SEPTEMBER 16, 2018
ENERGY: A HUMAN History is an impressive book that covers a host of inventions and innovations as well as the careers of some of the people who shaped the ways we live. The author of 20 books, Richard Rhodes knows how to handle an enormous subject like energy and how to balance breadth and depth as he wends the way through the history of energy production and consumption in the United States and United Kingdom over the past few centuries.
Energy begins with the burgeoning population in the United Kingdom in the 1500s, the need for timber to build ships, and the time it takes to reforest. A hundred years later, the shift from wood to coal kept Londoners warm as the city’s population increased by 75 percent. This brought high cancer rates among chimney sweeps, a ubiquitous tarnish on buildings, and an increase in respiratory illnesses among city dwellers. Coal mining was dangerous, exhausting work, often done by children until laws curtailed such practices. But the biggest challenge was water, and solving the drainage problem led to a variety of experiments and inventions. This notion that demand for energy leads to innovation that leads to unsavory consequences that spur further innovation is a driving force in this book that provides momentum — dare I say energy — from page to page, beginning to end.
Rhodes explores innovation as a complex interaction of access, collaboration and correspondence, failure and success, and timing. James Watt, for instance, created a hub for innovation out of a job maintaining mathematical instruments for the university in Glasgow. He started experimenting with steam on his own, sharing ideas with collaborators. Often, in this larger history of energy, one inventor has solved one problem but not another, while another inventor has solved the other problem but not the first one, so that, by the end, the accumulation of work has addressed more problems than any one person was trying to solve. By the end of this chapter, Watt finds an ambitious partner, and the Boulton & Watt engine is used not only to drain mines but also for mills and factories. This breakthrough comes with pollution, though, a recurring topic for Rhodes.
Electricity is elucidated as an even more complex challenge than steam, taken up by Benjamin Franklin, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Humphry Davy, Hans Christian Øersted, Michael Faraday, and others whose names may sound familiar from high school history and science classes. In fact, one of the wonderful things about this book is its ability to draw from disparate areas of study. The story of alternating current electricity and Westinghouse Electric Company is one example of Rhodes’s deft intertwining of business, history, science, and engineering. These interrelationships — and the relationships of these pursuits with humanistic concerns — could be considered the main point of the book.
Some of my favorite parts of Energy are those that might seem less necessary to the book’s arc. American journalist Ida Tarbell makes appearances, offering contemporaneous commentary on such matters as environmental destruction resulting from oil wells. In fact, in the early 20th century, Tarbell wrote a series of articles that became a history of Standard Oil and paved the way for investigative journalism as we have come to know it today. She led a fascinating life and a varied career, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the dexterous Rhodes, who has written a biography of actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, tackled a biography of Tarbell as his next project.
The chapter in Energy on whale oil is especially playful; it reminds me of Herman Melville’s beautifully written everything-I-know-about-whales chapter in Moby-Dick. Rhodes’s chapter on the role of horses is also captivating. It’s difficult to imagine today the streets of New York piled inches high with horse manure, for 30 to 50 pounds of solid waste is the inevitable daily output of a working horse. Rhodes goes on to connect this waste with the larger increase in urban garbage as well as including a few words about the disease-carrying flies who bred in the manure. He does not, however, directly connect this municipal solid waste clearly to energy production, even though, in 2014, 13 percent of such garbage was burned to produce electricity and heat, according to the US Energy Information Administration. His focus on waste is mainly on air pollution, particularly as a result of coal use and, later, on waste from petroleum use, both of which deserve the rich analysis Rhodes offers and remain contentious issues under the new administration.
Rhodes gives short shrift to both wind and solar power, however. That’s to be expected. The author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb has long advocated nuclear energy based on its public health record and overall cost. He argues in Energy that accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi “need not have happened.” He also says the disposal of nuclear waste is “a political problem in the United States, but it isn’t today and has not been for many years an intractable technical problem. The notion that such waste must be successfully protected from exposure for hundreds of thousands of years is counter to how humans handle every other kind of toxic material we produce.” Three hundred pages into this history, readers can see that cleanups are necessary after each energy innovation.
The argument for nuclear energy may be Rhodes’s real main point, in the end. Because “technologies improve over time,” Rhodes trusts that “our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have better ways of dealing with our detritus than we do.” While his writing and his knowledge are compelling, not every reader will share his trust or feel comfortable pushing responsibility for toxic waste to the future, even if our parents or grandparents started cleaning up air pollution 50 years ago.
Because Rhodes rightly emphasizes that “[t]echnologies themselves need time to develop” through the spread of ideas, incremental innovations, and shifts in infrastructure, both wind and solar deserve more space in the human history of energy. Granted, in March 2017, wind and solar energy accounted for 10 percent of energy consumed in the United States. But that small percentage represents rapid expansion. Earlier this year, Fortune reported, “Solar and wind projects made up roughly 62% of new power construction in 2017.” This ascendance corresponds to fits and starts Rhodes chronicles along the previous several hundred years of energy production. When the newest US nuclear power reactor (with some parts from the 1970s) became commercially operational in 2016, it had been 20 years since the last one got up and running. The average age of the 99 nuclear reactors in the United States is 37 years old, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, the largest solar generating plant in the world was finished in Nevada in 2014, though, admittedly, it is not without problems.
Rhodes makes clear that any energy production comes with drawbacks. Both wind and solar require a lot of land and are more feasible in the Western United States than on the East Coast, for instance. His insight makes me curious about possibilities of geographically targeted energy development, akin to targeted medical treatments that take into account individual characteristics, lifestyle, and genetic markers to adapt the generally accepted course in a balance of scale for efficiency and customization for effectiveness. Rhodes’s deft accounts of political, social, economic, and geographical interplay suggest to me, if not to him, that niche energy production might be useful, even as petroleum and natural gas continue to vie for the top spot in this country. While Rhodes could not have foreseen the current administration’s plan for tariffs, the resulting stifling of solar power construction is much related to topics and concerns Rhodes raises in Energy.
The story of the past that Rhodes pieces together and recounts beautifully in Energy is important for the decisions and innovations we are making now and for the future we are creating. The history of Energy is sweeping, and the writing is marvelous. Moreover, Rhodes’s attention to factual information, his nimble analysis, his ability to draw connections, and his optimism are necessary additions to global conversations about energy production and consumption.