Book Summary: “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations” by Robert Bryce

Title: A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations
Author: Robert Bryce
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Bryce makes the case that electricity is the most important form of energy for the 21st Century.

If you would like to learn more about energy in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Electricity is key to the modern world, but three billion people still do not have reliable access to it.
  • A robust electrical grid is the main differentiating factor between rich nations and poor nations.
  • Electricity is the second largest industry in the world.
  • Electricity is so widely used because it is cheap, provides instant power and enables us to concentrate energy flows better than any other source.
  • The introduction of electricity to villages in the developing world can bring profound changes to their lives, particularly women.
  • Coal is still the dominant source of energy for generating electricity (about 40%).
  • Solar, wind and batteries are far too expensive, too intermittent and too land-intensive to replace fossil fuels.

Important Quotes from Book

“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. 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.”

“Super-reliable electricity is essential to the Information Age.”

“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.”

“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. It’s also the most difficult to supply and do so reliably.”

 “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.”

“ 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. ”

“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. Global electricity sales total some $2.4 trillion per year.”

“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.”

“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. ”

“Electricity means modernity because—as my son Michael, a math and computer whiz, put it—it’s at the core of all modern networks. We live in a digital world that’s defined by networks. And all of those networks—telephones, global positioning systems, airline reservation systems, traffic lights, the list is endless—depend on electricity. In short, the network is the electric grid and the grid is the network. If you are lucky enough to be connected to an electric grid, you can connect to the digital information network.”

“Electricity is the apex predator of the energy kingdom. We convert lots of primary sources of energy—coal, natural gas, oil, biomass, sunlight, wind, water, and nuclear reactions—into electricity, which is a secondary form of energy. Other forms of secondary energy include gasoline, which must be refined from crude oil, and hydrogen, which is derived from natural gas.”

“The reason we convert so many fuels into electricity is that it is the most useful form of energy. Among its many wonderful properties, it has no inertia. That means it doesn’t have to warm up. It can provide full power in a split second and be turned off just as quickly.”

“Electricity is persnickety. It must be consumed at almost the same instant it is generated. That differentiates it from wood, coal, oil, and natural gas, all of which can be stored relatively easily.”

“There are three reasons why electricity has led to such profound human flourishing: lighting, power, and density. Electricity made lighting cheap, abundant, and reliable, which fundamentally changed how people could spend their days and nights. Electricity provides instant power, which transformed everything from manufacturing to urban transportation. Finally, electricity gives us the ability to concentrate energy flows like never before.”

“Electricity has allowed us to slay one of our oldest foes: darkness.”

“The second reason for electricity’s transformative effect is that it provides instant power for nearly any purpose: communication, computation, heating, lighting, and motive power. Electric power allows us to attain precision—in both speed and control—that cannot be achieved with other forms of energy, and it is convertible into work at very high efficiency with no smoke or odor.”

“Now to the third point: density. Electricity allows us to concentrate energy flows in unprecedented ways. We can concentrate those flows because the electricity we consume is highly ordered energy.18 We convert primary energy sources into electricity and then distribute that energy over wires in carefully calibrated doses of voltage and amperage. Those highly ordered flows of electrons mean we can, in effect, stack them in ultradense packages. This allows us to concentrate and harness the energy of those moving electrons in far greater quantities—and with far greater precision—than could ever be achieved by using wood, steam, or the crankshaft of an internal-combustion engine.

Concentrating energy flows allows us to do work and therefore create wealth.”

“In 2000, the National Academy of Engineering chose the twenty greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century. Electrification ranked first. Not only that, but of the top twenty achievements, thirteen are directly dependent on electrification, including electronics, computers, and air conditioning, as well as health technologies, lasers, and household appliances.”

“By electrifying part of Lower Manhattan, Edison ignited the rise of the vertical city. Indeed, the Electric Age and the skyscraper were birthed at about the same time, in about the same place: an area of Lower Manhattan that covers about one square mile.5 There, Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse converged to pioneer the shape and components of the modern electric grid. But a lesser-known inventor—a man who, like Tesla, briefly worked for Edison—would also leave an indelible mark on the urban environment. His name was Frank Julian Sprague… it was Sprague who developed the first electric motors that ran on Edison’s grid… By pioneering electric motors, electric railways, and electric elevators, Sprague fundamentally changed how and where humans live.”

“The success of the Pearl Street plant in Lower Manhattan ignited a frenzy of electrification. By 1890, just eight years after Pearl Street, the United States had about one thousand central power stations. That rapid growth would continue for the next several decades. Between 1900 and 1930, US electricity production grew nearly twentyfold.”

“Darkness kills human potential. Electricity nourishes it. It is particularly nourishing for women and girls.”

“Electricity emancipates women and girls from the pump, the stove, and the washtub.”

“There’s an old saying: educate the mother and you educate the child. But mothers can’t get much education if they don’t have washing machines. And washing machines may be the single most important device that can help elevate the status of women and girls.”

“If you are a female in an impoverished country and you don’t have access to electricity, you are effectively a slave to the physical chores of the household: hauling water, making fires, grinding grain, and washing clothes.”

“Roughly 3.3 billion people—about 45 percent of all the people on the planet—live in places where per-capita electricity consumption is less than 1,000 kilowatt-hours per year, or less than the amount used by my refrigerator.”

“The countries in the Unplugged segment include places like El Salvador, the Philippines, Bolivia, Pakistan, and India. On nearly every metric of human well-being, whether it’s child mortality or life expectancy, the residents of the Unplugged countries trail far behind the people living in Low-Watt and High-Watt places. ”

“Pasternak (who died in 2010) found that the 4,000 kilowatt-hours mark was the key dividing line.9 “As electricity consumption increases above 4,000 kilowatt-hours, no significant increase in HDI is observed,” he wrote. Conversely, he found that the lower the electricity consumption, the lower the HDI. In the summary of his findings, Pasternak was blunt, saying that neither the HDI nor the economic output “of developing countries will increase without an increase in electricity use.” ”

“After looking at electrification efforts all over the world, I’ve concluded that all successful electric grids—no matter how big or small, no matter where they are located—rely on three interrelated factors: integrity, capital, and fuel… of those three, integrity is the most important. By integrity, I mean that the system in which the grid is operating doesn’t leak too much. Electric grids are like buckets: if they leak, they become useless.””

“The electricity business is the world’s most capital-intensive industry.”

“Climate change concerns are not as important to decision makers as reliable electricity. Roger Pielke Jr. has dubbed this “the iron law of climate policy,” which says, “When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time.” In fact, Pielke’s idea should be extended specifically to electricity and dubbed the iron law of electricity: when forced to choose between dirty electricity and no electricity, people will choose dirty electricity every time.”

“ coal’s share of global electricity production has remained nearly constant, at about 40 percent, since the mid 1980s.”

“Given all this opposition and coal’s heavy carbon footprint, why has the fuel been so durable? There are several reasons. First and foremost, it’s cheap. For Asian countries, coal is about one-half to one-third of the price (on an energy-equivalent basis) of imported liquefied natural gas.19 Second, coal prices are not affected by any OPEC-like entities. That means no single country, or group of countries, can reduce supply and therefore cause price spikes. Third, coal deposits are widely dispersed geographically. Fourth, the world has gargantuan coal deposits. At current rates of consumption, global coal reserves are projected to last another 134 years.”

“Finally, there is little technology risk. Coal-fired power plants have been in use for decades all over the world.”

“Natural gas will be a fuel of the future because it fits the criteria I just laid out: It is relatively low cost and low carbon and it can be produced from a relatively small footprint. Better yet, it is abundant, and new deposits of the fuel are being discovered and produced in staggering quantities in countries all over the world. ”

“Electricity isn’t just essential to innovation and prosperity; it is essential to us. Our bodies are electrical.”

“Electrifying the entire world—bringing cheap, abundant, reliable electricity to every person on this planet—will take time. But it can be done.

  1. “Energy and Civilization: A History” by Vaclav Smil
  2. “Energy Transitions” by Vaclav Smil
  3. “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil…” by Daniel Yergin
  4. “Prime Movers of Globalization: The History of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines” by Vaclav Smil
  5. “Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels” by Ian Morris
  6. “Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries” by Kander et al

If you would like to learn more about energy in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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