A fictional book about a US-wide power outage and books about local and global politics.
2020 has been a year like no other, even in the domain of energy books. Other than the first two below, it was a dry year for energy-themed books until the fall. Since then, there’s been a bit of a cloudburst.
- Total Power, by Kyle Mills. I usually stick to non-fiction in this review, but my husband saw this in a bookstore and I decided to give it a try. It’s fully in the spirit of 2020 since reality has overlapped with fiction in so many ways this year.
The book’s hero is a CIA agent, Mitch Rapp, the subject of a multi-part series. Think of a Jack Ryan or Peter Quinn from Homeland character. The villain is an evil consultant hired by the Department of Energy to assess the possibility of a massive nationwide electricity outage. The consultant decides to implement the scenarios he has been trying to warn everyone about, partly in frustration with ineffectual government bureaucrats and bombastic legislators but mainly because he’s a really bad guy.
You might want to take my recommendation with a grain of salt because I don’t usually read this genre, but I got sucked in. It’s definitely a page-turner, kind of like reading a script for a season of Homeland or Fauda. While it’s not great literature, the writing was decent.
More to the point for this blog, the energy details were pretty realistic. There’s a reference to the real-life Metcalf substation attack, when someone attacked a major PG&E substation that brings power to Silicon Valley by shooting at transformers to drain them of protective oils. The evil consultant sets off the nationwide outage by infecting a number of utility and system operator computer systems with malware that sends them fake information and simultaneously dispatching ISIS accomplices to take down a couple of strategically chosen substations. The outage cascades as toppling equipment sparks wildfires, which lead to more damage. I’ll be curious to get some more expert engineers to comment, but these seemed like actions that could be pretty disruptive to the grid. And, the fact that Texas has its own grid is part of the plot.
Life in the midst of the outage sounds horrible – no running water, supply chains for food are disrupted, no communications, and its forecast to last for at least six months. By the tenth day, there are marauding gangs killing people in search of provisions.
It’s not important to the plot, but I would also like this crowd to fact check one detail – the natural gas system still works during the outage. Does that seem right?
Maybe it’s my 2020 mentality, but the book left me with the nagging thought that something like this could happen. I would bet, for example, that 2 years ago, a book about a global pandemic would have sounded implausible.
- Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States, by Leah Stokes. According to the “policy feedback” concept, once a policy is implemented, it gathers steam and is hard to derail. To use one of Stokes’ non-energy examples, because Obamacare provided coverage to enough people who were previously uninsured, it created a set of passionate defenders who now work hard to block its repeal. Stokes sets out to explain why this kind of positive feedback loop hasn’t (always) worked for state-level clean energy policies. She focuses on the role of interest groups – from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to environmental groups – and tells detailed stories about the recent history of clean energy policy in several states.
I liked this book a lot. It’s a bit wonky – it’s got figures, copious endnotes and citations galore. But, I was interested in the intellectual debates in political science. For example, she describes empirical work that finds little correlation between lobbying expenditures and policy changes, but argues that interest groups hide their expenditures in numerous ways, making it very hard to actually measure them in empirical work. Plus, Stokes writes very well and she highlights some provocative, unsettling anecdotes. For example, she describes how ALEC provides model legislation to help derail clean energy policies, and often targets junior legislators who haven’t yet developed their own agendas to introduce their bills. And she describes how interest groups start “astroturf” campaigns – like the Ohioans for Sustainable Jobs, who opposed a state clean energy standard – to convince policy makers that the public is more opposed to clean energy than it actually is.
I don’t agree with one of her premises: she laments that Republicans should support clean energy policies in principle because they will create jobs, a concept that Severin and others have tried to debunk in this blog. But, this is a minor point. Overall, she’s digging into an important underbelly of our current democratic system in a particularly relevant domain for energy policies – the states.
- The New Map: Energy Climate and the Clash of Nations, by Daniel Yergin. If Stokes takes the hyper-local perspective, Yergin zooms out to the geopolitics of energy. His overarching theme is recent changes in the in the control of fossil fuel supply in the US (due to fracking), Russia (due to the breakup of the Soviet Union), China (due to its rising economic and political clout, exemplified by its attempts to dominate the South China Sea, through which over half of the world’s oil tanker shipments pass) and the Middle East (due to the rise of ISIS).
I just got this book recently, and I’ve skipped around a bit, so take this as provisional, but I recommend it. Yergin is certainly a wonderful storyteller and writer. He has a reporter’s ability to find the interesting anecdote and an opinion writer’s ability to extrapolate to meta trends. My two nit-picky complaints are that the coronavirus mentions seem a bit pasted in and I found the 4 pages on the energy transition in developing countries superficial.
Severin, who has been reading the book for longer than me says, “Like his previous two books on oil, this one has a lot of useful historical and institutional detail. It is not exactly a page turner, but I found the geopolitical discussions of Russia and China particularly helpful in understanding the world today.” The New York Times reviewer was a bit less favorable than either of us.
Here is a list of books I came across recently but haven’t read. Please share your thoughts in the comments if you’ve already read them or if you have other suggestions:
- Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, by Michael Shellenberger. (This has been out for longer, but I decided it wasn’t primarily an energy book.)
- Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics, by Matto Mildenberger.
- The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, by Mark Arax. (Also an environmental book, but my husband liked it a lot.)
- Future of Coal in India: Smooth Transition or Bumpy Road Ahead? by Puneet Kamboj, Rahul Tongia and Anurag Sehgal.
- Making Climate Policy Work, by Danny Cullenward and David Victor.
- Switching Gears: The Petroleum-Powered Electric Car, by Dan Eberhart.
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Suggested citation: Wolfram, Catherine. “2020 Energy Books: Apocalyptic and Political” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, November 23, 2020, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2020/11/23/2020-energy-books-apocalyptic-and-political/
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.