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"Power Trip: The Story of Energy"

Updated: May 23, 2020

A Nobel prize-winning chemist once came up with a list of the top 10 problems facing humanity. In it, he prioritized energy as the number one problem because it is the key to unlocking all the rest. After all, adequate energy resources are a prerequisite for overcoming our most pressing problems, such as providing education, improving the environment, and alleviating poverty.

Energy is humanity’s ultimate obstacle—and also its most promising opportunity. Such high stakes set the stage for Michael E. Webber’s latest book, Power Trip: The Story of Energy.

Thankfully for the reader, Webber takes a systematic approach to this sprawling subject. After a brief introduction, he explores the role of energy in six thematic chapters ranging from wealth and water to cities and transportation. Insights abound, such as the paradoxical relationship between water and energy: “It is a great irony that energy lets us treat and clean water, but that energy production also puts water quality at serious risk.”

Speaking of curious connections, another is the relationship between wealth and energy. Common sense may dictate that there’s a linear relationship there, but Webber reveals that “there is an even better correlation between electricity consumption and wealth.” As a matter of fact, countries that use their energy for sophisticated purposes, such as generating electricity, are richer than those that do not.

Moving beyond water and wealth, perhaps the most important argument Webber makes deals with decarbonization. As we know, decarbonization refers to the reduction of greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere. Echoing other energy experts, Webber asserts that it is, perhaps, the defining challenge of the twenty-first century. A bold claim, surely, but one backed up with logic: If energy is our most profound problem, and decarbonization is energy’s defining challenge—that would make decarbonization our biggest problem’s biggest problem.  

With the skill of an experienced professor, Webber addresses decarbonization while avoiding the extremes of energy poverty or environmental negligence. He knows deprivation won’t work. “Energy poverty,” Webber explains, “won’t be very satisfying or humane.” Take North Korea, for instance. Its darkness, in contrast to brightly lit South Korea, is revealing. In Webber’s words, “autocracy and energy poverty are different expressions the same idea. Energy is freedom.”

At the same time, negligence won’t work either. The approaches that got us into our current state of affairs will not get us out. We cannot drill our way to decarbonization, nor can we overcome CO2 emissions with endless consumption. And while there may be much disagreement about decarbonization, that does not mean common ground cannot be found.  

In fact, the answer to many of our energy challenges may be right beneath our feet—if we’re driving an electric car. With characteristic optimism, Webber details how electric vehicles (EVs) can provide quieter, cleaner, and more efficient transportation for all. The choice is clear, and stark: “Electric vehicles get cleaner with time as natural gas, wind, and solar replace coal in the power sector, whereas combustion engines get dirtier with time as their systems degrade from normal wear and tear.” Ultimately, EVs have the potential to dramatically reduce emissions and put us on the path to decarbonization.

So what, then, to make of Power Trip? Let’s put it this way—if a Nobel prize-winning chemist came up with a top 10 list of energy books, this would certainly make the cut. It might even be number one.

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