Power Trip

The Story of Energy


By Michael E. Webber

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A global tour of energy–the builder of human civilization and also its greatest threat.

Energy is humanity’s single most important resource. In fact, as energy expert Michael E. Webber argues in Power Trip, the story of how societies rise can be told largely as the story of how they manage energy sources through time. In 2019, as we face down growing demand for and accumulating environmental impacts from energy, we are at a crossroads and the stakes are high. But history shows us that energy’s great value is that it allows societies to reinvent themselves.

Power Trip explores how energy has transformed societies of the past and offers wisdom for today’s looming energy crisis. There is no magic bullet; energy advances always come with costs. Scientific innovation needs public support. Energy initiatives need to be tailored to individual societies. We must look for long-term solutions. Our current energy crisis is real, but it is solvable. We have the power.


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Chapter 1


We begin the story of energy with water, because it is with water that life and civilization begin. Ensuring access to water is the first priority for individuals and societies because water is so critical to life. We need it to nourish our bodies and to grow our crops. At the cellular level, we need water for our body’s circulation system. Without water, our bodies would shut down and we would die of dehydration. If that did not kill us, then we would ultimately die of starvation, anyway, because the foods we eat also need water to grow. We also would not have the fibers we need—no cotton, wool, or leather—to clothe and shelter ourselves from the weather.

In many places around the world, getting water—for ourselves and our fields—takes energy to lift, move, and treat it. Since the arrival of advanced fuels and machines in the industrial revolution, energy joined water as one of the two most important ingredients for civilization. In fact, lifting and treating water was one of society’s first priorities for energy use. Because the modern water system directly depends on energy, that means modern civilization depends on energy and water. It goes the other way, too: the energy systems depends on water up and down its supply chain.1 This interconnection has good news and bad news associated with it.

For millennia, before advanced forms of energy were available, water was the most important basis for civilization.2 It has even been suggested that water is the motivating reason to organize humans into larger societal groups; that is, there is no reason to form a society except for the need to collectively manage water resources.3 The Chinese have noted this connection with their word zhi, which means “to rule” and “to regulate water.” An article in the Economist noted that “the Chinese word for politics (zhengzhi) includes a character that looks like three drops of water next to a platform or dyke. Politics and water control, the Chinese character implies, are intimately linked.”4

In Classical Nahuatl, which is the language of pre-Columbian Aztec society, the word for city, altepetl, means “water mountain,” by joining atl (water) and tepe-tl (mountain). So the Aztecs considered control of water a key ingredient and enabling step to forming a city.

Beautiful aqueducts and public fountains were among the defining elements of the Roman empire. Roman water infrastructure was an obvious symbol of their dominance. As they conquered a new territory, they would Romanize it by building waterworks to project their power.5

If the good news is that water abundance and collaboration can foment civilization, then the bad news is that scarcity and conflict can cause societies to fail. Researchers studying caves in China concluded that multi-decade droughts occurred at the end of three of the five long-lasting Chinese dynasties—the Tang (618–907), Yuan (1271–1368), and Ming (1368–1644)—implying that water strain was a trigger for dynastic collapse. Drought has also been associated with the collapses of the Khmer empire in the thirteenth century, the Mayans in 900 CE, and the Ancestral Puebloans of the American desert Southwest (whom the Navajo and others knew as the Anasazi).

Other examples abound. The MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) seems to suffer perpetual civil unrest. Water resources are strained there, which crimps food supplies, exacerbating the situation. The global Syrian refugee crisis of the mid-2010s can be tied directly to widespread bankruptcy of rural farmers whose crops were destroyed by drought.6 The displacement of Syrian farmers caused by that epic drought led to a flood of refugees crossing into Europe, triggering a global political backlash partially credited for leading to the election of Donald Trump and the famed Brexit vote in 2016. In that way, it could be said that drought toppled the prevailing governments in the United States and England, half a world away.

Water is also critical to public health. Over a billion people still do not have access to improved water or wastewater systems. As Molly Walton, an analyst at the International Energy Agency in Paris, noted in her commentary on World Water Day in 2018, “Energy has a role to play in achieving universal access to clean water and sanitation.”7 If we want to solve our public health problems, we need to solve our water problems. And if we want to solve our water problems, then we need to solve our energy problems. Importantly, doing so is critical to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The opportunity presented by energy’s and water’s interdependence is that infinite availability of one means we can have infinite availability of the other. With unlimited energy, our water problems will be solved because we can drill deeper water wells, build longer aqueducts, or desalinate seawater to quench our thirst. With unlimited water, all our energy problems will be solved because we can dam up rivers to make hydroelectric power or grow biofuels in the desert. But those solutions have their own environmental impacts to worry about, such as silting up the rivers, causing massive runoff into watersheds, or finding a way to dispose of a lot of brine left over from desalination. Regardless, we do not live in a world of infinite energy and water; we live in a world of constraints. Because of their close relationship, a constraint in one becomes a constraint in the other. And a shortage can send effects rippling across civilization.


Before we used water for modern energy systems, water was used for mechanical power and for transportation. Anywhere water flowed reliably with a significant drop, the force of the falling water could be harnessed. The potential energy of the water at higher elevation could be converted into mechanical energy: As it fell, it would rotate a large wooden wheel that could in turn power a series of shafts, wooden or metal gears, and axles connected to a tool that would perform some useful task. Waterwheels on flowing water gave the power to polish glass, grind grain, spin spindles, operate bellows for metalworking, and saw wood. This mechanical power supplemented and amplified what was available from the muscle power of human laborers or domesticated animals.

Water was also used for transportation. Rivers, lakes, and oceans had been used for transportation for millennia, and ultimately canals—or manmade waterways—were created to facilitate the movement of people and goods. Water for transportation and water for manufacturing coupled nicely. Water power was harnessed through waterwheels to manufacture goods, and then canals let those products move to customers easily and efficiently.

Those different implements converged to turn America’s waterways into powerhouses to drive a modernized economy, sometimes in the same location. In Lowell, Massachusetts, a savvy proprietor managed the flow of water using a system of dams, locks, and canals and then sold off a slice of the potential energy of the falling water to manufacturers who wanted it to drive their mills and factories.8

Because the United States has abundant hydropower potential, its industrialization was powered by water. According to water expert Martin Doyle, “settlers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century built their villages around small dams powering waterwheels,” and “the power of the Susquehanna River was as essential to grinding colonial grain as the Merrimack River was to spinning the fabric of New England textile mills.”9 This was in contrast with England, which had abundant and easily accessible coal but poor hydropower potential. Consequently, its manufacturing was mobilized by steam power rather than water power. “Colonists all along the East Coast initially put waterwheels to work in mills to process timber, which was essential for building settlements and one of the key raw materials that was plentiful in America but in short supply in Europe. By the time the earliest sawmills were built in England in the 1660s, several hundred were already being used in colonial New England.” Ultimately, “sawmills and gristmills were the centerpiece of the colonial economy.”10

Those gristmills were significant amplifiers of productivity for grinding wheat into flour and corn into meal. Humans required about two days of labor to grind a bushel of wheat into flour; horses could do the same work in a few hours. But a typical eighteenth-century water-powered gristmill could grind dozens of bushels of flour or cornmeal daily.11

Unsurprisingly, processed materials are more valuable than raw ones. Lumber is worth more than timber, and flour is worth more than wheat. The modern analogies are that gasoline is worth more than crude oil and chemicals are worth more than natural gas. Industrious humans used energy to upgrade their natural resources into higher-value commodities they could export elsewhere. And, because of the higher value density of the finished products, it was smart to do so. Flour was more valuable per pound and easier to transport than wheat. The same could be said for the water that goes into it. It made more sense to transport a pound of flour than the 1,000 pounds of water required to grow it. Water and energy made it possible to process a wide range of goods, creating value along the way.

While hydropower was a major advance over muscle power, it still had its drawbacks. Namely, you needed incredible quantities of water flowing down altitude drops to make it work. And in many parts of the world—including England, as already noted, and large swaths of the United States—nature did not provide that combination. And this is where steam power became revolutionary.

Burning fuels to make heat to boil water allowed heavy machinery to be moved by the force of steam. The industrial age is really the age of steam, as the invention of steam engines created the opportunity to turn heat into motion. Creating heat is rudimentary and the materials for it are readily available, but the ability to turn heat into motion was revolutionary.

In the United States, this transition occurred at the end of the 1800s. The amount of water needed for steam was a fraction of the water needed for hydropower. And, even in low-lying areas that didn’t have the altitude drop needed for waterwheels, there was sufficient water to make steam. Steam not only increased the energetic output over hydropower but also freed manufacturers to build their factories where they wished.

Wood could generate the heat needed for boilers to make steam, but coal was a much better fuel, generating more heat with less pollution and at lower cost. In this way, fuels—and in particular, fossil fuels—freed us from the rivers, allowing us to move to more convenient locations. Hydropower cared if the land was flat, but steam power did not care. Consequently, major cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit emerged in flat areas on the edge of lakes. Their topography would not accommodate hydropower, but they had access to easy shipping from the lakes and were close to many raw materials. Just as flowing water shaped the geographic story of industrialization, energy changed the landscape of industrialization so that it could take place almost anywhere.


Moving from direct water use to steam was liberating, but another major advance awaited: electrical power. Using water to generate electricity would give even more flexibility for manufacturers, as it is possible to move electricity many hundreds of miles over transmission lines, whereas moving water or steam is very cumbersome.

The electrical age was just as transformative as the steam age. Though Benjamin Franklin’s famous experiment in the 1700s was an eye-catching illustration of the similarities between lightning and the sparks of static electricity, most of the electricity experiments in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century had been lab-scale benchtop exploration to satisfy scientific curiosity. And they tended to use low-voltage, direct current devices, such as small batteries or fuel cells. It was not until the late 1800s that larger-scale alternating current systems enabled useful appliances such as motors and the affordable incandescent light bulb and made electricity a more valuable part of day-to-day life. Like the rise of the information economy in the late 1900s, the rise of electrification was very rapid once it passed the tipping point.

Electricity can be generated many ways, but among the simplest is by spinning magnets around a coil to induce a current. And, as had already been known for centuries, water could easily rotate a wheel. Flowing water turned overshot waterwheels, which rotated a shaft that could be used to power equipment such as rotating blades at sawmills, rolling stones at gristmills, and spindles at textile factories. The same concept could be applied to spinning magnets to make electricity.

The world’s first hydroelectric power plant was built in 1879 along the Fox River to light hundreds of bulbs in Appleton, Wisconsin. The first hydroelectric dams were not very large and were more reminiscent of the medieval overshot waterwheels used for mechanical power.

These smaller hydroelectric power plants started to proliferate in the late 1800s to meet the demand for light bulbs and small motors for industrial work. Some, like the plant built at Niagara Falls in 1882, simply diverted some of the natural flowing force of the water above the falls. But at other locations, where water was not already falling hundreds of feet over a ledge, a dam was needed to create a reservoir at a higher elevation than the water body below it. Early dam builders might have created a small reservoir that elevated water ten feet above the water body below, but generally speaking, these structures were not considered to have that great an impact on the river’s natural flow. Over time, larger dams were built, and for multiple reasons: for power, flood control, navigation, and irrigation.

By the end of the 1800s, factories had begun to electrify. In 1900, only 4 percent of Chicago’s factories were electrified; thirty years later, it was 78 percent.12 These dams and their affordable, powerful electricity gave the United States a competitive economic advantage.

In Ireland in the 1920s, the Electricity Supply Board hatched a scheme to create a national grid fueled by hydroelectric power from the River Shannon as a way to catch up with America’s electric factories.13 Around the same time, Oskar von Miller in Germany was building a hydroelectric power system outside Munich that used the natural 200-meter height difference of two lakes to build the Walchensee Hydroelectric Power Station, which is still operational today.

Although the allure of reliable and cheap electricity certainly helped promote the spread of dams, their rise in popularity can also be attributed to other reasons. As the United States expanded and its population increased, economic activity increased in floodplains and the losses from floods also grew. Because those floods were really destructive, they helped kick off a dam- and levee-building boom to manage flood risks. As dams were built, powerhouses could be included, providing electricity as a handy by-product of infrastructure built to control the flow of water.

Perhaps there was no more compelling case for dam building than the 1927 Mississippi River flood, which drove home the dangers of a river jumping its banks. The losses were staggering: as much as $1 billion at a time when the federal budget was typically less than $3 billion; over 700,000 people lost their homes and as many as 300,000 were rescued from houses, rooftops, levee crowns, and even trees. Water expert Martin Doyle observed that as a consequence of these killer floods, “river systems became highly-engineered, optimized hydraulic machines. Early twentieth-century floods gave the motivation, the progressives gave the ideology, and the New Deal provided the resources.”14 That is, several different forces converged to turn America’s waterways into powerhouses to drive a modernized economy.

Not much later, the military buildup for World War II created a massive demand for the electricity generated from dams that were built to mitigate flooding. With the country still in the shadow of the Great Depression, jobs were scarce, and large water projects were a way to keep people working while achieving the other useful benefits. In response, the dam build-out in the United States accelerated in the 1930s and continued for a few decades. During this period, the Hoover Dam (initially named the Boulder Dam) and several other prominent dams such as the Shasta and the Grand Coulee were built.

Most of the early build-out in the United States was in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River basin and in the southeastern United States. The abundant electricity provided by these dams kicked off a large military effort located right next to the massive power plants: aluminum production. Because of World War II, which relied on airplanes more than any prior war in history, there was significant new demand for aluminum. Since aluminum is produced electrolytically from bauxite (by contrast, steel is produced thermally from iron ore), many aluminum smelters were located near dams. Abundant electricity enabled aluminum production at a pace that had never been seen before.

In addition, there was significant demand for enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Since uranium is enriched with electrically driven centrifuges, the appetite for power was enormous. At one point during the peak of the war effort, 1 percent or more of national electricity consumption was dedicated just to enriching uranium.15 Dams were a key piece of that effort, and consequently the main nuclear labs for uranium processing were established in Washington State near the Columbia River dams and in Tennessee near the dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). It is telling that some of the Department of Energy’s main nuclear processing labs in the United States are still located in those same places: Pacific Northwest National Lab in Washington and Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee.

The TVA is a unique quasi-governmental agency that simultaneously manages water and power to serve a region, similar in a way to what the Lower Colorado River Authority does in central Texas or what the Bonneville Power Administration does in the Pacific Northwest. The TVA was formed in 1933 partly as an outgrowth of the women’s suffrage movement. After women earned the right to vote in 1920, female activists formed the League of Women Voters to address other important issues. One of their achievements was their instrumental role in forming the TVA.16 They supported it because they wanted jobs, but they also wanted electricity to be available to households—that is, women—in the Deep South.17 Along with the right to vote, electricity and electric appliances were another expression of freedom.

The TVA came to life from a World War I dam that the War Department had sought to build in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Today it is a large agency that serves a sprawling territory with a mixture of many dams, coal, and nuclear power.

Muscle Shoals lies along the Tennessee River, between the musical cities of Memphis and Nashville. Music buffs will recognize Muscle Shoals as the site of the FAME Studio, where some of the world’s most notable acts—Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, and the Allman Brothers—went to record some of their most famous hits.18 The connection between music and dams extends beyond Muscle Shoals to America’s greatest folksinger. Because the reservoirs created by dams would flood entire valleys, scar the local ecosystem, inhibit fish migration, and in some cases displace a lot of people, there was resistance to dam construction. To help overcome it, the Bonneville Power Administration launched a public relations campaign touting the benefits of hydropower. They made films and printed posters and even commissioned the folk musician Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” to pen a collection of songs about the dams along the Columbia River.19 Songs like “Roll On, Columbia” and “Song of the Grand Coulee Dam” were effective: the dams got built.

Modern hydroelectric dams remain appealing because they are clean at the point of generation, efficient, robust, simple, and start up quickly. By comparison, thermal power plants that burn coal or use heat from nuclear reactions to boil water take many hours or even days to reach full capacity. One of the unfortunate secrets of the modern grid is that for most power plants—almost all nuclear, coal, and natural gas power plants—the power has to already be on before a power plant can be turned on. This creates a remarkable chicken-and-egg situation. What happens if the power goes out because of a storm or equipment failure? A small fraction of power plants are “black start rated,” which means they can turn on even if the power is off. Dams are black start rated because even if there is a blackout, gravity always works. In fact, after blackouts, dams are often used to provide the power that lets other power plants turn on and connect to the grid. In that way, water backstops the entire modern economy.

Though dams are relatively clean at the point of generation and therefore popular among stakeholders who wish to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, they are not free of environmental impingement. Their construction has significant ecosystem impacts. Flooding large valleys to create the reservoirs can displace people and irrevocably change the geography. Dams also disrupt fish migration, which has cascading impacts on those who depend on the fish for life and livelihoods. Because of their performance benefits, dams are still desirable, but because of their drawbacks, the construction of major dams is nearly impossible in the United States and Europe, where there is well-organized opposition to them.

But because water projects are a hallmark of a civilized society, they are popular among ruling classes as symbols of political power built by and named for politicians. At the famous palace of Versailles, outside Paris, a large-scale water tower and hydraulic system were built to provide water to tens of thousands of residents while also powering the fountains, which were intended to be fabulous displays of wealth and to demonstrate that water systems could be beautiful as well as functional.

In the nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform of enhanced water infrastructure—namely, canals—for navigation and commerce. Doyle observed that after the 1927 Mississippi River flood, “Flood control infrastructure projects became a favorite flavor of political pork for the next half century.”20 The largest dam in the world at the time it was built was eventually named for President Herbert Hoover. Even local regional dams—the Buchanan dam outside Austin, Texas, named for a local congressman, for example—fall prey to the same vanity. This convergence was immortalized by Wendell Wilkie, the top executive at the forerunner of today’s Southern Company, a massive utility in the South, who was the Republican nominee for president in 1940. He lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who won a third term in the presidency, and whose legacy includes a swath of energy and water infrastructure systems.

The political incentive to build water infrastructure is not unique to the United States. In Asia, Africa, and South America, dams remain popular as a way to electrify a region while securing political power because they promise multifaceted benefits. For example, the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India was designed to provide irrigation for a million farmers, drinking water for 30 million people, 1.5 gigawatts of power, and jobs for five thousand employees.21

Hydroelectric power plants can be absolutely massive, both in area and in power generation. The largest power plant in the world, the Three Gorges Dam in China, has a capacity of 22 gigawatts, about the size of twenty nuclear power plants. The gargantuan Hoover Dam, whose proximity to Las Vegas and scenic backdrop makes it a typical tourist destination, is only 2 gigawatts by comparison. Those early dams from the late 1800s have an electrical generating capacity about a thousandth the size of the Three Gorges dam.

The Three Gorges Dam was pursued by Chinese leaders for decades, and it was finally constructed in the 2000s. It is hard to fully appreciate the scale of this dam: It is so large, the reservoir it created is as long as Great Britain.22 The mass of the water in the reservoir is so significant, it slowed the earth’s rotation. By elevating nearly 40 billion tons of water to hundreds of meters above sea level, the dam has essentially made the earth a little fatter in the middle and flatter at the top, extending the day by six-hundredths of a microsecond.23 If you are ever late for a meeting again, you can blame the Three Gorges Dam for messing up your clocks.

The scale and risk of the Three Gorges Dam, in terms of both its water and its power, are enormous. It is the ultimate testament to human hubris. While it has helped to reduce the risks of flood-related disasters and improved the navigability of the Yangtze River, its creation flooded entire valleys and towns. Geologists worry about the earthquakes and underwater landslides that the water causes as the soft, soaked soils around the reservoir settle to accommodate the new load. In the first decade of its operation, the dam triggered more than five hundred earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 2.0 on the Richter scale, and more than four hundred landslides.

If the Three Gorges Dam were to collapse, it would put approximately 15 million downstream lives or more at risk.24 In the event of a collapse, a wave would move quickly down the canyons, making it difficult for people to escape. Unfortunately, more than 600 dams are either built, under construction, or in planning in the seismically active Himalayas, putting those dams at serious risk of failure. If the Tehri Dam in India collapses, scientists expect it would produce a wall of water 200 meters high that would put 2 million people at risk.25 While we can hope such a catastrophe will not happen, unfortunately, dams collapse every once in a while. The near-miss with the Oroville Dam in California in February 2017 was a reminder that one big rainfall can be a triggering event that strains reservoirs to the breaking point. Because of snowmelt and a lot of rain, the Oroville Dam’s reservoir overtopped the spillway, which eroded badly. The dam did not break, but the risk of it doing so forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people. When dams do break, the results can be horrific. A series of deadly dam failures in the 1970s was part of the inspiration for President Jimmy Carter to create the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979.26


  • "Impressive to say the least" —Wall Street Journal
  • Choice award for outstanding academic title
  • "Power Trip ably guides us through the history of energy."—New York Times
  • "Energy is central to everything we care about in society. But it's also hard to understand. With this book, Webber has done a service by explaining energy in a way that is easy to understand and fun to read."—Ernie Moniz, former U.S. Secretary of Energy
  • "To all of us concerned about new energy shocks and still hopeful of creating a better energy future -- this book explains why the stakes of energy transition are higher than ever. It's a really good read and highlights how access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is essential in everything we do as citizens, consumers, communities and whole societies."—Angela Wilkinson, Senior Director of Scenarios and Business Insights for the World Energy Council
  • "From creating wealth to starting wars, energy permeates our lives. Webber gives us a sense of just how inseparable energy has been to our past, and will be in our future."—Martin Doyle, professor in the Environmental Sciences at Duke University
  • "Michael has provided us an extraordinary volume -- it is comprehensive, sweeping and well-written, easy to read and yet extremely informative. The book is remarkably thorough in its description of the ways in which energy -- its generation, storage, transmission and use -- impact every facet of life on earth. It is a book that convincingly makes the case that energy is the key to understanding virtually all human activity and development... that whether you're considering agriculture or mobility, cities or manufacturing, energy lies beneath and enables it all."—Eric Toone, Executive Managing Director of Breakthrough Energy Ventures
  • "Power Trip is a delightful combination of fun facts, personal anecdotes, rigorous scientific data, and good advice. And it's full of surprises about the way energy is hidden right in front of us, embedded in every object and issue. It's a must-read for anyone who cares about the future, not only of energy, but of the planet."—Betty Sue Flowers, former director of the LBJ Presidential Library and co-editor of Realistic Hope

On Sale
May 7, 2019
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Michael E. Webber

About the Author

Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also author of Thirst for Power. He lives in Paris, France, where he is serving as the Chief Scientific and Technical Officer for Engie, a global energy and infrastructure services firm.

Learn more about this author