Friday, January 6, 2012

The Energy Story, in One Volume

For anyone trying to communicate some of the complexities related to energy and the environment, Daniel Yergin’s new book is a must-have. I say “must-have” rather than “must-read” because it clocks in at about 800 pages, and you may not need to absorb every one of them. But whatever slice of the subject you’re interested in – nuclear power, natural gas and fracking, the effects of the break-up of the Soviet Union, climate change, China’s phenomenal growth in demand, Venezuela’s political weirdness, renewables, the politics and strategic importance of the Persian Gulf, the impact of 9/11, you name it – you’ll find an authoritative account, told in a friendly, compelling narrative. It’s monumental.

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World follows up on Yergin’s earlier masterwork, The Prize, which traced the history of energy use and policy from the dawn of time to the 1980s. This one brings the story up to date, down to such recent events as the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan and the electric-powered Chevy Volt. In addition to knitting together all the complex strands of energy production, use and policy, Quest is a treasure-trove of anecdotes and statistical nuggets that can enliven almost any effort to communicate about energy. A few examples:

  • The developed world uses an average of 14 barrels of oil per person per year; the developing world, only 3 barrels. (What will happen as that number rises to about 6?)
  •  For years China was adding the equivalent of a full-sized coal-fired power plant every week or two, doubling its electric capacity between 2005 and 2010 and surpassing the U.S. in total generation.
  • Worldwide, about 1.6 billion people still have no access to electricity, but rely on kerosene, wood or dung.
  • In only six years, between 1998 and 2004, the new generating capacity added in the U.S. amounted to one-fourth of all the capacity built here since Edison’s first station in 1882 – and 90 percent of it burned natural gas.
  • Even with a growth in electric power usage that has dropped to only 1.4 percent per year, the U.S. generating fleet will need to grow by about one-third in the next 20 years – equivalent to 150 large nuclear power plants or 300 standard coal-fired plants.
And who knew that the first Presidential Address promoting solar power was not delivered by Clinton, or Carter, or even Nixon, but . . . wait for it . . . President Eisenhower, nearly 60 years ago. You’ll find it all in The Quest.


  1. The point about needing new power plants for increased capacity (or to replace exisiting but aging ones) is a good one.

    If one wishes to dive deeper into the real world of nuclear power, I would like to point out a free online book that provides some perspective on the people, politics and technology of nuclear power in the US. "Rad Decision" (just Google it) is a thriller novel featuring a plant not unlike Fukushima experiencing a similar event. It was written by a longtime nuclear industry engineer (me) - not as a polemic but rather a realistic account of how things work (and sometimes don't). It's about 350 pages, which might help.

  2. Thanks James. I look forward to catching up with your book.