The world wants more electric power regardless of the cost, financial or environmental, writes Bryce
It’s the electrical metaphors that really prove Robert Bryce’s point. To demonstrate that electricity is modernity, the veteran energy journalist cites “electrifying performances,” outliers living “off the grid” and angry people “blowing a fuse.” But Bryce could have stopped with the title of his compelling new book, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations. Other forms of “power”—political, economic, military—are often modified by a clarifying adjective. But everyone knows what power means in an electrical sense, especially when it’s out—just ask Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Power is the appropriate word. Electricity is the apex predator of the energy kingdom, the one that consumes all the others. For all fossil fuels’ significance in heating and transportation, humans mostly turn oil, gas and coal into electricity. That leads Bryce to the first of two themes he hammers home: Electricity is the true driver of climate change, responsible for far more carbon emissions than furnaces or cars. Secondly, electricity is inextricably intertwined with prosperity—there is no such thing as a low-energy, high-income country. Every year Americans use the entire annual electricity consumption of Albania just to run their Christmas lights. The world wants more electric power regardless of the cost, financial or environmental, writes Bryce, and generating capacity is set to double across the planet over the next few decades.
A key element in the fight against global warming—the transition of automobiles from gasoline-powered to electrical—demands more electricity. The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, the global demand for air conditioning will almost equal all the electricity currently used by China. Overall, though, demand will be driven by the fact that contemporary society lives by its networks: Communication, computation, education, health care and finance all depend upon electricity. Consider what Bryce calls the Giant Five, the major corporations of the new economy: Apple, Amazon, Alphabet/Google, Facebook and Microsoft. They collectively use staggering amounts of electricity and require ultra-safe grids, leading them to invest tens of billions of dollars in private electrical systems that now have three times the capacity of Austin Energy, which provides power for one million people in Texas.
It is not a mystery to Bryce that the Five have also moved into their own payment systems, because electricity and money are more tightly bound than ever. Visa, which has 3.3 billion credit cards floating around the planet, won’t even reveal where its U.S. Operations Center East is located, although it’s happy to share that the centre is surrounded by a moat.
And there are profound health effects to a lengthy loss of electricity. In the years following 1991, after the U.S. Air Force devastated Iraq’s electrical grid in the First Gulf War, the resultant loss of clean water and sewage systems meant outbreaks of cholera and other diseases that killed an estimated 70,000 Iraqis. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada in early March and governments sent their citizens into lockdown, many utilities reported reduced usage, with increased residential demand not matching the reduction caused by shuttered workplaces and cancelled sporting and entertainment events. Almost all utilities reported shifting loads, however, with private residences ratcheting up their demand at different times than normal business hours. The province of Ontario responded to that situation by moving all of its time-of-use pricing to the off-peak rate.
Small wonder that among those nations Bryce calls “the Unplugged,” where per capita electricity use is less than 1,000 kilowatt hours per year (less than a quarter of Canadian usage), governments are pursuing generating capacity in accord with what he calls “the iron law of electricity.” When forced to choose between dirty electricity and no electricity, states “will choose dirty electricity every time.” Renewables aren’t capable of bearing the load, Bryce flatly states. They are too unreliable, too costly and use up too much land. Coal, cheap and reliable, powers 40 per cent of the globe. India, where 300 million people still live without any electricity, already gets 75 per cent of its electricity from coal, and currently has 36,000 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity coming on-line. Other energy-hungry nations are following suit.
That brings Bryce to his solution to the electrical conundrum, one the author realizes will bring him grief. Bryce, to put it briefly, is a nuclear guy. For him, there is simply no other way to square the circle, to meet the electrical needs of poorer nations without savaging the climate. He zeroes in on Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear plant outside New York City, to demonstrate his point. Its two reactors occupy one square kilometre and produce 16.4 terawatts of zero-carbon electricity annually, an amount of clean power that would require hundreds of wind turbines spread over 1,335 square kilometres to match. Despite those two highly prized attributes—zero emissions and limited footprint—Indian Point is one of 15 American nuclear power plants whose early closures have been announced, for no better reason, to Bryce’s mind, than irrational paranoia. The world needs more Indian Points, he urges, not fewer. His is a hard case to make in an anti-nuclear age, but in A Question of Power, Bryce makes it forcefully.
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