Energy reading: two reviews

November 26, 2010

What’s the best way to convince people about the value of renewable forms of energy (such as solar and wind power) and to make them care about using energy more efficiently in their own lives? It has been a surprisingly difficult task, especially in the U.S., which notoriously hasn’t signed on to the Kyoto Protocol and has recently stalled on passing national energy legislation.

Two books published mid-decade take a decidedly left-brain approach: from the careful, rational argumentation of Craig Morris in Energy Switch: Proven Solutions for a Renewable Future (2006), to the barrage of numbers and calculations presented by Godo Stoyke in The Carbon Buster’s Home Energy Handbook: Slowing Climate Change and Saving Money (2007), these authors aim to persuade not through high-pitched, emotional rhetoric or even through moral imperatives (the position Al Gore staked out so emphatically in An Inconvenient Truth), but instead through pragmatism and statistical analysis. I found their voices a welcome addition to the overall dialogue, though not without some flaws.

Morris reviews the entire spectrum of energy sources, including fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), mature renewables (solar, wind, geothermal), developing renewables (fuel cells, tidal, wave), nuclear, and biomass. He concludes the book with chapters about power grids and efficiency measures to decrease energy consumption.

“This book does not divide sources of energy into ‘good guys and bad guys,’” Morris states in his introduction, “but rather points out the necessity—indeed, the inevitability—of a switch to renewables. Though inevitable, this switch will be painful if we wait too long” (p. 1). He suggests that the remaining and finite supply of fossil fuels be used largely on behalf of the establishment and growth of renewable supplies. This makes the energy “switch” more of a manageable transition than a desperate lunge.

Morris differentiates himself from most American observers of energy policy by his ability to provide detailed comparison of US policymaking with that of Europe. Germany in particular is far ahead of the US with regard to making the switch to renewables, even though solar, wind, and geothermal resources available within German borders are far less than is available here. He greatly admires the political coalitions in Germany (left and right, green and conservative) that have come together to create and maintain the Renewable Energy Act there. He delves deeply into technical and political details of that policy (such as feed-in tariffs, tax incentives, and localized power distribution), and throughout the book backs his claims with numerous tables, charts, and footnotes. Once or twice he allows himself a slightly preachy, condescending tone towards what he regards as a particularly American recalcitrance in the face of European far-sightedness, but writing as he was during the Bush administration, one can forgive the lapses of frustration on his part.

Some of the most effective moments in Energy Switch take place when Morris, who is well versed in the arguments used by skeptics of renewable energy, takes on these objections directly and counters them calmly and systematically. For example:

  • Renewables are inefficient; the technology just isn’t there yet. “The efficiency of a coal plant… cannot be compared to the efficiency of renewables. A coal plant with 33 percent efficiency is by no means twice as efficient as a monocrystalline cell with at least 16 percent efficiency. The sun sends us far more energy than we would ever take” (pp. 117-8). That is, a 16 percent conversion of a practically infinite supply works out better than a 33 percent conversion of a very finite supply.
  • Renewables can’t compete in the marketplace without heavy government subsidies. Government subsidizes all forms of energy; renewables aren’t getting preferential treatment. Even in Europe, subsidies bestowed on coal, oil, and gas quadrupled those given to all kinds of renewable energy in 2001 (p. 79).
  • Renewables aren’t practical for utility-scale usage because the power they produce is intermittent. Geothermal power isn’t intermittent, with a 95 percent reliability rate that puts coal plants and nuclear plants to shame (p. 134). Further, when wind and solar are paired the problem of intermittent production is substantially reduced, because wind often kicks in at night.
  • Renewables are the answer to a problem we don’t really have (global warming). Actually, renewables are the answer to a whole host of problems, even leaving aside the question of climate change. They’ll be producing power long after all the fossil fuels have been used up, they’ll create jobs, they’ll foster energy independence, and they’ll improve quality of life for those of us who breathe (p. 76).

Though Morris does an admirable job bringing to light many of the strengths of renewables and suggesting a moderated course for making the “switch”—including continued research in such areas as coal gasification and cogeneration natural gas turbines—I can’t help but think his book won’t reach a general audience.

By contrast, Stoyke’s Home Energy Handbook just might. Loaded with pocketbook appeal, this resource has got to be the ultimate in bottom-line, number crunching around efficiency measures for the homeowner. Right on the cover, emblazoned almost like an Oprah book-of-the-month endorsement, is the eye-opening claim that you can save $17,000 over a 5-year period.

Stoyke walks the reader through detailed recommendations in home design, transportation, electric power, heating, cooling, water usage, and environmental goods and services. Rather shrewdly, he presents his findings through two lenses: the “carbon miser” lens, which sees efficiency measures in terms of dollars and cents, and the “carbon buster” lens, which sees efficiency measures in terms of carbon emissions reductions.

Read this book cover-to-cover, and you are likely to find all the numbers deployed here lose their impact. For example, at the foot of many pages in the book cryptic references would appear in gray highlight, such as “Carbon Miser: 20.9%; $8512.00” or “Carbon Buster: 32.6%; $10,197.70.” I lost track of what these statistics were referring to: a specific measure discussed on the page? A group of measures discussed in the section? Something cumulative or in aggregate as you read along?

But treated more as a loose reference book to understand what efficiency measures you can take, how much impact generally it will have, and even tips for green shopping as you give it a go in your own home, Stoyke’s approach is invaluable and turns up some surprising options.

He champions some decidedly low-tech and unsexy fixes, such as sealing air leaks around your house and capping your chimney when not in use. It turns out these can save you more in five years than better known approaches like adding insulation to the attic (though that helps too, but Stoyke’s comparative tables give you an at-a-glance look at how to prioritize if you have a limited budget or commitment to all this).

Or if you are looking to replace your old water heater tank with something more environmentally friendly, install a thermal solar collector for your hot-water needs, rather than the somewhat trendier tankless water heater option. You’ll triple your reduction in carbon emissions using this more efficient and longer lasting solution (p. 115).

Paradoxically, the Home Energy Handbook ends up appealing to the consumer in me as much as the conservationist. It lists all kinds of actual appliances, computers, home electronics, and automobiles in terms energy efficiency. In other words, it helps a certain kind of shopper. It is Consumer Reports for the green crowd.

But consumer choices cycle quickly in our culture. Written in 2007, how relevant will it seem in 2017? For this reason, though Stoyke’s book speaks the right language to be influential right now and in the short-term, it is Morris’ book that will have the longer shelf life.

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