A book by Russell Gold on the US wind industry, and a bumper crop of other energy books.
Happily, for my annual book review, a number of energy books have come across my radar in the past couple of months. Unhappily, I’ve been distracted by the fire-related power outages and a new administrative position, so I haven’t made as much progress reading them as I would have liked – only the first book below. I’m hoping some of you will share views in the comments.
- Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy, by Russell Gold. I found the last two-thirds of this book riveting. Russell Gold, a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of The Boom about fracking, traces the career of Michael Skelly, who seems equal parts passionate wind energy supporter and ambitious business person.
Skelly spent 9 years at Zilkha Renewables. The company was eventually bought by Goldman Sachs, who renamed it Horizon Wind Energy. Skelly left Horizon to run for Congress as a Democrat in a deeply red Houston district. The last 150 pages of the book describe his almost ten-year quest to launch a merchant transmission company to carry wind energy to load centers.
Gold is a masterful storyteller. He draws out the suspense about whether the transmission company will succeed or Skelly will win his bid for Congress. I was also interested to learn about the evolution of Zilkha Renewables, which I didn’t really know, into Horizon, which I definitely knew.
The book has lots of interesting tidbits, like the description of a meeting between Zilkha Renewables and executives from the utility American Electric Power, to whom Zilkha was trying to sell power from an Oklahoma wind farm. One of the Zilkha founders decided to join the meeting in his hot pink, spandex bike shorts and argued passionately for the benefits of renewables. This seems to have convinced the AEP executives, who arrived in suits on a corporate jet, that they were dealing with someone with deep pockets and a firm commitment to his cause. The negotiations had been dragging on – a theme in the book is definitely that utilities can avoid doing things they don’t want to by delaying – but soon picked up steam.
The story of Skelly’s merchant transmission company, Clean Line, is a fascinating example of the political forces that shape energy policy in the United States, from local to state to Federal. The company runs into strong local opposition trying to site a 750-mile merchant transmission line through Arkansas. It leans on the Federal Government for support, which is eventually successful during the Obama Administration, but hits a brick wall after Trump is elected. Senator Lamar Alexander is also a consistent opponent of Clean Line as he seems to carry a personal grudge against wind energy. Alexander regularly rails against “expensive” wind power and fails to update as prices come down.
Californians might be interested in the part that Bill Johnson, current CEO of bankrupt PG&E, plays in the book. Clean Line is trying to build a DC transmission line to carry wind power from Western Oklahoma to Tennessee, where it wants to sell the wind to Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Johnson, then the head of TVA, comes across as a bit shifty – he strings Skelly along but eventually doesn’t even present a proposal for very cheap wind power to the TVA board. I suppose the positive way to spin Johnson’s skills is that he understands politics.
In the end, Clean Line suffers too many cases of what the late, former CEO of Duke Energy, Jim Rogers, once described to me as “stroke-of-the-pen risk” and (spoiler alert) folds, selling some of its assets to NextEra Energy.
The first third of the book was a bit of a slog for me. I’ve read more than enough descriptions of the early history of the electricity industry in the US, and Skelly’s early life (e.g., building a tram in Costa Rica) was a bit tangential to the energy issues I find interesting. But, especially if you know something about the electricity industry, you could easily start the book around page 100 of the hardcover and not miss much.
I found myself comparing Superpower to Greg Nemet’s book, How Solar Energy Became Cheap, about the recent evolution of the solar PV industry, which I reviewed here, because they both address recent rapid declines in the cost of renewables. The price per kWh of wind electricity has fallen by nearly a factor of five in the last ten years – not as precipitous as solar price drops, but still impressive. Superpower is less systematic – Nemet’s is more academic and full of data. But, Gold’s book is more accessible. For example, I enjoyed his description of electricity turbines as big tea kettles. It’s also got way better stories.
Here are some 2019 books that I haven’t yet had a chance to read:
- Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, by Rachel Maddow. I’ve read a couple excerpts and Maddow’s voice comes through. My uninformed guess is that the book will be similar to her MSNBC news show – careful, in-depth research, but perhaps a tad too quick to see a conspiracy. The New York Times reviewed the book very favorably, noting, though, that it’s, “not as radical in its conclusions as readers might have anticipated.” As far as I can tell, the Wall Street Journal hasn’t reviewed it yet.
- Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham. A graduate student in our Agriculture and Resource Economics Department, Hal Gordon, recommended this book very highly to me. The New York Times loved it and recently included it in their top-10 books of the year, but the Wall Street Journal was a bit more mixed.
Speaking of Chernobyl, my son and my husband loved the HBO miniseries that came out this spring, and so, it seems, did the Rotten Tomatoes reviewers. My husband says, “It’s very well acted. It does a great job of capturing the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. For example, I enjoyed the poetic shots of massive Stalinist apartment blocks and public buildings. In this respect, it reminds me of Deutschland 83, another show that Max and I really enjoyed.”
- Edison, by Edmund Morris. I reviewed a biography of Tesla last year, so for balance, I should probably dig into this one, but I’m not sure I have it in me to read almost 800 pages. The New York Times review provides a nice summary of the book, noting, though, that “Morris leans heavily toward the “more is better” school of biography. Loath to ignore the fruits of his archival sleuthing, he throws almost everything into the mix, leaving it to the reader to assume the author’s role of separating the important from the tangential.”
- Coal, by Mark Thurber. Thurber sent a copy to me earlier this year. It’s a great topic and the advance comments suggest it’s well-written.
- Paying for Pollution: Why a Carbon Tax is Good for America, by Gib Metcalf. Metcalf is a former co-author and eminently sensible, so I hope this book, and particularly the ideas it puts forth, take hold.
So, it’s been a banner year for energy books. Especially if you’ve read 2-6 above, please share your reactions in the comments. And, hopefully, the rest of us will have time over the coming holidays to dig into them!
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Suggested citation: Wolfram, Catherine. “2019 Energy Books: A Superpower-ed Selection” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, November 25, 2019, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2019/11/25/2019-energy-books-a-superpower-ed-selection/
Catherine Wolfram is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.
Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.
She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.