Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund, and Miriam Horn, journalist and staff member at EDF, have written a book about the wildcatters of the 21st century, the obsessives, diehards and visionaries who are trying to wring cheap and abundant energy out of the wind, waves, sun, and earth. Earth: The Sequel is a hopeful book. It’s also a fun book, stuffed full of a rogue’s gallery of billionaire financiers, restless entrepreneurs and endlessly tinkering engineers.
A certain amount of quirk seems to be a prerequisite to working on the cutting edge of energy technology. Whether oblivious or just uninterested in the odds, pioneers press forward in a hubristic quest to remake our carbon-soaked economy. Among others, we meet a dogsledding physicist who spends a year squatting in an abandoned miner’s claim in Alaska; a former designer of Screaming Squirrel roller coasters who applies his knowledge of linear motor technology to wave-driven turbines; and a boundlessly enthusiastic geothermal evangelist who also happens to own an ice hotel once described by Forbes Magazine as “the dumbest business idea of the year.”
But the real stars of the book are the various technologies that promise to deliver us from fossil fuel, which the authors imbue with almost as much personality as their inventors. Solar collectors perform a “Chaplinesque” pantomime in the New Mexico desert, rising every day to track the sun before slumping back to sleep at night. Mustachioed “belly dancing” algae suck the carbon dioxide straight out of coal plant flues. Well-chosen details blow life into dry technical topics. For example, to illustrate the cost advantages of solar thermal technology over solar photovoltaics, the authors explain that a $7 thermos full of hot soup holds as much energy as a $150 laptop battery.
No doubt some will criticize the book for focusing on technologies that remain unproven or controversial. Clean coal merits a whole chapter, even though many environmentalists regard it as a white elephant. The current crop of biofuels are better at generating cash for favored lobbies than reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even the most promising technologies in the book have a daunting hill to climb before they can compete with coal. Most of the companies profiled seem delicate at best — ever chasing skeptical buyers, hamstrung by infrastructural and bureaucratic roadblocks, shedding employees and swapping owners as they improvise their way to profitability.
Which is why Earth: The Sequel isn’t ultimately so much about energy technology as it is about energy policy. Running through the book like an insistent bass line is an argument for a federal cap on carbon emissions. Only when the federal government levels the playing field for clean energy by putting a price on carbon will America’s entrepreneurial talents truly be unleashed. Most of the specific technologies described in the book will fail. Some version of them will surely succeed. But first they need a chance to compete.
On a related note, this past week I had the opportunity to meet the authors. See the interview with Fred Krupp here.