The Renaissance of Renewable Energy

By Andrea Pagnoni and Stephen Roche, Cambridge, New York, 2015. 294 pp. $30. ISBN 978-1-107-69836-9

I was intrigued by the title of this book because of all I had been reading about positive developments in the extraction of energy for humans from the Sun and wind; I was hoping to see these developments put into a systematized perspective. My appetite was further whetted by these opening words from the authors: “Whether one views climate change, population growth or resource depletion as the greatest threat to human survival, the basic problem is the same: there are limits to what our planet can provide or absorb. The renaissance of renewables is inevitable because sooner or later the oil, gas and coal will run out.” (p. 1)

What I got instead was a general book about energy, with the first chapter describing how the energy concept was first formulated in terms of work as the product of force and distance and tracing the role of energy in history through the twentieth century. This was followed by chapters on forms and sources of energy, relative amounts of energy “used” for different purposes, the politics and economics of energy, and the environmental costs of “using” it. In the middle of these the longest chapter of the book describes all the specific sources of energy, including all the renewables. This chapter left me with the feeling that there’s lots of energy out there, but it’s not sufficiently concentrated to be accessed efficiently.

This characterizes renewable energy, the ostensible topic of this book, and the penultimate chapter leads to the same place. Echoing the enticing quotation from the first page of the book, it observes that twentieth century improvements in the quality of human life have come at the expense of Earth’s ecosystems, but this cannot continue indefinitely. This sets us up for finding sustainable ways to enhance our quality of life in the final chapter, which asserts that extricating ourselves form carbon-based energy and developing sustainable societies requires “the audacity explore the outer reaches of the possible rather than the near shores of the probable.” (p. 242)

The authors do this in the context of a plan by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi whereby 0.59% of Earth’s land surface provides the world’s energy, with 51% coming from wind, 40% from solar, and 9% from tidal, geothermal (baseload) and hydro (peak load). Along with the transition to renewables is a requirement for greater efficiencies. For vehicular transportation, this means changing from the internal combustion engine to the electric motor, and the environmental consequences will depend on the energy source of the electricity. The only combustible fuel for transportation (presumably in the air) would be hydrogen. All new energy would be from renewable sources by 2030 and all energy would be from renewable sources by 2050. Thus in this book “the renaissance of renewable energy” is yet to come, although the authors note that the International Energy Agency revised its projected percentage of total energy from renewables in 2030 up from 14% to 25%.

I will close this review with two side comments, one negative and one positive. I would point out that neither of the authors has a background in physics (Pagnoni is an ecologist/environmentalist and Roche an editor/translator), and their book is punctuated with errors related to physics. Astute physicists will recognize these, but I am concerned that lay readers (who would seem to constitute the bulk of this book’s audience) would not. The most serious errors are characterizing energy by “force, work, and power” (p. 6), understating the intensity of solar radiation by a factor of 100 (p. 11), stating that uranium “sheds neutrons” because it “has so many protons” (p. 36), implying that energy is stored in chemical bonds (p. 70), connecting photovoltaic panels with the same voltage in series (they should be in parallel!) (p. 113), and stating that the Energy Return On Investment of fossil fuels will increase as their supplies dwindle (p. 248). On the positive side, I would also point out that the authors have been very generous in providing photographs, graphs, and tables to supplement their text in making their points.

John L. Roeder
The Calhoun School, New York, NY

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.