May 28, 2012

"Power Plays" Book Review

Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil by Robert Rapier (Paperback - March 28, 2012)

Robert Rapier's "Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil" is an important book to read for anyone who wants to engage in informed discussions on renewable energy and, more specifically, fuel alternatives to oil. It is an easy read, albeit focused on the facts without much embellishment.

The book provides an overview of the current energy paradigm and the salient factors for scientifically comparing various energy options. It doesn't trace the chronological history of oil the way Yergins' "The Prize" does but it gives a sober SWOT (strengths weaknesses opportunities threats) view of energy alternatives. The author uses this background to help explain his interpretation of energy policies that would enhance energy security.

Robert is best at explaining concepts that receive short shrift from journalists in the media. His explanation of "energy return on energy invested" (EROEI), for instance, helps clarify what it is and why it is important.

He is one of my most reliable touchstones for determining what technologies are likely to provide sustainable alternatives to oil. There are many reasons for this. The first postings I read from his R-squared blogs (about six years ago) was a debate with Vinod Khosla challenging the state of the art of conversion technologies for producing cellulosic ethanol. Like many biofuels supporters I didn't want to read that they might not be ready for prime time. Robert was certainly right to suspect Khosla of overhype about the Range Fuels project. Regrettably, it didn't survive commissioning after hundreds of millions of dollars in private and public investment.

While I have been reluctant to cede Robert's point of view on occasions, I have to admit that he has the credentials to challenge some base assumptions about the sustainability and the energy efficiency of many biofuels projects. He is one of the most respected writers on The Oil Drum community blog and Consumer Energy Report. His bio reports "he has 20 years of international engineering experience in the chemicals, oil and gas, and renewable energy industries, and holds several patents related to his work. He has worked in the areas of oil refining, natural gas production, synthetic fuels, ethanol production, butanol production, and various biomass to energy projects." He has a MS in Chemical Engineering and was a Process Engineering Team Leader for ConocoPhillips in Aberdeen, Scotland for six years.

He is occasionally accused of being stubborn and "brusque" but in the midst of overt hype about alternative fuel technologies, it is worthwhile submitting technologies to a skeptical eye - particularly if you are an investor. One of his favorite topics of discussion is promoting "due diligence" to reduce the risk of investment. It merits a full chapter in the current book and a summary list of ten indicators which should be on every analyst's "must consider" list.

His chapter on U.S. Energy Politics gives an interpretation of each of the last eight administrations' (starting with Nixon) declarations for energy independence. It is a subject about which much is promised but not much is achieved. The time is now and I hope this book get broad circulation among policymakers who might otherwise hew to the party line.

I think this book provides much needed information for planning ahead to meet an unpredictable energy future. As Robert affirms at the end, we must not take the availability of our energy resources or our energy future for granted. The longer range we plan now the better able we will be to meet the challenges ahead.

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