Authority and flair light up key debate

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9 Feb 2009

The following review by me appeared in the latest Fund Strategy (9 February).

Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky is published by Beautiful Books, 2009.

Energise! starts from a fundamentally different premise from virtually every other book on energy or climate change. For James Woudhuysen, a professor of innovation and frequent speaker at Fund Strategy conferences, and Joe Kaplinsky, a science writer, any discussion of energy should be based on human needs:

“Our starting point … is the uniqueness of human beings. To us, humans will always want to do more than simply survive. They will always want more home comforts, better-lit streets and greater mobility. But to get all this – now and in the future – they will need more cheap energy. In energy matters, therefore, a far bigger and more urgent challenge than global warming lies in thoughtfully supplying the world’s population and organisations.”

This simple premise leads to radically different conclusions from the conventional writings on the subject. In contrast, the mainstream approach tends to start with a discussion of the threshold above which greenhouse gas emissions become difficult to handle.

For Energise! the priority is to work out how to generate vastly greater amounts of cheap energy so the world economy can develop as fast as possible. In general terms the authors favour a mixture of energy sources including biofuels, fossil fuels, nuclear energy and renewables. But in each case their emphasis is on generating as much energy as possible with the best technology available.

For example, the authors acknowledge that first generation biofuels, such as the ethanol produced from American maize, have limitations. But they argue that, with the required investment in technology, second and third generation biofuels could become an important energy source.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the book is its attitude to renewables or what the authors prefer to call “astronomicals”. For Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky the key to using such energy sources as geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind is to do so on a vast scale. Since such energy tends to be diffuse, it is best collected and harnessed in massive engineering projects.

This is in contrast to greens who tend to prefer energy projects that are small scale and limited. Perhaps the most striking example is hydroelectric power – where greens often favour small-scale dams but condemn large-scale ones. For Energise! : “Environmentalists don’t really see wind, solar, water and geothermal as massive sources of energy. Their ‘renewables’ rather, are meant to renew the world morally – by leading it away from industrialism and modernity” (p360).

The emphasis on the need for a huge increase in energy supply also rules out approaches based on conservation or energy efficiency. Conservation is rejected simply because the world needs more energy rather than less. Energy efficiency is fine in principle but there are physical limits to achieving it and in any case using energy more efficiently generally means using more rather than less.

Those who ­promote energy efficiency often seem unaware that substantial improvements since the 1970s have coincided with greater energy use overall.

In relation to climate change the authors reject the sceptic view by recognising it is happening and that human activity is an important cause. But they also repudiate the mainstream response of curbing emissions and promoting energy conservation with a fundamentally different approach. In broad terms this means heavy investment in developing new and improved sources of energy supply rather than curbing demand.

On runaway climate change – change that is irreversible and dangerous – the authors argue that it cannot be ruled out theoretically but it is highly unlikely. Energise! says that climate alarmists exaggerate the magnitude and significance of the uncertainty around climate sensitivity.

Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky point out that mainstream scientific opinion does not see the build-up of a given level of greenhouse gases as likely to have anywhere near as dramatic effect as many environmentalists suggest. In effect alarmists present an extreme worst-case scenario as if it is the mainstream view.

Rather than panic about climate change the authors suggest a programme of transformation to deal with the problem. In essence this means investing heavily in what they call “a gale of new-generation technologies” (p466). Measures would include new-generation nuclear energy including fusion, a new carbon infrastructure, astronomical use of clean energy, radically improved building infrastructure and increased mechanisation of agriculture.

The main barrier to achieving the goal of massive increases in energy supply is not technical – although there are technological challenges to be overcome – but social. There is a pervasive culture of caution which militates against bold, imaginative solutions to insufficient energy supply.

In addition, a widespread antipathy to consumption means that the idea of producing more energy is often a source of anxiety if not outright hostility. Indeed, Energise! regards this topic as so important that chapter two is devoted to examining the views of commentators who are hostile to, or at least haughty towards, consumption. These range from thinkers such as Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”, to John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith.

The only weaknesses of the book are minor and technical. It has no index or bibliography – although there are extensive references.

Overall, Energise! is a huge achievement. From its simple starting point of the need for a massive increase in cheap energy it builds a strong case with authority and flair. It should be read by anyone who wants to understand one of the key debates of our age.

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