Energy Policy in the 21st Century
The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World.
389 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2004. $26.
Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties.
xvi + 427 pp. MIT Press, 2003. $34.95.
Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will
Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet.
Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran.
x + 358 pp. Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2003. $25.
The Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s shook the United States and
created a sense of urgency about the role of energy in U.S. and
world economies that persists to this day. It is not that energy
wasn't central to geopolitical events prior to the embargoes (it
often was), but only in the past 30 years have concerns over the
price and availability of oil spurred development of an impressive
portfolio of new technologies for increasing energy supplies and
reducing demands—some of which (high-efficiency natural
gas–fired combustion turbines, for example) have been deployed
extensively worldwide. Such technologies have reshaped the landscape
of what is possible in fueling modern economies.
These changes took place throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays,
policy makers are less focused on oil price and availability and
instead consider a complicated combination of factors, such as the
environment, economic competitiveness and national security. The
attention currently being paid to such complexities is natural
enough. After all, our knowledge has matured significantly since the
1970s. We now have the ability, if not necessarily the will, to make
systematic, long-term decisions about the production and use of
energy, and we are much more aware of how these choices will
influence social, economic and environmental policy. That is, in the
United States today, a comprehensive strategy for the production and
consumption of energy cannot be viewed as an end in itself. (Indeed,
those all-too-common references to a "national energy
policy"—or to the lack of one—are overly
simplistic.) Rather, the direction of energy policy must derive from
the broader and more fundamental national goals of economic health,
environmental quality and national security.
Since the 1970s, the literature seeking to shape the future of
energy and environmental policy has exploded. The three recent
additions reviewed here strike very similar themes but offer
In The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World,
Paul Roberts chronicles the evolution of the world's insatiable
appetite for oil and the realization that at some point a switch to
another type of fuel is inevitable. Roberts contrasts the views of
oil optimists with those of pessimists, develops the range of
economic and political issues surrounding world oil use, analyzes
the problems and promise of alternatives, and concludes that unless
we act to manage the transition, disruption and violent dislocation
will almost certainly occur.
The pace, path and end point of this shift to a new energy era are
as yet unclear, but the forces shaping it are becoming more obvious.
Without a single chart or graph (most unusual for a treatise on
energy policy), Roberts describes several of these influences. For
example, in striking imagery, he describes climate change as
"probably best understood as a gigantic accident, an unintended
interruption in the billion-year-old process by which earth
transformed itself from a seething, poisonous hell into a lush and
hospitable cradle of life."
Roberts's concluding chapter, "How Do We Get There?,"
builds a case against a "defensive" energy
strategy—that is, one in which the goal is to seek to extend
the use of fossil fuels for as long as possible, ignoring or
dismissing the global environmental implications of doing so.
Instead, Roberts advocates an "optimistic" scenario that
builds on his premise that energy consumers will be persuaded
"that traditional U.S. energy policy has failed and that energy
is too critical to be left entirely to the ‘free
market.'" He opines that under such circumstances, "rather
than struggling to defend the energy status quo—say, by
invading some oil-rich region—U.S. lawmakers might be willing
to risk a more progressive and interventionist energy
policy—one intended to balance the necessary focus on
increased supply with a new emphasis on energy efficiency and low-
and no-carbon fuels and energy technologies." This is a
challenge that he argues is as yet unmet. Certainly Roberts's views
are not universally held, especially not to the degree he pushes
them, but his exposition does illustrate the fundamental dilemma of
energy policy today, which is echoed in the other volumes reviewed
here as well.
Vaclav Smil, in Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives
and Uncertainties, zeroes in even more sharply than does
Roberts on the issue of reconciling the world's accelerating demand
for energy with the imperative of preserving the "integrity of
the biosphere." He asserts that our dependence on fossil fuels
must be reduced, not because of imminent resource shortages but
because widespread burning of oil, coal and natural gas is
increasingly compromising the biosphere and causing economic and
security problems as the cost of those fuels and volatility in the
Middle East increase. He challenges the accuracy of various models
designed to forecast energy use, recounting decades of erroneous
predictions. And he provides detailed descriptions of many
alternative sources of energy and the technologies behind them.
Smil avoids discussing some important developments, such as economic
globalization and the changing economic structure of both the
industrialized and developing worlds. He chooses instead to explore
the interaction of energy use and the environment, and to consider,
for example, the changes that would be needed to support a
hydrogen-based economy. Still, the conspicuous lack of attention to
economics in his characterization of alternative futures makes those
scenarios seem somewhat simplistic and renders any assessment of
their relative likelihood difficult.
Economic concerns fare much better, or at least are more prominent,
in Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran's Power to the People: How the Coming
Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives,
and Maybe Even Save the Planet. The book is entertaining
(another quality that is unusual in a book about energy policy). He
paints a vivid picture of an "energy revolution" that he
posits is already under way. His vision is of three major forces at
work: markets, environmental pressures and new technologies.
Of special note is Vaitheeswaran's highlighting of several key
topics, concentrating on electricity: the emergence of Enron and the
independent power industry, the growing prospects for small-scale
distributed-generation technologies, and experiments in deregulation
of electric supply markets. He also playfully compares Jimmy
Carter's national energy policy with that of George W. Bush, noting
His analysis of experiments in deregulation includes section
headings such as "Deep in the Heart of Darkness,"
"Attack of the Killer Lobbyists" and "Half British,
Half Baked." Vaitheeswaran most colorfully recounts the
tortured story of how the electric utilities were deregulated in
California in recent years. Despite that fiasco, he ends on a note
of cautious optimism, concluding that
Regulators and politicians must speed ahead—but alert
and with both hands firmly on the steering wheel, not asleep behind
it. Only then will the world's electricity networks be transformed
into the vibrant Energy Internet worthy of the twenty-first century.
Vaitheeswaran then turns to environmental pressures—or, as he
terms it, "the green dilemma." He starts with the usual
suspects, namely global warming, urban air pollution and sustainable
growth, which he (again being playful) terms "a new opiate for
the masses." He concludes with an intriguing chapter titled
"Adam Smith Meets Rachel Carson," which describes the
promise and challenges of market-based environmentalism. He
outlines, as an example, "The Greening of Browne,"
referring to the leadership of British Petroleum's CEO, Lord Browne,
the first big-oil executive to engage global climate change as an
important international issue.
Finally, Vaitheeswaran explores some key new developments in energy
technology. For example, he speculates on the prospects of fuel
cells based on proton-exchange membranes, anticipating the emergence
of a robust market. In the section titled "Rocket Science Saves
the Oil Industry," he describes the "entrepreneurship,
ingenuity, and a dash of inspiration" accompanying many recent
developments in the oil business, including robotics, seismic
analysis, reservoir maintenance and others. While considering the
prospects for a renaissance of nuclear power, he quips that
"the industry that once boasted it would be too cheap to meter
is likely to be remembered as too costly to matter." In a
section titled "Micropower Meets Village Power," he pines
for "a happy collision of clean energy, microfinance, and
community empowerment" in developing countries.
Treatments of energy policy are usually easily identified as coming
from the left or the right of the political spectrum. These books
all approach energy policy mostly from the left, but Vaitheeswaran
strikes a more careful balance. The concluding paragraph of his
epilogue, "The Future's a Gas," is especially thoughtful:
Stopping the use of fossil fuels completely and immediately
would be foolish and needlessly expensive, but a thoughtful, phased
shift to hydrogen-fired micropower would not. On the contrary, the
innovative technologies unleashed by market liberalization and
environmental demands hold out the promise of an inexpensive, and
maybe even profitable, transition to a cleaner energy world. If we
grasp that opportunity, then there is every reason for hope about
our planet's future. Indeed, there is every reason to think that
today's nascent energy revolution will truly deliver power to the