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2016 Energy Books: What’s Good, What’s Not

General Ideas

This is the third year I’ve done a post on energy books, and this year I’m focusing on books that have been published since last year’s post. The most expensive part of reading a book is not the $29.95 you pay at the register but the opportunity cost of your time. So, in order to help prevent you from wasting this most precious resource, here are some reviews. Please let me know in the comments if there are other books you think should be on the list and whether you agree or disagree with my assessments.

  1. The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, by Gretchen Bakke. This is by far the most obvious selection for this year’s list. It’s received a lot of 9781608196104_p0_v4_s192x300attention, including a feature on NPR’s Fresh Air and a largely favorable review in the Wall Street Journal. And, the grid is one of my personal favorite topics – it’s part of what makes electricity a uniquely fascinating product to study.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that Bakke is bringing well-deserved attention to a topic that I’m guessing makes most publicists wince. The book is very readable, and it’s based on a sensible narrative arc, tracing the beginning of electrification with individual lighting systems to net metering debates in the West.

Like most readers of this blog, I have more knowledge of the topic than the typical Fresh Air listener, but I still felt like I was learning something, for instance, about Samuel Insull’s efforts to market to industrial customers in order to improve his company’s load shape.

Bakke’s basic thesis is that the grid was a miracle of 20th century engineering, but is not keeping up with current demands for environmentally friendly, reliable, and unobtrusive electricity. She doesn’t necessarily articulate an alternative, although she clearly supports rooftop solar and other distributed solutions.

But, the book frustrates me on several levels. There are a number of inaccuracies, from her claims that the California investor-owned utilities tried to prevent behind the meter solar from counting for the state’s renewable portfolio standard (they were in fact in favor of it), to her reporting that “finding a good way to control peak demand would offer the possibility of continued plant retirement, easing coal ever more thoroughly out of the number one spot for American electricity production.” Coal-fired power plants are very rarely used exclusively to meet peak demand.

There are also inconsistencies. For example, the first time she introduces Enron, she acknowledges that energy trading did not lead to their bankruptcy. Later, though, she cites Enron’s bankruptcy as foreshadowing doom for other large companies in the electricity sector without explaining why this would be the case.

Some of the most frustrating inconsistencies for me were around energy economics. (Bakke is a cultural anthropologist.) On several occasions, she clearly articulates the economies of scale brought by adding customers with diverse demand patterns, i.e., that multiple customers can share the same generation if their electricity needs are not perfectly correlated. Yet the author ignores the diseconomies of scale associated with the distributed and off-grid solutions that she praises.

I also found her characterization of some of the issues cartoonish. For example, she obviously has no love or respect for the investor-owned utilities. She refers to them as “leviathans,” claims they hire the bottom of the graduating classes, compares them to street gangs, describes the emergence of the current system of regulated monopolies as a power grab, and always puts quotation marks around the term “natural” monopolies. (This is an economics term that captures the scale economies I just described.) Utilities may not be the most agile or innovative companies, but it’s become too easy to vilify them in this day and age. We need a more evidence-based treatment.

Ahmad Faruqui, a consultant who focuses on the customer side of the industry, reviewed The Grid in Public Utilities Fortnightly with the subtitle, “Sweeping Generalizations, Unsupported Statements, Conjecture, Speculation.” He focuses on inaccuracies in her characterization of smart meters, his area of expertise, which makes me want to double check any of the book’s examples before I cite them.

  1. Thirst for Power: Energy, Water and Human Survival, by Michael Webber. The water-energy nexus is another timely topic that deserves more attention. I’m particularly interested in it given California’s recent drought.

Like Bakke, Webber weaves together technical details (explaining the first and second laws of thermodynamics in lay terms) and historical context (noting that the first steam engine was employed to pull water out of a coal mine, an early example of the nexus) on both the energy and water industries. His main aim seems to be to educate us all on how central they are to our food, health and very survival. He describes the current and future challenges and concludes by articulating several technical (harvesting graywater to flush toilets, which would reduce freshwater needs and save the energy required to treat potable water) and nontechnical (investing in more R&D) solutions.

Unlike The Grid, I did not find a single inaccuracy or inconsistency in this book. But, it is also less entertaining. In fact, I only skimmed the second half. Perhaps that’s why it’s less popular than Bakke’s book: The Grid is ranked #78,196 in the Kindle Store and Thirst for Power is at #132,314.

Given the current political climate, I’ve been thinking a lot about what captures the public’s attention. Why is the Carrier plant’s decision to leave approximately 1,000 jobs in Indiana getting so many headlines, while many voters (2+ million shy of the plurality, to be specific) seemed un-phased by Trump’s factual lapses?

Thomas Friedman, in his new book, Thank You for Being Late, describes meeting an Ethiopian parking attendant who asks him for blogging advice. Friedman emphasizes the importance of talking about people, noting that, “the columns that get the most responses are almost always the ones about people, not numbers.” Bakke is a lot better than Webber at weaving in personal stories, for example, about a couple who live in a part of Oregon that is prone to outages and the ways they’ve developed to make hot coffee without electricity. I suspect this accounts for a lot of her book’s appeal.

  1. David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, by Tom Turner. I’m going to let this books slip onto the list even though it was published in late 2015 because I want to include at least one book that I can heartily recommend. It’s a biography of the former executive director of the Sierra Club that includes descriptions of a lot of important issues in the history of the energy industry, such as environmentalists’ opposition to dams and coal plants in the Southwest and nuclear plants in California.

I haven’t read it yet, but based on the number of times my husband chuckled or exclaimed out loud while reading the book, it’s one of the best books he’s read in 2016. He describes it as an engaging biography of one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, which has had a huge impact on the energy industry. (Plus, he liked the vignettes about Brower’s childhood in Berkeley.)

Anything else you would like to add for 2016? Has anyone read a good book on cars?

It looks like 2017 might be a banner year. Russell Gold, author of The Boom, is working on a new book, and, the author I mentioned last year, Nicola Twilley, who is working on a book about refrigeration appears to be wrapping up soon.

A bit further afield, I was delighted to see that the fourth episode of the new Netflix series, imagesThe Crown, revolved around the Great Smog in London. This was a period in December 1952 when weather conditions trapped noxious sulfur dioxide emissions from coal, leading to 12,000 fatalities and many more illnesses.

How often are environmental issues the main plot driver on a popular series?!? One of the characters describes Churchill encouraging the country to keep burning coal to “give the illusion of a solid economy.” I’m currently doing research on the link between energy consumption and economic prosperity.

My husband and I are about halfway through the first season of The Crown and really like the show. The pace is a bit slower than Downtown Abbey (I just started Season 6, so that’s still my go-to), but the acting is terrific and the history lessons are fun.

Happy reading!

Energy Collective

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