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BOOK REVIEW: In praise of natural gas and coal

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2010

POWER HUNGRY: THE MYTHS OF 'GREEN' ENERGY AND THE REAL FUELS OF THE FUTURE

By Robert Bryce

Public Affairs, $27.95,

416 pages Reviewed by Martin Sieff

It was unfortunate for Robert Bryce that his outstanding book should appear right before a BP offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, spewing out oil for a month, with no end in sight. For his magnificently unfashionable, superlatively researched new book dares to fly in the face of all current conventional wisdom and cant.

It points out that there is no short-term substitute for hydrocarbon fossil fuels - except for nuclear energy - to maintain adequate quantities of cost-effective energy to sustain prosperity for 300 million Americans through the 21st century.

I have never yet found any book or author who does a more thorough, unanswerable job of demolishing universally held environmental myths than Mr. Bryce does. He does not fall back on false environmental fairy tales and fake-science wind farms, which he points out require 45 times the land mass that nuclear power plants do. Today in Texas, just 8.7 percent of all the installed wind capability can be relied upon to generate dependable energy during times of peak demand.

Mr. Bryce introduces his (presumably almost totally scientifically ignorant) readers to the crucial concepts of power density and energy density. These two factors - along with the factors of cost and scale - represent what he calls the "Four Imperatives" that inexorably decree whether any proposed energy technology is viable. These imperatives are the universal slide rule, or measuring device, that Mr. Bryce uses to assess the effectiveness and practicality of all sources of energy.

Vastly more energy is locked into so-called fossil fuels - primarily coal and oil - than can be generated by solar power, wind and renewable biomass. Hydrocarbons are dense with energy that can be liberated. All the supposedly "clean" and "green" new alternatives require enormous infrastructure investments to deliver extremely low ratios, or densities, of power and energy.

Mr. Bryce skewers many sacred cows in his unsparing analysis. President George W. Bush gets poor grades for his administration's obsession with biomass and corn ethanol. Any seventh-grade chemistry student (at least the way chemistry used to be taught competently in U.S. public schools) could have pointed out that the amount of energy waiting to be liberated in those potential fuels was minuscule and laughable, especially when set against the energy-intensive efforts that had to be made in developing them in the first place. Mr. Bryce thinks highly of hybrid cars, but he is dismissive of 100 percent electric battery-powered autos.

Mr. Bryce is scathing toward liberal icons such as former Vice President Al Gore, President Obama and Nobel physics laureate Steven Chu, the current secretary of energy. He exposes the prognostications of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as fashionable absurdities. None of these people knows anything about chemistry, and none of them, even Mr. Chu, seems to have the faintest idea about the realities of engineering.

Mr. Bryce cannot be pigeonholed easily as liberal or conservative. He is optimistic about de-carbonization processes in future energy-use trends and strongly supports the widespread use of nuclear power. His nuclear enthusiasm is the one area where I part company with him. He nowhere addresses the question of what to do when uranium - an unusually rare element in its geological distribution - runs out. Yet many serious Russian geologists think it will within 50 years or so.

Above all, Mr. Bryce points the way for the use of natural gas, a resource that recent technological breakthroughs and geological surveys have revealed to be in exceptional abundance across the United States - as are America's supplies of coal.

One regular coal mine Mr. Bryce has visited, the Cardinal Mine in western Kentucky, alone produces 75 percent as much raw energy as all the combined wind turbines and solar panels in the United States.

Mr. Obama is reputed to be an omnivorous reader of serious intellectual volumes. He should drop everything else and put Robert Bryce's invaluable book at the top of his list. So should every senator and Congress member and every self-important, scientifically illiterate pundit in America, right and left alike.

They will all learn a lot.

Martin Sieff, chief global analyst for the Globalist, is the author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East" (Regnery, 2008).

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