On reading the opening paragraphs of Robert Bryce’s author’s note, I felt a kindred soul:
.. just how lucky I am. There is no more complex or fascinating topic than energy. … the scale of energy use and the complexity and the importance of the energy business are unmatched by any industry. The study of energy includes physics, geology, chemistry, engineering, metallurgy … the list goes on and on. … no matter how much I study it, I still feel like a rank amateur. And, yet, if we are to make wise choices about energy policy, it is essential for all of us — as voters, as owners and managers of businesses, and as policymakers — to understand what energy is, what power is, how they are measured, and which forms of energy and power production make the most sense environmentally and economically.
Sadly, the material that followed this opening shattered the reverie of idyllic bonding.
Masquerading as an unbiased, fact-based look at America’s energy situation and viable paths forward into the future, Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry is a mixed collection of factual material, thought-provoking constructs, selective ‘truthiness’, questionable (if not simply wrong) data crunching, and outright deceptions. This mix of material makes Bryce’s work dangerous reading for those without a serious grounding in energy (related) issues while that same mix calls into question this work’s value for anyone with that more serious background.
Defective calculation or outright deception?
Bryce makes much through the book on renewable energy’s failure in terms of energy density. In the case of solar and wind power, he focuses on electricity with the number of watts produced per square meter. While there are numerable questionable elements in his discussions (such as placing equivalency between a depletable resource, such as a natural gas well, that might produce for just a few years vs a renewable resource (solar or wind) that can produce at that same location indefinitely), his equations simply do not stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Bryce asserts that “the average wind turbine has a power density of about 1.2 watts per square meter” [page 235]. As there are 4000 square meters to an acre, this would mean that an “average” wind turbine would be able to produce, on average, 4800 watts (4.8 kilowatts) per acre.
The planning factor for wind turbine placement – the “a “footprint” of land that has to be taken out of production to provide space for turbine towers, roads, and support structures” – is 0.25 acres per wind turbine. (See here for details.) This would mean, according to Bryce’s formulation that an “average” wind turbine produces 1200 watts on a constant basis. Using a somewhat low capacity factor of 0.33, this would mean that an average wind turbine would be rated at 3600 watts (3.6 kilowatts) to meet Bryce’s statement of the “average” wind turbines. Translating this to acreage, this would be 14.4 kw/acre of wind-power capacity. An analysis of 93 wind projects, with some 14 gigawatts (14,000,000 kilowatts) of wind power capacity found “the average permanent direct impact value” of 0.3 hectares per MW of capacity. As an acre is 0.4047 hectares, this translates to roughly 1.33 MW of capacity per acre or nearly 100 times greater than what Bryce’s formulation suggests. Using that 33% (which, again, is low) utilization factor, this translates to about 440 kilowatts per acre or 110 watts per square meter as opposed to Bryce’s assertion of 1.2 watts per square meter.
What is the critical item driving this difference? Bryce is calculating that 100% of the territory associated with a wind project is solely attributable to the wind program in terms of energy density. He does not, however, do the same thing for gas and oil exploration, assuming that all the land on the surface surrounding a well is 100% dedicated to the energy production. When it comes to wind farms, in fact, wind farms are typically multi-use areas with, for example, farmers continuing to farm the land around the turbines. This would be like attacking solar pv on the basis of power density when that pv is replacing roofing shingle — e.g., the space would be ‘unproductive’ for the energy system without the pv deployment. In that example, imo, the real question would be price per delivered kWh. Do we really care that much if the pv doesn’t produce much per square meter if it delivers it at a cost-effective price? (And, while pv is not openly competitive in most markets, each passing day sees reduced pv prices and increasing arenas where pv is a viable energy option.)
As a related element in the energy density question, Bryce does not – in anyway – account for depletable vs renewable. A wind farm could, in theory, produce indefinitely from the same site with a good possibility that production will actual increase over time with improved technology (such as improved wind prediction) and turbine upgrades. Fossil fuel resources (coal, oil, natural gas) will deplete. As Bryce points out, shale natural gas wells deplete at a very fast rate: “The new shale gas wells … have steep decline curves, meaning that output from some wells may fall by 80 to 90 percent during the first year of production.” [page 253] Thus, over the life-span of a working wind turbine, the “equivalent” shale natural gas production might actually encompass 10 or more sites which throws another factor into the calculation of power density that would tip the scales toward wind farms.
Robert Bryce misleads through selective and distorting citation of material; his work is a classic example of ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. He is frequently quite selective in presenting/discussing information. As an example, Bryce emphasizes the financial value of mineral rights to landowners (see page 248). He does not, in an equivalent vein, discuss or mention the rental/royalty payments that property owners receive for wind turbines. As an example, the 16 turbine, 24 megawatt Klondike Wind Farm, Phase 1, in Sherman County, Oregon, provided $362,442 in property tax in 2005 (10% of the total property tax base in the county) and the “farmers … receive annual property payments of between $2-$4,000 per year for each turbine sited on their property. For comparison, each turbine sites on only half an acre of land, enough to earn less than $100 per year if used to cultivate wheat.”
Here are a few more examples of distorting the situation, in just one arena, energy efficiency:
- Bryce makes claims about how the US is so efficient, pointing to percentage increases in efficiency. He does not, however, ever discuss the absolute terms comparing the U.S. economy with other countries or, even more relevant, comparing US states with each other. In fact, when compared to ‘peers’ (Europe, Japan), the United States is far less efficient in terms of energy used per $GDP.
- Betraying his libertarian bent (as a fellow at the libertarian Manhattan Institute), Bryce simply asserts that there doesn’t need to be regulatory or other action to move energy efficiency forward because it will simply happen. The truth is that this is simply false, as has been documented and analyzed in study after study, case after case. There are psychological, cultural, structural, organization, fiscal and other reasons why this is false. Study after study show that a large chunk of US energy (electrical in the example) demand could be carved out (large as 20-30+%) via energy efficiency at the equivalent cost of 4 cents or less per kilowatt hour over the next decade. And, the benefits of energy efficiency could well be much more significant. There are, however, many reasons why, from the utility to the business to the community to the individual household, there are barriers that inhibit these efficiencies from occurring — which Bryce’s truthiness utterly ignores. (An excellent starting point on this is the 1991 Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) study: Climate: Making Sense and Making Money. Oages 11029 are a table laying out barriers to energy efficiency with suggested paths for overcoming those barriers.)
- Bryce attacks regulation, in multiple levels. A poster child for energy efficiency is the refrigerator. In 1973, refrigerators were the largest single use of electricity in the home and the demand had been growing at 9.5% / year since WWII. Energy efficiency had been declining as manufacturers sought to cut costs. Utility planners had, at that time, carved out a 9.5% growth rate in power demand indefinitely. In the face of the oil embargo, California began to drive standards that were followed by five state and national standards (Energy Star as latest round). In 1972, the average refrigerator used about 2000 kilowatt hours / year. Today, with ice makers & water cooling & increased average size & inefficient side-by-side models, the average refrigerator uses under 500 kwh/year. And, by the way, in current dollar terms, the price of refrigerators has dropped per cubic foot in part because the requirements for energy efficiency have led manufacturers to redo production lines & drive improved efficiency in construction. This is a very straightforward example of the power of government regulation to drive reduced energy usage and save consumers money.
As Secretary of Energy Steve Chu discussed the other day, writing regulation and setting standards are (without exception) the lowest cost move with the highest payoff to the economy that the Department of Energy can pursue. Speaking of libertarians like Bryce, Chu commented that there are economists that will account, as a value, the reduced freedom of choice due to tightening standards. To this, Secretary Chu noted that
Forcing people to save is a cost that I am willing to bear. We’re going to enforce standards
Bryce clearly believes that forcing people to save money through driving greater energy efficiency in appliances through standards is somehow wrong.
The ideological bent
Bryce asserts that he is not ideological and that he is simply seeking facts. Power Hungry’s content proves this false.
- Bryce belittles Democratic politicians and attacks (with some legitimacy) the ethical and other questions surrounding carbon offsets such as those at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He makes no such commentary and provides no examination of the ridiculousness of “Drill, Baby, Drill” chants at the Republican National Convention, with no discussion of how little impact that would have on America’s energy future.
- When claiming some form of ‘neutrality’ on climate change issues, when it comes to discussing those laying out the scientific case for climate change, Bryce refers to James Hansen as “the high-profile NASA scientist who is closely aligned with former vice president Al Gore”. The skeptics are, however, given strong titling such as the reference to “Richard Lindzen, the climate scientist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology” and serial climate delayer and confuser Roger Pielke, Jr, as “a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado”.
No, Robert is not biased at all … perhaps that is why the book jacket doesn’t mention his position at the libertarian Manhattan Institute.
While there is material of interest, …
One has to read this book questioning every assertion of fact and every statement. This makes this an extremely difficult book to read since simply accepting his statements as accurate is, as the above demonstrates, absurd since so much of what he writes is questionable on a factual basis. Yet, reading 300+ pages with reference book always at hand for checking up on the author is tiresome. This book should never have made it through fact checking and serious review which makes one wonder what Public Affairs’ process is with non-fiction.
And, of course, the problems extend beyond fact into intellectual construct. Putting aside how Bryce’s libertarianism impacted the work, Bryce asserts that we should not be talking of “energy” but, instead, of “power”, because power is what we want. This construct, however, fails to capture the true core issue. When it comes to automobiles, for example, while there are those who are concerned about “power”, caring how many horse power are beneath the hood, most people simply want the ‘energy service’ of a vehicle: that gets them from point A to point B (with some definition of style, comfort, convenience, safety, etc …). If the exact same ‘performance’ could be provided with ½ or 1/10th the “power”, the vast majority of people would be perfectly happy. We want a warm house in winter, a cooled office in summer, a cold beer in the evening for drinking while watching the game on our large-screen TV. In other words, Bryce’s assertion that we want “power” and not “energy” is mistaken as what we want are the energy services that we get through systems that use energy and power.
To be honest, this is simply quite frustrating because, as the review opened, this book began with such potential. Bryce could have provided a service to help lower America’s energy illiteracy, with factual and truthful laying out of the situation, highlighting the complexities, and providing his recommended paths forward. Bryce is correct on many points (ethanol is a boondoggle, the energy density of oil is hard to replace, Americans are energy illiterate, …), but the factual misrepresentations and semi-hidden ideological bent of the book make this something that should not be on the Energy Bookshelf.
In conclusion …
This book is, of course, a darling of the right-wing sound machine circuit (including the pages of The Washington Post). Note the title: Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. Bryce’s previous book was entitled Gusher of Lies. That seems ever so appropriate as a subtitle for this book.
NOTE: This is a slightly updated version of the book review, correcting a typo (the “about 110 watts” replaces “440 watts”) and adding a short paragraph highlighting the key reason for the power density misrepresentation: that Bryce assumes that 100% of the land involved in a wind farm is solely associated with the wind farm in the calculation of power density. This is a misrepresentation of a multi-use environment/situation.