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Energy Bookshelf: A power hungry gushing of lies

August 16th, 2010 · 5 Comments

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.

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Tags: climate delayers · Energy · energy bookshelf · skeptic · truthiness

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tweets that mention Energy Bookshelf: A power hungry gushing of lies -- // Aug 16, 2010 at 5:51 pm

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  • 2 Corey Trench // Aug 30, 2010 at 8:01 am

    Whoa, I must be an-in-the-tank conservative.

    Hmmm … not sure where this reaction, in specific, comes from.

    People do not equate themselves with energy use or environmental damage. They turn on the light switch. That’s all they know.

    I agree — on multiple levels.

    And, I think that you can see that within the book review.

    1. Issue is not power as a better term for describing the situation, as Bryce asserted, but energy services. E.g., we all care about having that light go on — rather than the vastly smaller share/number who understand or care about how the systems work to get the light on when we want it. And, even that vastly smaller share doesn’t think consciously about that for the vast (VAST) majority of their calls for energy services.

    2. Agree, as stated, with Bryce that Americans are — writ large — ignorant about energy issues.

    This book starts us in direction by answering why we have prospered and what it is at risk.

    Well, I stated that there is much in the book that I agree with, where I find Bryce to be correct. While I didn’t highlight this as an example, the central element of “energy” to our lives (and our achievement of prosperity) is an important element of the ignorance. I don’t think, however, that Bryce is fully on in terms of being able to state he “answered” — there are errors of fact and elements of misdirection in that discussion, just as there are through-out the book.

    I love hydrogen. That’s out battery of the future. But, we have to get there. Going to take bunch of energy to to do it. Kind of like racing to the stars.

    Wind is a farce. Everyone knows it. Even environmentalists who fight it in conspicuous and inconvenient locations.

    Hmm … “wind is a farce” is not a statement that I agree with and thus you are simply wrong that “everyone knows it”. Wind makes sense within an integrated structure of power.

    Every single energy option has its strengths/weaknesses, benefits/costs — wind is not an exception. And, there are legitimate locations where wind shouldn’t go (which is ever-more included in siting decisions) and there are farcical NIMBY-ite battles (Cape Wind being an excellent example).

    Putting this aside, to the point of the review, I simply used wind as an example where Bryce’s numbers simply do stand up to analysis and do not comport with real-world developments/reality. Want to call my review off, show me how my dissection of Bryce’s numbers is wrong — I will acknowledge (and correct) if you are able to do so. If not, that means that you acknowledge that Bryce’s work simply doesn’t stand up to objective scrutiny.

    Ethanol, too. What a stupid idea, along with burying carbon dioxide.

    Well, I agree that ethanol is (mainly) a farce — it is not efficient on EROEI terms (energy return on energy invested) if not so many other reasons.

    As to “buying carbon dioxide”, assume that you are referring to Cap & Trade. Cap & Trade — if structured/managed poorly, will be a farce — can provide a market space for fostering the most cost-effective reduction of a pollutant that is causing massive damage. (Yes, CO2 is a pollutant even as it is “natural”. Sulphur is natural, yet emitting that is a pollutant. Mercury is natural, yet emitting that is a pollutant. Urine is absolutely natural yet a pollutant that needs treatment. All of these, and many others, are “natural” for which we (and the planetary system that supports us) . These all cause problems for humans, human society, and the environment that supports us when dumped into the commons without restrictions. We restrict / control / clean up after all of those others — question is how to move down CO2 to reduce damage to the planetary system and restrict impacts on humanity. Hate Cap & Trade, provide me the alternative paths.

    Sorry you were disappointed. I was motivated to ask more questions.

    My challenge, as laid out, is that Bryce’s numbers and assertions — in too many cases — do not stand up to scrutiny. While there is value is some of what he wrote, there are errors in much of it and major gaps of what was left out. I find it highly troubling when I feel that I cannot read through a single paragraph with confidence without having reference works at hand to check the accuracy (and truthfulness) of what the author is writing.

    As I started this review, I opened my read of this book feeling a kindred spirit … but the inadequacies of the work wiped that away.

    If the issues were solely ‘ideological’ / ‘political theory’ rather than issues of fact and analysis, then this would have been a far different review.

  • 3 Joseph Somsel // Sep 15, 2010 at 9:54 am

    I bought and read the book. While not perfect, it is generally factual

    Actually, there are many factual and analytical errors — I’ve provided just a few. Prove that my material is false/incorrect and we can have a conversation but otherwise don’t go around asserting that this is a “factual” work.

    and its critique of the “green energy” movement is on the mark.

    Indeed, there is a profound difference in political social, and economic assumptions between the author and the reviewer. I have to agree with the author that the free market is far more effective in allocation of resources than the mandates of the “ruling class.”

    No, I am not seeing this as “mandates” or desiring mandates.

    And, there is a basic reality: free markets work best within defined and enforceable structures. Does an investor choose to invest in Somalia, where there are no rules / structures for enforcing and regulating commerce, or the United States? I support a well-regulated free market economy. A critical challenge in the U.S. energy market is all the direct and hidden subsidies. Among the worst of the hidden subsidies are the “externalities” that lead to worsened health of our citizens, that reduce our IQs, that damage ecosystems, weaken our national security, etc …

    Externalities are, in fact, an interesting area of Bryce’s contradictions. At one point, Bryce essentially wipes this issue away asserting that since these costs are built into the system we should do nothing about them. At another point, he talks about placing fees (taxes) on pollutants from coal fired electricity like mercury. This contradiction (not the only one) made me want to ask: Robert, which way do you want to have it?

    At issue is whether individual economic actors, consumers and producers of energy, are making decisions on energy use based on their best interests. The reviewer seems to think that he knows better and is willing, no, eager!, to have his will imposed by government force.

    Well, let’s see.

    Could the average consumer have driven the revolution that we’ve seen in refrigerators? The “market” was delivering lower quality products that used more energy until government standards began to intervene. The result, in no small part due to the government standard setting (in collaboration with industry), are higher quality refrigerators (quieter, lower energy use, with bells & whistles) that use a fraction of the energy and use less energy with each succeeding generation of refrigerators.

    And, this is not an isolated example.

    Without the government standard setting, what would the consumer choice be when shopping?

    Sorry, but government economic control and direction has never worked and can never work. I resent government imposing generation sources that would never be justified on the basis of cost or reliability (wind and solar), especially when it drives up the cost of power over more rational choices like coal and nuclear.


    1. There is nothing in this review that is either pro or anti nuclear power.
    2. What is “cost of power”? Seems quite clear that you would totally exclude the quite real costs of “externalities” (such as asthma and cancers in our children, mercury in the food stream, etc …). If one makes even the most basic effort to analyze the real costs of energy options, “coal” does not come out as a “rational” choice nearly as easily as you assert.

    In any case, as a citizen, I don’t really want government to get involved and I think my opinion, and the opinions of my fellow citizens are and should be paramount.

    I reserve the right to chose my own light bulbs or refridgerator based on my own criteria and judgment and to set my home thermostat at whatever temperature I’m willing to pay for.

    Hmmm …

    Actually, I think that the determination of specific technology was/is a mistake as opposed to standard setting. Set the standards and let the private sector (mainly) figure out the best and most competitive paths for meeting (and, likely, exceeding) those standards. Thus, I wouldn’t have “banned” incandescent bulbs but would lay out that the basic incandescent is a 100+ year old technology that is highly inefficient and put in efficiency standards (that would tighten over time). If new incandescents could mean/exceed the standards, great. If not, there are technologies that can.

    A la the “right to choose”, you are (as per above) ignoring the reality that your choices are constrained — greatly — by what is on the market and those market forces are not necessarily easy to move especially, when it comes to an arena like energy efficiency, when there are many factors that distort the market space.

    Do you object to labeling which lays out, clearly, the total-ownership cost implications when buying an appliance since this is a government intervention? Without that labeling, how many people really would have any understanding that choice A would drive higher costs than choice B?

    Do you believe it incorrect for the government to set safety standards in building codes? What about standards for energy efficiency (such as insulation) in those building codes?

    And, did I tell you what your thermostat should be set at?

    If the reviewer thinks he knows better than I what is best for my family, I cordially suggest he bugger off.

    Well, as to your specific family, I am not telling you what to do but, as per Steven Chu, giving Americans greater ease to save money through greater energy efficiency via government standard setting seems like a pretty reasonable constraint on our freedom.

    Note that Chu (nor I) did not say what your household temperature can be or how cold your beer can be or how many hours of TV you can watch.

  • 4 Rod Adams // Sep 16, 2010 at 2:32 am

    I read Bryce’s book back in April. Though I generally favored his approach, I also agree with your observation that the assumptions used in the energy density computations may be a bit biased. However, since I tend to believe that most people who purchase energy like to do it on their schedule and not the weather’s schedule, I do not consider wind to be worth much discussion.

    Here is a version of feedback that I gave to Bryce back in April:


    I have finished reading Power Hungry. Thank you for sending it.

    We see the world through different lenses. The effect on our thinking was most abundantly clear on page 191 in Figure 28 titled “The Problem With Batteries: It’s the Energy Density, Stupid.” I guess your publishers did not want to spring for the fold out pages that would have been required in order to add just one more fuel source to the graph labeled “Uranium”.

    The rule of thumb for that source is that fissioning a single gram provides one Megawatt-day of heat energy. Using the same units as your graph, the number would be 24,000,000,000 watt-hours/kilogram. That would make a very long bar requiring about 2 million pages – based on the fact that gasoline’s bar for 12,000 watt-hours/kilogram requires one page.

    There are many instances in the book where you overlook that important difference in energy density or use numbers that minimize the 6 orders of magnitude difference between the power/energy density of combustion versus fission. You say a lot of good things about nuclear energy, but your computation of the power density of a nuclear plant on page 86 by using the entire area of the plant boundaries as the denominator qualifies as a bit of slant.

    What happens to the computation when the number of installed units at STP is doubled without expanding the plant boundaries?

    I like natural gas as a power source, but am not as optimistic as you are about the industry’s ability to dramatically increase the RATE at which it extracts the gas from known reservoirs. Yes, fracking has made more resource available – eventually – but getting to that resource requires hard work and a finite amount of time using a relatively limited quantity of resources. Methane can only be extracted so fast, especially once people figure out that gas may be “clean” at the point of use, but there is a lot of disruption at the point of extraction.

    I am not optimistic about the idea of using a gaseous fuel source to meet power demands that are not near the current electrical grid or pipeline distribution system. That leaves a whole lot of the world out of prosperity based on a plan that emphasizes gas now and nuclear later.”

  • 5 Douglas D. Anderson // Jun 2, 2012 at 5:36 am

    Good Day!
    I am convinced that Energy learning for a novice of the subject, is more like playing Golf, than that of Tiddly Winks, Jacks or Yahtzee. Analagous to the Energy issue, Golf is filled with ideas to try and imporve at the sprot, but a Weekend Golfer will never get any better, playing each weekend regardless how much he tries new ideas to improve. Energy Info is the same, full of ideas but lacking a facade of reality.

    While the broader energy market is the largest sector in the world, it is also the most fragmented due to the “Golf” analogy presented. Energy supply and distribution in utility infrastructure has evolved from vertically integrated monopolies where there exists few incentives of motovation for innovation…………..this characteristic in “Energy Culture” will not change under current “Entightellment Driven Leadership” and must die for true sustainabile, clean energy emissions and policy to take root.

    Bryce paints a good pictoral, but is missing the cultural element. Energy is not a core function to most businesses, which results in fragmented and scattered internal ownership, management by spreadsheet in multiple silos, low level institutional learning and sharing, with little transparency………….eventually leading to low level of re-investment and degrading resources. Our energy service companies also emphasize a Go-To-Market sales approach which intensifies embedded inefficiencies in the aforementioned “Utility Energy Culture”.

    Power Density in the writing of Power Hungry should have been left out, due to multiple reader comments taking data “Out of Context” relative to his reference. But, it is spot-on describing the lack of stellar performance of the Wind Energy investment of our Tax Dollars by the ARRA policy……………..regardless of content accuracy, I will accept any degradation of the current wind energy market sector………we in the US have honestly failed miserably in terms of the EU’s success with Wind and Geothermal as grid-topping supplemental geneating entity to it’s Nuclear Power.

    Many of the above dynamics, as well as myths and ill-truths of energy subject matter effect executives in the CEO suite of our commercial business in a terrible way, limiting visibility into each company’s energy infrastructure, limiting ability to trim cost of operation, and enduring minimal understanding of energy’s impact on P&L, balance sheet and cashflow.

    Bryce’s authorship of Power Hungry is great entertainment, will service the current policy sub-strategic motives of the Brooking’s Institution for it’s new Mantra of “Beyond Boom and Bust for energy efficiency proliferation………….but it should be left out of the engineering conference room regarding solutionism process requiring muc accuracy in energy performance measurement standards.

    Let us best understand, in the future that any reading, at some level, to be affordable for publishing, must entertain.

    Douglas D. Anderson PE, LEED AP
    DDA Engineering
    811 West Main St
    Middleville, Michigan 49333