If you read just one book this year, When the Trucks stop running by Alice Friedeman should be that book. This book’s primary focus is the overweening importance of transportation energy which is 95% petroleum based to the country that uses the most oil and is the most dependent upon that oil. Her first chapter is entitled “When the trucks stop running, America stops” and she lays out a scenario in a 7 day period exactly what it would be like in the US on each of those seven days if the trucks stopped. Friedeman states in exceedingly clear and graphic detail the danger of the United States’ over reliance on a finite resource, petroleum being the raison d’etre of our industrial civilization. Her conclusion is that we are at or near peak oil which is the point where 50% of the world’s oil has been extracted and where supplies have entered terminal decline. She points out correctly that it doesn’t mean we are running out of oil because the world will never run out of oil. For example in 2030 we will have as much available oil as we had in 1980 but it does mean that what oil we have left should be used in the most efficient manner possible and not wasted. We should use the time and the oil we have left to prepare for a energy constrained future when we might obtain the energy to drive our industrial civilization on other sources which of course would include renewable sources of energy. She states in exquisite detail with a well annotated source list exactly how and where we use energy and how much work is done by the end user. She states that trucks and trains and ships use the least amount of petroleum to do the most amount of work. For example she lists the amount of freight moved per ton mile and reveals some astounding facts. Take FedEx or UPS air freight. They use 600 times the energy to move a ton of freight as a ship and vastly more energy than their own trucks. Rail is 2-6 times more efficient than trucks. Helicopters use 1000 times the energy of that container ship. 66% of our transportation fuel is used by cars, light trucks and SUVs generating huge emissions and inefficiencies along 4 million miles of US roads and along the 47000 mile Interstate Highway network. She points out that even though we have been using oil in this country since 1859 and have burned though half of the world’s oil, the other half is still there to be extracted. Right? Well not exactly. It turns out that we have extracted the easy to get half, the cheap oil, and now what is left is the expensive to extract hard to get oil, the oil in deep water, the arctic, and from rock of low porosity. Many of the dominant oil exporters are politically unstable countries who cannot be relied upon. So Alice looks at alternative sources of oil energy. She examines in exquisite detail what these alternative energy sources could offer, what drawbacks exist to their adoption and whether they can be a replacement for cheap oil. She looks at various drop in fuels such as making transportation fuels from coal, from Natural gas, from biofuels as well as from unlikely sources such as algae and hydrogen fuel cells. She examines in great detail how electricity might be a source of transportation energy and whether we could switch from fossil fuels generating 75% of our electrical energy to renewable sources such as wind, solar, tides, and geothermal among others. She spends a large section of the book laying out the anatomy and physiology of the US electrical grid and what the consequences of adding wind and solar input to the grid and how the grid might be balanced with these diurnal and seasonal inputs. In order to utilize these new sources a reliable way to store the energy to balance out the peaks and valleys of electrical demand would have to be found and she explores again in great detail what that technology is and might be available in the future including pumped hydro as is used in Denmark, compressed air, utility scale batteries among other storage options. If oil declines before natural gas could the country move to natural gas as a “bridge” to the future not only generate the electricity but to move freight and to continue to provide the feedstock for plastics, petrochemicals and fertilizer production?
The strength of Friedman’s writing is her clarity, her parsimonious use of words and at times her humor and wit which shines through her arguments. I found it amazing that she could cover such a complex subject in such detail in just 131 pages. She draws most of her facts from official sources such as the IEA, EIA, and IPCC and government testimony before the House and Senate. Her detailed bibliography and annotation is stunning and she is to be commended for this magnificent work. As an amateur energy analyst I have a few criticisms of her effort. My strongest criticism is that this work is not likely to ever see the light of day and achieve the widespread dissemination it deserves. It was published as one of the many dozens of pamphlets issued by a remarkable academic publisher called The Springer Briefs in Energy started by the eminent academic Charles Hall. Her book is a paperback book of 131 pages and costs a mind boggling $54.99 from Amazon. I have yet to see a review of this book anywhere. This book should have been published by a respected environmental house such as New Society Publishers or even by some of the big US publishers like Doubleday, Scribners or Penguin. I think it would have been better to be issued as a self Published work. Unfortunately it is likely to be a gem buried forever unless someone can dig it up and give it the attention it deserves.
My other criticism is that Alice Friedeman does not explain the relation of energy to our Industrial Civilization and to the world of economics and how energy is the lodestone of societal wealth and standard of living in the world. And why cheap fossil energy isresponsible at least in part for the enormous explosion of new technology, inventions and innovations and wealth but also of pollution, global climate change and an unsustainable population explosion which has likely exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. Readers who would like to read more from this remarkable woman are urged to go to her excellent blog:energysceptic.com.