Book Review: The Impending World Energy Mess
I actually had low expectations for The Impending World Energy Mess by Robert L. Hirsch, Roger H. Bezdek, and Robert M. Wendling. Not because I thought Robert Hirsch and company would put out a sub-par book, but rather I have read so many peak oil books that I expected I would be covering entirely familiar ground. I was quite pleasantly surprised.
The first few sections of the book were indeed very basic for those who are familiar with resource depletion (e.g., what oil is, what peak oil is). Much of the material just reinforces what people familiar with peak oil already know. But it puts all the information together in one place, and it does so in a concise fashion.
I felt the book became much more interesting when they started to discuss “How is the oil debacle likely to unfold?” This is where I began to find a lot of value in the book for me personally. Future scenarios were very well thought-out, and pros and cons were given for them. The authors delve pretty deeply into potential mitigation pathways. For instance, I have often thought about how people will cope as gasoline prices head higher. One of the possible options is that gas will be rationed. This book takes scenarios like that a step further. First, it makes a strong argument that it is a no-brainer that gasoline will be rationed, and then goes into several well thought-out options of how that might be accomplished.
The book defines peak oil in a way that is very practical, but not exactly conventional. The authors define peak oil as the time that it becomes clear that global oil production is in irreversible decline. That likely won’t be clear until steady declines have taken place for 3-5 years, but the authors believe that this will begin in the 2011-2015 time frame. That differs from our conventional notion of peak as the year of highest output, but their definition has more practical significance. If 2005 or 2008 or 2011 ended up being the ultimate peak, but then we were on a plateau for several years to follow, the peak year really doesn’t have much significance beyond a historical footnote. What is significant for the world will be when that irreversible decline actually starts, so defining peak in that way actually defines the beginning of the implications to follow.
The authors make a point on electricity storage that I haven’t considered. Of course the biggest issue with wind and solar is that they are intermittent. A cost-effective electricity storage mechanism (envision ultra-cheap, long-lasting rechargeable batteries) would be a real game-changer for those technologies, and it is often believed that it is simply a matter of time before something comes along. But as I mentioned in a previous essay, sometimes technical breakthroughs happen, and sometimes they don’t.
In fact, the book argues that wind, solar, etc. are not likely to be the immediate beneficiaries of cost-effective electricity storage. Huge efficiency gains would result from operating coal or nuclear plants (for instance) at a stable, optimum efficiency and banking the excess electricity. So the incentive has been there for a very long time for development of cost-effective storage; it didn’t just arise with the growth of wind and solar power.
I think they should have omitted the section on global warming. They start out by indicating that they are agnostic on global warming, but then proceed to attack the integrity of the science of global warming. I don’t want to imply that such arguments are inappropriate; indeed I agree with them that the global warming debate has taken on many characteristics of religious debates.
But by immersing themselves in this debate – particularly from the skeptical side – they will immediately lose credibility with a number of people who are convinced of the science of global warming. In my view, that topic is separate from the topic of oil depletion and the necessary mitigation efforts, and will unnecessarily taint their arguments in the eyes of some readers.
Second, and more a nitpick, the section on electricity did not consider combustion or gasification of biomass to electricity. This is one renewable option that has the potential to deliver firm power (in contrast to wind or solar power). The authors do make the case that we will turn increasingly to coal — and I believe that as well — but biomass to power is an option not discussed.
This is a good book for those new to the topic of peak oil, and for those who are involved in mitigation efforts — particularly government leaders — this book will be of great value. I don’t think the section on global warming added anything to the book; in fact many people will be turned off by the book after they read that section. But overall the book gets high marks for advancing the conversation further into the implications of specific mitigation pathways, and really thinking through how the future may unfold.