One of the benefits of being in charge of the Energy Law program at the law school at Texas Tech is being able to invite energy superstars to speak in our Energy Law Lecture Series. I recently hosted noted author and lecturer Robert Bryce, who is one of the preeminent commentators on energy policy. For the past four years, he has been working on his next book and a movie to go along with it, which will be released later this year. Both the book and movie are entitled “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.” The title alone is thought-provoking. During his visit, I was able to get a sneak preview of the movie — and I can assure you that it will make you think.
Bryce takes you on a world tour to India, Lebanon, Ghana, Iceland, Puerto Rico, and even Denver and New York state. The theme of the movie is that electricity explains whether a country is developed or undeveloped; whether its citizens live in abject poverty or have the opportunity to improve their situation; whether women have to spend their days pumping and carrying water, washing clothes on washboards or rocks, cooking meals over wood chips or cow dung, and inhaling the harmful fumes from those fires inside their homes — or if they have the opportunity to be freed from those labor-intensive chores to become educated or pursue small-business endeavors that can add income to their households. It also depicts whether citizens of undeveloped nations are more concerned about climate-change predictions that are premised on computer models that peer into the misty future, decades from now — or about improving the current living conditions for their children.
It becomes immediately irrefutable that access to dependable electricity makes or breaks the future of a country, a region, a home and an individual. Of course, that prompts the next question — what energy source can provide that electricity? In the U.S., we have developed quite a menu of available energy sources: oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar, ethanol. More than three billion people around the world would consider it heaven to have access to even one of those sources.
Bryce posits that there are three imperatives for any country to be able to provide electricity to its citizens: integrity, capital and fuel. Where the government (and any form of electric grid it operates) lacks integrity, the ability of its citizens to have access to a dependable source of electricity can’t even get out of the starting gate. If too much of the electricity is lost through theft, illegal connections, and non-payment, a functioning grid is impossible. It can result in conditions like in India, where every electric line is full of illegal hooks; or in Beirut, Lebanon, where there is a “generator mafia” that controls specific neighborhoods by providing generators — that come with a price. If you can establish a system with integrity, you still need capital (money) to pay for the fuel that will generate the electricity — and you need that fuel.
Proposing that framework then prompts the next question — which energy source should a country pursue to generate its electricity? Bryce responds with the initially frustrating answer that sounds like he has been hanging out with too many lawyers — “It depends.” But he then explains that there is no one energy source that will necessarily be the correct option in every situation. Iceland provides all of its electricity from geothermal and hydropower sources. But Iceland has a population of only 330,000 and sits on top of prolific geothermal formations — a pretty easy call. India depends on coal for most of its electricity because there’s a lot of coal in India, and it’s affordable. Texas generates, far and away, more wind-powered electricity than any state in the U.S. because there’s a lot of open land — and wind — in west Texas.
Of course, in the U.S. (and at the United Nations), there continues to be an almost-exclusive focus on wind and solar energy as the direction in which all nations of the world should be “encouraged” to move, regardless of their current condition and position along the “economic-development continuum.” There continues to be an emphasis on these two renewables, as if they are completely interchangeable with other forms of energy. But Bryce points out that there are also four imperatives on this point: power density, energy density, cost and scale. In other words, not all forms of energy are equal — by a long shot. And, believe it or not, people (and countries that are sufficiently developed and organized to be able to make a collective decision) typically make decisions based on the relative economics associated with each option.
How much energy exists in equivalent volumes of different energy sources (energy density)? How much power can be generated by equivalent volumes of different energy sources (power density)? How easily can each energy source be scaled up to meet greater populations (scale)? And the inescapable bottom line — how much will each energy source cost? Each of these four imperatives is critical in making the most prudent policy choice, but the one that most frequently goes unmentioned is power density — and it makes a huge difference. For example, the Indian Point nuclear facility just north of New York City provides 25 percent of New York City’s electricity and occupies a footprint that would require 1,300 times the land needed for wind turbines to have the capacity to generate the same amount of energy — but, of course, that assumes that the wind would blow 24 hours each day and seven days each week. None of the assumptions posited for the wind energy equivalent would ever be tolerated by any American consumer, let alone any New York City resident.
Bryce suggests that the big showdown between renewable energy and hydrocarbons and/or nuclear energy will be the massive land use required by renewables. Counties in California and upstate New York, the states of New Hampshire and Iowa, and communities in Virginia, Massachusetts, and even in west Texas are already enacting bans against large wind and solar farms because they don’t want to be exploited as “energy plantations” for the benefit of progressive, urban residents. Maybe “Juice” will bring much-needed sanity to our national discussion on energy policy.
About the author: Bill Keffer is a contributing columnist to SHALE Oil & Gas Business Magazine. He teaches at the Texas Tech University School of Law and continues to consult. He also served in the Texas Legislature from 2003 to 2007.