five times what the average North American would pay. And, not surprisingly, Danish households consume a fraction of the power that we do.
On Electric Cars
Bryce spends quite a bit of time discussing the notion that fully electric cars (as opposed to hybrids) will soon penetrate the mass market. Bryce argues that the hype around electric cars has existed for over 100 years, but that the fundamental issue of low energy density of the batteries (ethanol has 50x the energy density of lithium-ion batteries) remains. He has a graphic of the energy densities of a number of energy sources, and the contrast is sharp. He quotes one of the lead designers of the Toyota Prius saying that to produce a car that’s truly intended for the mass market will require a battery chemistry that does not yet exist.
On Energy Efficiency
Bryce argues that the U.S. has been unfairly maligned over energy efficiency. He wrote that between 1980 and 2006, U.S. carbon intensity fell by 43.6% – a larger drop that than the EU-15’s 30.1% decline. He points out that China, “surprisingly” had a 64% drop over that time. Probably the reason for the performance of the U.S. and China in this case is that our starting point was one of very poor efficiency. It is going to be much harder to make big gains if you are already relatively energy efficient.
Likewise, he cited the decline in per capita energy consumption in the U.S. as being greater than almost every other developed country in the world. While I agree that this is noteworthy, I would also say it has a lot to do with our starting position and there being a lot of low-hanging fruit.
On T. Boone Pickens: “Pickens led a gullible media and an even more gullible public to believe that the evils of foreign oil could be overcome if only the public provided him with a few more subsidies for his pet projects.”
On cutting CO2 emissions: “The carbon dioxide reduction targets being advocated…are pure fantasy.” He also argues that the U.S. can’t stop the global rise in carbon emissions because there are too many in the world still living in energy poverty. (I made similar arguments in Why We Will Never Address Global Warming).
On carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): He says that viable CCS is a myth perpetuated by the coal industry — presumably to deflect criticism of their carbon emissions by suggesting that an answer is right around the corner.
On taxing CO2: He argues (and I agree) that you will never get world leaders to agree on a global scheme to tax carbon dioxide. He cites several studies pointing to the problems with mercury and cadmium emissions from coal-fired power plants, and argues that curbing those emissions is a more realistic goal.
As far as where things are headed, Bryce mentions that many prognosticators are forecasting peak oil now or in the not too distant future. He also discusses the potential for an imminent peak in coal production. He mentions the possibility of higher prices and economic pain, and he then takes up the question of how our energy needs will be met as oil declines. That they will be met, he seems fairly certain.
He believes that our future energy sources will continue a trend, already underway, of more nuclear power and natural gas. He cites coal as a possibility, but believes air quality requirements will favor nuclear and natural gas over coal. (I still believe that globally we will ultimately burn up all the coal we can get our hands on).
He sketches a path forward, that he thinks will start with natural gas due to the length of time it takes to get a nuclear plant built. On the other hand he also believes that natural gas will face resistance in pushing forward because of the coal lobby. He covers some of the history of natural gas regulations in the U.S. that have set the industry back (including some of which I was unaware). The primary beneficiary of the anti-gas regulations was the coal industry.
Bryce covers the history of the shale gas industry, and draws parallels between earlier cries of “peak gas is here” to today’s cries of “peak oil is here.” The lesson he is trying to convey is that you can’t anticipate technology developments. But his future has us strongly embracing nuclear power as the energy source with the lowest impact on the environment. This trend is already underway in many other parts of the world, and Bryce believes it is inevitable that it will play out like that in the U.S.
Some have suggested that Bryce’s agenda is to promote fossil fuels. It is true that at times in the book Bryce sounds like he is advocating on behalf of the oil industry and the far right (e.g., “we need to use more, not less oil”), but there are also times that his position would be identical to that of Greenpeace and those on the far left (e.g., citing the many downsides of the oil and coal industry, or the need to save the mountain gorilla in the Congo). At the end of the day — as I try to remind people — it really doesn’t matter who is making an argument. What matters is the argument itself. It should stand or fall on its merits, and not because you may think the person making it has ulterior motives.
When I read a book, there are two things that I am looking for. First, I want to learn things I didn’t know. Second, I want to think about things in a new way. (The latter is why I like science fiction). Power Hungry passes on both counts. There was a lot in the book that I didn’t know (e.g., Denmark’s dependence on imported coal). But ultimately, I want arguments that challenge my way of thinking and cause me to take a closer look at certain positions. I got that from this book.
Footnote: Two Guys from Oklahoma
Robert Bryce and I have a lot in common. We were both born and raised in Oklahoma, both graduated from major universities in Texas and both lived in Texas for many years (where he still resides). We are both married with one daughter and two sons — all of whom were born in Texas.
We both spend a lot of time debunking what we feel are myths. We are realistic over the use of fossil fuels; we recognize the downsides but also know that because fossil fuels have provided us with incredible comfort, mobility, and opportunities that they will continue to play a central role in our Western lifestyle, and will be embraced by the developing world.
Where I think we differ is in our approach. On the surface, we might appear to be the same: Two guys who pull no punches in telling people they are deluding themselves with a Gusher of Lies or Myths of Green Energy. But dig a little deeper, and you start to find some specific differences in our positions and in our respective styles.
Someone told me once that they believed that I like wearing the black hat. That’s actually not true. Generally speaking, when I am debunking myths I am trying to leave open a window for dialogue. Instead of Gusher of Lies, I would have probably gone with the less catchy title “Gusher of Things that Appear to Have Been Exaggerated.” The stuff I write just isn’t as edgy as the stuff he writes.
If I see my views misrepresented on a website, I may jump in to defend myself. I don’t like to see myself turning up on enemies lists. If someone calls me a shill for big oil, I am going to stop and defend my record. But I don’t think Bryce cares what the people he is criticizing think about him. I think he really does like wearing the black hat, and he wears it well in this book.
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Robert Rapier is a chemical engineer with 20 years of international engineering experience in the energy business. He holds several patents related to his work. Robert is the author of Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil. He is also the author of the R-Squared Energy Column and is Chief Investment Strategist for Investing Daily’s Energy Strategist service. Robert has appeared ...
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