Cheap Power = Prosperity

Energy is the pillar upon which economic growth is built. “The difference between the developed world and everybody else,” says author Robert Bryce, “is [affordable] electricity.” But simple math and basic physics show that chasing energy sources with low power densities will not get us to where we need to be.

July 8 2014 by JP Donlon


Climate change, pollution, famine, war, water shortages, terrorism; it’s enough to give one “collapse anxiety,” but is it accurate? Not according to Robert Bryce, an energy writer-researcher who has been covering business since 1989. His books, “Power Hungry,” and the recently published “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper,” are exhaustively researched handbooks on how technologies, particularly in energy, are making our lives better—and greener.

In April 2010, he joined the Manhattan Institute as a senior fellow in the think tank’s Center for Energy Policy and the Environment. That we are doomed to scarcity and shortage, says Bryce, is the view advanced by neo-Malthusians and the “de-growth” movement, whose prescriptions by now are familiar: Nuclear energy is bad. Genetically modified food is bad. Coal isn’t just bad; it’s evil. Oil is bad. Natural gas, once thought to be OK, is now bad because the process used to obtain it—hydraulic fracturing—is bad. These all must be replaced by Earth-friendly sources like renewables.

“Neo-Malthusians have overlooked a critical factor that has improved conditions for mankind for centuries: Innovation.”

Catastrophists claim that we are running out of essential commodities. We will surely pay for our sins against Earth. Rubbish, asserts Bryce. The neo-Malthusians have overlooked a critical factor that has improved conditions for mankind for centuries: Innovation. We are continually making things “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper”—hence the title of his new book. The ability to innovate not only makes us richer, it allows us to do more with less. Nor, says Bryce, is it dependent on ideology.

“It might even survive Republicans and Democrats,” he quips. Business leaders and investors, he argues, must keep this in mind and not be dissuaded or discouraged by the incessant drumbeat of doom. He unabashedly celebrates business and the entrepreneur, because they are driving the trend toward smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper. He quotes the 2013 book “Conscious Capitalism,” written by his friend and fellow Austin resident, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

“Two hundred years ago, 85 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (defined as less than $1 a day); that number is now only 16 percent.” Other examples of innovative technologies that allowed us to do more with less include:

  • Over four decades, Americans have tripled the number of miles flown; yet domestic oil consumption increased just 30 percent.
  • In 1970, it took 4,842 BTUs to move a single passenger one mile in a car. By 2008, that figure had declined to 3,501 BTUs, a reduction of about 28 percent.
  • In 1990, sulfur dioxide emissions were 23 million tons. In 2005, they were just 14.7 million tons, according to the EPA.
  • Between 1978 and 2013, Intel increased the computing power density of its best chips 78,000-fold, while shrinking its circuits more than 130-fold.

Like them or not, argues Bryce, hydrocarbons and nuclear materials are denser sources than renewables. They allow us to produce large amounts of energy from relatively small pieces of land. If you want to replace U.S. coal-fired capacity with, say, wind, then find a land area the size of Italy—or the combined area of Kansas, Missouri and Iowa. Keep in mind that the U.S. already has more wind capacity, about 60,000 megawatts in 2012, than any other country.