At the Freakonomics blog, James McWilliams offers a review of sorts of Robert Bryce’s new book Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. McWilliams reports that the book is “a sustained attack on our irrational infatuation with wind and solar power.” Part of Bryce’s “sustained attack” is a chapter on Denmark and wind energy, and McWilliams’s piece mostly directs itself to explaining and commenting on the Denmark chapter.
Unfortunately, McWilliams’s review only convinces me I shouldn’t rely on his opinions on energy topics.
I end up not believing the review mostly because the explanations of Denmark’s situation feel incomplete and a bit ad hoc. But rather than ask you to trust my feelings, let’s look at a point McWilliams made where fact checking is easy. Here is McWilliams:
It should be noted, in all fairness to Denmark, that its citizens have done something the U.S. seems unwilling to do: they’ve kept energy demand flat. Today, Denmark uses the same amount of per capita energy as it did in 1981. Remarkable.
Do you interpret these two sentences as McWilliams claiming that Danish consumers have kept per capita energy use level since 1981 and U.S. consumers have increased per capita energy use?
A few moments on the internet turns up data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on per capita energy use: per capita energy use was 332 million BTU in the United States in 1981, 327 million BTU in 2008, and 310 million BTU in 2009. These numbers are from the 2008 Annual Energy Review and the 2010 Annual Energy Outlook. A EIA spreadsheet from the 2006 International Energy Annual [XLS] has data on many countries, including the U.S. and Denmark, over the period 1980-2006. In general both countries have seen ups and downs in per capita energy use from 1980 to 2006, with the ups tending to reflect periods of low energy prices or stronger economic growth and the downs tending to reflect periods of higher energy prices or weaker energy growth. Unremarkable.
Since I can’t rely on McWilliams’s review, I don’t know yet whether I’m interested or not in Bryce’s book. However, Bryce’s “Five myths about green energy,” an op-ed appearing in the Washington Post just before the his book was published, seems similarly incomplete and ad hoc in its analysis. (How critical for energy policy analysis is a calculation of watts of energy output per square meter of land devoted to energy production? It strikes me as reaching for a techno-scientific sounding statistic to dress up the author’s dismissal of wind power which is itself based on other grounds.) But op-eds are brief and by nature driven to anecdote rather than careful explication of data; maybe the book has more substance.