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The Powers That Be

A new book maps global energy for the 21st century
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 6 - 2012

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Author Scott L. Montgomery holds an M.S. in geology from Cornell University. On my ‘energy’ bookshelf, there are dozens of books published over the past two decades. Some of them argue for Peak Oil; others refute it; still others paint a bloody picture of wars over resources. But a number of authors go beyond these debates. They try to educate the public on energy resources and technologies, show practical scenarios of global energy in the coming decades, and discuss the intelligence, investments, and efforts needed to harness energy, upon which modern civilization is founded.

To this latter category belongs Scott Montgomery’s new book The Powers That Be: Global Energy for the Twenty-First Century and Beyond. Unlike most other books in this category, which are written by journalists, economists, environmentalists, etc., The Powers That Be comes from the pen of an experienced geologist.  

Through sixteen chapters, Montgomery has presented a comprehensive review of the current energy situation in the world and our energy options in the coming decades. The book is written in a readable style for the educated public, although the author has included only a few maps, diagrams and photographs to enhance the text.  

Montgomery advises the reader to follow the book in the order of its contents; hence I will also introduce it in that manner. After an introduction, two chapters discuss the historical view and the present situation of human use of energy resources. The next three chapters are on fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), which currently account for 80% of the world’s energy consumption. Chapter seven is on ‘the great debate’ of Peak Oil. Here we read the viewpoints of the pessimists (crude production has peaked); the optimists (no peak at all), and the realist-actionists (production ‘plateau’ will continue for a few decades). Then comes a chapter on nuclear power, which currently supplies 15% of the world’s electricity through 436 operating nuclear plants. (Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster is not discussed because the book was published before that.) Two chapters describe renewable energy sources (geothermal, solar and wind power), which account for nearly 2% of total energy consumption and have thus much room to grow. Hydrogen (“forever fuel or wishful thinking?”) and fusion nuclear power (mimicking the Sun’s engine on earth) each have their own chapter. Geopolitics of energy, technological imperatives, and climate change take up chapters 13 through 15. Concluding remarks come in the final chapter, 16. The strength of the book is that it reviews the sources, technologies, pros and cons of each energy resource, and presents a balanced discussion.  

Several ‘big-picture’ thoughts emerge from Montgomery’s study of energy for the next three decades. First, the energy sector will increasingly draw the attention of governments and industrial enterprises as energy is crucial to the world’s economic growth, urbanization, power generation, transportation, food and so on. This must be good news to companies, investors and researchers as well as to educational and publishing institutions involved in various aspects of energy. Second, most of the economic growth, industrialization and urbanization will occur in the developing countries, most notably China and India. Third, no single energy resource will be able to deliver what the world needs; an energy mix depending on geographic conditions will shape the future energy markets around the world.  Fossil fuels have not peaked and their production will continue to grow; natural gas, in particular, will become more significant partly because it releases less carbon dioxide, but coal is still most abundant (70% of fossil fuels) and cheapest. Every energy resource has its own challenges and prospects in terms of technology, commerciality, environmental impact, and geographic distribution. Finally, energy security requires the most important resource – the human mind. New ideas generate new technologies. Information and education must dispel people’s misconceptions and myths about energy. And books such as this one help that cause.  

Overall, I found this book a well-written package of information, analysis, and insight on various aspects of energy.  

The Powers That Be: Global Energy for the Twenty-First Century And Beyond is published by the University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 364pp, $35

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