What I Read on My Summer Vacation

by Richard T. Stuebi

In the spirit (though not the length) of a back-to-school book report, I dedicate this column to reviewing three energy-related books that I read in the last few weeks as the dog-days of summer wound to a conclusion.

Cape Wind

I first read Cape Wind by Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb, which profiles the eponymous offshore windfarm in Cape Cod, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the mischief that has so far thoroughly stymied its progress.

The story makes just about everyone involved in the local, state and federal political arena look awful – petty, elitist, short-sighted, unprincipled. The list of bad guys is headed prominently by Senator Ted Kennedy (of course) and Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, but less obviously also includes players such as Senator John Warner of Virginia and Congressman Don Young of Alaska. (Alaska! You are absolutely right to ask: “Why Alaska?”) The only person emerging from the story smelling like a rose is Cape Wind’s lead developer, Jim Gordon, who is portrayed as truly heroic.

The book reads quickly and well, and is getting good reviews, even from usually not-so-wind-friendly places like the Wall Street Journal. However, I am concerned that the book comes off a little too much like an in-house PR piece for the developer of the windfarm: I put the book down sincerely questioning the authors’ objectivity. The tale seems so one-sided, it’s hard to believe that it could be really accurate. If it is, our political system is in dire shape, and our prospects for good energy/environmental policy are dim.

The Grid

I most recently finished The Grid by Phillip F. Schewe, a very readable history of the electricity industry. This was the first text I have found that, in less than 300 pages, spans the mad-scientist inventors Edison and Westinghouse and Tesla, through less-known but equally pivotal industry giants such as holding company progenitor Samuel Insull and TVA legend David Lilienthal, into the turbulent days of Enron and deregulation.

The book does a particularly good job reconstructing the 1965 Northeast blackout (not much different from the 2003 version), touring the reader through massive nuclear (Indian Point) and fossil steam (Ravenswood) powerplants, and accompanying a distribution crew on a routine but not-to-be-taken-lightly line repair job in Idaho. Most interestingly, Schewe weaves in contemporary commentary and observations from social critic Lewis Mumford, whose writing excerpts offer an insightful countering perspective questioning the contribution of energy technology to the fundamental advancement of humanity.

The author’s writing style was not to my taste (for reasons that alas I can’t pinpoint), and I think the electricity industry still deserves a more gripping seminal treatment comparable to the gift Daniel Yergin gave us of the oil industry in The Prize, but until then, this will suffice pretty well.

The Long Emergency

In between, I read a thought-provoking but highly disturbing tome entitled The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. Its premise is not unique: peak oil + climate change = end of the industrial era = return to pre-industrialism. Indeed, one of my recent posts covered this very topic.

However, Kunstler’s writing is incredibly powerful, with pithy snippets about every other line, and some of the directions he explores are truly distinctive. For instance, he argues that mankind’s one-shot exploitation of the non-renewable fossil energy inheritance is but a reflection of the entropy mechanism inherent to our universe (as described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics), and that escalating energy extraction/use only accelerates the rate at which our world winds down.

Kunstler is somewhat hopeful about the ability of the human species to adapt and survive, though not in its current social structures and industries/economies, and not at anywhere near current population levels. And, he is clearly pessimistic about the transition: basically, Kunstler doesn’t think there’s enough time or enough remaining energy to avoid cataclysmic change characterized by mass famine, economic depression, drought, migration, war, etc.

While I appreciate Kunstler’s wisdom and expansive disparate set of knowledge and insight, I’m not totally sold on some of his conclusions. As an example, as long as the amount of solar radiation provides more than enough energy to the Earth’s surface to supply all of mankind’s energy needs (with a few orders of magnitude to spare), I believe there ought to logically be a way to maintain a standard of living similar to what we have now – it will just cost more. I don’t think Kunstler has some of his facts straight, which always causes me to be a little shy about buying everything a writer tries to sell. For certain, Kunstler makes a lot of assertions that are not backed up solidly by facts, therefore exposing his arguments to question.

Unlike Kunstler, I’m somewhat optimistic that the combination of technological innovation and market forces (under a big assumption: that policy allows market forces to work, prices energy appropriately highly, and doesn’t provide incumbents huge protective barriers against the impact of innovation) can allow us to colonize a very attractive future. Kunstler doesn’t seem to incorporate an economic view in his thinking, whereas I believe energy prices with increasing scarcity and the resulting downward force in demand will ameliorate (though not eliminate) the pain of transition. However, I admit that it would require a huge allocation of global economic capacity towards the rapid implementation of a new energy paradigm to completely smooth the transition, and present markets with their pricing signals and investment incentives aren’t making that happen as urgently as it probably should.

Therefore, ultimately, I agree with Kunstler that the ending of the conventional energy age will be extremely painful for many constituencies, who are blindly accelerating into the wall with voracious consumption. I agree that exurbia lifestyles spreading across the U.S., especially across the southern half of our country, will someday be viewed as a cul-de-sac of history, burdening us with enormous social costs due to the massive infrastructure investments that will become untenable. I agree that life will tend to become more localized, less materialistic, simpler.

In summary, I tend to agree with Kunstler on the general direction and trajectory of our collective situation, but he and I do differ in degree regarding the likely pace and magnitude of the impending discontinuities.

All three of the above books get my “thumb’s up”, but if I had to recommend just one, it would be The Last Emergency. Read it and see. Or, actually, read it and think.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

2 replies
  1. mdavies
    mdavies says:

    Succinct and informative – I think the paradigm change is in the economics of energy. We must appropriate investment into alternative energy in a manner similar to the way technology and pharmaceutical companies fund their R&D.

  2. Kirk Sorensen
    Kirk Sorensen says:

    Those sound like good books to add to my reading list. Have you read "Big Coal" by Jeff Goodell? That's an excellent book too. My guess is that you've probably already read it.

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