Power Trip, by Michael Webber
The Big Idea
In one sentence, the big idea of this book is to provide a history of energy and provide several ideas about how to improve our world’s future via sustainable energy practices. As an engineer working in the energy industry, I thought this book was a phenomenally fun and informative. Michael Webber did a great job describing how energy impacts all aspects of our lives and how energy is responsible for everything including transportation, health, wealth, wars, and safety.
Who is This Book For?
Since there were a lot of numbers, figures, and engineering concepts in this book, I would recommend this book to an engineer, scientist, or other person highly interested in energy. However, outside of the engineering and energy-enthusiast communities, I don’t think this is a book that many other people would enjoy.
Interesting Things I Learned
If you are engaged in this book, then there is a lot of information to glean. A few of the highlights for me included:
Most power plants are not able to black start. That is, most power plants cannot start producing power by themselves without any electricity from the grid. Since coal, gas, and other steam power plants require a significant amount of energy to spin up the turbines, pumps, and other systems, they cannot start without off-site power. Hydroelectric power plants are one of the few types of plants that can black start, because water is continually available to spin the turbine.
The Three Gorges Dam in China is the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world with a capacity of 22.5 GW. The dam used to power this plant is so large that it created a bulge at the center of the earth and changed the rotation time of the earth by a fraction of a second! An even larger dam, The Grand Inga Dam, capable of producing 55 GW of power has been proposed to be constructed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, but ceases to be approved because of many environmental, safety, and political concerns.
Bottled water is one of the most wasteful, energy-intensive consumer products. In America, we have free access to clean water nearly everywhere we go. Large water facilities ensure that the water in our homes is safe to drink. Plus, it’s extremely affordable. Bottled water, on the other hand, requires thousands of times more energy to produce, and it costs hundreds of times more money to consume than tap water. Bottled water must be purified, packaged, and shipped; after bottled water is used, then the bottle must be thrown away or recycled. For the average American, bottled water is a wasteful commodity. One very practical way to reduce our energy demand is to drink less bottled water. However, it is also important to note that bottled water is invaluable after a natural disaster, because it is the only source of clean water.
Energy spikes in the power grid can be seen in tea-drinking countries, like Wales, in the evening when everybody boils water to make their tea. Another example of an energy spike occurs in the United States during Superbowl commercials when many Americans take a nature break and simultaneously flush their toilets.
Since cold air is heavier than hot air, refrigerator freezers should have the freezer placed at the bottom, because it is significantly more energy efficient. It is surprising that some refrigerators today still place the freezer at the top; this makes no sense.
Considering energy-efficient transportation, trains are more efficient than trucks. To reduce our energy demands, one possible solution is to increase our railroad infrastructure. We will still need trucks to transport items from door to door, but doing most of the long-haul transportation using trains would reduce carbon emissions from trucks.
Cars in general are an expensive commodity. They cost money for insurance, inspection, oil changes, regular maintenance, and cleaning. Public mass transit is more efficient than individual vehicles. However, cars and their increased energy demands are also a sign of wealth.
“The average world-wide citizen consumes half the energy of a British resident, who consumes half the energy of an American, who consumes two-thirds the energy of a typical Texan.” This means that Texans (myself included) consume the most energy in the world, approximately 12 times more than the average world-wide citizen!
There are lots of possible solutions for reducing fuel usage. I thought one of the most unique ideas was a congestion tax, where vehicles traveling in certain areas during specific times are subject to getting taxed. This congestion tax works to reduce congestion in crowded areas.
Wealth is tightly coupled with energy. For example, Pennsylvania became wealthy when they discovered coal, Pittsburgh became wealthy from steel, Texas is wealthy because of oil, and California is wealthy because of silicon chips. All these places earned their wealth by harnessing breakthroughs in energy technology.
The process for extracting uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons requires a great deal of energy. In fact, most significant research breakthroughs require lots and lots of energy. Hence, many of America’s national labs, where most of the scientific and technological breakthroughs occur, are located near large hydroelectric dams with access to plenty of energy. One way to search for nuclear capabilities in foreign countries is to track their energy usage, because we know that refining uranium requires a substantial amount of energy.
In general, freedom, health, wealth, and long-life are all associated with open access to clean energy. There are many practical ways that each individual person can reduce his/her energy usage. However, for large-scale change, we also need to large, governmental initiatives and incentives to reduce energy demands and ensure open access for everybody across the globe, without simultaneously ruining our environment. There does not seem to be any silver bullet. All forms of energy have negative side affects that must be addressed. It is our responsibility to search for and work towards the cleanest energy solutions that will provide energy to all people in the world while simultaneously avoiding the negative environmental consequences. What is our energy future? What technologies will we develop? What will you do to help?