book: Power Hungry

I just got finished with Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future by Robert Bryce.

The basic gist is that everything you “know” about power, particularly if you are an American, is wrong. His data is no doubt correct, but I think he goes out of his way to sometimes mislead. For example he claims that the United States economy is somehow very energy efficient. To prove his point he gives figures for the change in energy intensity over some period shows that the US is “winning”, beating such countries as France and others. The trouble is, a simple trip to wikipedia shows that actual, and not the percentage change in,  energy intensity (power used per unit of economic output),the US continues to lag behind other industrialized nation, particularly of western europe and the UK. Furthermore, our large houses and large vehicles really drives our per capita energy consumption through the roof where it is around twice as high as countries such as the UK, France, Germany to name a few.

So contrary to what the author would have you believe, the US economy and lifestyle is, in fact, energy-gobbling.

On page 50 he says, referring to his skepticism about anthropogenic global warming, “…I adhere to one of the oldest maxims in science: Correlation does not prove causation”, then right on the next page “increasing energy consumption equals higher living standards. Always. Everywhere”.  I would posit/accuse the author of implying that the higher consumption of the US causes a higher standard of living — but that is nonsense; the typical person could trade in his sedan for an SUV using twice the fuel… and this wouldn’t create any wealth. I wouldn’t argue that Bangladeshis, for example as the lowest per capita energy consumption at fifty times less per capita energy use that Americans, could greatly benefit; just that Americans could stand to use less with no loss in wealth.

The book generally makes no mention of conservation at all, when in fact conservation has the least impact. forget coal vs. natural gas vs. nuclear;

The answer to his complaint that wind power’s variability requires too much backup (usually natural gas) could be addressed by smart-metering, which he doesn’t mention. Smart metering coupled with real-time demand pricing causes (either automatically, or financially) consumers to lower their demand during non-windy times.

He strangely either doesn’t talk at all(? or maybe mentions in passing) direct solar generation of electricity, either PV, Photo Voltaic, or thermal. Here in the desert where i live, it seems like direct generation eliminates the wind-variability problem that he dwelled on with windmills — that is to say that when the sun in out bright and shining is exactly when the highest electric grid loads are. So direct generation is a great for peak loads, the thermal even has a couple of hour lag in it which again matches up well to peak demand loads.

His ultimate solution he dubs N2N: Natural Gas to Nuclear — he wants way more natural gas consumption coupled with eventually way more nuclear. He does mention various problems of all sorts and even mentions that many of these things are externalities; but he doesn’t seem to think that is a problem, or suggest solutions (such as taxing pollution; or taxing mountain-top removal; or fixing coal ash pond problems), he just kind of supposes that we should accept it because that’s the way it is.


What is an externality?

I also just got done reading Superfreakonomics by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. (and by the way, lots of good stuff on the Freakonomics blog). It was a worthy follow-on to their earlier bestseller Freakonomics, and is eminently readable. I particularly liked the definition, from page 171:

What’s an externality? It’s what happens when someone takes an action, but someone else, without agreeing, pay some or all of the costs of that action.  An externality is an economic version of taxation without representation.

If you happen to live downwind of fertilizer factory, the ammonium stench is in externality. When your neighbor throws a big party (and they don’t have the courtesy to invite you), their ruckus is in externality.

Secondhand cigarette smoke is an externality, as is the stray gunshot one drug dealer meant for another that instead hit a child on the playground.

The greenhouse gases thought to be responsible for global warming are primarily externalities. When you have a bonfire in your backyard, you’re not just toasting marshmallows. You’re also emitting gases that in a tiny way, help heat the whole planet. Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, eat a hamburger, or fly in an airplane, you’re generating some byproducts that you’re not paying for.

Imagine a fellow named Jack, who lives in a lovely house — he buildt himself — and comes home from work. The first warm day of summer. All he wants is to relax and cool off. So he cranks the air conditioner all the way up. Maybe he thinks for a moment about the extra dollar or two he will pay on his next electricity bill. But the cost isn’t enough to deter him. What he doesn’t think about is the black smoke from the power plant that burns the coal that heats the water that turns the steam fills the turbine spins the generator. That makes the power to cool the house that Jack built. Nobody thinks about the environmental costs associated with mining and trucking away that coal, or the associated dangers. In the United States alone more than 100,000 coal miners died on the job over the past century, with another estimated 200,000 dying later from black lung disease. Now those are externalities. Thankfully coal mining deaths have plummeted in the United States to an average of about 36 per year. But if Jack happened to live in China, local death externality would be much steeper; at least 3000 Chinese coal miners died on the job each year. It’s hard to blame Jack for not thinking about externalities. Modern technology is so proficient that often masks the costs associated with our consumption is nothing visibly dirty about the electricity that these checks air conditioner. It just magically appears as if it were out of a fairy tale. If there were only a few Jacks in a world or even a few million noone would care. But as the global population hurtles toward 7 billion, all those externalities add up. So who should be paying for them?

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