Jun 25 2018

Review: Energy – A Human History

I just finished reading, Energy:  A Human History by Richard Rhodes. It’s a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it. Rhodes reviews the history of our use of energy from around 1500 to the present, it is well-researched and contains a wealth of historical information.

I love reading popularized science, but the challenge is finding books that are in the sweet-spot of technical detail. As a science communicator, it is often difficult to know how deep to get on any topic. Compared to the knowledge of a non-expert, there is a vast depth of complex, technical, and nuanced knowledge about most scientific topics. The trick is to know your audience and to have a sense of how far down that well of technical detail and complexity to go, while remaining correct as far as you go.

This is a personal choice, but I thought Rhodes did a perfect job on this score. The level of detail was enough to get a rich sense of the topic, and to be a little challenging, but not so much that it slowed down the narrative or overwhelmed you with details you would not remember anyway.

A few themes stuck out for me in the book. One was how similar the social, political, and market forces are today and in the past when it comes to energy. I guess this should be obvious, but my surprise reflects what I think is hindsight bias. We look back now at history with the unconscious bias that it was inevitable, at least in its broad strokes. This is perhaps especially true of science and technology, because they are framed and understood as “advancing” in an objective direction.

Don’t get me wrong, I think science and technology do advance. But there are many twists and turns along the way, and the path that we happened to take was not inevitable, even though it may seem that way now.

So we may feel like we are faced with choices now and have different paths to choose, but may not realize that 100 or 200 years ago people were also faced with choices and also could have chosen different paths.

Let’s take one example – automobiles. Around 1900 we were near the beginning of the automobile age, and the industry was still experimenting with different approaches.

Of the 4,192 vehicles accounted for being produced in the United States in the 1900 Census, just 936 of them ran on gasoline, 1,575 were electric, and 1,681 ran on steam.

A steam-powered car now seems like steampunk fantasy, but they were a serious contender. The Stanley Motor Carriage Company marketed the Stanley Steamer, which was a serviceable car. The advantage of this technology was that we had centuries of experience with steam engines, and the technology was fairly mature. They could also use a variety of fuels. One disadvantage was that they were still fairly complex to operate, with lots of gauges and valves (the very essence of steampunk), but many people apparently liked that feature because it allowed them to play engineer. They also needed regular water resupply.

But perhaps the deal-killer from a modern perspective was that the machine took about 10 minutes to heat up and develop a head of steam before you could be on your way.

Electric vehicles were quiet, did not pollute, and were mechanically much simpler than their competitors. They were perfect for city driving. As cities began to fill with automobile induced smog, the non-polluting feature would become a more obvious advantage. But the batteries at the time lacked capacity, making the electric cars low-powered and short-ranged. Between cities there was also a lack of infrastructure to recharge the vehicles (meaning often a total lack of electricity).

The internal combustion engine had great power and range, and could be started with a crank. But they were noisy and belched black smoke. They were also mechanically complex, which meant a lot could go wrong and they could easily break down.

Looking back now it seems obvious that the internal combustion engine would be the winner of this contest, but it was not obvious at the time. All three competitors had their advantages and disadvantages. They all required infrastructure that did not yet exist. And further technological advance could potentially solve or at least reduce their limitations.

If the Stanley Steamers won that competition in 1900, it is interesting to think what that technology would look like today. It’s likely that the downsides could have been significantly reduced.  If electric cars had won out, would battery technology have advanced much more quickly over the 20th century? Probably.

What happened, however, was Henry Ford. He not only designed a serviceable internal combustion car, he innovated mass production. He swamped the competition, and the rest is history.

I was also struck by early debates regarding biofuels. We think of biofuels as a modern attempt at mitigating climate change and reducing dependence of fossil fuels, but that same debate was had over a century ago. Ethyl alcohol burns cleaner than gasoline. It also has a much higher octane rating – about 115, compared to 50 for early gasoline. The low octane rating of gasoline caused knocks and pinging through early combustion, and limited attempts at making cars with smaller and more efficient engines that required higher compression.

One solution was to mix in 40% ethanol from corn. That would extend our petroleum supply (we were concerned at the time about dependence on foreign oil) and would fix the problem of knocking. But this solution failed because farmers could make more money growing crops for food that for fuel, and they were concerned about the reliability of the ethanol market. Further, calculations at the time (given the efficiency of agriculture prior to the green revolution) indicated that there was simply not enough farmland in the US to grow enough corn to meet the growing demand for fuel.

Eventually another solution was found, unfortunately adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to the gasoline. Ultimately improvements in the refining process increased the octane rating of gasoline obviating the need for any additive.

I was struck by how similar the conversation was a century ago about biofuels as the one we are having today, except without the factor of global warming. Ethanol remained a small niche market, and even that required subsidies to make it worthwhile for farmers. And again, collectively we could have made a different choice depending on priorities at the time.

And to be clear, there were absolutely reasons for the decisions that were made. I am not saying they were arbitrary. But all such choices involve strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages. We make choices, and then invest in them (mostly developing infrastructure), which tends to lock them in for a long time.

Looking back through this interesting history of energy, it seems that technology choices were made, essentially, by the market, often with a few individuals playing pivotal roles. Society did not make a conscious decision, based on a transparent analysis of all the positives and negatives. I think that we may have made different choices if they were more consciously made, and not allowing individuals with vested interests have undue influence.

The same pattern repeated itself with nuclear power. Rhodes points out that nuclear became unpopular largely because of fears of radiation, based in turn largely on the linear no-threshold model of risk. This model holds that radiation poses a proportional health risk at any dose, with no lower limit. People tend to be risk averse, and nuclear power was made to seem risky.

But Rhodes also points out that risk aversion is not a great way to make decisions. Rather, we need to consider the risks vs benefits of all competing options (something I have been saying for years, because it applies to my field of medicine). Vaccines are a great example – you can’t just point to the risks of vaccines, you have to consider the risks vs benefits of being vaccinated vs no being vaccinated.

Nuclear power, it turns out, is associated with the fewest industry-related deaths of any form of energy, and has another advantage of being low carbon emitting (about the same as solar, when you consider the entire life cycle). Nuclear power has saved millions of lives (when you consider the lives lost due to pollution) and prevented the emission of gigatons of carbon, and these benefits could have been far greater if we invested in nuclear over the last 50 years rather than moving away from nuclear because of a narrow focus only on the risks.

So now, as with every generation before us, we are again faced with decisions about how to move forward. What technology do we invest in, which infrastructure do we build? The stakes now are perhaps higher than they have been in the past, because the clock is ticking on climate change. We need to make rational evidence-based decisions based upon a full analysis of risks vs benefits of all the alternatives before us. We also should not put all our eggs in one basket, but hedge our bets depending on how technology develops.

Rhodes book is timely because the history of our energy decisions in the past is great background for our energy decisions today.

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