Thursday, June 07, 2012

Five Stars for Robert Rapier's "Power Plays"

It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to recommend a new book by a fellow energy blogger, especially when the blogger in question has the kind of deep, hands-on industry experience that makes Robert Rapier's work so authoritative.  Robert has been communicating about a variety of energy-related topics for years, first at his own "R-Squared Energy" site, where I encountered him in about 2006, and lately at Consumer Energy Report and at The Energy Collective. You should not assume from the book's title, "Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil" or the image on its cover that it is just another in a long line of recent bestsellers proclaiming an imminent and permanent global oil crisis.  Robert's description of the risks of peak oil is nuanced and balanced, as is his assessment of the many other timely subjects included in the book.  The chapter on "Investing in Cleantech" is worth the price of the entire book for would-be inventors and investors, as well as for those setting or administering government renewable energy policies and programs. 

In some respects this is the hardest kind of book for me to review.  It covers much of the same territory as my own writing, drawing on similar educational and career experiences, so I'm hardly representative of its intended or ideal audience.  It is also very close to the book that I've long been tempted to write, myself, after well over a thousand blog posts on the same set of topics and issues.  With those caveats, I enjoyed reading "Power Plays", mainly because despite superficial similarities, our perspectives are still different enough that I found it thought-provoking.  I even picked up a few new facts.  And I should make it very clear that although the book certainly reflects the large body of writing Robert has produced over the last half-dozen years or so, it does not read like a collection of recycled blog posts.  It is also as up-to-date as any project like this could be, including assessments of the Keystone XL pipeline controversy, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and other recent events.

"Power Plays" is structured as an overview of the complex set of energy sources and applications in use today, including their intimate connection to domestic and geopolitics.  (The book includes a sobering, non-partisan analysis of the efforts of eight US presidents to promote energy independence.)  It is also based on an explicit point of view about the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to attempt to mitigate human influence on climate change, while being exceptionally realistic about our available options and likely success.  Robert has definite ideas on energy policies that would be useful, particularly in guiding our long transition away from oil.  I don't agree with all of them, but they're well-reasoned and well-articulated. 

The book is also very sound on the facts.  I didn't spot any notable errors, with the possible exception of a brief explanation of why hybrid cars are more efficient than conventional cars--in my understanding this derives from the optimization of engine output and the recycling of energy otherwise lost in braking, rather than from inherent differences in energy conversion efficiencies between electric and combustion motors.  Otherwise, aside from the natural differences of interpretation one would expect, Robert delivers 250 pages of straight talk about energy.

One word of warning along those lines: If you come to this book as a firm and uncritical advocate of any particular energy technology to the exclusion of most others, you should prepare either to have your feathers ruffled or find yourself questioning some of your beliefs.  That is particularly true for renewable energy and biofuels, which constitute Robert's current main focus as Chief Technology Officer of a forestry and renewable energy company.  On the other hand, if you'd like to learn more about why fuels like corn ethanol are less-than-ideal substitutes for oil, and why cellulosic biofuel is more challenging to produce and scale up than the promoters of many start-up companies would like you to think, this is a great place to start.  And in addition to the obligatory assessment of vehicle electrification and electric trains, his chapter on oil-free transportation features a serious discussion of bicycling and walking, something it might never have occurred to me to include.  All of this is handled with rigor, ample references, and a leavening of tables and graphs that shouldn't overwhelm those who are more comfortable with words than numbers or data.

I highly recommended "Power Plays" for my readers.  It is available in print and e-book formats from Barnes & Noble and Amazon, where it has garnered exclusively five-star ratings at this point.  I intend to post my own five-star review there when time permits.