Book Review: Energy, Convenient Solutions

I read two books on my recent trip to Europe. The first was Cracking the Carbon Code by Terry Tamminen. l reviewed that book here, and indicated that while I disagree with the notion that we will come up with a viable solution to rising carbon emissions, some of the steps that Tamminem suggested — like improving energy efficiency — are worthwhile in any case. And I felt that the book as a whole was well-written.

Energy, Convenient Solutions: How Americans Can Solve the Energy Crisis in Ten Years

I had mixed feelings about that book, and I have mixed feelings about Howard Johnson’s book Energy, Convenient Solutions: How Americans Can Solve the Energy Crisis in Ten Years. Johnson is a self-described “chemical engineering graduate of Purdue University in 1949.” On the one hand, I feel like Johnson and I are on the same page with respect to many of his ideas. I felt like he did a good job of explaining our many energy systems in detail. But I found the overall delivery pretty rough. For instance, he might spend half a paragraph explaining how butanol might work as a fuel, but then shift and go on a rant about liberal politicians. At times, a paragraph had no seeming relation to the previous paragraph, as if it was simply plucked from somewhere else in the book and randomly placed in that spot.

The book contains a large dose of conspiracy theory; many of which I have never heard before. For example, Johnson claims that the Obama administration used “virtually all of the [stimulus] money to reward party faithful”, and he goes on to claim that as part of the auto bailout the administration closed successful auto dealerships run by Republican supporters. Another incredible claim he makes is that Islamic terrorists were likely behind the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. (I am still puzzled why a book on energy had a section on an Islamic invasion of India in the year 638). Most of the time, these sorts of claims are not referenced, so one is left scratching their head over the source of these information.

At times he discusses ideas that are quite consistent with some of my own writing. He stresses the risks to society — as well as the likelihood — of much higher oil prices in the future. He notes the probability that demand will continue to grow due to the expanding economies of India and China. But the delivery of the overall message is extremely inconsistent, and at times repetitive. He must have repeated his claim that hydrogen fuel cells are a scam a dozen times. Ditto for his argument that readers should go read John Stossel if they wanted to hear the truth.

Sometimes his criticisms were correct (I agree that there is no hydrogen economy in sight) but then at times he embraced companies that even now are already out of business. So at times he failed to himself distinguish between what was overhyped and what has real potential. The appendix is full of blog postings and press clippings touting nanotechnology or lithium-ion batteries — and treating these topics on equal footing.

I was curious as to what other readers thought about the book. Joanna Schroeder, in a book review here, described the book as “unusual” and said it was “part Energy 101, part manifesto, part conspiracy theory.” I would have to agree with those comments. A book review in a Tuscon paper was somewhat more positive, calling the book “a good primer for anyone wanting to learn about energy systems, their potentials and problems.”

If I had to describe the book in one word, it would be inconsistent. One could also say that it is informative, but the inconsistent nature and delivery detract from the useful information in the book. It has the potential to be a good book, but before I recommended it to people I would have to see some pretty heavy editing of the content.

Could I have written a better book on the same theme? We shall soon see. After critiquing books like this for years — and contributing a number of chapters on energy to various books — I am now in the process of writing a book on energy for a division of one of the world’s leading publishers of books on science and technology. The schedule has me delivering the book by year-end, so maybe next year readers will have a chance to turn the tables on me by reviewing my book. My primary goal in writing the book is to present our energy situation in an objective fashion, and then cover the many options (and false solutions) for mitigating what I believe will be difficult years ahead in the same objective fashion. But the book won’t be a simple collection of dry facts. As I try to do in my blog, I want to challenge the way people think about energy, and I want to provide insights they won’t find elsewhere.