“Power Hungry” is Filling, But Not Fully Satisfying

It had been on my nightstand for awhile, but I finally got around to finishing Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future by Robert Bryce.

According to his own bio on the book jacket, “Bryce has been producing industrial-strength journalism for two decades” –whatever “industrial-strength” is supposed to mean.  And, by his own writing, he states that “I am neither a Republican nor Democrat.  I am a charter member of the Disgusted Party.”

Given his angst-ridden and self-assured stance, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Bryce’s narrative is laced with the type of adjective-overladen hyperbole that has come to dominate the media in our Michael Moore and Glenn Beck era – a rhetoric style that I personally find annoying and unhelpful in its seeming desire to provoke.  (Though, I would pay good money to see Bryce call someone like Dr. Gal Luft an “underinformed-but-persistent sophomore” to his face as he implicitly does in writing.)

If one can get past the sometimes maddening and offensive passages, the book has its share of merits.  Bryce is right to focus on facts, to seek to strip away untenable claims, and to decry the lack of clarity of thinking in the national energy discourse.  Part One of the book is an occasionally masterful primer on many of the basics about energy production and consumption in the modern world, studded with facts – mostly accurate by my superficial review.

But, as the Einstein principle implies, “A theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  And, in striving to simplify the energy topic by driving towards sound-bites from a massive but still incomplete set of facts, Bryce sometimes strides too far.  He sometimes pieces the facts together in such a way so as to draw skewed conclusions.  And, his lack of nuance – indeed, his distaste for nuance – leads ultimately to oversimplification and conclusions that are at best only partly correct.

Part Two of the book is consisted of chapters devoted to debunking “myths” about green energy.  I guess it’s fair to tackle this, in that some commentators supporting green/renewable/alternative energy really have been guilty of overstating the facts and creating too much unsustainable hype as a result.  Yet, for the most part, the myths that Bryce attacks are constructed in such a way as to be too easily knocked down like a cheap strawman. 

For instance, the chapter entitled “Myth:  Denmark Provides an Energy Model for the United States” is written as though someone actually thinks that Denmark and the U.S. are sufficiently similar that the Danish energy system can be largely replicated in the U.S.  Maybe some people do actually think that the U.S. should really pattern itself after Denmark, but most of us in the energy sector know that’s a naïve thought.  Even so, that’s not to say that the U.S. can’t learn valuable lessons from the Danes – and in fact, Bryce acknowledges as such in the chapter itself, though you might not notice because of the chapter title.

I could go on with a number of other examples of how Bryce makes himself a valiant protector of Joe Six-Pack by dismissing so-called “myths” that are portrayed as elitist ideals of little substantiation and hence value – even when the “myths” he’s debating are drawn in a hopelessly indefensible manner. 

Bryce can’t seem to accept that, just because some people have said stupid things about green energy, it doesn’t mean that green energy is stupid.

It’s clear that Bryce is an devout disciple of the Peter Huber & Mark Mills school of energy analysis, in which energy density is the primary factor driving winners and losers in the energy sector.  By this way of thinking, nuclear and fossil fuels are clearly superior to wind, solar and bioenergy, which require large footprints.  It’s an intriguing perspective, and definitely applies well to mobile and transportation energy, in which density is a critical driver of commercial acceptability. 

However, I’ve never been convinced that energy density is a significant factor in “stationary” energy to power, heat and cool buildings:  it’s all about economics, and if the cost of land and delivery is sufficiently cheap (i.e., in a remote area connected via a delivery system), who cares how dense the energy is? 

(Let’s not forget that Huber/Mills have been less than an infallible source of energy prognostication, as any reader of the fascinating but yet wholly inaccurate Huber-Mills Digital Power Report from the early 2000’s – sample forecast:  ubiquity of digitally-managed distributed generation – can attest.)

It’s equally clear that Bryce passionately hates several things:  virtually all political figures of all stripes, T. Boone Pickens, wind energy, and biofuels.  Bryce has no use for them, can find no virtue or benefits from any of them; the dislike seems to go beyond the rational. 

Putting aside politicians and Pickens, I’m well aware of the limitations of wind energy and biofuels, but that doesn’t justify throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as Bryce does.  Rebuttals to Bryce’s diatribes on wind energy and biofuels can be constructed to indicate where, how, when and why wind and biofuels can indeed make sense, but it would be a Herculean task just to overcome the volume of volleys he lobs.

Part Three of the book provides Bryce’s (over)simplifying conclusion to our whole energy problem:  we’re finding immense amounts of natural gas in shale, more than we could have ever expected a few years ago, so we need to use all of this to bridge to a nuclear future, which is the ultimate long-run solution and for which technology and economics will ultimately prevail.  As Bryce calls this vision of natural gas to nuclear, N2N.

I’m not intrinsically against increased utilization of natural gas and nuclear energy.  I’m more sanguine about the natural gas – though I don’t know if the shale plays will have the duration Bryce expects, due to the steep decline curves encountered so far – than I am about nuclear energy, which both has poorer current economics and lower public acceptability than the wind energy that Bryce damns to high heaven.  (And, Bryce is super eager to gladly accept all the hype he can accumulate on nuclear energy, especially about waste management safety and fuel recycling technology advancement.)

The problem I have with Bryce’s N2N synopsis – the oversimplification resulting from his lack of appetite for nuance – is the “silver-bullet” mentality about energy that has played a large part in getting us to where we are today.  Bryce seems to think that there should be one answer for most if not all our energy needs:  natural gas in the immediate future, nuclear in the longer future.  He doesn’t see a future for renewable energy, in large part because he seems to think that something that represents only a part of the solution isn’t really a solution.

I disagree, and believe we need a highly diversified all-of-the-above energy strategy, as I don’t see a one-size-fits-all energy approach as workable.  For example, if wind can supply 15% and solar 15% of our needs (at prices that are likely to decline with volumes to levels approaching competitiveness with fossil fuels), that shouldn’t be pooh-poohed just because it doesn’t supply a majority of our needs.  Indeed, going from less than 1% to more than 10% in either of these forms of energy represents a huge growth potential and huge wealth creation opportunity.

Notwithstanding its flaws, I do recommend cleantech advocates read the book.  It is cited widely by opponents of renewable energy and media articles and outlets unfavorable to renewable energy, so it’s good to have read the raw source material. 

Though you may need to have some industrial-strength antacid at your side when reading his so-called “industrial-strength journalism”.

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