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A Question of Power
Electricity and the Wealth of Nations
By Robert Bryce
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Global demand for power is doubling every two decades, but electricity remains one of the most difficult forms of energy to supply and do so reliably. Today, some three billion people live in places where per-capita electricity use is less than what's used by an average American refrigerator. How we close the colossal gap between the electricity rich and the electricity poor will determine our success in addressing issues like women's rights, inequality, and climate change.
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Then there is electricity!—the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!… Is it a fact—or have I dreamt it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?
The House of the Seven Gables, 1851
Global GDP and Global Electricity Use: 1980 to 2014
Expected Global Growth in Christian and Muslim Populations, 2015 to 2060
The High-Watt, Low-Watt, and Unplugged Worlds, 2012
Corruption and Per-Capita Electricity Use, 2012
Lebanon’s Electricity Generated from Oil, 1971 to 2014
Share of Global Electricity Generation, by Fuel, 1985 to 2017
Electricity Consumption Increases and Market Capitalization Increases of the Giant Five, 2012 to 2017
Comparing the Monopolies of Old with the New Tech Giants
Electricity Consumption of the Giant Five in 2017
Renewable and Conventional Electricity Generation Capacity of the Giant Five, 2018
California Electricity Prices Compared to US Average, 2011 to 2017
Per-Capita Renewable-Energy Spending Around the World, 2016
Powering New York City
The Terawatt Challenge
SI Numerical Designations and Power Units
Dollar Value of Electricity Stored in Common Batteries
Frank Sprague, 1892
Architect rendering of the Postal Telegraph Building in 1893
The Postal Telegraph Building in 2017
US Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana
US Senator George Norris of Nebraska
Speaker of the House of Representatives Sam Rayburn and Senator Lyndon Johnson, January 8, 1956
Rural electrification, San Joaquin Valley, California, 1938
Rehena Jamadar and Joyashree Roy, West Bengal, India, 2016
Women in Majlishpukur, 2016
Electric and telecommunications wires above a market street, Delhi, India, 2016
Hussein Mousl, driver, Beirut, Lebanon, 2017
Fatmagül Sultan, a powership owned by the Turkish firm Karadeniz Holding
Street scene, Kolkata, India, 2016
Black-market marijuana grow operation, Denver, 2017
Anti-wind-energy sign near Denmark, Wisconsin, 2016
Rose and Dave Enz, Wrightsville, Wisconsin, August 4, 2016
The Indian Point Energy Center, Buchanan, New York, 2018
1. Top Twenty Engineering Achievements of the Twentieth Century
2. America’s Crazy Quilt Electric Grid
3. Top Ten Countries with the Highest Rates of Child Marriage Are All Electricity Poor
4. The Top Ten Problems Facing the World
There’s no such thing as a low-energy, high-income country.
—TODD MOSS, Energy for Growth Hub1
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. From our ability to navigate foreign cities with maps on our iPhones to the staggering quantities of information available to us on the Internet, we use electricity without a second thought. 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. People in wealthy countries assume that reliable electricity is akin to a birthright. We seldom think about the relationship between electric power and human empowerment. But to bring home the implications of our dependency on electricity—and our vulnerability to the lack of sufficient supplies—all we need to do is spend some time with our neighbors in Puerto Rico and see what happened to them after Hurricane Maria shattered the island’s electric grid. That deadly storm left thousands of Puertoriqueños in the dark. Among them were Wilfredo Roque, Iris Ortiz, and their three girls.
The first thing I saw as I drove down the steep driveway next to Wilfredo and Iris’s modest home in Barrio Antón Ruíz was the orange extension cord. The cord, which was intertwined with a piece of brown rope, was suspended less than two meters over the surface of the couple’s driveway. The line stayed aloft thanks to a two-by-four piece of lumber on the left side of the driveway that was secured to the ground near a 4,500-watt gasoline-fueled generator perched next to the fence. On the right side of the driveway, the rope and electric cord were secured to a railing on the house by a couple of knots.
Wilfredo, a slightly built, energetic man, came to greet me right away. He and Iris were both eager to talk. Hurricane Maria had been far more powerful than they had expected. “We weren’t prepared for the devastation,” Wilfredo told me in Spanish, as he pulled shut the heavy rolling metal gate that separated his driveway from the narrow asphalt street in the neighborhood, which is located amid a set of green rolling hills about one hour’s drive southeast of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.
As I looked at his generator, a Chinese-made Black Max, he quickly volunteered the numbers. “We spend $100 to $125 per week on gasoline for the generator.” In the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, the family’s only source of electricity had been the generator. In the first few weeks after they got the machine, they ran it ten or twelve hours per day. “We run it less now. We were spending too much money on fuel. So now we only run the generator five hours per day,” Wilfredo said. “No more than that.”
After he gave me the figures for the generator, I asked him to repeat them. I did so for two reasons. The first: my tourist-level Spanish is, well, tourist level. I’ve traveled a fair amount in Latin America and can navigate and order dinner at the café, but in several of my conversations with Puertoriqueños, I knew I was missing key details. The other reason: it was hard to hear Wilfredo due to the eardrum-shattering racket coming from his neighbor’s generator. A short distance from where we were standing, on the other side of the fence, the machine was running full blast. Like Wilfredo’s generator, it lacked sound insulation. Both machines sat near the ground, protected from the sun, wind, and rain by a few too-small pieces of roofing material and plywood.
As Wilfredo repeated the numbers, I wrote them in my notebook, in Spanish: “$100 to $125 por semana, 5 horas por dia.” I then showed the notes to Wilfredo for confirmation. He nodded and said, “Correcto.”
Before Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico with winds that hit 180 miles (290 kilometers) per hour, Wilfredo, Iris, and their three young girls, Alannis (thirteen), Arianna (ten), and Ayamie (five), were paying the state-run grid operator, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), about $90 per month for their electricity. But that money didn’t buy them reliable power and the family’s modest home was regularly hit by blackouts. Around the time Alannis was a baby, Iris told me, the blackouts happened several times per day. After she and Wilfredo complained, PREPA workers switched out a transformer in the barrio; things got better and the blackouts were reduced to several times per week. The electricity service still wasn’t great, but their connection to PREPA’s grid was good enough that they didn’t need to run a generator. After the deadly hurricane pummeled the island, they couldn’t rely on Puerto Rico’s electric grid for anything. So Wilfredo began searching for a small generator to buy. It took him two months.
Even with the four or five hours of electricity per day that was being provided by the generator, life was suddenly much harder.2 The generator was smelly and loud. So were all their neighbors’ generators. The nearly constant noise made it hard to sleep at night. Iris was having to wash some of the family’s clothes by hand. Doing the laundry, which used to take just a few minutes, was suddenly taking hours. The children’s schoolwork was suffering because they were not getting enough time on the Internet. “We are being left behind,” Iris told me. “We have returned to the time of my grandmother, or my great-grandmother.”
About the time I visited Puerto Rico, the Rhodium Group, a US-based consulting firm, published a report that found that the island had endured the largest blackout in US history.3 The firm reported that “more customer-hours have been lost in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria than in the rest of the US over the past five years due to all causes combined.” Not only that, Iris, Wilfredo, their three girls, and other Puertoriqueños were enduring the second-largest blackout in world history.4
Imagining such energy hardship is almost beyond our ken. We flip the switch, we plug in our phones, laptops, and AirPods, and we expect the power to be on. Every time. And it almost always is. But the Roque Ortiz family’s electricity predicament could befall pretty much anyone in the United States or any other country. The risk of an extended blackout—and the societal upheaval that would come with it—is real.5 Such a blackout could be caused by extreme weather such as a hurricane, tornado, or snowstorm. It could also be caused by extraplanetary forces. In 2017, the American Geophysical Union estimated that an extreme solar storm could cause blackouts that would affect two-thirds of the US population and that “daily domestic economic loss could total $41.5 billion plus an additional $7 billion loss through the international supply chain.”6
Saboteurs are constantly probing for weaknesses in the electric grid. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security warned that Russian hackers had infiltrated numerous US energy companies, including electric utilities.7 If hackers succeed in bringing down all or part of the American electric grid, they could cause billions of dollars in damage without having to leave the comfort of their computer keyboards. In addition to threats from weather and cyberspace, electric grids are also vulnerable to physical sabotage. Well-prepared saboteurs could disable key transformer stations or transmission lines and in doing so cause blackouts across significant swaths of the American grid. Millions, or perhaps even tens of millions, of Americans could be blacked out and plunged into the very same predicament Wilfredo, Iris, and other residents of Barrio Antón Ruíz were enduring. Instead of having cheap, abundant, and reliable electricity, Americans could be faced with a situation in which electricity is expensive, scarce, and intermittent. Unable to rely on the electric grid, they would have to get some of their electricity from small, inefficient, diesel- or gasoline-fired generators. That, in turn, would require having plentiful motor fuel at local service stations, which themselves would need electricity in order to pump the fuel into customers’ tanks.
We could also sabotage ourselves. Numerous environmental groups and politicians have claimed that we can completely eliminate the use of hydrocarbons (coal, oil, and natural gas) and nuclear, and instead rely mainly on solar and wind energy. While those policies are intended to slow or stop climate change, they are little more than wishful thinking. Advocates for an all-renewable economy ignore the myriad downsides of attempting to rely on intermittent sources of energy, as well as the vast amounts of land, concrete, steel, copper, and other commodities that would be required to make those projects work at the scale our modern society demands. Politically popular proposals like the Green New Deal claim that if only we adopt a warlike approach to our energy and power systems we can completely eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from our economy and do so in just two or three decades.8 Electric cars like the Tesla have gained an almost cult-like following, with little understanding of the fact that we have to get the electricity to charge them from somewhere. Further, making those cars requires mining and smelting megatons of ore to produce the lithium, cobalt, dysprosium, neodymium, and other elements that are used in the vehicles’ batteries and motors. In short, the production and consumption of electricity always comes with a cost. Forsaking our existing electricity-generation systems for ones that rely solely on renewables could make our grid less stable and less reliable.
Super-reliable electricity is essential to the Information Age. America’s biggest and richest companies have spent billions of dollars building their own electric grids to make sure their computer networks never go dark. Retailing and computing giant Amazon alone controls about 4,700 megawatts of electricity-generation capacity; that’s as much as entire countries like Croatia or Laos.9 At the same time that megacorporations are able to effectively secede from our electric grid, billions of people around the world today are disempowered.
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. They often have no choice but to get their electricity from generators similar to the Black Max that Wilfredo was refueling every day or two. If they don’t own a generator themselves, the electricity poor often pay subscription fees to local businesspeople who own generators that supply power to customers in their neighborhoods.
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.10 It’s also the most difficult to supply and do so reliably. That paradox has shaped and will continue to shape global politics. It underlies the chasm between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated.
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. Their opportunities, their potential to develop lives beyond the backbreaking work of subsistence farming and day labor, their possibilities for economic and social development, depend on increasing their access to reliable electricity. 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. How we empower the powerless while meeting soaring global electricity demand will be the key factor in addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges, including women’s rights, climate change, and inequality.
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.11 Global electricity sales total some $2.4 trillion per year.12 That means that the electricity business is bigger than the global automobile business and twice as big as the pharmaceutical sector.13 In the United States alone, electricity sales total about $400 billion per year.14 If the US electric sector were a single stand-alone business, its revenues would nearly equal those of Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and General Motors combined.15
Electricity production matters to climate change because it accounts for the biggest single share of global carbon dioxide emissions: about 25 percent.16 Furthermore, countries that have vibrant electric sectors—places where electricity is abundant and reliable—are leading the global economy. Countries that are hindered by expensive, intermittent power are being left behind. 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.
In the pages ahead, I will look at the world through the lens of electricity. My lens will be wide-angle. I will look at everything from how electricity improves the lives of women and girls to the enormous amount of electricity used by the marijuana business to the mechanics of creating, fueling, and maintaining a functioning electric grid.
In looking at the world through the lens of electricity, I seek answers to several questions, including: Why are countries like the United States, Germany, and France electricity rich, while billions of people around the world are still stuck in the dark? Which industries are showing the biggest growth in electricity demand? How secure is the electric grid? Which fuels will be used to meet future electricity demand, and how will that demand growth affect the efforts to fight climate change? I will share insights from the journey I took to answer these questions—a journey that brought me to India, Lebanon, Iceland, Puerto Rico, New York, and Colorado and involved discussions with dozens of people, including engineers, politicians, activists, academics, and authors, as well as Bitcoin miners, cab drivers, cannabis growers, and others whose lives are shaped by their access, or lack of access, to electricity.
In the first section, I will show why electricity means modernity. To do that, I will take you on a quick jog through Electricity 101, so that you can tell your watts from your watt-hours. I’ll then explain why electricity has had such a transformative effect on humanity and, in particular, for women and girls. I will travel back in time to the early days of the Electric Age to show how electricity changed the shape and height of our cities and the lives of farmers. I’ll introduce you to the small group of New Dealers who liberated electricity from the grip of self-interested trusts, passed the legislation that assured rural electrification, and thus set the stage for the economic boom that assured America’s emergence as an economic superpower.
In the second section, I will illuminate the vast disparity in electricity use around the world today and explain why so many people are stuck in energy poverty, with implications for human rights, economic and cultural development, military strategy, and geopolitics. I will then show what various societies and countries are doing to get the electricity they need and discuss the hard reality about electrification: when forced to choose between energy poverty and access to electricity, consumers and policymakers will always choose electricity, and they will always make it as cheaply as they can so they can provide it to the greatest number of people, regardless of the environmental impacts.
In the third section, I will focus on the electricity rich, to show how and why electricity demand continues to increase, as well as the growing interdependence of electricity, information, money, and the economy. I’ll also examine the dark side of this development: an increased vulnerability to a shutdown of the grid, whether the culprit is squirrels, hackers, or nuclear devices.
Finally, I will look at the future of electricity and discuss how electricity demand in both rich and poor nations is likely to be met. Over the next few decades, global electricity generation will double. The electric grids that will be built over the next twenty to thirty years will have significant impacts on global prosperity and on efforts to address climate change. I will explain why renewables alone cannot meet soaring global electricity demand. I will explore the most promising nuclear-energy technologies, discuss why solar, natural gas, and nuclear will play prominent roles, and explain why I continue to be idiotically optimistic about the future of our high-energy world.
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. Some people say we will need more coal, while others tout geothermal, hydro, wind, and solar. The hard reality is that there are no quick or easy solutions. Energy transitions take decades.17 Sure, we can desire decisive action on climate change. We can want more rights for women and push for an end to global poverty. But we must be discerning. My hope is that this book, by showing you how the world looks through the lens of electricity, will help you see energy and power systems as they are, not how you may want them to be. We have to separate the glib rhetoric that dominates many of today’s energy discussions from the reality. Only then can we understand the stakes and consequences of our energy policies, as well as the fuels and technologies that will help bring more people out of the dark and into the bright lights of modernity.
Before delving into all of those issues, though, it’s important to take a few minutes to understand what electricity is, why it’s so difficult to supply reliably, and why it has been so transformative.
I’ve found out so much about electricity that I’ve reached the point where I understand nothing and can explain nothing.
—PIETER VAN MUSSCHENBROEK, Dutch scientist
Electricity lingo pervades our everyday speech. We want to get amped up, flash high-wattage smiles, and deliver electrifying orgasms. We idolize human dynamos who can produce high-voltage performances. We get wired until we blow a fuse. After that, we unplug and recharge.
We’ve electrified our vernacular for a simple reason: human history can be divided into two epochs, the Electric Age, and everything that came before it. Sure, the Renaissance gave us Michelangelo. Electricity gave us Elvis.
Electricity means modernity. While we have grown accustomed to having cameras that can take high-definition video on our mobile phones, it’s easy to forget just how short the Electric Age is when compared to the rest of human history. Archeological records show that humans (or rather, our hominid ancestors) first used fire about one million years ago, but it didn’t become common until about 400,000 years ago.1 By contrast, we have only been putting electricity to work since the 1880s. Therefore, if we could compress the 400,000 years that humans have been using fire into one twenty-four-hour period, the Electric Age would span only the last thirty seconds before midnight.2
Electricity means modernity because we are harnessing forces we can’t see or feel. For millennia, we could only corral energy from things like wood, dung, coal, oil, rivers, horses, the sun, and wind. With electricity, we are exploiting energy forces invisible to the eye with stunning precision and ever-greater efficiency. Over the past century and a half, we’ve gone from harnessing animals—and enduring all the shit they shat—to harnessing the subatomic motion of electrons. The more we can control flows of electrons, the more work we can do. The more work we do, the more work we want to do. And here’s the really good news: we are getting better and better at wringing more work out of those electrons.
To get an idea of the staggering number of electrons we are harnessing, consider this: making a single cup of tea with an electric kettle requires about 4.9 sextillion electrons.3 In scientific notation that is 4.9 × 1021. When typed out, 4.9 sextillion looks like this: 4,900,000,000,000,000,000,000. And remember, that’s what’s required for a single cup of tea. Running an air conditioner and a full-size refrigerator will require adding a grocery bag filled with zeros to that number. If you are planning to energize a skyscraper, or fire up an electric-arc furnace to cook up a batch of steel I-beams, you’ll need a couple shipping containers loaded with zeros to type out the number of electrons you’ll be using.
While we can calculate the number of electrons needed to make a cup of tea, it’s still hard to grasp the thingness of electricity. It’s a force that propels our lives while being both ubiquitous and invisible.
Benjamin Franklin, the publisher, writer, diplomat, and raconteur, pioneered our understanding of electricity. In 1752, he conducted his famous kite experiment, which featured a piece of metal attached to the top of a kite and a metal key tied to the earthbound end of the string. The key, in turn, was connected to a Leyden jar, which was a primitive type of battery. Franklin controlled the kite with a dry piece of silk fabric, which insulated him from being shocked. Franklin’s experiment proved that the lightning in the sky was the same as the static electricity that could be obtained by rubbing amber with fabric. Franklin’s work provided the foundation for the other great electricity pioneers and entrepreneurs who followed him. Philadelphia’s founding father coined a spate of electricity terms, including battery, charge, conductor, and condenser. He was also one of the authors and signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and he called electricity a “common element,” which he termed “electric fire.”
- "Shocking revelations about electricity.... A robust look at where the juice flows around the planet-and its planetary implications."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Of all the aspects of modern life in the developed world, flipping a switch and having the lights come on ranks as one of the most underrated. It's good to be reminded, as Bryce does through powerful examples, that such convenience was unheard of until the late nineteenth century...In this wide-ranging history of electricity, power expert Bryce takes readers beyond the table lamp and microwave to demonstrate how crucial safe, dependable, and plentiful electricity is to a host of contemporary innovations, from cryptocurrency mining to marijuana cultivation."—Booklist
- "Informative and highly readable"—Foreign Affairs
- On Sale
- May 16, 2023
- Page Count
- 368 pages