A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations 1st Edition
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"Of all the aspects of modern life in the developed world, flipping a switch and having the lights come on ranks as one of the most underrated. It's good to be reminded, as Bryce does through powerful examples, that such convenience was unheard of until the late nineteenth century...In this wide-ranging history of electricity, power expert Bryce takes readers beyond the table lamp and microwave to demonstrate how crucial safe, dependable, and plentiful electricity is to a host of contemporary innovations, from cryptocurrency mining to marijuana cultivation."―Booklist
"Informative and highly readable"―Foreign Affairs
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I am particularly happy that Bryce covers how electricity has changed the lives of women. In the renewables-fossil-nuclear-climate-change battles, the importance of electricity to women's lives is often forgotten.
Everyone should read this book.
Top international reviews
The zeitgeist splits energy into two opposite camps - "Clean Energy" vs. "Conventional aka Dirty Energy". Nuclear is of course is "scary" and "unsafe". The narrative goes - "The world has to transition from Dirty (Coal + Oil) to Clean (Wind + Solar) as quickly as possible."
Though popular, this is an overly simplified and a deeply flawed view of the world. One which if executed without understanding the numbers involved, simply perpetuates poverty and energy scarcity. This has been the case in much of India and Africa where overly romanticised views of Wind, biomass & Solar energy by politicians and environmentalists has resulted now in structural energy deficiency. This will take many years if not decades to resolve.
While the press boasts about India's achievements with its growing economy, rapid urbanization and increasing middle class. Most people do not realize that India's per capita electricity consumption is less than that of an average American refrigerator. Despite an ambitious and (overly glamorized ) Renewable energy program, India will never move away from Coal. We could have transitioned to a mix of Nuclear along with coastal Natural Gas plants, however the progress on that front is too slow and with fears of Nuclear blown out of all proportion by the media unlikely to happen in this decade or next.
To understand why, Solar & Wind will never scale sufficiently to meet humanity's energy needs you need to read Robert Bryce's books. Two of them are essential reads.
1. Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser Cheaper
2. A question of Power: Electricity & Wealth of Nations
Both books are as much fun as they are enlightening. The trouble with good technical books on energy is that people often complain that they need an Engineering Phd to make sense of all the numbers to put them into meaningful context. Not so with this book. Robert has an uncanny ability to distill complex math into something so clear and colorful that reading them could be mistaken for weekend/holiday leisure reading. But don't be fooled by the book's easy style, it covers issues which are important and rarely get talked about. To take just one brilliant example - New York Indian Point Nuclear reactor which occupies 1 sq km has electricity generation of 16.4 TWh (Terrawatt hours). New York Central Park can comfortably house three such Nuclear plants potentially generating (16.4*3) 49.2 TWh.
To put that into perspective, India's most industrialized state, Gujarat, has energy consumption of 116 TWh. Likewise if the single New York Nuclear reactor were to be replaced with equivalent amount of Wind Energy you are going to take ~1400 sq Km of land, almost exactly the entire land area of Delhi, capital city of India.
Wind Energy being considered Cheap is to imagine that our planet has millions of hectares of prime real estate available for free. Apart from land usage there are plenty of health and land value degradation issues with Wind Energy which have been covered quite elaborately in the book.
Geothermal & Big Hydro while quite popular with green lobby are very location specific and not scalable. The amount of resettlement & rehabilitation which surrounds Big Hydro makes it politically nonviable in India and much of the world. Entire villages, forests submerged under water makes even the environmentalists somewhat uneasy.
One thing which has shown some promise in Clean Energy rubric is Solar + Batteries. There's been an appreciable improvement in efficiency, cost of Solar Panels and storage capacity of batteries in last 5-6 years. With an increasingly electrified world you are going to have remote sensors, cell phone towers, communication relays, iOT, places where grid won't always be available. Solar + battery solution certainly helps. Also rooftop solar pitches in well for lighting, light electronic loads which are now ubiquitous part of life. That being said, to imagine that pan planet Solar Panelling will usher in an age of emission free world is a fantasy too far.
If the world has to have cheap, abundant electricity on tap the only conceivable future is one of Nuclear Energy with Natural Gas paving the way. In India, Africa & China I'd say its Coal + Nuclear, as pricing and Natural Gas transportation to hinterland is beset with host of challenges, none of which are easy to overcome.
Robert Bryce's book Electricity & Wealth of Nations, covers an entire arc of history of electricity, its social benefits, politics around generation and some of the key developments which never get talked about. I never knew the relation between electricity and average height of city skyscrapers until I read the book. You are not going to have well functioning city ergo economic development without cheap and abundant electricity.
Apart from Thomas Edison's lightbulbs & electric grids the innovation of Frank Sprague with electric traction, the unshakable resolve of a few politicians like Lyndon Johnson, George Norris, Sam Rayburn, Burton Wheeler played a pivotal role in ensuring that electric grid reaches the remotest corners of America. Sadly, they don't make politicians like that anymore.
Of the 545 Indian MPs only one (Dr. Swamy) ever mentioned that given the vast coastline of India, Nuclear + desalination should be an obvious choice towards eliminating the country's electricity & drinking water problems.
Its exceptionally unfortunate that Policy making, political rhetoric are devoid of science. When Scientists are called in for testimony, it's only as a witness for a pre-arranged Congressional finding. If only there were more individuals like Robert Bryce and more books like his, we might actually end up living in a world which was healthier, prosperous and exponentially more fulfilling than what it is presently.
More Engineering & Math books should take cue from Bryce's method of simplifying arcane math & notation into what's easily relatable. More policy and government departments should be inspired by Robert's style instead of publishing empty platitudes followed by 40 pages of endless statistics. It's not too much to ask for.
Do read this book - Electricity & Wealth of Nations. I promise you, it won't disappoint.