Skip to main content

Reviewed by Theresa Chin Jones

Robert Bryce, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future,  Public Affairs: Philadelphia, PA, ISBN- 13-978-1586487898, April 2010, 416p, $27.95

The BP oil well disaster has us all talking about oil and the environment again, but before we pontificate, we need to add to our store of knowledge.  Power Hungry by Robert Bryce offers solid information, numbers, tables, and charts with little hyperbole.  Whether or not you support the use of fossil fuels, whether you want to return to a pre-industrial “Eden” or to fast-forward to all solar-wind-bio renewables, you still must cope with the basic physics of energy and power.  Bryce provides some “nutrition” information to those who would ban food to combat obesity.  His points will hold until technological advances in electricity storage, solar cell efficiency, and bio production change the cost/benefit balance between the different energy forms.  The real problem is not lack of energy—we get plenty from the sun, tides, and winds—but the need for power that we can use to generate electricity, move vehicles, and manufacture goods.

Bryce argues that policies based on uneasiness caused by guilt, fear, and ignorance will not solve our energy needs or allow us to maintain current standards of living while drastically cutting greenhouse gas production.  He offers a wealth of facts to counter myths that many have accepted as proven science. 

Myth:   Wind and solar are “green.”
Reality:  A nature conservancy 2009 study, Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency, noted corn ethanol requires 144 times as much land as nuclear; wind 30 times; solar photovoltaic 15 times. 

Myth:   Wind power reduces CO2 emissions and reduces the need for natural gas.
Reality:  In the U.S. wind operates 36% of the time; coal plant utilization is 70%.
100 MW of wind generation requires 100 MW of gas generation backup.  In 2009, a Canadian engineer observed that the on/off cycling of gas-fired generators to back up wind power resulted in more gas consumption than if there were no wind turbines. 

Myth:    Denmark provides an energy model for the United States.
Reality:  Although at the beginning of 2007, wind power accounted for 13.4% of all electricity generated in Denmark, coal consumption did not change.  For example, in 2006 the Danish grid consumed 50% more coal-fired electricity than it did in 2005 because of the need for backup for wind.  Despite its efforts, Denmark is more reliant on oil as percentage of primary energy than the U.S. (i.e. in 2007, 51% of primary energy from oil versus 40% from the U.S.).  A 2009 Danish Center for Political Studies analysis said that Denmark’s wind industry “saves neither fossil fuel consumption nor carbon dioxide emissions.”  The report concluded, “… a strong U.S. wind expansion …would entail substantial costs to the consumer and industry, and only to a lesser degree benefit a small part of the economy, namely wind turbine owners, wind shareholders, and those employed in the sector.”

Myth:    Going “Green” will reduce imports of strategic commodities and create “green jobs.”
Reality:  China has a monopoly on lanthanides— the rare earths needed for solar and wind power.  Also, solar depends on tellurium solar panels, and China has the world’s only tellurium mine.  Ergo, many green manufacturing job gains are likely to be in China.

Myth:    The United States lags in energy efficiency.
Reality:  From 1980-2006 U.S. carbon intensity fell by 42% while GDP went from $5.8 trillion to $12.9 trillion, and U.S. population rose by 31.5% from 228 million to 300 million.  From 1980-2006 the U.S. average per capita energy consumption fell 2.5%— greater decline than any other developed country due to engineering improvements in the service economy.

Myth:    The United States can cut CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, and carbon capture and sequestration can help achieve that goal.
Reality:  To cut 80%, U.S. would need to reach 1910 levels when the population was 92 million; therefore, per capita emissions would need to be below China’s.  Bryce said, “The sad but true state of carbon politics is that the only realistic way to achieve that goal [80% reduction by 2050] would be for the United States to intentionally destroy its economy and jobs that go with it.”

Myth:    Oil is dirty.
Reality:  Perhaps tongue in cheek, Bryce noted that compared with soft coal or dung, oil is a better and cleaner fuel.

Myth:    Cellulosic ethanol can be scaled up and cut U.S. oil imports.
Reality:  Producing cellulosic ethanol required 42 times as much water and emitted 50% more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than standard gasoline.  Using switchgrass as feed for cellulosic ethanol would require an area the size of Oklahoma [65,800 sq mi] to meet U.S. consumption. 

Myth:    Electric cars are the next big thing.
Reality:  Electric vehicles have limited range, slow recharge rates, lack recharging stations, and have high costs.  A 2008 study by the Center on Climate Change at Duke University concluded gas prices must increase to $6/gal to make plug-in hybrids cost effective. 

Bryce argued that the U.S. leads the world in production of high quality energy:  First in nuclear, second in coal, second in natural gas, third in oil, and fourth in hydroelectricity.  The U.S. produces 74% of all energy it consumes and has more hydrocarbon reserves than any other country.  The U.S. generates 48% of its electricity with coal and is the world’s second largest coal consumer.  However, Americans believe the hype on shortages and, therefore, are willing to trade down to unreliable and low density energy sources. 

The Natural Gas and Nuclear (N2N) Solution.  Bryce cited current megatrends favoring N2N. 

Oil use is dropping:  U.S. oil use in 1973 provided 48% of the world’s total energy; by 2008 the percentage had dropped to 35%;

Nuclear and natural gas use is increasing:  From 1973-2008 worldwide consumption of natural gas rose by 159%, nuclear power grew 1,253%, oil by 42.6%, and coal by 109%.
From 1990 to 2008, China’s consumption of natural gas rose by 429%, growing twice as fast as its oil use (233%) and three times as fast as coal consumption 165%.  U.S. gas resources are at 20,074 trillion cubic feet or about 350 billion barrels of crude oil.  There has been recent surge in shale gas production while new gas reserves were found faster than new oil reserves.

Bryce admits that there is no free lunch; “Gas Pains” include: water usage, waste disposal, and  groundwater contamination.  Although natural gas is not a perfect fuel, he sees it as the greenest of the hydrocarbons.

Nuclear already provides 15% of world electricity, 5% of its total primary energy, and has zero carbon emissions.  In 2007 U.S. nuclear produced 794 million MW-hours of electricity, solar plus wind generated 32 million megawatts.  Every year all of U.S. nuclear reactors produce only 2,000 tons of spent fuel while in 2007 coal generated 131 million tons of ash.  Furthermore, long term operation cost studies show wind and nuclear in the same ballpark with solar power more expensive.  For example, for a 2700MW output, a nuclear plant would cost $13 billion but a solar plant would cost $16.2 billion.  As for subsidies, there is no comparison since nuclear gets subsidies of $1.59 MW/hr of electricity, wind gets $23.27, and solar $24.34. 

Bryce suggests the biggest problem for nuclear wastes is political will—not technology.  He concluded that Republicans may like nuclear but hate government; Democrats may like government but hate nuclear, so Congress will dither.End.

Teresa Jones
Teresa Jones

Teresa Chin Jones, Ph.D. is a retired Senior Foreign Service Science Officer.  As a science officer, she covered nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, export controls, and S&T cooperation.  She also served as Science Counselor at U.S. Embassy Ottawa from 1994-96.  In retirement, she coauthored the National Council of Advanced Manufacturing Technology Weekly from 1999-2008.  She is the author of Tales of the Monkey King (Pacific View Press) and is currently working on other Chinese tales for children.


Comments are closed.