“Electricity has become a human right.” – Robert Bryce
In chapter 16 of his seminal book, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, Austin-based futurist Robert Bryce speaks of “the Terawatt Challenge” – a term coined by the late Nobel laureate Richard Smalley.
Smalley posited that if we can provide sufficient electricity to all the peoples of the world, we can eliminate the massive problems of food security, water quality, poverty, and a clean environment. And Bryce solemnly points out that as a world, we are far from that goal.
But we can get there.
Bryce, whose first book, Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2002, traces the history of harnessed electricity from Benjamin Franklin through Tesla, Edison, and Westinghouse – and the much less well known but equally important Frank Julian Sprague, who developed electric elevator motors (enabling skyscrapers) and the nation’s first electric rail system.
He next illustrates how Franklin Roosevelt brought affordable electricity to rural America and oversaw construction of massive dams that provided cheap electricity from Tennessee to Nevada to Washington State. It was FDR, Bryce notes, who in 1932 proclaimed that, “Electricity is no longer a luxury; it is a definite necessity.”
Bryce then hits us with the uses the stark fact is that roughly 3.3 billion people (45 percent of humanity) live in places where annual per capita electricity consumption is less than 1,000 kilowatt-hours per year (kWh/yr)– about what his home refrigerator uses. These are the Unplugged.
“Low-Watt” countries comprise another 2.7 billion (37 percent) people, while only 19 percent live in “High-Watt” countries (over 4,000 kWh/yr) – the threshold deemed by Dr. Alan Pasternak as the key dividing line below which countries cannot improve their Human Development Index.
A major barrier, therefore, to electricity sufficiency for the Unplugged – and even the Low-Watt – nations is the lack of societal integrity, capital investment, and affordable fuel. Yet, to ensure that all of humanity can reach its full potential (including liberating women from drudgery and freeing them to develop their innate skills and talents) requires that the human right to electricity is universally available.
That is the goal – but how do we get there?
An essential component of societal integrity is that governments enforce the rule of law. The freest and wealthiest countries are those where factions share political and economic power, whereas in the poorest countries the elites organize society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people. Capital – and fuel – are much easier to obtain in a free society.
But there can be complications. Bryce notes that, at least since the Korean conflict, the U.S. military strategy has begun with sustained attacks on the enemy country’s electricity infrastructure. The idea was to lower public morale by removing the comforts brought by electricity, but nowhere has this policy been effective. Burning down a village to save it never really connects with those whose villages are being burned.
To illustrate the magnitude of the gap between Unplugged and High-Watt nations, Bryce chronicles the meteoric rise of the Giant Five – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft – all of whom consume more electricity than many entire countries. Financial services, from Visa to bitcoin, have giant electricity appetites, as does the marijuana industry.
These businesses all know, from experience, the cost that electricity blackouts impose on them – and their customers. Both weather and sabotage threaten the integrity of the electric grid, but the greater threat is the folly of those who believe that wind and solar alone can provide sufficient electric energy for a high-tech society, let alone the world’s billions.
Bryce chronicles how four factors – cost, storage, scale, and land use — prevent renewables from taking over our energy and power systems. Electricity prices are soaring in countries like Germany, which panicked after Fukushima and began shuttering its nuclear power plants. A third of German businesses, Bryce notes, see high electricity costs as threats to their viability.
Rising electricity costs following enactment of Ontario’s Green Energy Act led to political defeat for the Liberal Party and the rescission of 758 renewable energy contracts. Even in California, civil rights leaders have filed a lawsuit, now working its way through the legal system, claiming that the state’s climate policies discriminate against minority and low-income consumers.
Bryce’s reporting suggests that the elitists who are pushing renewable energy – like despots in broken (Low-Watt or Unplugged) countries – ignore the poor and middle class and treat rural areas as if they were uninhabited or just irrelevant as they pursue unattainable goals that heavily burden taxpayers while threatening electricity reliability.
To meet California’s 80 percent renewable mandate, for example, will require massive increases in costly electric storage because of seasonal variation in wind and solar electricity generation. Green energy growth today cannot even keep up with the increase in global electricity demand, let alone replace all conventional power. But the final nail in the renewables coffin is land use.
Bryce cites multiple studies showing that an all-wind grid would mean turbine farms would cover a tenth of the nation’s total land. Rural counties, frustrated by the indifference of urban elites to the real-world impacts on human health and wildlife, are fighting wind farms with renewed vengeance. Giant solar arrays also present, as one reporter called it, “a choice between a vanishing ecosystem and a push toward cleaner energy.”
Despite opposition by environmentalists, developing nations are rapidly turning to nuclear as a fuel for the future. But, Bryce notes, it takes a New Deal like national commitment to provide both the political stability and financial backing to construct and operate large nuclear power plants economically. High-Watt countries have imposed exorbitant permitting and regulatory costs which, together with antinuclear zeal, limit their prospects for nuclear energy.
Natural gas, which thanks to fracking has become abundant and cheap, must, Bryce asserts, be a major part of the world’s electricity generation future. Yet governments in High-Watt countries are already banning fracking, blocking new pipelines, and even demanding that citizens mothball their gas-burning appliances.
Despite all of the attacks on affordable, reliable fuels, Bryce is optimistic about the world’s ability and willingness to meet the Terawatt Challenge and provide electricity to a hungry world without wrecking the biosphere. Consider that in little over a century, a fifth of the world has gone from no electricity to High-Watt usage and another three-eighths is somewhat electrified.
The humanist response to the Terawatt Challenge, Bryce asserts, is to empower the billions who are living in the dark to come into the bright light of modernity and progress. This will require societal integrity, massive infusions of capital, and the right choices of fuels. Bryce admits that electrifying the world will take time.
But it can – and must — be done.