Published June 09. 2013 4:00AM
In recent years, the seemingly dry subjects of oil and gas drilling and renewable energy have become fodder for Hollywood movies, celebrity concerts and protests outside the White House. Many advocates suggest one side is "good" for America and the other is "bad," even if they can't agree on which energy sources are which.
But like any good movie, the reality is more complicated. If oil and natural gas are bad, does that mean powering a hospital or school with those fuels is bad, too? What about a poor family that buys cheaper fossil fuels to help put food on the table or buy a house? And if an eagle dies after being hit by a wind turbine blade, is that less of an outrage than when another one hits a high-transmission power line?
Michael Levi's "The Power Surge" is a welcome relief to melodramatic debates over energy. With a calm voice and an eye for detail, Levi makes the case for a more realistic scenario: renewable energy and fossil fuels are set to share the stage for decades to come.
Levi sets the stage by noting that the assumptions many experts made about energy just a few years ago were wrong. The U.S. isn't running out of oil and natural gas, it's producing more and even headed toward exporting some of the bounty. But at the same time, renewables such as wind and solar are growing rapidly, too, since mass production and demand have significantly lowered costs.
Levi notes that such massive shifts have "far-reaching consequences for the U.S. economy, the environment, and America's role in the world."
But he is quick to add that both sides tend to exaggerate the benefits from their fuel of choice, be it shale oil or solar. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has led to a huge boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production, providing jobs, royalties for property owners and lower energy costs for industry and the general public. Yet compared with the whole economy, the boom is a drop in the bucket, and the bounty won't make the Middle East or Russia irrelevant, it will just provide some political and economic buffers. Levi also notes that people have legitimate environmental concerns about the process.
And though solar and wind power have made enormous gains, they still provide just a few percent of total energy in the U.S. Getting to the point where those renewables replace 30, 40 or 50 percent of fossil fuels will take decades, Levi notes, unless there is some enormous technical breakthrough.
Levi touches on many ways the energy boom may impact other issues, including climate change, foreign policy and even the dynamics within small communities. This occasionally simplifies some topics so much that it might have been better to leave them out, such as the question of whether the U.S. and China will ever engage in a major war. That's a subject for several books, not just a few pages.
But on most topics there is a wealth of detail and insights, delivered in a clear prose that makes reading about wonky topics such as gigawatts bearable. And ultimately, Levi has an important message: For Americans to reap the full benefits from the energy boom and avoid potential harm to the economy, public health and the environment, policymakers will need to make balanced, rational choices and avoid the temptation to believe that there are simple answers to fueling the world's enormous appetite for energy.