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By Robert Rapier on Oct 11, 2009 with no responses

Book Review – Power of the People

I will finish up my long-promised concluding post in the recent series on ethanol and oil imports. I have been traveling for ten days, and inadvertently left all of my graphics for that post on another computer. I am back home now, and will try to tidy it up and post it in the next few days.

On the long plane ride back to Hawaii, I read Power of the People: America’s New Electricity Choices. I picked this book up at the 2009 Solar Tour – Pikes Peak Region, which I visited on my trip to Colorado. My new job has me getting more involved in the electricity sector, and I thought this would be a book that would help push me up the learning curve. A short description of the book:

America is as addicted to electricity as it is to oil. Our electricity usage increases every year, yet we still use the same transmission grid that was constructed in the middle of the last century. The grid is stretched to the limit, creating the potential of future black-outs like the one that brought the Northeast to its knees in 2003. Meanwhile, some of our most abundant and affordable generating fuels have become major culprits in global warming.

Power of the People explores in a nontechnical, conversational way some of the clean, green, 21st-century technologies that are available and how and why we should plug them into our national grid. This important essay explores our failure as a country to adopt these “no regrets” technologies and policies as swiftly as the rest of the world, and why it matters for the future of every American.

The author, Carol Sue Tombari, works for the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). Despite trying, I can’t find out what her exact position or qualifications are. Here biography says:

Carol Sue Tombari has specialized in energy and environmental policy and programs for more than 25 years. She directed the State of Texas’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, served as natural resources advisor to the lieutenant governor, and helped found the National Association of State Energy Officials.

In addition, she was appointed to federal advisory posts by two Federal Secretaries of Energy, chairing a Congressional advisory committee on the subject of renewable energy joint ventures and serving on the U.S. Department of Energy’s (USDOE) State Energy Advisory Board. Tombari is employed at the USDOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where she works on local and rural economic development. Ultimately, it is her love for the next generation that continues to drive her work to protect the future of our planet and the lives of those yet to come.

While I found myself learning more about the sector, many things she said left me puzzled. For instance, she claimed that the U.S. uses more energy per GDP than anyone else in the world. This is exactly the opposite of Jeff Rubin’s claim in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. Rubin claimed that countries like China use a lot more energy per GDP, which was the basis of his argument that carbon tariffs could work in favor of countries like the U.S., who are more energy efficient at producing GDP. In fact, if you look at the EIA data on energy usage per dollar of GDP, you can see that the U.S. is on the low end of the scale. According to the EIA data, China, compared to the U.S., uses about four times the amount of energy per dollar of GDP. (Thanks to reader Clee for that reference).

The book is pretty anti-nuclear, and makes the claim that renewables are “considerably more affordable” than nuclear power. She seems to rely on Amory Lovins and Tom Friedman for these sorts of claims. The book is pretty realistic about coal, however, concluding that we will be relying on coal for a good many years. She did claim, though, that there have been no major technological innovations in coal-fired central station power plants since the 1950’s. I don’t consider that accurate, as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) seems like a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of the usage of coal for power production. Several of these IGCC plants will be coming online in the U.S. over the next decade, and a number have already been built in China. (You can see some of the plants that have been completed or are in progress around the world here).

There were some things I found annoying about the book. For instance, it had no graphs. However, on a number of occasions the author said “picture a graph in which the Y axis represents one variable, and the X axis another variable.” Why not just show a graph? Or if for some reason you are limited to no graphics, find another way to make the point.

There were some calculations that just didn’t make sense to me. For instance, she once calculated the required size of a PV system to run a household in Phoenix “if PV cells were 100% efficient.” Why not just do the actual calculation with typical PV efficiencies? She also commented that NREL had done a calculation in which they concluded that “100 square miles that constitute the Nevada Test Site” covered in PV arrays could meet the needs of the entire U.S. (without addressing storage). I did a similar calculation in which I tentatively came up with an area of about 100 miles by 100 miles. So I wonder if she didn’t mean that the NREL calculation concluded that a 100 mile square (10,000 square miles) would suffice.

She also spent a good deal of time talking about how a terrorist could bring down the transportation system or the electrical grid. I don’t think those are the kinds of ideas we want to plant in people’s heads.

One thing that isn’t clear to me is just how utilities benefit from efficiency improvements of their customers. She spent some time discussing various utility programs to improve the efficiency of the end user so they don’t have to construct new power plants. But utilities make their money selling electricity, don’t they? If customers improve efficiency, they just means they are selling less electricity to that customer. But there is apparently something to this model that I don’t fully understand, because I know that utilities are always pushing for – and even subsidizing – these sorts of programs. In Hawaii, the utility will pay for part of a solar hot water installation. So how do they benefit? Perhaps the utilities are compensated by various governments for pushing these efficiency programs. Otherwise, it seems that as consumers become more efficient, the utilities would have to charge more money for the electricity.

One other thing that was discussed – but that has always puzzled me – is the economic multiplier theory. She gave one example about how the benefits of a local Midwestern project ended up contributing three times the income generation to the local economy. Now I can see how a multiplier should work in theory. Pay a guy $100 in salary, and then he pays his taxes and turns around and spends that $100 in the local economy. That merchant then pays his taxes and spends some of it in the local economy, such that the initial $100 supports more than $100 in taxes and spending. In practice, it seems like if it really worked that way, we would subsidize everything. Why would we want to get any autos from Japan? Subsidize U.S. consumers for 50% of the cost of a domestic car, and then let the local multiplier give back 3-4 times that amount to the local community. But in reality, I don’t quite think it works out that way.

In summary, while it seems like I found a lot to nit-pick in the book, I did find a lot of useful information in there. Even the things I found puzzling caused me to think and to do additional research, which was helpful. The author spends a lot of time laying out the present situation with respect to electricity, and talking about the changes that need to happen. The author is peak oil aware, citing Matt Simmons and Tom Whipple (among others) with respect to a projected future energy crunch. I think the anti-nuclear stance was misguided, and I think she overestimates the ability of renewables to fill in for growing demand and the phase-out of older coal-fired power plants. In my view, it is hard to imagine how we are going to get by without building more nukes in the next few decades.