Book review: Energy: A Human History, by Richard Rhodes

Pulitzer-winning author Richard Rhodes writes engagingly and with admirable clarity a history of energy that is a woefully incomplete.

A guest post by Bart Hawkins Kreps, first published at An Outside Chance (Part 1 & Part 2).

 

Part 1 – Energy: A Human History – a slim slice of history and science

“The population of the earth has increased more than sevenfold since 1850 – from one billion to seven and a half billion – primarily because of science and technology,” Richard Rhodes concludes at the end of his new book Energy: A Human History. “Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come.”[i]

Rhodes tells an engaging tale of energy transitions over some 500 years. Yet the limitations in his field of view become critical in the book’s concluding chapter, when he reveals which particular axe he is especially eager to grind.

Both the title of the book and its timing invite comparison with Vaclav Smil’s 2017 work Energy and Civilization: A History (reviewed here). There is a significant overlap, most notably in both author’s views that major energy transitions – from wood to coal, from coal to petroleum – have been multi-generational processes.

But Rhodes’ scope is far narrower, both in time and in geography.

Rhodes begins his story in sixteenth-century England. His cast of characters is overwhelmingly Anglo-American and male, with a sprinkling of western Europeans, and only a brief excursion outside of “western civilization” to discuss oil exploration in Saudi Arabia.

Smil, by contrast, starts his book in pre-history, with an erudite discussion of the energy implications of human evolution. He follows with more than 200 pages on developments in energy usage from ancient times to the Middle Ages, in Africa, India, China, Europe, and Mesoamerica.

Smil’s readers, then, arrive at his discussion of the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel era with an understanding that millennia of progressive developments, around the world, had gone into the technologies and social organizations available to sixteenth-century Englishmen.

The unspoken implication in Rhodes’ tale is that the men of the Royal Society of London started with a blank slate, and all our current technological marvels are due wholly to the magnificence of their particular current in science.

One question that never arises in Rhodes’ book is, how did it happen that a class of educated men had the time and resources to ponder theories, conduct long series of experiments, and write and discuss their essays? There is no mention that during these same centuries, the countries of Western Europe were drawing vast quantities of basic resources from Africa and the Americas, at the cost of millions of lives.

In short, this is a woefully incomplete history of energy. But within those limitations, Rhodes writes engagingly and with admirable clarity.

A thermodynamic page-turner

For anyone interested in basic issues of physics and technology, the progression from scattered awareness of curious phenomena, to testable theories, to technologies that were applied on a mass scale and changed everyday life, makes a fascinating story. For example, observations of static electricity from a cat’s hair, frightening strikes of lightning, and the effects of magnets eventually grew into a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism. Rhodes ably outlines how this led through development of crude batteries, then to simple generators, and eventually to the construction of a massive generator harnessing some of the power of Niagara Falls for a new phase of the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, his discussion of the long gestation of the coal-fired steam engine – which depended on an understanding of basic issues of thermodynamics as well as refinements in metal-working needed for the construction of high-quality boilers – illuminates important factors in the birth of the fossil-fuel era.

An excellent section on early oil drilling and refining processes leads to a fascinating aside: the profitable introduction of lead as a performance-enhancing additive to gasoline, notwithstanding severe health effects which were noticed and decried at the earliest stages of the leaded gas era.

Credit where credit is due

The social effects of these developments in basic and applied science have been sweeping and many of them have been salutary. It would be foolish to deny that science has played a major role in increasing life expectancy and making rapid population growth possible.

Yet many historians would argue that social and political factors such as labour rights and the push for universal education have been equally important.

Of most direct importance to Rhodes’ subject, it is clear that science was critical in helping us understand principles of thermodynamics and helping us harness the power in both fossil fuels and renewable resources. But science has not decreed that, once having learned to extract and consume fossil fuels, we should use up these resources as fast as humanly possible. That trend, rather, is due to an economic system that requires profits to increase continuously and exponentially.

Likewise, science taught us how to use the fossil fuel resources which have helped boost our population seven-fold in the past 170 years. But science did not create those resources, which were cooking in the earth’s cavities for millions of years before the first protohuman scientist conducted the first experiment.

If, following Rhodes’ thinking, we give science the whole credit for making a population explosion possible, we should also credit science with blowing through millions of years of accumulated energy resources in just a few hundred years. We should give science credit for the fact that billions of people live in areas already being severely impacted by climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions (even though those people typically have used minimal quantities of fossil fuel themselves.) And we should ask, why can’t science come up with a cost- and time-effective way of replacing all those fossil fuels, so that all 7 billion of us plus our more numerous descendants can keep on living the high-energy lifestyle to which (some of) us are accustomed?

Ah, but science has already found a big part of the next answer, Rhodes might answer: nuclear power.

The questions raised by Rhodes’ concluding sections on nuclear power are complex, and we’ll dive into those issues in Part 2.

 

Part 2: Can nuclear power extend the economic expansion?

Richard Rhodes’ new book Energy: A Human History does an excellent job of describing the scientific and technological hurdles that had to be cleared in the development of, for example, an internal combustion engine which can convert refined petroleum into forward motion.

But he gives short shrift to the social and political forces that have been equally important in determining how technological advances shape our world. That internal combustion engine might be a wonder of ingenuity, but was there any scientific reason we should make multi-tonne vehicles the primary mode of transportation for single passengers in cities, drastically reconfiguring urban landscapes in the process? When assiduous research resulted in more efficient engines, did science also dictate that we should use those engines to drive bigger and heavier SUV’s, and then four-wheel-drive, four-door pick-up trucks, to our suburban grocery superstores?

Unfortunately, Rhodes presents the benefits of modern science as if they are all inextricably wrapped up in our current high-energy-consumption economy, implying that human prosperity must end unless we find ways to maintain this high-energy system.

In this second part of a look at Energy: A Human History, we’ll delve into these questions as they relate to Rhodes’ strident defense of nuclear power.

To set the context, Rhodes argues that the only realistic – and the most ethical – way forward is a gradual progression on the path we are already taking, and that means an “all energy sources except coal and oil” strategy:

“Every energy system has its advantages and disadvantages… And given the scale of global warming and human development, we will need them all if we are to finish the centuries-long process of decarbonizing our energy supply – wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, natural gas.”[ii]

Three key points here: First, Rhodes recognizes the severity and urgency of the climate problem.

Second, he believes we have been “decarbonizing our energy supply” for centuries. That is true with respect to intensity: we now release fewer units of carbon for each unit of energy than we did in the 19th century.[iii] But in an overall sense, we emit vastly more carbon cumulatively (and vastly more carbon per capita) than we used to. It is the overall carbon emissions, not the carbon/energy intensity ratio, that matters to the climate.

Third, while energy production via natural gas has relatively low carbon emissions at the point of combustion, there is wide recognition that methane leaks throughout the production/transmission chain are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which may counteract the benefits of switching from coal to gas. Rhodes makes only an oblique reference to this critical problem in current natural gas usage.

It’s the issue of nuclear power, though, that really brings out Rhodes’ rhetorical heat. Consider this ad hominem attack:

“Antinuclear activists, whose agendas originated in a misinformed neo-Malthusian foreboding of overpopulation (and a willingness at the margin to condemn millions of their fellow human beings to death from disease and starvation), may fairly be accused of disingenuousness in their successive arguments against the safest, least polluting, least warming, and most reliable energy source humanity has yet devised.[iv]

If someone warns that a social or technological development is likely to result in mass death, does that logically mean they want mass death, or that they are indifferent to it? Obviously not. They may well be sincerely motivated by a desire to save lives – just as those who promote the same social or technological development might sincerely believe that is the best way to save lives and promote prosperity.

So I think it is Rhodes who is being disingenuous with his ad hominem argument – even though I happen to agree with some of his substantive points on the relative safety of nuclear power.

What could go wrong?

As one who has lived for fifteen years just downwind of major nuclear facilities – first a uranium processing plant, more recently a nuclear power generator – I’ve had lots of incentive to study the potential safety hazards of the nuclear power industry. And on the issue of the relative operating safety of nuclear power generation, my conclusions have been much the same as those Rhodes puts forth.

I frequently take a short bike ride along the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail through the buffer zone around the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. Is this a significant hazard to my health? Yes it is, but only because this route also requires me to share the road with trucks and cars for a few kilometers, and to ride right beside a stream of pollution-emitting traffic on Ontario’s busiest expressway.

As a close neighbour of nuclear facilities, my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic nuclear power accident is several orders of magnitude lower than my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic traffic accident. (Worldwide, well over a million people are killed in traffic accidents per year.[v])

As for the health risk due to chronic exposure to the amounts of radiation that are emitted by a current Canadian nuclear generating plant, I fully concur with Rhodes’ more general conclusion: “Low doses of radiation are not only low risk; they’re also lost in the noise of other sources of environmental insult.”[vi]

Likewise, I share Rhodes’ conclusion that shutting down our existing nuclear power plants for environmental reasons, while continuing to rely on coal for a significant part of electricity generation, is daft[vii] – we should replace carbon-emitting generating systems first.

In my region, I would be sorry to see Darlington Nuclear Station shut down if Ontario were still significantly reliant on gas-powered peaker plants, as it is now. And given that we have a very long way to go in electrifying personal transportation and home heating, our electricity demand may increase significantly, making the transition to a fully renewable electricity generation system that much farther down the road. In that context, I think our existing nuclear power plants are a better option environmentally than continued or increasing use of any fossil fuel, natural gas included, for generation of electricity.

But should we commission and build new nuclear power plants? That is a very different question. Rhodes recognizes that the economic viability of the nuclear power industry is very much in question, but he makes no significant attempt in Energy to resolve the economic question.

To adequately answer the economic viability question, we would need a much wider conception of science than the one that comes through in Rhodes’ book.[viii]

Beyond physics and chemistry

The science Rhodes celebrates in Energy: A Human History falls almost entirely within very basic physics and chemistry. The discoveries and developments Rhodes discusses are highly significant, and they will always remain foundational – but they are not sufficient for a clear understanding of technological systems, which are also social phenomena.

A more recent scientific advance is essential in coming to grips with our current energy challenges. This is the concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Over his long and distinguished career, ecologist Charles A.S. Hall posited that organisms, ecological communities, and human societies must derive more usable energy from their activities than the energy they invest in those activities. With this simple insight[ix], Hall gave economics a foundation in the very principles of thermodynamics that Rhodes reveres.

The resulting field of biophysical economics provides a deeper understanding of the socio-technological revolutions that Rhodes simply ascribes to “science”. After studying the Energy Return on Investment of major energy sources over the past 200 years, we can understand how the rapid exploitation of fossil fuels provided a huge boost in the energy available to society, while simultaneously freeing the great majority of people from energy-procuring activities so that they could work instead at a wide variety of new activities and industries. We can understand that if any society is to use a high quantity of energy per person, while employing only a small number of people in its energy sector, then its energy sector needs a high rate of Energy Return on Investment.

With readily accessible supplies of coal, oil and natural gas, industrial civilization in the past 200 years has benefitted from a very high Energy Return on Investment. But with “sweet spots” exhausted or in depletion phases, the EROI of the fossil fuel economy has been in marked decline for the past few decades.

Thus one of the key questions about a supposed nuclear renaissance is, can the nuclear power industry achieve an EROI comparable to that of the fossil fuel economy we have known to date? Most published analyses say no[x] – from an Energy Return On Investment standpoint, nuclear power generation is (at worst) not worth doing at all, or (at best) worth doing even though it will produce much more expensive energy than the energy we came to depend on during the twentieth century.

If nuclear power generation has a low EROI, in sum, it cannot and will not fuel a continued economic expansion.

Rhodes argues that nuclear power is vitally important because we really need it to extend our current model of prosperity to billions more people now and in coming generations, and he claims the mantle of science for this position. But a broader and deeper application of scientific analysis can deal with the economic viability questions about nuclear power that he simply sidesteps.

 


Notes:

[i] Energy: A Human History, page 343

[ii] Energy: A Human History, page 337

[iii] This is a point explained in more detail by Vaclav Smil, who also gives a perspective on the relative degree of decarbonization. From 1900 to 2000, he says, “the average carbon intensity of the world’s fossil fuel supply kept on declining: when expressed in terms of carbon per unit of the global total primary energy supply, it fell from nearly 28 kg C/GJ [GigaJoule] in 1900 to just below 25 in 1950 and to just over 19 in 2010, roughly a 30% decrease; subsequently, as a result of China’s rapidly rising coal output, it rose a bit during the first decade of the twenty-first century.” Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History, page 270.

[iv] Energy: A Human History, page 336

[v] The World Health Organization (WHO) says there were 1.25 million traffic deaths in 2013.

[vi] Energy: A Human History, page 324

[vii] This general statement must be qualified, of course, by noting that some particular nuclear plants should be shut down because their designs were inherently flawed to begin with, or because they have aged beyond the point where they can be maintained and operated safely.

[viii] Even if one accepts that the operating safety record of nuclear power stations is exemplary, there are the major issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the long-term storage of highly radioactive wastes. Rhodes doesn’t mention weapons proliferation, and he cavalierly dismisses the long-term disposal issue: “The notion that such waste must be successfully protected from exposure for hundreds of thousands of years is counter to how humans handle every other kind of toxic material we produce. We usually bury it, but we also discount its future risk, on the reasonable grounds that we owe concern to one or, at best, two generations beyond our own …” (Energy: A Human History, page 337, emphasis mine). Yes, that’s what we usually do, but in what sense is that “reasonable”?

[ix] Though the basic insight is simple, measuring and calculating EROI can be anything but simple. A key issue is deciding how far out to draw the boundaries of an analysis. As Hall, Lambert and Balogh noted in “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society” in 2014, “Societal EROI is the overall EROI that might be derived for all of a nation’s or society’s fuels by summing all gains from fuels and all costs of obtaining them. To our knowledge this calculation has yet to be undertaken because it is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the variables necessary to generate an all-encompassing societal EROI value”.

[x] In Scientific American (April 2013) Mason Inman cited an EROI of 5 for nuclear electricity generation – lower than photovoltaic or wind generators, and only a small fraction of the EROI of 69 that Inman cited for global conventional oil production in 2011. In 2014 a meta-review of studies, EROI of different fuels and the implications for society, gave a mean EROI of 14 for nuclear power. A paper by the World Nuclear Association cites outliers among the published studies, highlighting a conclusion that nuclear generation of electricity has a higher average EROI than hydro or fossil fuel generating systems, and is “one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power”.


About the author:
Bart Hawkins Kreps is a long-time bicycling advocate and free-lance writer. His views have been shaped by work on highway construction and farming in the US Midwest, nine years spent in the Canadian arctic, and twenty years of involvement in the publishing industry in Ontario. Currently living on the outermost edge of the Toronto megalopolis, he blogs most often about energy, economics and ecology, at anoutsidechance.com.

Disclaimer:
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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