Book review – A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations

8-minute read

Not two weeks before I started reading this book, our neighbourhood was hit by a short power cut. It was a potent reminder of how we take electricity for granted and are utterly dependent on it. Author and journalist Robert Bryce has been writing about electricity and power for the last 30 years, publishing numerous articles and several books, and hosting the Power Hungry podcast. A Question of Power is part-history of electrification, part-reportage on current patterns of global electricity consumption, and part-outlook on the future of electricity generation, with Bryce coming out against renewables and in favour of nuclear energy. This proved to be a thought-provoking book and I disagree with some of his ideas, though not for the reasons you might think.

A Question of Power

A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, written by Robert Bryce, published by Public Affairs Press in April 2020 (hardback, 320 pages)

In four parts, Bryce looks at electricity from many angles. The first two parts cover some electricity basics and walk you through the history of electrification in the US, first in cities and later in rural parts (though see Powering American Farms as a critique of the narrative that the rural US was neglected by utility companies). He explores the theme of electricity poverty by visiting India and sees how it affects rural women in particular. He looks at global statistics and notes how many people consume less than his fridge or have only intermittent access. Destroying electricity grids has become an effective military strategy and in Beirut, he sees first-hand what civil war can lead to. A “generator mafia” fills in when the state grid cannot provide, charging extortionate prices and influencing politicians to not hurry with solutions. Coal, meanwhile, remains an important source of electricity for many developing countries and Bryce does not expect it to be phased out, despite the opposition of Western environmental organisations. He considers what factors make an electricity grid successful and how e.g. corruption and poor governance undermine it. A take-home message is that, since high-voltage transmission lines only reach so far, “each country or region has to build, pay for, and manage their own electric grid. That’s no simple task” (p. 79).

Part 3 takes a look at the flip side: the tremendous and increasing use of electricity by industries in the developed world. Giant tech companies and online payment providers operate huge data centres, backed up by banks of emergency batteries and diesel generators. It is a powerful reminder of the vast infrastructure underlying our online world – there is nothing fluffy about this cloud. Bryce also visits a cryptocurrency miner in Iceland and a black-market marijuana grower in Denver. The latter felt a bit incongruous given the vast electricity consumption of e.g. the steel and aluminium industry. He furthermore discusses the consequences of extended blackouts on hospitals, plus a range of causes, both mundane (squirrels and falling branches) and unlikely (electromagnetic pulses caused by nuclear detonations).

Up to this point, A Question of Power is well-written and little controversial, with short, snappy chapters that draw on a wealth of experience reporting around the world. The fourth part retains that accessible style but is more controversial. How will we meet the forecasted increase in demand from 6 terawatts now to 12 terawatts by the late 2030s? Answers Bryce: not with renewables, preferably with nuclear, but likely with natural gas.

“[…] since high-voltage transmission lines only reach so far, “each country or region has to build, pay for, and manage their own electric grid. That’s no simple task“”

I disagree with some of his points, though perhaps not the ones you (or he) might be expecting. I agree with his claim that the numbers do not add up in favour of going 100% renewable and am glad he mentions the under-appreciated aspect of power density. Switching to methods that give us less bang for our energetic buck has consequences: it needs more land and its electricity is more expensive. His point that renewables are being greenwashed is well taken. Surprisingly, he waits until the last chapter to mention the very polluting mining and refining of oodles of minerals and rare metals needed to build and maintain this high-tech infrastructure. For Bryce, nuclear, as a power-denser fuel, is the way forward: environmental organisations have exaggerated the dangers of radiation and the risk of accidents, and countries such as France show that radioactive waste can be handled sensibly. Again, good points; I lean more towards the few pro-nuclear environmentalists such as Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. So where do I disagree? Three points, mainly.

First, I think his comparison between renewable and nuclear is not free from bias. Bryce focuses on onshore wind farms and the various reasons they are resisted, but what of offshore? Some objections likely hold, but I feel it is incumbent on him to explore this better. And what of other forms of renewable energy? Nor does he detail how nuclear runs on finite fuel and, like renewables, still needs transmission lines. Though he is happy to do rough calculations on how much wind or solar needs to be added to keep up with growing demand, he does not do this for nuclear. I came across a very interesting 2011 paper that, starting with slightly different numbers, did do that exercise. It also raises other points I had not yet considered as to why going all-nuclear is difficult too.

Second, Bryce argues we have a humanist imperative to electrify the developing world: “it is to bring light and power to others so that those who are living in the dark can come into the bright light of modernity and progress” (p. 247). If this means e.g. sanitation, basic health care, or clean drinking water – absolutely. But if this means bringing a material-intensive, consumerist lifestyle to the rest of the world then I am going to stop you there. That is a very narrow, Western-centric view. We have relentlessly broadcast our vision of the good life, homogenising and disrupting other cultures and ways of living in the process, frequently during centuries of colonial exploitation. I agree with Bryce that “when forced to choose between energy poverty and access to electricity, consumers and policymakers will always choose electricity” (p. xxiv), but there is a difference between access to electricity and squandering it. This brings me to…

“[…] the numbers do not add up in favour of going 100% renewable and [I] am glad he mentions the under-appreciated aspect of power density.”

Third, industrial electricity generation is a dirty business no matter the method. No serious conversation on this topic should ignore that our Western consumption patterns are hugely problematic. Since Bryce is fond of Smil’s work, let me quote from his 2019 book Growth: “we urgently need to consume less. A lot less” (p. 498) and “recognize the obvious, the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet” (p. 508). Judging by one of his previous books, Bryce firmly believes technology will continue to save the day. I am sceptical, also because increasing efficiency rarely reduces overall consumption. He writes that “we cannot stand still” (p. 248). On the contrary, I have become increasingly receptive to ideas of scaling down and pulling back, and of cultivating an ethos of self-limitation, certainly in the West. These are unpopular topics, but that is no reason to avoid them.

Though Bryce accuses environmentalists of “feel-good rhetoric” (p. 244), ignoring this sees him conclude the book with some of his own. He calls natural gas “a fuel of the future [because] global gas reserves are enormous. At current rates of consumption, [they] are projected to last more than fifty years” (p. 243). That is a freakishly short time! And consumption is only set to increase. What does he think will happen after that? To me, this seems like saddling the next generation with even bigger problems on a further impoverished planet. Similarly, he acknowledges that in the process we will affect the climate, but remains “optimistic that we can, and will, adapt to whatever changes are coming” (p. 248). Other than ignoring that climate change is already hitting the poorest the hardest, that seems based on little more than fervent hope.

My criticism does not imply that Bryce is dogmatic. He is realistic in noting that “there are no quick or easy solutions. Energy transition takes decades” (p. xxv), while a visit to a microgrid “forced me to reconsider some of my skepticism about solar and storage” (p. 237). A Question of Power is very enjoyable where its history and reportage are concerned, while its future outlook is sure to provoke discussion.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

A Question of Power

Other recommended resources mentioned in this review:

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3 comments

  1. An interesting and to the point review (once again). Living much of my life in rural Africa (mostly Mozambique and Tanzania) I see that the push towards Western style consumerism continues. After all if you have electricity the first thing you want to get after that is a flat screen TV. And what is peddled on TV but Western style consumerism – not sustainability or general information towards a better lifestyle. Electricity may, by itself, improve peoples health by changing their behaviour (staying in to watch said TV at night instead of being outside) but this is a relatively peripheral advantage.

    Liked by 1 person

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