Power Trip: The Story of Energy, by Michael E. Webber

Nick Norman enjoys a bold attempt to track the past, present and future of energy

October 10, 2019
light switch
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There’s a scene in the film Apollo 13 where one of the engineers delivers a classic line which cuts through all the deliberations that have taken place up until then: “power is everything. Indeed it is; without sufficient onboard power, there is no chance of returning the three astronauts safely to Earth. As we know, the story ends well, but perhaps it provides a metaphor for the issues tackled in Michael Webber’s book, Power Trip.

What Webber sets out to do in 250 or so pages is to trace the history of energy or power and how completely dependent on its availability we and our societies have become. He tackles this by way of six chapters which focus on water, food, transportation, wealth, cities and security. In each case, we’re treated to a historical introduction followed by an analysis of our increasing dependency on energy in that particular domain, usually with some personal anecdotes along the way.

What struck me most was not so much the basic factual material, much of which I either knew or is fairly obvious when you think about it, but rather just how interconnected everything is – and just how utterly dependent we have all become on energy available, literally in some cases, at the flick of a switch. All of this comes at a price, of course, not just in financial terms but increasingly in terms of the environmental costs associated with how all this energy is produced. Webber addresses this point as well and I’m pleased to see that he goes beyond the obvious impact of burning fossil fuels and considers some of the problems that come with renewables, not least biofuels (and how their production all too easily competes with food production).

The environmental costs of energy production are one thing, but we cannot ignore concerns around security of supply and Webber examines this in his final chapter. One need look no further than an event that took place on the day I’m writing this review: the attack on Saudi Aramco’s largest oil processing plant. Wars have been and will no doubt continue to be fought over energy (and resources generally).

What’s in store for us, Webber explores in an epilogue titled “The Future of Energy”. If I have any criticism of the book, it’s with this section. The problem is not so much with what it does include as with what it doesn’t. I’d like to have seen a little more on future challenges and how we might address them. It’s not just about technological solutions, I know. Energy efficiency and social change will play their part (and a big one), but readers might have valued some discussion on, for example, the prospects for nuclear fusion and how to address the many issues associated with greatly increased use of batteries such as recyclability and the current reliance on rare elements in their manufacture. Despite those concerns, however, in an expanding library of books on global change and what we’re going to do about it, Webber’s will be a useful addition to the shelves.

Nick Norman is a professor of chemistry at the University of Bristol.

Power Trip: The Story of Energy
By Michael E. Webber
Basic Books, 304pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781541644397
Published 20 June 2019

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