June 13, 2020

Book Review: ‘A Question of Power’ Explores Essential Role of Electricity

Book Review: ‘A Question of Power’ Explores Essential Role of Electricity

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In a new book, Robert Bryce shows how necessary electricity is to modernity and how the growing demand for it can be met.


ome of the things we take most for granted, such as the air and the climate, rest on complex foundations that we often fail to appreciate. The same is true of electricity. In his new book, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, energy journalist and scholar Robert Bryce makes a compelling case for the absolute “essentiality” of electricity to modern life and describes the many moving parts of the power sector that produces that electricity. Among the book’s many strengths is the scope it provides for understanding the world’s most capital-intensive economic sector, from the governments and corporations that operate it, to the many individual ratepayers needed to support the system.

In stressing that modern life requires electricity, Bryce contends that the difference between the haves and the have-nots around the globe is defined by whether or not they have it. In other words, electricity provides a proxy for human development. To show how devastating the loss of electricity can be, the book offers examples, ranging from World War II to the Lebanon–Israel war in the 1980s to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, to show the crippling long-term results from the loss of electricity infrastructure in lost economic productivity, disease, and isolation from global networks.

The book is grounded in the hands-on experience of an engaged and seasoned journalist. Plain-spoken and never pretentious, it provides lucid tutorials in electric science and technology, weaving together social and technological history to tell the story of public systems for providing electric power. When introduced, electricity was the quintessentially modern product. It was science made manifest and took the world away from the “mystics, priests, and shamans.” Electricity also brought enormous practical benefits. Electric motors eliminated the clumsy and dangerous shaft-and-belt system in factories and workshops; artificial light enabled book learning past dark and was necessary to the development of telegraphs, telephones, and later, broadcast communications; the influence of electricity on farm labor efficiency contributed to urbanization, while electric railways and elevators made dense cities possible; air conditioning, an electricity-enabled amenity, opened the U.S. Southwest to settlement and will bring relief in the future to more tropical zones. Some of the best history in the book relates to the electrification of rural Texas that became the passion of a young U.S. congressman named Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1930s.

From observing electric power systems and their development, Bryce devises a political philosophy of governance as well. He notes that there is very little international electricity trade and, with few exceptions, each country must make its own. He sees electricity as a symbol of democracy and makes a strong case that electricity requires effective governance to work. Power systems flourish in a system of responsive government. Only through sound administration can the grid grow in a “virtuous cycle.” Electrical systems do not succeed in nations with corrupt national governments. Correspondingly, the success of the grid requires an “integrity” that precludes theft by consumers. The data show that as nations build working electrical systems, rising kilowatt-hours correlate with higher levels of literacy and other indicators of human development.

Looking to the future, the book both stresses and explains how electricity will become even more essential. Total future demand for electricity — including to meet the needs of a growing transport sector as well as those of the billions of people who receive too little electricity today — will require six times as much electricity as is generated at current levels, something the author calls the “The Terawatt Challenge.” Bryce points out that to meet that challenge, electricity from coal, which is cheap, abundant, and a proven technology, remains the most attractive option for many millions in Asia and in Eastern Europe. He shows that renewable energy has very definite limits in providing all, or even most, of the required kilowatt-hours in the future, citing cost, storage, scale, and land use as the main problems. Examples illustrate the theoretical as well as practical difficulties with implementing large-scale renewable energy projects in the real world. He argues that these limits are being deliberately obscured by governments intent on toeing the line of international climate politics. Surprisingly, Bryce is bullish on solar having a solid share of the future energy mix.

For the future of electricity generation, Bryce argues in favor of shifting from coal to natural gas, and eventually nuclear energy, as a viable lowest-emission path to meet future energy needs. He offers a eulogy for the first generations of the American nuclear industry from the bowels of the soon-to-be-closed Indian Point reactor that until 2020 supplied New York City with over two gigawatts of carbon-free electricity. Like others, he is hopeful that the standardization and passive safety features of Small Modular Reactors may offer a way forward for the nuclear industry in the U.S. He notes that, internationally, Russia is active in the diffusion of nuclear technology as a provider and China and India as consumers. One of the most important takeaways from the book is the author’s point that large-scale investment in renewable energy projects always occurs in countries with already high electricity demand and not in poor countries with rapidly rising electricity consumption.

There is a critical need for reliable high-quality power in a world that grows more and more dependent on digital infrastructure. A future of bigger data means one with more electricity to process and store. In his critique of the concentrated economic power of the Giant Five technology companies (Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft), Bryce shows how they have taken pains to develop independent back-up electric grids to ensure that their own networks never go down. To ensure the smooth operations of their data centers, these private grids never rely directly on renewable power. Because electricity accounts for one third of the cost of operating a data center, the Giant Five locate their “digital smelters” in places such as Iceland, where cold (for heat removal) and electricity are cheap.

In the latter chapters, Bryce shows how the productivity of mining digital currency, growing marijuana indoors, or desalinating water can be measured in how many or how much can be produced per kilowatt-hour. Again, these chapters of the book combine a journalist’s appreciation of anecdote with an engineer’s penchant for understanding how things work. One trend distinguishable across the book is the rise of less vulnerable, small-scale grids, motivated by considerations of reliability or sustainability or survivability, that seem destined to increase in tandem with mainline generation.

The book contains considerable social commentary, approaching sensitive subjects that influence or are influenced by electricity consumption, in other words, everything. Alternatively apolitical, left-leaning, and conservative, Bryce uses the book as a platform for first supporting, and then articulating, political arguments. He wisely avoids vilifying the climate-change community but is clearly intent on offering an alternative more realistic and hopeful vision for the future of the electricity sector. Bryce insists that electricity is essential to future prosperity, opportunity, and life, and will continue to be a necessary component for human flourishing. It is the way to bring the light to many and “it can be done.”

Iddo Wernick is a senior research associate at the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University and a senior fellow at Breakthrough Institute.

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