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The Quest for Affordable Energy

Obama science adviser pick John Holdren on asking the hard questions--and providing some answers



courtesy Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Editor's Note: This review, by John Holdren, of Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution Will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet, by Vijay Vaitheeswaran (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), was first published in our December 2003 issue. We are republishing it because of reports that Pres. Barack Obama has picked Holden as his science adviser. For more by Holden, see "The Future of Climate Change Policy: The U.S.'s Last Chance to Lead."

Energy is the lifeblood of industrial civilization and an absolutely necessary (albeit certainly not sufficient) condition for lifting the world’s poor from their poverty. But current methods of mobilizing civilization’s energy are more disruptive of local, regional and global environmental conditions and processes than anything else that humans do.

This dichotomy defines the core of the energy challenge in the century before us: How can we supply enough affordable energy to permit the billions who are currently poor (and the billions more who will be added to their numbers in the decades ahead) to attain prosperity—and to sustain and expand the prosperity of those already rich—without suffering intolerable damage to the environmental dimensions of human well-being in industrial and developing countries alike?

How difficult will meeting this challenge be? Is the “business as usual” approach—subsidizing fossil-fuel supply and nuclear energy and large hydro projects, maintaining low energy prices to consumers by keeping environmental and political costs “external,” propping up oil supply by every available means—part of the solution or part of the problem? Can the privatization of energy sectors in the developing countries and the restructuring and deregulation of energy sectors in industrial countries be accomplished in ways that provide the economic benefits of competition while still preserving essential public benefits such as the reliability and resilience of the electricity system?

In his book, Power to the People,Vijay Vaitheeswaran tackles these and the other hard questions at the core of society’s energy dilemmas with style, balance and insight. The style is entertaining and accessible. The balance is impeccable—Vaitheeswaran generally lets the most forceful and effective exponents on different sides of the major issues state their case in their own words—but after ventilating the various positions he is not afraid to let the reader know where he comes out. And this is where the insight comes in.

Vaitheeswaran brings to these questions the respect for markets and marketlike mechanisms of a writer for the Economist, the understanding of technology of an M.I.T.-trained engineer, and the sympathy for the plight of the world’s poor of an individual born in India—all of which he happens to be. He also happens to have, in my judgment, a good sense of how to think about—and convey—the interplay of the economic, technological, environmental and sociopolitical dimensions of the energy issue as well as the reasons that the uncertainties afflicting our knowledge of all the dimensions do not add up to a good reason for inaction.

Among the critically important  points about all this that the book convincingly conveys:

—Civilization is in no immediate danger of running out of energy or even just out of oil. But we are running out of environment—that is, out of the capacity of the environment to absorb energy’s impacts without risk of intolerable disruption—and our heavy dependence on oil in particular entails not only environmental but also economic and political liabilities.

—Choices that countries make about energy supply commit them to those choic-
es for decades, because power plants and other energy facilities typically last for 40 years or more and are too costly to replace before they wear out. This is one of the reasons it is imprudent in the extreme to wait for even more evidence than we already have before letting climate-change risks start to influence which energy options we choose.

—Energy technologies that exist or are under development could greatly increase energy efficiency in residences and businesses, reduce dependence on oil, accelerate the provision of energy services to the world’s poor, increase the reliability and resilience of electricity grids, and shrink the impacts of energy supply on climate and other environmental values. The most promising of these options include renewable sources of a variety of types, advanced fossil-fuel technologies that can capture and sequester carbon, and hydrogen-powered fuel cells for vehicle propulsion and dispersed electricity generation.

—These prosperity-building, stability-enhancing and environment-sparing options will not materialize in quantity matching the need unless and until three conditions are met: The massive subsidies favoring continuation of energy business as usual are ended.
The massive risks of greenhouse gas-induced climate change are at least partly internalized with a carbon tax or its equivalent. And the industrial nations commit to helping the developing ones “leapfrog” past the inefficient and dirty-energy technologies that fueled the industrialization of the former but mortgaged the environ-
ment in the process.

There are a few small technical slips in the elaboration of all this, but not many, and none that matter to the thrust of the argument.

Written for the intelligent layperson, Vaitheeswaran’s book is by far the most helpful, entertaining, up-to-date and accessible treatment of the energy-economy-environment problematique available. Its title, Power to the People, might strike some at first as too cute or too presumptuous. By the time I finished the book, though, I thought the title was apt, and in more ways than one. One must hope that knowledge translates to power in the political sense and that the knowledge to the people conveyed here will help lead to the political outcomes needed to bring the book’s optimistic vision into being.

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