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"A Question of Power"

Updated: May 22, 2020

“Human history can be divided into two epochs, the Electric Age, and everything that came before it.” At least according to A Question of Power, the latest book by Robert Bryce.

In this insightful primer, Bryce argues that the Electric Age ushered in an unprecedented period of prosperity and human flourishing. Yet as the introduction notes, “We seldom think about the relationship between electric power and human empowerment.” Fortunately for us, this book provides an antidote to such ignorance.

The thesis is simple, “electricity is the fuel of the twenty-first century,” but its implications are profound. Electricity not only makes modern life possible, it’s also the “ultimate poverty killer.” Indeed, the correlation between wealth and electricity is quite clear: “No matter where you look in the world, as electricity use has increased, so have personal incomes.” (Of course, it can’t guarantee wealth, but electricity’s absence almost assures poverty).

On a global scale, the numbers are staggering. At some $2.4 trillion per year, the electricity business “is bigger than the global automobile business and twice as big as the pharmaceutical sector.” The scale is similarly impressive in the U.S., where annual electricity sales total around $400 billion.

As the economics indicate, electricity is an essential resource. “We live in a digital world that’s defined by networks. And all of those networks,” Bryce notes, “depend on electricity.” Indeed, we expend immense effort in converting primary energy sources, such as natural gas, sunlight, wind, and water, into electricity. Why? The answer is simple: it is the most useful form of energy. “Electricity,” Bryce says, “is the apex predator of the energy kingdom.”

The book attributes electricity’s incredible success to three traits: lighting, power, and density. In terms of lighting, electricity has allowed us to, quite literally, overcome darkness. As for power, it is instantly available for nearly any purpose: “Electric power allows us to attain precision — in both speed and control — that cannot be achieved with other forms of energy, and it is convertible into work at very high efficiency.”

Lastly, electricity has remarkable density, which enables concentrated energy flows. This ability to harness energy has resulted in impressive economic gains. As Bryce explains, “Humans are flourishing because, with electricity, they have access to nearly infinite amounts of power that can be applied to nearly any kind of work.”

Speaking of density, there’s nothing quite like nuclear power. As Bryce points out, the unsurpassed power density of nuclear may be its greatest virtue because it maximizes land use. While he acknowledges the nuclear sector has “taken a beating” over the years, mainly due to concerns over cost, Bryce remains a steadfast supporter—and for good reason. “The loss of America’s nuclear fleet,” Bryce notes, “could mean higher electricity prices [and] a less stable electric grid.”

Unlike nuclear, solar is as popular as ever: “Solar energy is like apple pie: everyone loves it.” While the surge in solar is a positive sign, its growth potential is not infinite. Specifically, Bryce lists four limiting factors for renewables: cost, storage, scale, and land use. 

With these four criteria in mind, Bryce considers natural gas to be a “fuel of the future.” In fact, he cites the relatively low cost of natural gas, along with its abundance and low carbon footprint, as primary reasons for optimism. Overall, Bryce is “bullish about natural gas and solar — and hopeful about nuclear energy” but concedes that there are “no magic bullets” in the energy mix.

A Question of Power offers an optimistic assessment of our energy future. "We are achieving staggering efficiencies in generating, transmitting, and storing electricity," and the twin trends of electrification and economic development seem unstoppable. In other words, electricity has become the wealth of nations.

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