Book review of Bryce’s “Power hungry: the myths of green energy and the real fuels of the future”

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Preface.  This is a book review of: Robert Bryce. 2009. Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.

This is a brilliant book, very funny at times, a great way to sharpen your critical thinking skills, and complex ideas and principles expressed so enough anyone can understand them.

I have two main quibbles with his book.  I’ve written quite a bit about energy and resources in “When trucks stop running” and energyskeptic about why nuclear power and natural gas cannot save us from the coming oil shortages — after all, natural gas and uranium are finite also.

This book came out in 2009. As far as Bryce’s promotion of nuclear power as a potential solution, perhaps he would have been less enthusiastic if he’d read the 2013 “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste” by W. A. Alley et al., Cambridge University Press.  And also the 2016 National Research Council “Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants: Phase 2”.  As a result of this study, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Science Magazine concluded that a nuclear spent fuel fire at Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania could force up to 18 million people to evacuate. This is because the spent fuel is not stored under the containment vessel where the reactor is, which would keep the radioactivity from escaping, so if electric power were out for 12 to 31 days (depending on how hot the stored fuel was), the fuel from the reactor core cooling down in a nearby nuclear spent fuel pool could catch on fire and cause millions of flee from thousands of square miles of contaminated land.

Bryce on why the green economy won’t work:

There’s tremendous political appeal in “green jobs,” a “green collar economy,” and in what U.S. President Barack Obama calls a “new energy future.”  We’ve repeatedly been told that if we embrace those ideas, provide more subsidies to politically favored businesses, and launch more government-funded energy research programs, then we would resolve a host of problems, including carbon dioxide emissions, global climate change, dependence on oil imports, terrorism, peak oil, wars in the Persian Gulf, and air pollution. Furthermore, we’re told that by embracing “green” energy we would also revive our struggling economy, because doing so would produce more of those vaunted “green jobs.”

These claims ignore the hard realities posed by the Four Imperatives: power density, energy density, cost, and scale.

It may be fashionable to promote wind, solar, and biofuels, but those sources fail when it comes to power density. We want energy sources that produce lots of power (which is measured in horsepower or watts) from small amounts of real estate.

And that’s the key problem with wind, solar, and biofuels: They require huge amounts of land to generate meaningful amounts of power. If a source has low power density, it invariably has higher costs, which makes it difficult for that source to scale up and provide large amounts of energy at reasonable prices.

What follows are my kindle notes of what I found useful, so as usual, a bit disjointed as new topics come up with no segue.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Robert Bryce. 2009. Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.

The deluge of feel-good chatter about “green” energy has bamboozled the American public and U.S. politicians into believing that we can easily quit using hydrocarbons and move on to something else that’s cleaner, greener, and, in theory, cheaper. The hard truth is that we must make decisions about how to proceed on energy very carefully, because America simply cannot afford to waste any more money on programs that fail to meet the Four Imperatives.

Energy is the ability to do work; power is the rate at which work gets done.  The more power we have, the quicker the work gets done.  We use energy to make power.

A 2007 study by Michigan State University determined that:  just 28% of American adults could be considered scientifically literate (ScienceDaily 2007).  In February 2009, the California Academy of Sciences released the findings of a survey which found that most Americans couldn’t pass a basic scientific literacy test (CAS 2009). The findings:

  • Just 53% of adults knew how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
  • Just 59% knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.
  • Only 47% of adults could provide a rough estimate of the proportion of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water. (The academy decided that the correct answer range for this question was anything between 65 and 75%)
  • A mere 21% percent were able to answer those three questions correctly.

This centuries-long suspicion of science, which continues today with regular attacks on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, was recognized by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in the 1950s when he delivered a lecture called “The Two Cultures.”

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? 

These important laws — the first law of thermodynamics—energy is neither created nor destroyed—and the second law—energy tends to become more random and less available—are relegated to the realm of too much information.50 This apathy toward science makes it laughably easy for the public to be deceived, or for people to deceive themselves.

Energy is an amount, while power is a measure of energy flow. And that’s a critical distinction. Energy is a sum. Power is a rate. And rates are often more telling than sums.

When it comes to doing work, we insist on having power that is instantly available. We want the ability to switch things on and off whenever we choose. And that desire largely excludes wind and solar from being major players in our energy mix, because we can’t control the wind or the sun. Weather changes quickly.

Renewable energy has little value unless it becomes renewable power, meaning power that can be dispatched at specific times of our choosing. But achieving the ability to dispatch that power at specific times means solving the problem of energy storage. And despite decades of effort, we still have not found an economical way to store large quantities of the energy we get from the wind and the sun so that we can convert that energy into power when we want it.

Power density refers to the amount of power that can be harnessed in a given unit of volume, area, or mass.  Watts per square meter may be the most telling of these. Using watts per square meter allows us to make a direct comparison between renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and traditional sources such as oil, natural gas, and nuclear power.)

Energy density refers to the amount of energy that can be contained in a given unit of volume, area, or mass. Common energy density metrics include Btu per gallon and joules per kilogram.

When it comes to questions about power and energy, the higher the density, the better. For example, a 100-pound battery that can store, say, 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity is better than a battery that weighs just as much but can only hold 5 kilowatt-hours. Put another way, the first battery has twice the energy density of the second one. But both of those batteries are mere pretenders when compared with gasoline, which, by weight, has about 80 times the energy density of the best lithium-ion batteries.

Ever since Watt’s day, the world of engineering has been dominated by the effort to produce ever-better engines that can more quickly and efficiently convert the energy found in coal, oil, and natural gas into power. And that effort to increase the power density of our engines, turbines, and motors has resulted in the production of ever-greater amounts of power from smaller and smaller spaces.

Comparing the engine in the Model T with that of a modern vehicle.   In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, which had a 2.9-liter engine that produced 22 horsepower (HP), or about 7.6 HP per liter of displacement.  A century later, Ford Motor Company was selling the 2010 Ford Fusion. It was equipped with a 2.5-liter engine that produced 175 HP, which works out to 70 HP per liter.  So even though the displacement of the Fusion’s engine is about 14% less than the one in the Model T, it produces more than 9 times as much power per liter. In other words, over the past century, Ford’s engineers have made a 9-fold improvement in the engine’s power density.

But with both wind and solar, and with corn ethanol and other biofuels, engineers are constantly fighting an uphill battle, one that requires using lots of land, as well as resources such as steel, concrete, and glass, in their effort to overcome the low power density of those sources.

One of the biggest problems when it comes to energy transitions is that we’ve invested trillions of dollars in the pipelines, wires, storage tanks, and electricity-generation plants that are providing us with the watts that we use to keep the economy afloat. The United States and the rest of the world cannot, and will not, simply jettison all of that investment in order to move to some other form of energy that is more politically appealing.

The idea that hydrocarbons beget more hydrocarbons can also be seen by looking at the Cardinal coal mine in western Kentucky. The mine produces more than 15,000 tons of coal per day. And the essential commodity that facilitates the mine’s amazing productivity is electricity. The massive machines that claw the coal from the earth run on electricity provided by power plants on the surface that burn coal. In fact, about 93% of Kentucky’s electricity is produced from coal. To paraphrase Goodell, at the Cardinal Mine, the coal, in effect, is mining itself.

Hydrocarbons are begetting more hydrocarbons in the oil and gas business. Modern drilling rigs can bore holes that are five, six, or even eight miles long in the quest to tap new reservoirs of oil. And the energy they use to access that oil is … oil. Diesel fuel has long been the fuel of choice for drilling rigs around the world. On offshore drilling rigs, the power is often supplied by diesel fuel. But in some cases, the power is provided by natural gas that the rig itself produces. Thus, on those offshore platforms, the natural gas is, in effect, mining itself.

If we tried to make biodiesel from soybeans it wouldn’t provide anything close to the scale needed to keep diesel engines running.  Even if the U.S. converted all of the soybeans it produces in an average year into biodiesel, that would be less than 10% of America’s total diesel-fuel needs (4).

Multiplying global energy use (226 million barrels of oil equivalent in primary energy each day) by horsepower per barrel, we find that the world consumes about 6.8 billion horsepower—all day, every day. Therefore, roughly speaking, the world consumes about 1 horsepower per person. Of course, this power availability is not spread evenly across the globe. Americans use about 4.5 horsepower per capita, while their counterparts in Pakistan and India use less than 0.25.

In figure 10 Bryce shows this  energy use as lightbulbs, with India and Pakistan consuming the least: 1.5 lightbulbs, or 167 watts per capita.  China is at 7 light bulbs (673 watts/capita), and if everyone in the U.S. wore a giant chandelier with the lightbulbs representing their energy use, there’d be 33.5 lightbulbs (673 watts).

Power density and land area (I added material from Smil as well)

Extracts from:

Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy transitions: history, requirements, prospects.

Robert Bryce. 2009. Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.

Smil: The fact that wind, solar, and biomass have incredibly low energy density per square meter means that a fully renewable system to replace the 320 GW of fossil fueled electricity generation and 1.8 TW of coal, oil, and gas with biofuels would extend over 25 to 50% of the country’s territory, or 965,000 to 1.81 million square miles (250-470 Mha) with an average power density of just 0.45 W/m2, mainly due to the enormous area needed to produce liquid biofuels.

If we were to cultivate phytomass at 1 W/m2 to replace today’s 12.5 TW of fossil fuels would require 4,826,275 million square miles (12.5 million square kilometers), roughly the size of the U.S. and India.  If all of America’s gasoline demands were derived from ethanol, that would take an area 20% larger than the nation’s total arable land.  It would be worse elsewhere — the U.S. produces twice as much corn per acre than the rest of the world.

If the U.S. tried to generate 10% of electricity (405 Twh in 2012) it would require wood chips from forests growing in an area the size of Minnesota (84,950 square miles) since the power density is only 0.6 W/m2.

Currently the area used by fossil fuel production and extraction, hydro power, and nuclear generation takes up only 0.5% of the land (21,235 square miles, 5.5 Mha).  The low energy density of biofuels restricts facilities to small areas or the fossil fuel used to transport it to the biorefinery is more than the energy of what’s made (i.e. corn for ethanol needs to be less than 50 miles away)

Power density in watts per square meter

  • Rich middle eastern oil fields: > 10,000 W/m2
  • American oil fields: 1,000-2,000 W/m2
  • Natural gas 1,000 to 10,000 W/m2
  • Coal: 250-500 W/m2 (used to be much higher but the best coal mines were mined first, remaining mines have lower energy density coal) though it can be 1,000 to 10,000 W/m2 in bituminous thick coal seams
  • Fast growing trees in plantations: 1 W/m2 (arid) 1 W/m2 (temperate) 1.2 W/m2 tropical
  • Bioengineered trees that don’t exist yet: 2 W/m2 but not really, they’d be constrained by nutrients, fertilizer inputs, soil erosion, and 10 years or more between harvests
  • Harvesting mature virgin forests or coppiced beech or oak: 0.22-0.25 W/m2
  • Crop residues: 0.05 W/m2
  • ethanol: 0.25 W/m2
  • Biodiesel: 0.12 to 0.18 W/m2
  • Solar 2.7 W/m2 (Germany’s Waldpolenz)
  • Wind turbines: 2 to 10 W/m2.
  • hydropower: 3 W/m2 due to large reservoir size, Three gorges will be as high as 30 W/m2 though

Consumption.  Wind, solar, biomass take too much land to support today’s industries and cities

500 W/m2 to 1,000 W/m2 industrial facilities (especially steel mills and refineries), downtowns in northern cities in the winter, high-rise buildings.

Bryce: All About Power Density: A Comparison of Various Energy Sources in Horsepower (and Watts)

  • Nuclear: 56 Watts per square meter (W/m2). 300 Horsepower (HP)/acre (56 W/m2)
  • Average U.S. natural gas well @ 115,000 cubic feet per day: 53 W/m2. 287.5 hp/acre
  • Solar PV: 7 W/M2. 36 hp/acre
  • Wind turbines: 2 W/m2.  6.4 hp/acre
  • Biomass-fueled power plant: 4 W/M2. 2.1 hp/acre
  • Corn ethanol: 05 W/M2. 0.26 hp/acre

The Milford Wind Corridor is a 300-megawatt wind project that was built in Utah in 2009. The project was the first to be approved under the Bureau of Land Management’s new wind program for the western United States. To construct the wind farm, which uses 139 turbines spread over 40 square miles, the owners of the project installed a concrete batch plant that ran 6 days a week, 12 hours per day, for 6 months. During that time, the plant consumed about 14.3 million gallons of water to produce 44,344 cubic meters of concrete. Thus, each megawatt of installed wind capacity consumed about 319 cubic meters of concrete.

But those numbers must be adjusted to account for wind’s capacity factor—the percentage of time the generator is running at 100% of its designed capacity. Given that wind generally has a capacity factor of 33% or less, the deployment of 1 megawatt of reliable electric-generation capacity at Milford actually required about 956 cubic meters of concrete.

Peterson, a professor in the nuclear engineering department at the University of California at Berkeley, reported that when accounting for capacity factor, each megawatt of wind power capacity requires about 870 cubic meters of concrete and 460 tons of steel.

Each megawatt of power capacity in a combined-cycle gas turbine power plant (the most efficient type of gas-fired electricity production) requires about 27 cubic meters of concrete and 3.3 tons of steel. In other words, a typical megawatt of reliable wind power capacity requires about 32 times as much concrete and 139 times as much steel as a typical natural gas-fired power plant.


Studies proving that wind power reduced carbon emissions, ignored the fact that all wind-power installations must be backed up with large amounts of dispatchable electric generation capacity. In Denmark’s case, that has meant having large quantities of available hydropower resources in Norway and Sweden that can be called upon when needed. But even with a perfect zero-carbon backup system, the Danes haven’t seen a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

That bodes ill for countries that don’t have the access to hydropower that Denmark has. Nearly every country that installs wind power must back up its wind turbines with gas-fired generators.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages 85% of the state’s electric load, pegs wind’s capacity factor at less than 9%. In a 2007 report, the grid operator determined that just “8.7% of the installed wind capability can be counted on as dependable capacity during the peak demand period for the next year.” It added that “conventional generation must be available to provide the remaining capacity needed to meet forecast load and reserve requirements.”

By mid-2009, Texas had 8,203 megawatts (MW) of installed wind-power capacity. But ERCOT, in its forecasts for that summer’s demand periods, when electricity use is the highest, was estimating that just 708 MW of the state’s wind-generation capacity could actually be counted on as reliable. With total summer generation needs of 72,648 MW, the vast majority of which comes from gas-fired generation, wind power was providing just 1% of Texas’s total reliable generation portfolio.

It’s clear that wind power cannot be counted on as a stand-alone source of electricity but must always be backed up by conventional sources of electricity generation. In short, wind power does not reduce the need for conventional power plants.

Because wind cannot be called up on demand, especially at the time of peak demand, installed wind generation capacity does not reduce the amount of installed conventional generating capacity required. So wind cannot contribute to reducing the capital investment in generating plants. Wind is simply an additional capital investment.”

Wind power does not, and cannot, displace power plants, it only adds to them.

In September 2009, Jing Yang of the Wall Street Journal reported that “China’s ambition to create ‘green cities’ powered by huge wind farms comes with a dirty little secret: Dozens of new coal-fired power plants need to be installed as well.” Chinese officials are installing about 12,700 megawatts of new wind turbines in the northwestern province of Gansu. But along with those turbines, the government will install 9,200 megawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity in Gansu, “for use when the winds aren’t favorable.” That quantity of coal-fired capacity, Jing noted, is “equivalent to the entire generating capacity of Hungary.”

The obvious problem with the Chinese plan is that coal-fired plants are designed to provide continuous, baseload power. They cannot be turned on and off quickly. That likely means that all of the new coal plants being built in Gansu province to back up the new wind turbines will be run continuously in order to assure that the regional power grid doesn’t go dark.

In November 2009, Kent Hawkins, a Canadian electrical engineer, published a detailed analysis on the frequency with which gas-fired generators must be cycled on and off in order to back up wind power. Hawkins’ findings: The frequent switching on and off results in more gas consumption than if there were no wind turbines at all. His analysis suggests that it would be more efficient in terms of carbon dioxide emissions to simply run combined-cycle gas turbines on a continuous basis than to use wind turbines backed up by gas-fired generators that are constantly being turned on and off. Hawkins concluded that wind power is not an “effective CO2 mitigation” strategy “because of inefficiencies introduced by fast-ramping (inefficient) operation of gas turbines (Hawkins 2009).


Between 1999 and 2007, according to data from the Danish Energy Agency, the amount of electricity produced from the country’s wind turbines grew by about 136%, from 3 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) to some 7.1 billion (kWh).   By the beginning of 2007, wind power was accounting for about 13.4% of all the electricity generated in Denmark.  And yet, over that same time period, coal consumption didn’t change at all. In 1999, Denmark’s daily coal consumption was the equivalent of about 94,400 barrels of oil per day.  By 2007, Denmark’s coal consumption was exactly the same as it was back in 1999.  In fact, Denmark’s coal consumption in both 2007 and 1999 was nearly the same as it was back in 1981.

The basic problem with Denmark’s wind-power sector is the same as it is everywhere else: It must be backed up by conventional sources of generation. For Denmark, that means using coal as well as the hydropower resources of its neighbors. As much as two-thirds of Denmark’s total wind power production is exported to its neighbors in Germany, Sweden, and Norway. In 2003, 84% of the wind power generated in western Denmark was exported, much of it at below-market rates.

The Danes are providing an electricity subsidy to their neighbors. And they are doing so because Denmark cannot use all of the wind-generated electricity it produces. The intermittency of the wind resources in western Denmark—located far from the main population center in Copenhagen—means that the country must rely on its existing coal-fired power plants. When excess electricity comes on-stream from the country’s wind turbines, the Danes ship it abroad, particularly to Sweden and Norway, because those countries have large amounts of hydropower resources that Denmark then uses to balance its own electric grid.

“Exported wind power, paid for by Danish householders, brings material benefits in the form of cheap electricity and delayed investment in new generation equipment for consumers in Sweden and Norway but nothing for Danish consumers.” (CEPOS 2009)

In 2007, the country’s total primary energy use, about 363,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, was roughly the same as it was in 1981 (BP 2009). Denmark’s ability to keep energy consumption growth flat over such a long period is anomalous. But let’s be clear: That near-zero growth in energy consumption has been achieved in part by imposing exorbitant energy taxes and by maintaining near-zero growth in population.

Denmark is even more reliant on oil—as a percentage of primary energy—than the United States is. In fact, the Danes are among the most oil-reliant people on Earth. In 2007, Denmark got about 51% of its primary energy from oil. That’s far higher than the percentage in the United States (40%) and significantly higher than the world average of 35.6%. As stated above, Denmark is more coal dependent than the United States, getting about 26% of its primary energy from coal

Between 1990 and 2006, Denmark’s overall greenhouse gas emissions increased by 2.1 percent (EEA).

If Denmark’s huge wind-power sector were reducing carbon dioxide emissions, you’d expect the Danes to be bragging about it, right? Well, guess what? They’re not.

Denmark has become largely self-sufficient in oil and gas, not because it’s more virtuous or because it’s using more alternative energy, but be-cause it has fully committed to drilling in the North Sea.

Between 1981 and 2007, the country’s oil production jumped from less than 15,000 barrels per day to nearly 314,000 barrels per day—an increase of nearly 2,000 percent. The focus on sustained oil and gas exploration and production led to a corresponding increase in oil reserves, which jumped from about 500 million barrels to nearly 1.3 billion barrels. Denmark has had similar success with its natural gas production. In 1981, the country was producing no natural gas. By 2007, natural gas production was nearly 900 million cubic feet per day—enough to supply all of the country’s own consumption needs and to allow for substantial exports.

Hydrocarbons provide Denmark with 48 times as much energy as the country gets from wind power.

The September 2009 study by CEPOS said that Denmark’s wind industry “saves neither fossil fuel consumption nor carbon dioxide emissions.” The final page of the report even offers a warning for the United States: “The Danish experience also suggests that a strong US wind expansion would not benefit the overall economy. It would entail substantial costs to the consumer and industry, and only to a lesser degree benefit a small part of the economy, namely wind turbine owners, wind shareholders and those employed in the sector.”

Wind does not substitute for natural gas

The International Energy Agency, in its “Natural Gas Market Review 2009,” said that as renewable capacity is added, “gas-fired capacity will increase while its overall load factor may be reduced…. This switching will have an impact on the profitability of new investments.”

Though it is true that gas consumption declines during periods when the wind is providing lots of electricity, it’s not yet clear how large those savings will be. Nor is it clear that the savings in fuel costs will be enough to offset the capital costs incurred to install the needed gas storage capacity, pipelines, and generators. Furthermore, all of that gas- and power-delivery infrastructure—and the generators, in particular—must be staffed continually. The utilities cannot send workers home only when the wind is blowing. The generators must be available and staffed to meet demand 24/7.

Americans have been repeatedly told that electricity generated from wind costs less than electricity produced by other forms of power generation. That’s only true if you don’t count the investments that must be made in other power-delivery infrastructure that assures that the lights don’t go out.

The costs of all the new gas-related infrastructure that must be installed in order to accommodate increased use of wind power should be included in calculations about the costs of adding renewable sources of energy to the U.S. electricity grid. Those calculations should be done on a state-by-state basis.

Neodymium for wind power is used in neodymium-iron-boron magnets, which are powerful, lightweight, and relatively cheap—at least they are when compared to the magnets they replaced, which were made with samarium (another lanthanide) and cobalt. The Toyota Prius uses neodymium-iron-boron magnets in its motor-generator and its batteries. Analysts have called the Prius one of the most rare-earth-intensive consumer products ever made, with each Prius containing about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of neodymium and about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of lanthanum. And it’s not just the Prius. Other hybrids, such as the Honda Insight and the Ford Fusion, also have them.

China’s near-monopoly control of the green elements likely means that most of the new manufacturing jobs related to “green” energy products will be created in China, not the United States. Chinese companies have made it clear that—thanks to huge subsidies provided by the Chinese government—they are willing to lose money on their solar panels in order to gain market share.

Environmental activists in the United States and other countries may lust mightily for a high-tech, hybrid-electric, no-carbon, super-hyphenated energy future. But the reality is that that vision depends mightily on lanthanides and lithium. That means mining. And China controls nearly all of the world’s existing mines that produce lanthanides.

Given that energy efficiency results in increased energy use, it’s obvious that, although energy efficiency should be pursued, it cannot be expected to solve the dilemmas posed by the world’s ever-growing need for energy.


If we are going to agree that carbon dioxide is bad, then what?

  • Where are the substitutes for hydrocarbons? Hydrocarbons now provide about 88% of the world’s total energy needs. Replacing them means coming up with an energy form that can supply 200 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.
  • Increasing energy consumption equals higher living standards. Always. Everywhere. Given that last fact, how can we expect the people of the world—all 6.7 billion of them—to use less energy? The answer to that question is obvious: We can’t.

Three billion tons is a difficult number to comprehend, especially when it represents something that is widely dispersed the way carbon emissions are in the atmosphere. According to calculations done by Vaclav Smil, if that amount of carbon dioxide (remember, it’s just 10% of global annual carbon dioxide emissions) were compressed to about 1,000 pounds per square inch, it would have about the same volume as the total volume of global annual oil production (Smil 2006).

In 2008, global oil production was about 82 million barrels per day.  Thus, 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions in one day would be approximately equal to the daily volume of global oil production. So here’s the punch line: Getting rid of just 10% of global carbon dioxide per day would mean filling the equivalent of 41 VLCC supertankers every day. Each VLCC, or very large crude carrier, holds about 2 million barrels (Apache 2008).

Smil emphasized the tremendous difficulty of “putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development.” “Such a technical feat,” he said, “could not be accomplished within a single generation (Smil 2006)”.


  • 1911: The New York Times declares that the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical.”(NYT 1911)
  • 1915: The Washington Post writes that “prices on electric cars will continue to drop until they are within reach of the average family.”(WP 1915)
  • 1959: The New York Times reports that the “Old electric may be the car of tomorrow.” The story said that electric cars were making a comeback because “gasoline is expensive today, principally because it is so heavily taxed, while electricity is far cheaper” than it was back in the 1920s (Ingraham 1959)
  • 1967: The Los Angeles Times says that American Motors Corporation is on the verge of producing an electric car, the Amitron, to be powered by lithium batteries capable of holding 330 watt-hours per kilogram. (That’s more than two times as much as the energy density of modern lithium-ion batteries.) Backers of the Amitron said, “We don’t see a major obstacle in technology. It’s just a matter of time.” (Thomas 1967)
  • 1979: The Washington Post reports that General Motors has found “a breakthrough in batteries” that “now makes electric cars commercially practical.” The new zinc-nickel oxide batteries will provide the “100-mile range that General Motors executives believe is necessary to successfully sell electric vehicles to the public.”(Knight, J. September 26, 1979. GM Unveils electric car, New battery. Washington Post, D7.
  • 1980: In an opinion piece, the Washington Post avers that “practical electric cars can be built in the near future.” By 2000, the average family would own cars, predicted the Post, “tailored for the purpose for which they are most often used.” It went on to say that “in this new kind of car fleet, the electric vehicle could pay a big role—especially as delivery trucks and two-passenger urban commuter cars. With an aggressive production effort, they might save 1 million barrels of oil a day by the turn of the century.” (WP 1980)

Recharging the 53-kilowatt-hour battery pack in the Tesla takes about 4 hours, or 240 minutes. The total cost of refueling my Honda van: $44.32. Now, were I to buy 53 kilowatt-hours of electricity from the local utility, at an average cost of $0.10 per kWh, the total cost of the fuel would only be about $5.30—far less than the $44 I paid to refill my minivan. But then, my van doesn’t need recharging every night.

Diesel and gasoline vehicles are not overly reliant on rare earth elements such as neodymium and lanthanum.


The power density of biomass production is simply too low: approximately 0.4 watts per square meter (Ausubel 2007). Even the best-managed tree plantations can only achieve power densities of about 1 watt per square meter.  For comparison, recall that even a marginal natural gas well has a power density of about 28 watts per square meter.

To replace just 10% of the coal-fired electricity capacity in the United States with wood-fired capacity would mean more than doubling overall U.S. wood consumption.

The wood requirements for the Georgia Power facility and the East Texas generation project are about the same: 1 million tons of wood per year.  Thus, both projects will require 10,000 tons of wood per year to produce 1 megawatt of electricity. The United States now has about 336,300 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation capacity.  Let’s assume that we want to replace just 10% of that coal-fired capacity—33,630 megawatts—with wood-burning power plants. Simple math shows that doing so would require about 336.3 million tons of wood per year.  How much wood is that? According to estimates from the United Nations Environmental Program, total U.S. wood consumption is now about 236.4 million tons per year.  Given those numbers, if the United States wants to continue using wood for building homes, bookshelves, and other uses—while also replacing 10% of its coal-fired generation capacity with wood-fired generators— it will need to consume nearly 573 million tons of wood per year, or about 2.5 times its current consumption.

The problems with biomass-to-electricity schemes are the same ones that haunt nearly every renewable energy idea: power density and energy density.  Wood has only half the energy density of coal.

Combine that low energy density with the low power density of wood and biomass production, the challenges become even more apparent. The power density of the best-managed forests is only about 1 watt per square meter.  And when a particular energy source, in this case, wood, has low power density and low energy density, that leads to problems with the other two elements of the 4 Imperatives: cost and scale.

Tad Patzek, the head of the petroleum engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin, and Gregory Croft, a doctoral candidate in engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, have come to similar conclusions. Patzek and Croft have concluded that world coal production will peak in 2011. Furthermore, in a report that they completed in 2009, they projected that global coal production “will fall by 50% in the next 40 years” and that carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion will fall by the same percentage (Patzek 2009). For Patzek and Croft, the implications of the looming peak in coal production makes it apparent that the world must focus increasing effort on energy efficiency.

The physical production limits on oil and coal may keep carbon dioxide emissions far below the projections put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has said that carbon dioxide concentrations could reach almost 1,000 parts per million by 2099 (Rutledge 2009). In his analysis, Rutledge predicted that due to peak coal, global carbon dioxide concentrations will not rise much above 450 parts per million by 2065.

Though we cannot predict the future, we can look backward and see that the beginning of the latest economic recession—like many recessions before it—coincided with a major spike in oil prices. History shows that sharp increases in oil prices are often followed by recessions. Those oil price spikes also lead to sharp decreases in oil demand. For instance, in 1978, U.S. oil consumption peaked at 18.8 million barrels per day. But the high prices that came with the 1979 oil shock, the second big price spike in six years, sent U.S. consumption tumbling. In fact, it took two decades for U.S. oil demand to recover after the price shocks of the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1998, when U.S. consumption hit 18.9 million barrels per day, that the 1978 level of consumption was surpassed.  And it took two decades for oil demand to recover, even though oil prices were remarkably low. From the mid-1980s through the early 2000s, prices largely stayed under $20 per barrel, and they even fell as low as $9.39 per barrel in December 1998.

In 2007, the EPA admitted that increased use of ethanol in gasoline would increase emissions of key air pollutants like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide by as much as 7%. In the documents the EPA released on October 13, 2010, announcing the approval of the 15% ethanol blends, the agency again acknowledged that more ethanol consumption will mean higher emissions of key pollutants.

One more example of the egregiousness of the ethanol scam: U. S. ethanol producers and blenders are now exporting record amounts of ethanol. Through the first nine months of 2010, the U. S. exported about 251 million gallons of the alcohol fuel—that’s more than double the export volume recorded in 2009. Among the countries getting U. S. ethanol exports:  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. To summarize: In October, the Obama administration bailed out the ethanol industry because the industry had built too much capacity. Administration officials and the ethanol scammers justified the bailout by saying it will help the United States achieve energy independence and cut oil imports. But rather than reduce oil imports, the ethanol scammers are collecting about $7 billion per year in subsidies from U. S. taxpayers so that they can ship increasing amounts of American-made ethanol abroad (Furlow 2010). And in doing so, the ethanol scammers are consuming nearly 40% of all the corn grown in the United States.


Apache corporation. July 14, 2008. Topic report: tanker market review.

Ausubel, J. 2007. The future environment for the energy business. APPEA Journel.

  1. 2009. Denmark’s total primary energy consumption in 1981 was 18.2 million tons of oil equivalent per year, or 365,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. By 2007, the figure was 18.1 million tons of oil equivalent per year. BP Statistical review of world energy.

CAS. February 25, 2009. American adults flunk basic science. California academy of sciences

ScienceDaily. February 2007, 2007. Scientific literacy: how do Americans stack up?

CEPOS. 2009. Wind energy: the case of Denmark. Danish center for political studies.

EEA. 2008. Greenhouse gas emission trends and projections in Europe 2008: tracking progress towards Kyoto targets. European Environment Agency.

Furlow, B. 2010. Senator Bingaman supports push to cut ethanol subsidies. New Mexico Independent.

Hawkins, K. November 13, 2009. Wind integration: incremental emissions from back-up generation cycling, part 1.

NYT. Novermber 12, 1911. Foreign trade in Electric vehicles. New York Times C8.

Thomas, B. December 17, 1967. AMC does a turnabout: starts running in black. Los Angeles Times, K10.

Patzek, T.W., Croft, G. D. 2009. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy Journal.

Peterson, Per F. September 16, 2008. Issues for Nuclear Power Construction Costs and Waste Management.

Rutledge, D. 2009. Hubbert’s peak, the coal question, and climate change.

Smil, V. 2006. Energy at the crossroads: background notes for a presentation at the global science forum conference on scientific challenges for energy research, Paris, May 17-18, 2006.

WP. October 31, 1915. Prophecies come true. Washington Post, E18.

WP. June 7, 1980. Plug ‘Er In?”. Washington Post, A10.

Hydropower:  Over the past decade, more than 200 dams in the United States have been dismantled.

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9 Responses to Book review of Bryce’s “Power hungry: the myths of green energy and the real fuels of the future”

  1. Todd Cory says:

    this article really helps put things into perspective.

    it is clear lunacy to think we can “new green deal” 7.8 billion rapacious humans (increasing at 1,000,000 every 4,5 days) living on massive carbon footprint, non-negotiable lives…
    but we do have the dunning kruger realities:

    “A 2007 study by Michigan State University determined that: just 28% of American adults could be considered scientifically literate (ScienceDaily 2007). In February 2009, the California Academy of Sciences released the findings of a survey which found that most Americans couldn’t pass a basic scientific literacy test (CAS 2009).”

    • NJF says:

      This is why nuclear will have to still be pursued regardless of it’s own peaking issues and hazards.

      I’m not saying it should be, though it’s not nearly as bad of an energy source as it is made out to be in my opinion. But even if it shouldn’t be used, it will be. Period.

      It is the only fuel that can replace fossil fuels in the electricity sector and the process heat sector. Powered transportation is likely over regardless. If we want to retain any aspect of our industrial society or any portion of the grid, it will have to be via nuclear.

      Whether the grid infrastructure can be maintained without fossil fuels is a whole other question. Perhaps we might have reactors producing power but the infrastructure not going anywhere…

      • Todd Cory says:

        as i say over and over, until the core issues (overpopulation and overconsumption) are addressed, supply side “solutions” only make things worse in the long run as they enable continued overshoot, making our ultimate funeral pyre much brighter…
        in the case of your pimping nukes, that would be “glowing” brighter.

        • NJF says:

          I’m not “pimping” nukes. I’m saying that when the time runs out on the other smokescreen tech like wind and solar, and people begin to realize it’s not working, governments will have to deal with being 7x over our worldwide carrying capacity.

          They will probably institute a one child policy and close their borders. Obviously this would cause social programs to collapse but it’s necessary either way.

          But it’s still not going to be enough. We will need something to at least run our hospitals even if everyone is thrust back out to work the fields from the metropolitan areas. And nuclear is the only thing even physically possible that has a positive EROI.

          • energyskeptic says:

            NJF: you need to read my book — transportation can’t run on electricity and electricity depends on fossils and always will to balance intermittent wind and solar (gotta read the book for the full argument, though many of my posts here discuss this). Nuclear is not a solution. Also see my posts on peak uranium, and nuclear waste. And with nuclear plants 4x the cost of natural gas, and ten years to build and get approvals versus 1 year for a new natural gas plant to start producing and paying investors back, the money to build them won’t happen, and if they’re being built because oil is running out, they take lots of oil to build, and by then oil will be rationed to agriculture if we institute this plan: USDOE. June 1980. Standby Gasoline Rationing Plan. U.S. Department of Energy Economic Regulatory Administration, Office of Regulations and Emergency Planning.

  2. SomeoneInAsia says:

    To Cory:

    Not all of the 7.8 billion (and counting) humans are rapacious and living on a massive carbon footprint. Only some of them.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Maybe these will be the people that survive, those who are growing their own food organically and don’t use any fossil fuel fertilizers or transportation or plastics or anything at all connected to oil, coal, and natural gas. But most people are directly or indirectly dependent on fossils to some extent. Even in the heart of the Amazon basis everyone depended on oil for their boat engines. Only the uncontacted tribes are untouched by modern civilizatoin.

  3. Ken Peterson says:

    Hi Alice,

    Thanks for another great review re. why “renewables” can’t save techno-industrial civilization. But I’m afraid that Robert Bryce appears to have slipped backwards in his newer book, “Smaller Faster Denser Lighter Cheaper”, at least according to the Berkeley Public Library synopsis:

    So it looks like Bryce has evolved into a “Polyanna”…oh well, I suppose writers do better financially with Polyanna books.


    • energyskeptic says:

      Ha, and the main thrust of his energy solution is still nuclear power, never mind that peak uranium has probably come and gone. I was amazed that Springer published my dismal depressing book, publishers don’t like to do that because they don’t sell well. On the other hand, it’s mainly available electronically so there’s no business loss of printing costs for them, and as books are ordered they’re individually printed. Oh well, I’m looking forward to the editorials in the future where “experts” are gobsmacked that we didn’t see this coming, just like the 2008 financial crash supposedly wasn’t seen coming, which is utter rubbish, many well-known financial experts were writing about the coming crash.