Power Trip: The Story of Energy by Michael E. Webber

Power Trip: The Story of EnergyPower Trip: The Story of Energy by Michael E. Webber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My mechanical engineering masters degree (2000) focused on energy management and I maintain a more than passing interest in the subject, both professionally and personally. I requested an advance review copy of this book last year and was approved, but a glitch linked the wrong book and the publisher wasn’t able to resolve it, so the offering site removed, well, the offer. I finally cleared some room and got a chance to read it. Quite glad I did. Dr. Webber is an academic, but he doesn’t write like an academic can tend write. This is an engaging narrative, filled with history, data, details, trivia, problems…and solutions. BLUF (bottom line up front)…an excellent read.

Webber says in his prologue that

For thousands of years the story of energy was slow-moving and incremental, but in the last few hundred years in the developed world, the energy story has become more interesting.

This is true for most technologies, but as he observes, “energy is unique: no other physical factor in society has such a wide-ranging impact on public health, ecosystems, the global economy, and personal liberties.” Webber talks about what energy has done and can do, and what the impacts of lack of sufficient energy are. Webber lists Nobel laureate Richard Smalley’s top ten problems for humanity: 1) energy, 2) water, 3) food, 4) environment, 5) poverty, 6) terrorism and war, 7) disease, 8) education, 9) democracy, and 10) population. Energy comes out on top because it is integral to cracking the other nine. Webber addresses those challenges from his perspective of energy availability and impact, and breaks them out into six chapters of Water, Food, Transportation, Wealth, Cities, and Security. Details, data, and more details, but written in such an engaging way that even the detail averse should like this. Some highlights…

Water. Everywhere, nor any drop to drink. The relationship of energy to water is as old as civilization, intensifying in recent centuries. Water provides mechanical power (mills, textiles, saws, etc.) and later electrical. Dams are built to harness gravity and the motive force of water to drive electric generators. But water also becomes steam to drive mechanical equipment. Energy is need to move water to where it is not (presumably where it is needed.) Water is used for food, but also biofuels. And water has been a historic waste stream. Webber shares

In the mid-1800s, Londoners could solve their water problems by simply flushing waste farther along the Thames. But today, with a higher global population and bigger cities, there is no “away.”

This is true of trash as well – there is no “away” when we “throw things away.” And when we pollute, energy is needed to help clean water. When hydropower is a source of energy, and there are problems with the source (drought), there are can be interesting social implications:

early 2016, Venezuela was suffering a significant drought. Because the country gets a large fraction of its power from hydroelectric facilities, the drought raised the risk of power shortages. To help forestall a national crisis, President Nicolás Maduro “urged women to stop using hairdryers and offered alternative styling tips as the country’s energy crisis continues.” He even went on to say, “I think a woman looks better when she runs her fingers through her hair and lets it dry naturally.” That a president found it reasonable to give hairstyle suggestions to women is remarkable on many fronts, but that he
did so for reasons related to energy reliability is striking.

There is also a curious folk prohibition in parts of South Korea about not sleeping with a fan blowing on you (and sometimes no air conditioning)…something about it being bad for the health. I didn’t investigate the origins, but I had a theory that back when their post-war electric grid was less than stable, propagating that might help relieve some of the demand. Anyway, that ties to energy security as well as water.

On Food, energy is required to raise crops and livestock, create fertilizers to increase feed production. For all of the increase in agricultural production, energy is also required for processing, packaging, preparing, preserving. Illustrating packaging costs, Webber talks about milk deliveries in the early 1970s:

The milk was delivered in reusable glass containers. When we were done, we would set the empty containers on the porch for the milkman to take with him after making a fresh delivery. That half-gallon, reusable glass milk container has about 4,500 kilocalories of energy embedded in the manufacturing of the bottle itself. 10 The half gallon of whole milk contained inside has less than 1,300 kilocalories of energy. That means the container has more than three times as much energy in its materials as the liquid it carries. Scale that up across all types of packaging at a national level, and the embedded energy is significant, which shows how valuable it is to reuse materials whenever possible.

Good contrast. And good point. Another good illustrative point, Webber considers lamb that the English like to eat. It comes from New Zealand, which at 10,000 miles away seems to fly in the face of reason as to why not locally sourced lamb. Factoring in the local transportation costs vs mass ocean transport, with grains instead of grass feed (and the commensurate water and other resources), the life-cycle energy makes the NZ lamb more cost effective.

As a consequence, even though the lamb from New Zealand is a world away, it requires less energy overall.

Webber talks about overabundance, waste, food security, food for energy. Biofuels too often some at the expense of people fuel, food. Corn is a good source of ethanol, and with eventual depletion of fossil oils, might be the primary source of liquid fuel in the future.

Webber’s chapter on Transportation covers human history: water power to steam rail to internal combustion cars and trucks, and jet engines for air travel . And he notes to the challenges associated with our rapidly deployed carbon emissions. He proposes a return to rail instead of trucks for freight, and to disincentivise the smaller, more costly and more polluting means…

A carbon price and update to our gas tax model would likely encourage a lot of switching to rail for freight, but increasing throughput (ton-miles) on rail without other improvements could degrade other key performance metrics such as delivery time and reliability. Since many freight customers are very sensitive to those factors, commensurate investments have to be made in optimizing performance, double-tracking where possible, adding new tracks, and alleviating bottlenecks.

Smart idea, and probably right, but the corporate “citizens” and wrongwing will never agree. Mobility is a problem in rural and urban environments; particularly in a large country. Too far apart for mass transport in rural and too dependent on individual transport that densifies urban.

Wealth is tied to energy in a cyclical manner – poverty is improved with access to energy; “more energy means more economic opportunity,” And as energy creates wealth, the wealthy consume more energy. Cities are intensive energy consumers, waste concentrators. Smart cities might have some mitigating effect, but they are few and are struggling to figure out how to be “smart” (My observations from working in a progressive municipality.) Wars are fought over energy. Energy (oil) is used as a threat to security and to manipulate economies.

The oil wars in Iraq in the early 1990s and early 2000s were defining military missions for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, but the idea that oil is worth fighting for is actually known as the Carter Doctrine. In his 1980 State of the Union speech, President Carter announced that the nation was willing to use military force to protect its interests in the Persian Gulf, at the heart of the Middle East’s most active oil-producing region. As an expression of the Carter Doctrine, the US military projects force around the world, deploying the navy to keep sea lanes open so that oil tankers can move freely to their destinations.

Piracy is now shifting to energy sources – tankers taken hostage, ransoming their contents. Russia plays at strong-arming Europe with its oil supply, threatening (shooting missiles near but not hitting) a pipeline through Georgia in order to get support for another pipeline, the NordStream 2. And then T helps his buddy at the expense of Europe allies:

A decade later, at a famous summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, President Trump recommended the NordStream 2 pipeline as a way for Europe to improve its energy security, finally helping Russia achieve that goal.

There is, as you can imagine, a lot more depth and breadth than my cherry-picked notes illustrate. Webber concludes with his position that the “grand challenge” is responsibly improving access to the creative potential of energy. Affecting the energy system, there are “six overarching demographic trends— population growth, economic growth, urbanization, motorization, industrialization, and electrification” driving energy demand. On top of the demographic trends, there are three technological trends: society is becoming more efficient, everything is becoming more information-intensive, and the rise of decentralization. The environmental trend overarching all of that is our emissions, which are dropping despite population and technologies increasing, but not enough.

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