Daniel Yergin on energy security

The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World is Daniel Yergin’s magisterial survey of the world energy situation.  His guiding principle is that energy security requires diversity of supply, and so he surveys energy  in all its aspects, from the battle for control of the energy resources of the new nations of Central Asia to the possibility of using genetic engineering to create ethanol-making fungi.

This book is not as focused and gripping as Yergin’s previous book, The Prize: the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power.  Its great merit is Yergin’s encyclopedic knowledge and his ability to see connections among seemingly unrelated facts.  I learned interesting things I didn’t know, such as that China is now the world’s biggest market for automobiles, or that Admiral Rickover was not only the father of the U.S. nuclear submarine, but of the civilian nuclear power industry as well.  This is a long book, but worth the time if you have an interest in the subject.

Yergin is an insider, not a hostile critic of the energy establishment.  I take his views to represent the consensus of well-informed people within the energy industry.  I mean this as an observation, not a criticism, but I do not take his opinions as necessarily the last word.  For example, I can’t agree that the invasion of Iraq was justified though mishandled, and that the U.S. has “no choice” but to attack Iran if its government acquires nuclear weapons.

The book has six main sections
▪    An update on the world oil industry since publication of The Prize in 1991.  The most important new developments, according to Yergin, are the emergence of China as possibly the world’s largest market for energy and the re-emergence of Russia as a major energy exporter, especially of natural gas.
▪    A rebuttal of the assertion that production of oil, other liquid fuels and natural gas have passed their peak.  Yergin argued that “unconventional” sources, including hydraulic fracturing and deep water drilling, will assure supplies at current rates of use for decades.
▪    A survey of the world electrical industry, and the merits of nuclear power, coal and natural gas to power generating plants.  He concluded abundant, cheap natural gas is the fuel of the future.
▪    A report on global warming and its effect on world energy policy.  Yergin is curiously noncommittal on the validity of global warming science.   His concern is its impact on world energy policy.  The chief problem is the conflict of interest between the United States and the energy-efficient Europeans and Japanese, on the one hand, and with China and other emerging nations, which can’t avoid using more energy as they raise the material living standards of their populations, on the other.
▪    A report on photovoltaic cells, wind energy and other alternative energy sources for electrical generation.  Wind energy is the most promising, according to Yergin, but will require continuing government subsidies to be viable on a large scale, he said.
▪    A report on ethanol, electric vehicle technology and other alternative energy sources for automobiles.  Electric and hybrid vehicles are a viable but as-yet small industry, he wrote; the future of ethanol rests not with corn, but less expensive sources such as sugar cane and switch grass.

I put down the book with a great appreciation of the difficulty and complexity of the task of assuring a supply of gasoline for my car, natural gas for my furnace and electricity for the computer into which I am typing these words, and also an appreciation for the difficulty of bringing new technologies into practical use.

Daniel Yergin

What Yergin wants is what I want—the blessings of modern, prosperous industrial civilization without burning up nonrenewable resources to the point of scarcity, and without threatening human health and the human environment.  Unfortunately, he wrote, we don’t yet know how to do this.

For at least the next 20 or so years, he wrote, we will have to rely on technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and deep water oil drilling.  Subsidies are necessary because, in the past, promising developments of new technologies have been wiped out every time oil prices fell.  So far the greatest progress has been by eliminating waste, improving efficiency and conservation, which don’t get public attention because they are not glamorous.

Fortunately, Yergin said, there is growing availability of “what may be the most important resource of all—human creativity.”

Click on Daniel Yergin | Official Website for Yergin’s home page.

Click on Daniel Yergin Examines America’s ‘Quest’ for Energy for a link to a National Public Radio interview with Yergin on hydraulic fracturing.

Click on the following for reviews of The Quest.

How Will We Fuel the Future? by Fareed Zakaria in the New York Times

Fareed Zakaria, Daniel Yergin and the elite disdain for clean energy deployment by David Roberts on the Grist green energy web site.

Daniel Yergin explores the energy industry and how it’s reshaped the modern world by Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times

Daniel Yergin’s guide to the essentials of industry in the 21st century is another triumph by Ed Crooks in Britain’s Financial Times

An enjoyable assessment of our energy needs from an industry insider by Derek Browne in Britain’s The Observer

Daniel Yergin can’t quite fully support wind, but he tries hard by Chris Varrone on the Renewable Energy Focus web site.

Visions of an Age When Oil Isn’t King by Dwight Garner in the New York Times

Click on the following links for two of my earlier posts on The Quest

Hubbert’s Peak: are we running out of oil?

Natural gas: the fuel of the future?

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