I had come across Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard A. Muller in a bookstore about a year and a half ago and immediately put it on my to-read list. Assuming I would be able to pick it up the next time I was in the store, I did not buy it that day and ended up not finding it in any bookstore I went to for the next year. However the concept of the book, giving an overview of every type of energy technology and policy that might be relevant in the coming years to future leaders with non-scientific backgrounds, is so important to me that I finally ended up caving and buying it off Amazon.
All-in-all this book provides an excellent overview of the landscape of the energy industry and associated public policies, doing so in a way that is accessible and easy enough to grasp for people who are completely unfamiliar with the topics but also goes in depth in a way that still provides useful and new insights to those who are immersed in the energy world. If there’s one main gripe I have with Energy for Future Presidents, it’s that it was published in 2012 and thus a number of its analyses and conclusions are based on data and technology from even before that year. Obviously that’s not Muller’s fault, and it only got exacerbated by my own delay in finally reading the book, but it’s worth bringing up for anyone who is seeking the latest and most up to date information.
Overall, any of the energy-related nitpicking I have with information in the book are minor compared with the overall success I think Muller found in covering a wide variety of topics for a curious but not-scientifically-based audience– from climate change to the Fukushima disaster, solar energy to synfuels, and electric vehicles to energy productivity. To frame the book on its titular goal of educating ‘future Presidents’ on energy, Muller importantly highlights that its not just important that the President be scientifically literate on energy topics, but he or she must also know the science well enough to explain it the public and Congress to inform the decisions that are ultimately made. Not only that, but often a President’s scientific advisers might disagree and the President will need to know the basics well enough to make the best decisions. In that respect, Muller spends a majority of the book providing the data and facts, but he also can’t help himself from providing his own opinion as a scientific adviser. This provides the reader a fun opportunity to try out that exact role of the President– take in what the adviser is suggesting and, knowing the facts behind it all, determine whether he or she agrees with the subsequent advice. I know I didn’t agree with every piece of advice that Muller gave, but that’s to be expected when discussing such hotly debated topics and it certainly did not take away from my enjoyment of the book.
- Energy Disasters: Regarding energy-related disasters, such as Fukushima and the Gulf oil spill, Muller suggests that the safe, conservative action of politicians in the immediate aftermath is to declare the incidents as extremely severe emergencies, as downplaying them and later being proven wrong would be a political and PR disaster. However, he goes through a number of these incidents and shows how, after the data is crunched, the real effects of the disasters are often much less significant than what they are initially made out to be. Not only does this do a disservice in diverting resources where they weren’t needed, but the panic caused by such grandiose declarations could end up doing more harm than good (e.g., unnecessary evacuations disrupting communities or overreactions to potential environmental effects harming tourism when it’s not warranted). His detailing of what ‘conservative’ estimates regarding disasters, and how such estimates inherently harbor the biases of those making the estimates, was particularly interesting and showed why a President should demand ‘best’ estimates in lieu of ‘conservative’ ones.
- Radiation Risks: Specifically regarding the risk for disasters at nuclear power plants and subsequent radiation, Muller details how the city of Denver already has a natural dose of radiation (0.3 rem per year) and suggests using this natural dosage of radiation as a tent pole where any nuclear incident that is found to cause this much radiation or less should not be one to cause panic or action (as has happened in previous nuclear incidents where the panicked reaction came from not understanding this type of natural radiation). Again, it’s important not only for the President to understand this but also to be able to educate and lead the public on the topic.
- Climate Change: I appreciated Muller’s careful attention to climate change, stressing the idea that an individual cannot sense the temperature variations attributed to climate change on their own because of the difference between weather and climate, and how the part that actually matters is the subtle rise of global average temperatures (a basic distinction that frustratingly gets misunderstood and is often cited by those claiming climate change isn’t happening because it was particularly cold or snowy on a given day in a given location). Further, Muller’s detailing of how he was once labeled as a climate change skeptic was eye-opening, when in reality he did not find himself on one side or the other– rather he was just pushing for certain aspects of the data and science to be strengthened before any conclusions were made. The stories of this time in climate research illuminated just how committed he was to the science behind any policy, regardless of how it was labeled by the media or by his peers, and stresses how important it is that basic science take the lead and not any particular policy or conclusion that we might hope to be correct. Ultimately, Muller adds his voice to those scientists who have concluded that humans are causing catastrophic climate change and certain actions must be taken before it’s too late.
- Emissions in Developing vs. Developed Countries: In terms of political solutions for climate change, Muller highlights how global of an issue it is (the United States cutting its emissions in half won’t mean much if the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit as well) and points out how a dollar spent in China can reduce carbon dioxide emissions much more than that same dollar spent in America. As a result, Muller suggests subsidizing China’s efforts– an interesting and data-backed idea, though I would be curious to see how a President would be able to sell the public on such a strategy in today’s political environment. Further, when Muller laid out the economics of certain energy technologies and how they worked in the United States compared with a developing nation like India or China, I was surprised to learn that the cheaper cost of labor in the emerging economies actually flips the script on what solutions are viable (e.g., cheaper labor for solar panel manufacturing and installation means that solar energy can be much more competitive with natural gas in China, whereas the increased labor costs in the United States to not allow such an advantage to solar).
- Energy Conservation: Knowing just how much information Muller was trying to cram into this book without making it too dense and cumbersome, I especially appreciated the attention he gave to topics like recycled energy and conservation. In particular, Muller’s detailing how much economic sense it makes on an individual basis and on a macro-basis to grab the low hanging fruit of energy efficiency, even to the point that it makes financial sense for a power company to invest in subsidizing the public’s energy efficiency measures in order for them to get the best return on investment (ROI) for their money. The part of the story I was previously unaware of (showing my young age) was how President Carter’s attempts to promote energy conservation during the 1979 oil embargo gave most of the public a bad taste regarding energy conservation as they equated it with a decrease in comfort and quality of life. Once the oil embargo was over, Americans turned the thermostats back up almost in defiance of the false choice the government had inadvertently presented between energy conservation and comfort. Changing people’s preconceptions of energy conservation, how it can be a personal money-maker while not affecting quality of life at all, is one of the most important tasks Muller assigns to the future Presidents reading this book. He does so himself by showing how something simple (but unfortunately not flashy) like installing insulation in attics across America would have a 17.8% annual ROI, while switching light bulbs to CFLs would have a 209% ROI.
- Natural Gas: The sections on natural gas were among some of the most immediately relevant and critical of Energy for Future Presidents, notably Muller’s discussions regarding the U.S. shale gas boom, its coming supplanting of coal as the largest fuel source for the power generating sector (which hadn’t yet occurred in 2012, but has now happened), the importance of natural gas as a fuel that is 50% less emissive than coal as a middle ground, and the challenges but optimism surrounding natural gas vehicles. Regarding the environmental concerns of shale gas drilling, the sentence that stuck with me as a guiding principle was the following: “companies have a financial incentive not to spend money unless their competition also has to spend money; that means the solution to fracking pollution is regulation.”
- Extreme Weather Events from Climate Change: Going back to the journey Muller undertook with regard to climate science, one aspect he still resists is the linking of climate change to extreme weather events like hurricanes or wildfires. Muller says none of these phenomena are evidence of human-caused climate change, and linking them with climate change is only harmful to the cause because it’s too easy for skeptics to debunk these connections and undercuts the rest of the science that’s sound (caution that’s no doubt learned from the ‘Climate-gate‘ incident of scientists hiding discordant data and the 2007 IPCC report that incorrectly stated that Himalayan glaciers might melt from global warming). Muller’s position is we should simply rest on the temperature data as evidence, since those data are solid. The issue I take with this is that the effects of climate change on extreme weather events are important to know and consider when looking at the full gamut of motivations to stop climate change. While it is true that you cannot yet link specific hurricanes or other weather events to climate change, the science behind climate change driving an increase in extreme weather events has been growing in recent years. Ignoring these impacts, as Muller is doing, does a disservice to the entirety of climate science and the efforts to contain these extreme events.
- Oil Prices: Towards the end of the section on liquid oil products, Muller asks “how high can the price of oil go? In the long term, it should not be able to stay above the synfuel price of $60 per barrel…That period of limbo is where we are now and the Saudis are worried.” This was an interesting point given I was reading it six years after the book was published, and I could look at what happened to the oil prices since then. In the short-term, it does show that Muller was right to question whether oil would be able to stay above $60 per barrel, as by 2015 the prices of both West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude oil fell below $60 per barrel again. So in that respect, Muller appeared prescient. However, it’s the idea that the oil prices would just continue unhampered in that trend that I had to nitpick, as Muller didn’t include any consideration of collective action of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). OPEC largely operates as a cartel of countries who depend on the high prices of oil and attempt to control the supply of oil in order to control the prices. As Muller noted, the Saudis were worried and so they (with the rest of OPEC) took action. In November 2016, OPEC agreed on a quota of oil production among its members and a couple non-member nations, with that agreement being extended at this point to last through the end of 2018. The collective action of these oil producing nations, as well as the response of countries outside of OPEC (namely the United States), will have significant impact on the future of oil prices in the coming years and decades. Any assumptions on energy prices that don’t consider the power that OPEC yields aren’t telling the entire picture.
- Electric Vehicles: The nitpick I found with this book that was the most vexing, which Muller himself identified as the part of the book likely to ruffle the most feathers, was his outlook on electric vehicles and how important (or rather, not terribly important) reducing emissions from the transportation sector is. The point Muller kept circling back to was the assertion that U.S. automobiles have contributed about 1/40 of a degree Celsius to global warming and that in the next 50 years the United States would likely be able to keep the additional warming to another 1/40 of a degree Celsius with reasonable efficiency standards. What I found frustrating about Muller’s take on what he called the ‘fad’ of electric cars is that he seemed so dismissive of their potential impact. First, discussing the climate change impact of vehicles in the United States seems intentionally narrow, as U.S. car sales only accounted for about 19% of global car sales (the below chart shows the top eight countries in terms of percentage of vehicle fleet made up of electric vehicles). While U.S. policy regarding vehicle efficiency would only impact the cars that can and cannot be sold domestically, the advancement of electric vehicles worldwide (particularly in China, India, and Europe where the desire for long-range electric vehicles is less important to consumers than it is in America) will have an even more significant climate impact. Policies that assist companies develop the technology will help electric vehicle sales worldwide and will have much more of a climate impact than the 1/40 of a degree Celsius that Muller predicts. Further, his rundown of the costs of electric cars vs. traditional internal combustion engine vehicles seems overly pessimistic about the technology and how costs will drop as mass production increases and as battery technology exceeds its current capabilities. I agree with Muller the hybrid-electric vehicles are going to be immensely important in the nearer term, but dismissing electric cars in the long term seems overtly shortsighted.
- Content- 4/5: This book serves as a great primer on a satisfactorily wide swath of energy topics, while providing useful new insights for people who are already familiar with the basics. You will certainly come away having learned something that surprises and interests you. However, the nitpicks that I previously listed are too strong for me to assign a 5/5 for the content– but the highlights are all great enough that no less than a 4/5 felt appropriate.
- Readability- 5/5: Muller goes out of his way to explain the various topics to an audience that might not be technically literate in a way that makes reading and learning from the book a breeze. Each individual chapter and section isn’t terribly long, so not only do you feel accomplished as you make your way through, but it also serves to be a useful reference later on if you want to brush-up on any specific topic.
- Authority- 4/5: As noted earlier, one of the difficulties I had with this book is not the fault of the author at all, simply that it was published six years ago. The landscape of energy technologies and markets is rapidly evolving, so while the basics all still apply, there were issues here and there that appeared to simply be caused by it not being the most updated book. But on the technologies and the politics, Muller commands a strong authority from his background as a physics and his work in climate science.
- FINAL RATING- 4.3/5: If you’re seeking a single book to give you a broad background on energy technologies, policies, and markets to inform your reading of the headlines of the day, this book is a terrific one to pick up. As Muller advises in the book, everybody comes to the table with their own set of biases– and the only criticism I find with this book is that sometimes Muller’s own biases become apparent (though surely that’s also just me reading the book with my own biases as well!). Energy for Future Presidents can serve both as a thorough read or as a type of reference for various technologies, so for that reason it’s a worthy book to add to your personal library.
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About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.