Two Books Worth Reading


From Alan Vanneman, film critic and blogger extraordiniare, and frequent Hit & Run commenter:

The NYT publishes a nice review of "Gusher of Lies," a book by Robert Bryce attacking the notion of alternative energy sources. A particularly nice factoid is that ethanol allows Detroit to inflate the milage of their cars, since only gasoline is counted as "fuel."  

A heavier read, and well worth it, is "Power and Plenty," a history of international trade over the past millennium, part of the Princeton Economic History series, which also published "War, Wine, and Taxes".

reason talked Robert Bryce here. And with War, Wine, and Taxes author John Nye here. And here's video of John Nye.

NEXT: Papa Needs a Brand New Park

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  1. “a book by Robert Bryce attacking the notion of alternative energy sources”

    I didn’t rtf review yet. I hope the book is attacking SOME alternative energy sources. Why would you write a book attacking alternative energy as a whole?
    Solar, wind, water, geothermal; is he attacking these?

  2. Ok, now i read it.
    Sounds like a really dumb book. Sounds like the guy’s just a hypocrite attacking the notion that we need, or could even benefit from, alternate energy sources, then sums it up by saying we need better energy storage.
    as if the two don’t go hand in hand.

  3. From the “Gusher of Lies” review:

    He employs a peculiar, almost actuarial assessment of the risk posed by terrorism, which he compares to random events like lightning strikes. This completely misses the point about the threat posed by radical Islam.

    I didn’t realize that the Times had bought into the Isalmofascist meme.

    Sounds like the guy’s just a hypocrite attacking the notion that we need, or could even benefit from, alternate energy sources, then sums it up by saying we need better energy storage.

    The point of the energy storage solution is to mitigate the issue of energy intermittence in sources like wind and solar. If you don’t solve the storage issue, wind and solar aren’t reasonable replacement alternatives. They’re simply supplemental.

    There was an interesting article in Forbes recently about someone who is proposing to solve the intermittence issue by relying on the batteries of plug-in cars.

  4. Hey what’s really dumb is having an opinion of a book you haven’t read. Your summation of the book, which I have read several times since I edited it, is completely wrong. The author has solar panels on his house. He has written a whole book critiquing the big oil/politics connection (Cronies). He is not against alternative energy. What he’s saying is: we are deluding ourselves if we think alternative energy sources are going to replace fossil fuels anytime soon, and that the jargon ‘energy independence’ is code for a lot of emotionally based, wishful thinking that makes us feel good without actually reflecting a workable plan for the future; a kind of Luddite nostalgia about American hegemony & isolation from global trade and the interdependence of the world economy; and/or a notion cynically exploited by constituencies who profit from it. The ethanol lobby loves ‘energy independence’ because the idea of it masks the fact that biofuels are much more polluting than gasoline, hugely wasteful of water, and are the reason grain prices are so high there’ve been food riots in poor countries. Rising use of fossil fuels in Asia undoes the benefit from however many fluorescent lightbulbs we screw in to the sockets in our minimansions; and we will not be helping ourselves transition to a new age, by ignoring the facts on the ground or the laws of thermodynamics.

  5. Call me a luddite if you will, but critiquing alternative energy sources is a lot like critiquing food. There are a whole lot of options, some good, some bad. Throwing up your hands and saying “Fuck it, we are not going to replace fossil fuels, so why bother,” strikes me as intellectually lazy. There are nations that have superb quality of life and use half the energy of the US, and 25% as much fossil fuels (I am looking at you, Scandinavian utopias). If we can replace 5% of our imports with solar and wind, we replace millions of tons of petroleum.

    Sure, ethanol is a wasteful fuel. The most optimistic assessments show that you get 1.3 times as much energy as you put into growing and fermenting. That is one tiny portion of “alternative energy.” If you burn biomass directly, which allows you to utilize sources from logging waste to municipal solids you get an energy ROI of 5.5.

    And solar is a perfect fit for load leveling in the south (where energy storage would be most beneficial) since peak loads are highest on hot summer days.

    The point of all this? I am not going to read this book, because it is built on fallacious arguments and shaky logic.

    Disclaimer: I love global hegemony, and would love to see the ethanol lobby get smacked down for its history of misinformation.

  6. The point of all this? I am not going to read this book, because it is built on fallacious arguments and shaky logic.

    HA HA HA HA!

    “I’m not going to read this because I’m sure it’s wrong.”

    And who’s talking about shaky logic?

    BTW – The point does not appear to be “Why bother?”, but rather “Don’t delude yourself that energy independence is an achievable reality without significant unacceptable tradeoffs.”

  7. I will likely read this book. I haven’t yet, so I realize I’m basing this on the review, which may be way off base.
    for some of us, the attraction to alternative energy sources isn’t about energy independence. It’s about emissions. The rising cost of fossil fuels is opening the door for other sources of energy to become economically viable. Sure, there will be technological kinks to work out, but I believe the market is capable of making the transition to renewable energy.
    I’m not sure if this book will argue that that is impossible, undesirable, or what.
    fwiw, it was this sentence in the blog post, not the review, that set me off:
    “a book by Robert Bryce attacking the notion of alternative energy sources”

    that sounds pretty clear to me.

  8. MP… You know what? I read a lot of books, I am a chemical engineer, so I get thermodynamics. I am not going to waste hours of my life reading a book filled with garbage. I don’t do chicken soup for the retarded soul, I don’t read the latest destroyer novel, I don’t read Harry Potter, and I am not going to read a book based on shaky logic with no peer review. Do you read the latest screeds on white supremacy or metaphysics? I would sooner waste my time at, where I am guaranteed that the writing will be entertaining. If I want the information, I will read the sources cited. I don’t have time to read every BS book that is written, and reviews are the easiest way to narrow it down.

    Energy independence is not a myth. It is a conscious choice to do more while consuming less. The whole book is premised on tearing down alternatives, and offering nothing to replace them. 30% of the power in Germany will be from wind. 70% in Iceland from geothermal. These are hardly fantasies. They did not suffer a loss of quality of life. “Unacceptable tradeoffs,” my ass. $100 dollar a barrel oil is one heck of a motivator.

    That said, if you want a real look at the cronyism and shady dealings of the established energy players I can suggest The Seven Sisters and the World they Created. It chronicles the energy boom of the 70s and the eventual rise of OPEC. There used to be free chapters online, but the print copy is well worth the money.

  9. How exactly do you decide that something is garbage, when you haven’t read it? As for peer review, the book is a trade book for general readers, not an academic treatise; nevertheless every fact is footnoted and it has been reviewed and supported by energy expert Vaclav Smil, a Canadian academic who is not an Exxon shil. Those of you responding to your own prejudices, rather than to any actual knowledge of the argument, are embodying Bryce’s point: that ‘energy independence’ is an emotionally laden code phrase that we don’t deconstruct rationally. So the left is for ‘energy independence’ because to them it means developing alt fuels and green values, but then why don’t they notice that ethanol pollutes worse than gasoline, or the logistics of getting enough biomass to the furnace? And on the right it’s code for xenophobic foreign policy, though Canada and Mexico are the biggest sources for our fuel imports, that serves as fuel for the ‘war on terror.’ Bryce is not against alternative energy or the development thereof. He is against the political uses to which this emotionally charged phrase has been put, to justify counterproductive government interference in the market and arrogant foreign policy. Bryce himself wrote a book called “Cronies” about how the oil & gas biz brought Bush to power.

  10. Ramsey said

    You know what? I read a lot of books, I am a chemical engineer, so I get thermodynamics.

    Energy independence is not a myth. It is a conscious choice to do more while consuming less.

    Great, now learn a little about energy production and you can move beyond your faith based belief in energy independence.

    For example you say

    30% of the power in Germany will be from wind.

    Great, tell me when we actually get there, then I will believe the 30 % figure is not vaporware. More importantly provide some cite on how many traditional power plants windpower has replaced. Because to date the answer is few if any.

    70% in Iceland from geothermal. These are hardly fantasies.

    You do realize Iceland has a high degree of volcanism which makes geothermal a viable technology there.

    Iceland hotspot

    Not many areas in the US are analogous, maybe Yellowstone and a few other areas. Somehow I suspect the installation of massive geothermal power complexes in Yellowstone would not be very popular.

    $100 dollar a barrel oil is one heck of a motivator.

    That is one thing you are correct on. That is all the motivation that is needed to find technologies to replace that $100 oil that are feasible in all of the necessary aspects, engineering, economic, and environmental.

    Any technology that does not pass those three hurdles will not replace oil and is likely to do more harm then good.

  11. Too many people are letting their desire to replace oil drive them to ignore two critical factors when evaluating potential oil replacements.

    1. Will the replacement technology work econmically on the scale required to replace oil.

    2. Will the technology replace oil while causing less environmental harm then oil production does.

    If a technology can’t pass those two hurdles trying to use them to replace oil will cause more harm then good.

    Faith based hope for energy independence ends up driving various types of rent seeking that does nothing to provide energy independence.

  12. The link below is to a review of the book on a chemical engineers blog.

    The blog itself provides a wealth of information on alternative energy technology. Including which technologies are likely to work, and which ones are liable to flop.

    Book Review: Gusher of Lies

    In the book, Bryce takes on many of the myths that are ingrained in the collective psyche of politicians and the general public. He explains why we are so attracted to the idea of energy independence, but then spends the bulk of the book arguing that the idea of energy independence is delusional. He targets the delusions of both Democrats and Republicans, suggesting that neither major party is serious about addressing America’s energy needs. As Bryce states (and this would be a good description of my own position):

    I am neither Democrat nor Republican. I am a charter member of the Disgusted Party.”

  13. TJIT-

    Of course, any valid alternative to fossil fuels should actually cause less environmental harm, as purported to. You have to keep in mind, though, the obfuscation that goes into press about this subject; oftentimes, it’s a matter of how you slice it. For example, when you factor in the process of transitioning from one form of energy production to another, the overall environmental costs will probably come out to more; changing an established technology always produces immediate inefficiencies. That isn’t necessarily a good argument for sticking with a dirtier technology for the long haul, though. In the case of ethanol, it probably is a case of causing more harm than good; I fully expect Reason to play this game with every alternative energy source proposed between now and the apocalypse.

  14. My faith based belief? I have done economic studies of wind, solar, IGCC coal, biomass and nuclear power. I helped design the state of Wisconsin’s biodiesel program, and suggested that it be shelved when the cost of feedstock jumped. I have been against corn ethanol since its inception. I have worked with the EIA, DOE, Universities of Wisconsin and Montana, and the NSF.

    Germany just doubled it’s wind capacity during 2007, with enough turbines becoming operational in 2008 to produce 14% of their energy. Easily on course for 30%. Iceland is just using the resources they have available, which is nothing other than what I am suggesting.

    This blind belief that fossil fuels are the end all be all is active misinformation. We could completely end the US reliance on coal for a price premium of 20% on electricity, just by burning the ~100 quads equivalent of agricultural waste. We also have 0.6 quadrillion BTUs of municipal waste, 15 quads of animal waste, and 1.4 quads of timber waste. The energy ROI of producing electricity is 5 times (or more) than even the most optimistic views of the ROI on ethanol. None of these displace food output. The belief that we must replace petroleum with a single source is naive, and shouting it off the rooftops in a novel is folly at it’s finest.

    I switched from CNN for my news. I did not switch to Fox news, I switched to a hundred websites. We can do the same with petroleum and coal. Save those beautiful, valuable hydrocarbons for chemical synthesis, rather than wasting them driving little Suzy to soccer practice.

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