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A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations

A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations PDF

Author: Robert Bryce

Publisher: PublicAffairs


Publish Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN-10: 1610397495

Pages: 352

File Type: EPub

Language: English

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Book Preface

A gang of people helped me produce this book. I must first thank the team at PublicAffairs—Clive Priddle, Peter Osnos, Kaitlin Carruthers-Busser, Liz Dana, and Jaime Leifer—who challenged me to make this book as good as it could possibly be. I owe particular thanks to my dear friend and editor, Lisa Kaufman. As she has done five times before, Lisa helped me convert a bunch of affiliated ideas into a coherent manuscript. Without her insight and patient guidance, this book would not have happened. Thanks to my agent, Dan Green, who over the past nineteen years has always been able to talk me through times of distress while encouraging me to look forward and get back to work.

Thanks also to the team that helped produce the documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, which was created simultaneously with this book. My good friend and collaborator Tyson Culver has been a loyal business partner and sounding board since we first began talking about making a movie back in 2016. In addition to Tyson, the Juice production team included Deanna DeHaven, James Treakle, John Moody, Dino Maglaris, Matthew L. Wallis, and Ted Powers. Other key people who were instrumental in the making of the film and therefore deserve my sincere thanks: Chris Wright, Liz Wright, Steven R. Anderson, Bud Brigham, Roland Pritzker, Rachel Pritzker, Ray Rothrock, Ed Schweitzer, Stephanie Schweitzer, David Costello, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, and Arthur Smith.

My former colleagues at the Manhattan Institute were supportive throughout the long process of writing this book. In particular, I want to acknowledge Howard Husock, Troy Senik, Vanessa Mendoza, Bernadette Serton, and the institute’s former president, Larry Mone, for their patience and encouragement.

Dr. Joyashree Roy—to borrow the title of Austin-based singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster’s most famous album—is a phenomenal woman. When Lorin, Tyson, and I visited Kolkata in late 2016, Joyashree, an economics professor at Jadavpur University, was gracious and supportive at every turn. She arranged our visit to Vidyasagar University in Midnapore, as well as our visits to rural villages in West Bengal. She also arranged for us to obtain Indian rupees, which was no mean feat in the weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed demonetization, which, at a stroke, made illegal all 500- and 1,000-rupee notes, or roughly 80 percent of all the currency in India. She set up meetings, patiently explained the local geography, and even did simultaneous translations. I hope one day to repay her kindness. I must also thank Joyashree’s colleagues in Kolkata, Nandini Das and Suman Dutta, for their help in facilitating our travel, as well as Dr. Sebak Jana, who not only hosted us in Midnapore, but took us to several rural villages in West Bengal.

Jimmy Nassour, my friend and fellow board member at Parkside Community School in Austin, was extraordinary. He and his always-smiling brother-in-law, Simon Najm, shepherded us around Beirut, set up meetings, and taught us key Arabic slang. The love that Jimmy and Simon showed for Lebanon made us love Lebanon too.

My friend J. Paul Oxer helped me formulate some of the ideas in this book and, just as important, introduced me to Hlynur Guðjónsson, the consul general for Iceland in New York. Hlynur, in turn, connected me with numerous contacts in Reykjavík. Tinna Traustadóttir and Nanna Baldvinsdóttir from Landsvirkjun were charming tour guides who showed us around the Búrfell hydro project. Gísli Katrínarson explained why Iceland has become a hotspot for high-performance computing, and Helmut Rauth walked us through Genesis Mining’s operations and the cryptocurrency business.

Thanks to the Breakthrough Institute for including me in the annual Breakthrough Dialogue. That event allowed me to meet many of the people I interviewed for this book. My particular thanks to Ted Nordhaus, Alex Trembath, and Jessica Lovering, all of whom I consider my friends. Thanks, too, to Michael Shellenberger and the people at Environmental Progress for allowing me to conduct interviews at their office in Berkeley.

My friend and graphics wizard Seth Myers was, once again, patient and diligent. This book is better because of his skill at turning numbers into meaningful graphics. Jude Clemente and Yevgeniy Feyman also provided research assistance and encouragement during the early days of this project. Thanks to the punctilious and pulchritudinous Mimi Bardagjy, who has fact-checked all of my books with humor and precision.

I must also thank the people who read various versions of the book manuscript. My pal Robert Elder Jr., once again, was a patient and careful reader. My father-in-law, Paul Rasmussen, an emeritus chemistry professor at the University of Michigan, has read—and provided insight and feedback on—all my book manuscripts. He provided valuable perspective again on this one. Other friends who provided helpful comments include: Peter Z. Grossman, Joe Cunningham, John Sennett, Rex Rivolo, Chris Pedersen, Steve Brick, Stan Jakuba, Omar Kader, Chris Cauthon, and Bryan Shahan. Thanks also to my friend Jonathan Lesser, who was a valuable consultant on all grid-related matters as well as a patient reader.

Given this book’s focus on electricity, a pair of technical notes may be of interest. My laptop (a MacBook Air) uses about 50 watts of power when being charged. The monitor that I use with the laptop, a Thunderbolt display, draws another 100 watts.

Finally, I must thank my wife, Lorin. We had our first date on Halloween 1982. We have been together ever since. Her gentle love and steadfast support saw me through some challenging times as I worked through the many iterations of this book. Thanks, too, to our children: Mary, Michael, and Jacob. They have endured more than a few lectures on energy, power, and electricity. I may be wrong, but I think they are starting to enjoy my disquisitions.

Any errors in this book are mine. If you spot a mistake, please let me know so it can be corrected for the paperback edition.

June 11, 2019

Austin, Texas

Electricity has transformed humanity like no other form of energy. Since the dawn of the Electric Age less than 140 years ago, electricity has changed how we live, communicate, learn, and eat. In doing so, it has fueled an unprecedented period of human flourishing. Never in human history have so many people lived in such wealth and prosperity. And electricity continues to change and enrich our lives. From our ability to navigate foreign cities with maps on our iPhones to the staggering quantities of information available to us on the Internet, we use electricity without a second thought. Nearly every technology we use requires reliable flows of electricity. And yet, as we become ever more connected, ever more wired, billions of people are being left behind.

The vast disparity between the rich and the poor is, in large part, defined by the disparity between those who have electricity and those who scrape by on small quantities of juice or none at all. People in wealthy countries assume that reliable electricity is akin to a birthright. We seldom think about the relationship between electric power and human empowerment. But to bring home the implications of our dependency on electricity—and our vulnerability to the lack of sufficient supplies—all we need to do is spend some time with our neighbors in Puerto Rico and see what happened to them after Hurricane Maria shattered the island’s electric grid. That deadly storm left thousands of Puertoriqueños in the dark. Among them were Wilfredo Roque, Iris Ortiz, and their three girls.

The first thing I saw as I drove down the steep driveway next to Wilfredo and Iris’s modest home in Barrio Antón Ruíz was the orange extension cord. The cord, which was intertwined with a piece of brown rope, was suspended less than two meters over the surface of the couple’s driveway. The line stayed aloft thanks to a two-by-four piece of lumber on the left side of the driveway that was secured to the ground near a 4,500-watt gasoline-fueled generator perched next to the fence. On the right side of the driveway, the rope and electric cord were secured to a railing on the house by a couple of knots.

Wilfredo, a slightly built, energetic man, came to greet me right away. He and Iris were both eager to talk. Hurricane Maria had been far more powerful than they had expected. “We weren’t prepared for the devastation,” Wilfredo told me in Spanish, as he pulled shut the heavy rolling metal gate that separated his driveway from the narrow asphalt street in the neighborhood, which is located amid a set of green rolling hills about one hour’s drive southeast of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.

As I looked at his generator, a Chinese-made Black Max, he quickly volunteered the numbers. “We spend $100 to $125 per week on gasoline for the generator.” In the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, the family’s only source of electricity had been the generator. In the first few weeks after they got the machine, they ran it ten or twelve hours per day. “We run it less now. We were spending too much money on fuel. So now we only run the generator five hours per day,” Wilfredo said. “No more than that.”

After he gave me the figures for the generator, I asked him to repeat them. I did so for two reasons. The first: my tourist-level Spanish is, well, tourist level. I’ve traveled a fair amount in Latin America and can navigate and order dinner at the café, but in several of my conversations with Puertoriqueños, I knew I was missing key details. The other reason: it was hard to hear Wilfredo due to the eardrum-shattering racket coming from his neighbor’s generator. A short distance from where we were standing, on the other side of the fence, the machine was running full blast. Like Wilfredo’s generator, it lacked sound insulation. Both machines sat near the ground, protected from the sun, wind, and rain by a few too-small pieces of roofing material and plywood.

As Wilfredo repeated the numbers, I wrote them in my notebook, in Spanish: “$100 to $125 por semana, 5 horas por dia.” I then showed the notes to Wilfredo for confirmation. He nodded and said, “Correcto.”

Before Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico with winds that hit 180 miles (290 kilometers) per hour, Wilfredo, Iris, and their three young girls, Alannis (thirteen), Arianna (ten), and Ayamie (five), were paying the state-run grid operator, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), about $90 per month for their electricity. But that money didn’t buy them reliable power and the family’s modest home was regularly hit by blackouts. Around the time Alannis was a baby, Iris told me, the blackouts happened several times per day. After she and Wilfredo complained, PREPA workers switched out a transformer in the barrio; things got better and the blackouts were reduced to several times per week. The electricity service still wasn’t great, but their connection to PREPA’s grid was good enough that they didn’t need to run a generator. After the deadly hurricane pummeled the island, they couldn’t rely on Puerto Rico’s electric grid for anything. So Wilfredo began searching for a small generator to buy. It took him two months.

Even with the four or five hours of electricity per day that was being provided by the generator, life was suddenly much harder.2 The generator was smelly and loud. So were all their neighbors’ generators. The nearly constant noise made it hard to sleep at night. Iris was having to wash some of the family’s clothes by hand. Doing the laundry, which used to take just a few minutes, was suddenly taking hours. The children’s schoolwork was suffering because they were not getting enough time on the Internet. “We are being left behind,” Iris told me. “We have returned to the time of my grandmother, or my great-grandmother.”

About the time I visited Puerto Rico, the Rhodium Group, a US-based consulting firm, published a report that found that the island had endured the largest blackout in US history.3 The firm reported that “more customer-hours have been lost in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria than in the rest of the US over the past five years due to all causes combined.” Not only that, Iris, Wilfredo, their three girls, and other Puertoriqueños were enduring the second-largest blackout in world history.4

Imagining such energy hardship is almost beyond our ken. We flip the switch, we plug in our phones, laptops, and AirPods, and we expect the power to be on. Every time. And it almost always is. But the Roque Ortiz family’s electricity predicament could befall pretty much anyone in the United States or any other country. The risk of an extended blackout—and the societal upheaval that would come with it—is real.5 Such a blackout could be caused by extreme weather such as a hurricane, tornado, or snowstorm. It could also be caused by extraplanetary forces. In 2017, the American Geophysical Union estimated that an extreme solar storm could cause blackouts that would affect two-thirds of the US population and that “daily domestic economic loss could total $41.5 billion plus an additional $7 billion loss through the international supply chain.”6

Saboteurs are constantly probing for weaknesses in the electric grid. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security warned that Russian hackers had infiltrated numerous US energy companies, including electric utilities.7 If hackers succeed in bringing down all or part of the American electric grid, they could cause billions of dollars in damage without having to leave the comfort of their computer keyboards. In addition to threats from weather and cyberspace, electric grids are also vulnerable to physical sabotage. Well-prepared saboteurs could disable key transformer stations or transmission lines and in doing so cause blackouts across significant swaths of the American grid. Millions, or perhaps even tens of millions, of Americans could be blacked out and plunged into the very same predicament Wilfredo, Iris, and other residents of Barrio Antón Ruíz were enduring. Instead of having cheap, abundant, and reliable electricity, Americans could be faced with a situation in which electricity is expensive, scarce, and intermittent. Unable to rely on the electric grid, they would have to get some of their electricity from small, inefficient, diesel- or gasoline-fired generators. That, in turn, would require having plentiful motor fuel at local service stations, which themselves would need electricity in order to pump the fuel into customers’ tanks.

We could also sabotage ourselves. Numerous environmental groups and politicians have claimed that we can completely eliminate the use of hydrocarbons (coal, oil, and natural gas) and nuclear, and instead rely mainly on solar and wind energy. While those policies are intended to slow or stop climate change, they are little more than wishful thinking. Advocates for an all-renewable economy ignore the myriad downsides of attempting to rely on intermittent sources of energy, as well as the vast amounts of land, concrete, steel, copper, and other commodities that would be required to make those projects work at the scale our modern society demands. Politically popular proposals like the Green New Deal claim that if only we adopt a warlike approach to our energy and power systems we can completely eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from our economy and do so in just two or three decades.8 Electric cars like the Tesla have gained an almost cult-like following, with little understanding of the fact that we have to get the electricity to charge them from somewhere. Further, making those cars requires mining and smelting megatons of ore to produce the lithium, cobalt, dysprosium, neodymium, and other elements that are used in the vehicles’ batteries and motors. In short, the production and consumption of electricity always comes with a cost. Forsaking our existing electricity-generation systems for ones that rely solely on renewables could make our grid less stable and less reliable.

Super-reliable electricity is essential to the Information Age. America’s biggest and richest companies have spent billions of dollars building their own electric grids to make sure their computer networks never go dark. Retailing and computing giant Amazon alone controls about 4,700 megawatts of electricity-generation capacity; that’s as much as entire countries like Croatia or Laos.9 At the same time that megacorporations are able to effectively secede from our electric grid, billions of people around the world today are disempowered.

The numbers of the disempowered are staggering: About one billion people on the planet today have no access to electricity at all. Another two billion or so are using only tiny amounts. Furthermore, the electricity that the world’s energy poor use often resembles the expensive, smelly, intermittent power that Puertoriqueños like Wilfredo and Iris had after Hurricane Maria. Unable to rely on the electric grid, these billions of people routinely plan their days around electricity—when they will have it and when they won’t. They often have no choice but to get their electricity from generators similar to the Black Max that Wilfredo was refueling every day or two. If they don’t own a generator themselves, the electricity poor often pay subscription fees to local businesspeople who own generators that supply power to customers in their neighborhoods.

Put short, when it comes to electricity, we don’t know how good we have it or just how important electricity is. We take it for granted. But nearly everything we touch—almost everything we read, eat, or wear—has, in one way or another, been electrified. Electricity is the world’s most important and fastest-growing form of energy.10 It’s also the most difficult to supply and do so reliably. That paradox has shaped and will continue to shape global politics. It underlies the chasm between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated.

That leads to the thesis of this book: electricity is the fuel of the twenty-first century. Electricity makes modern life possible. And yet, some three billion people around the world are still stuck in the dark. Their opportunities, their potential to develop lives beyond the backbreaking work of subsistence farming and day labor, their possibilities for economic and social development, depend on increasing their access to reliable electricity. Electricity is the ultimate poverty killer. No matter where you look in the world, as electricity use has increased, so have personal incomes. Having electricity doesn’t guarantee wealth. But its absence almost always means poverty. How we empower the powerless while meeting soaring global electricity demand will be the key factor in addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges, including women’s rights, climate change, and inequality.

I am also focused on electricity because it is the world’s second-largest industry, trailing only the oil and gas sector in overall revenue.11 Global electricity sales total some $2.4 trillion per year.12 That means that the electricity business is bigger than the global automobile business and twice as big as the pharmaceutical sector.13 In the United States alone, electricity sales total about $400 billion per year.14 If the US electric sector were a single stand-alone business, its revenues would nearly equal those of Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and General Motors combined.15

Electricity production matters to climate change because it accounts for the biggest single share of global carbon dioxide emissions: about 25 percent.16 Furthermore, countries that have vibrant electric sectors—places where electricity is abundant and reliable—are leading the global economy. Countries that are hindered by expensive, intermittent power are being left behind. The nineteenth century was the age of coal and steam. The twentieth century was dominated by oil and engines. The twenty-first century is about electrons and bits. Big data, robotics, and artificial intelligence are the hottest technologies of the moment, and all of them depend on electricity.

In the pages ahead, I will look at the world through the lens of electricity. My lens will be wide-angle. I will look at everything from how electricity improves the lives of women and girls to the enormous amount of electricity used by the marijuana business to the mechanics of creating, fueling, and maintaining a functioning electric grid.

In looking at the world through the lens of electricity, I seek answers to several questions, including: Why are countries like the United States, Germany, and France electricity rich, while billions of people around the world are still stuck in the dark? Which industries are showing the biggest growth in electricity demand? How secure is the electric grid? Which fuels will be used to meet future electricity demand, and how will that demand growth affect the efforts to fight climate change? I will share insights from the journey I took to answer these questions—a journey that brought me to India, Lebanon, Iceland, Puerto Rico, New York, and Colorado and involved discussions with dozens of people, including engineers, politicians, activists, academics, and authors, as well as Bitcoin miners, cab drivers, cannabis growers, and others whose lives are shaped by their access, or lack of access, to electricity.

In the first section, I will show why electricity means modernity. To do that, I will take you on a quick jog through Electricity 101, so that you can tell your watts from your watt-hours. I’ll then explain why electricity has had such a transformative effect on humanity and, in particular, for women and girls. I will travel back in time to the early days of the Electric Age to show how electricity changed the shape and height of our cities and the lives of farmers. I’ll introduce you to the small group of New Dealers who liberated electricity from the grip of self-interested trusts, passed the legislation that assured rural electrification, and thus set the stage for the economic boom that assured America’s emergence as an economic superpower.

In the second section, I will illuminate the vast disparity in electricity use around the world today and explain why so many people are stuck in energy poverty, with implications for human rights, economic and cultural development, military strategy, and geopolitics. I will then show what various societies and countries are doing to get the electricity they need and discuss the hard reality about electrification: when forced to choose between energy poverty and access to electricity, consumers and policymakers will always choose electricity, and they will always make it as cheaply as they can so they can provide it to the greatest number of people, regardless of the environmental impacts.

In the third section, I will focus on the electricity rich, to show how and why electricity demand continues to increase, as well as the growing interdependence of electricity, information, money, and the economy. I’ll also examine the dark side of this development: an increased vulnerability to a shutdown of the grid, whether the culprit is squirrels, hackers, or nuclear devices.

Finally, I will look at the future of electricity and discuss how electricity demand in both rich and poor nations is likely to be met. Over the next few decades, global electricity generation will double. The electric grids that will be built over the next twenty to thirty years will have significant impacts on global prosperity and on efforts to address climate change. I will explain why renewables alone cannot meet soaring global electricity demand. I will explore the most promising nuclear-energy technologies, discuss why solar, natural gas, and nuclear will play prominent roles, and explain why I continue to be idiotically optimistic about the future of our high-energy world.

Energy politics are tribal. Everyone, it seems, has their favorite. Me, I’m a proponent of what I call N2N, or natural gas to nuclear. Some people say we will need more coal, while others tout geothermal, hydro, wind, and solar. The hard reality is that there are no quick or easy solutions. Energy transitions take decades.17 Sure, we can desire decisive action on climate change. We can want more rights for women and push for an end to global poverty. But we must be discerning. My hope is that this book, by showing you how the world looks through the lens of electricity, will help you see energy and power systems as they are, not how you may want them to be. We have to separate the glib rhetoric that dominates many of today’s energy discussions from the reality. Only then can we understand the stakes and consequences of our energy policies, as well as the fuels and technologies that will help bring more people out of the dark and into the bright lights of modernity.

Before delving into all of those issues, though, it’s important to take a few minutes to understand what electricity is, why it’s so difficult to supply reliably, and why it has been so transformative.



Title Page



List of Illustrations


Introduction: Barrio Antón Ruíz


1 Electricity 101

2 The Transformative Power of Electricity

3 The Vertical City

4 The New (Electric) Deal

5 Wiring the Superpower

6 Women Unplugged


7 My Refrigerator Versus the World

8 The Power Imperatives: Integrity, Capital, and Fuel

9 The American Way of War

10 Beirut’s Generator Mafia

11 It’s Not Possible to Keep the Lights on Without Coal


12 The New (Electric) Economy

13 Electrified Cash

14 Watts Into Weed

15 The Blackout Will Not Be Televised


16 The Terawatt Challenge

17 The All-Renewable Delusion

18 This Land Is My Land

19 The Nuclear Necessity

20 Future Grid


Discover More

Appendix A

Appendix B


About the Author

Also by Robert Bryce


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