Ispied my first electric vehicle-charging station the other day. It was tucked in the parking garage at Kendall Square’s Cambridge Innovation Center; nothing fancy, just your basic parking spot rigged with some sort of meter and a long cord to deliver the juice. I stopped and stared — you don’t often get these moments. The kind where change thumps you and you know, in your gut, that this rare sight will one day be common.
Books on the future of energy are all the rage now. And “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World” (Penguin, 2011) primes the pump. It’s by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Daniel Yergin, and it wonderfully couches the long view: There were more electric cars than gas-powered ones at the start of the 20th century, for instance; global warming was predicted as far back as 1938; and President Eisenhower mentioned solar power in a 1955 speech.
In our time, President Obama has poured tens of billions of dollars into energy research through his stimulus package, creating 50 Energy Frontier Research Centers at universities and national labs. Yergin explains why this is a government must-do; it’s all about lead time. Corporations are too tied to quarterly reports to shoulder the losses, and venture capitalists operate on a three- to five-year span of returns. Hardcore energy innovations? They’ll take decades. Only government can grit that out.
“The Quest” goes deep and broad; you get a rigorous analysis of how oil cranks global politics, why natural gas is today’s holy grail, and how wind power has evolved from Christopher Columbus to Enron to Cape Cod. I’d tag
Yergin a realistic optimist. Yes, we’re entering a revolution in renewable energy but, in 2010, it still only supplied 8 percent of US usage.
A more skeptical take comes from journalist Robert Bryce, or I as like to call him Dr. No. He’s the in-your-face author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future” (PublicAffairs, 2010). Bryce claims the math simply isn’t there. We’re embracing renewables out of hype and scientific illiteracy; they just cost too much; they’re too inefficient; and it’s condescending to ask emerging economies to swear off the oil-coal nexus we’ve relied on for so long.
Bryce makes the salient point that there’s a direct link between a country’s prosperity and how much access it has to electricity. The cheapest way to run a power plant, pretty much, is to use coal, not iffy wind and solar. Reality check; the daily energy output of one efficient Kentucky coal mine is equal to the daily output of all the solar panels and wind turbines across America.
Bryce also thinks we’re Chicken Little about the so-called pending depletion of fossil fuels. He’s got a point, given how far extraction technology has come. The first offshore oil rig drilled down 20 feet; now drills can descend 8 miles. We’ve got plenty left, he says, but in the meantime, skip the renewable charade; Bryce advocates for an “N2N” strategy, meaning nuclear power to natural gas.
But um, whoops, he wrote his book before Fukushima (and the BP oil spill, for that matter). In contrast, Yergin somberly opens “The Quest” with the nuclear disaster. Still, Bryce has it in for “energy posers” who engage in “happy talk.”
A potential prime suspect? Amory B. Lovins, renewable energy expert and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank. I read Lovins’s “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era” (Chelsea Green, 2011) after Dr. No, and I admit that it sometimes sounded unconvincingly (and seductively) optimistic. My favorite Lovins prediction, so rosy it’s downright fuchsia, is that in 2050 we’ll all be receiving checks from electric companies, since the solar panels on our homes will more than meet our energy needs, so we’ll sell them our surplus. Sweet!
And the money keeps rolling in. Renewable energy offers “the greatest business opportunity of our time,” says Lovins, and we can stop using all oil and coal by 2050. Does that mean oil companies “will fade into history like buggy-whip makers and whalers?” Probably not, for they’re already furiously diversifying. Shell now produces more natural gas than oil and is the largest maker of biofuels in the world, tinkering with sugar cane, straw, and so on.
Before we’re all driving electric cars, or flying planes powered by algae, remember our Fossil Fuel Age with Upton Sinclair’s 1927 blockbuster “Oil!” (or make it a twofer with his 1917 exposé, “King Coal”). “Oil!” is a fervent, fecund novel, eerily relevant too — one character tries for a stake in the oil fields of Mosul, where our ties to Iraq basically began. It’s a raw father-son story, set within a thinly-veiled take on the Teapot Dome oil field bribery scandals, and it was also the basis for the 2007 movie “There Will Be Blood.” Local link; “Oil!” was banned in Boston for its motel sex scene. Sinclair knew a publicity op when he saw one; he had 150 sex-scene-cut “Fig Leaf editions” printed up and peddled them on Boston Common — while wearing a sandwich-board shaped like a fig leaf.
No fig leaf, of course, can cover the fact that a new age of energy is perking. How exciting. How electric.