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Good energy books for 2015

Catherine Wolfram, faculty co-director, Energy Institute at Haas | November 30, 2015

Soon, many of you will be asked what you might want as a Hanukah or Christmas gift. Or, maybe you’ve already been asked by a Cyber-Monday-ing relative. Others may soon be on planes to or from Paris. So, what better time to evaluate this year’s crop of energy reads?

Last year, I asked for suggestions for good energy-themed books, and many of you posted comments with terrific recommendations. This year, I have a couple new candidates – not all published in 2015, some just new to the list. As always, I’m definitely curious to hear suggestions.

book cover

  1. Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do So Again, by Tom Jackson

I am fascinated by the “cold chain”, a term I learned reading this amazing New York Times magazine story, titled, “What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do with Global Warming?” The two-word answer is: “They’re frozen.” The author claims that 15% of world electricity consumption is for cooling, which starts to make sense when you think that a frozen dumpling was manufactured in a chilled factory, stored in a chilled warehouse, delivered in a chilled vehicle, and stored in a freezer at the store before it gets to your house to be stored in your freezer. And, most chemical refrigerants are potent greenhouse gasses. (I don’t know if the 15% number includes space air conditioning, the topic of recent work by Lucas and co-authors.)

I have written several papers on the rising energy consumption of the middle class in the developing world (here, here and here), together with co-authors. We focused on refrigerators, partly for data reasons – a refrigerator is pretty much the same appliance around the world, whereas things like water heaters can be anything from a large electric appliance to a sun-warmed tank. Also, refrigerators account for a significant share of residential electricity consumption in many countries – we calculated 50% in China.

So, I was excited to read two favorable reviews of Chilled in the Wall Street Journal and Guardian. I subsequently saw a less favorable review in the New York Times, and, unfortunately, my assessment matches the New York Times’. The style is too breezy for my taste. The author uses phrases like, “when chymists were chymists, not chemists” and describes a scientist who was sent to the guillotines as, “a headstrong—and soon to be headless — scientific aristocrat.” The book also seemed disorganized to me — the author starts themes and subplots and then drops them.

Most damning, the book makes only a couple passing references to the energy consumption of refrigeration. He does have a chapter on the cold chain, but it’s focused on the inventions that made it work and the Australian’s and Argentine’s delight at being able to export their meat. Given the subtitle, I thought the second part might refer to the energy consumption and consequent global warming when instead it’s about cryogenics and how to cool space stations.

So, I’m left in need of a good book on the cold chain. Any ideas? The author of the NYT Magazine story was listed as “working on a book about refrigeration,” but it doesn’t appear to be out yet, and her Twitter handle doesn’t say anything about a forthcoming book. I would love to read that book when it gets written.

  1. How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individual’s Guide to Tackling Climate Change, by Chris Goodall

book coverThis is not the kind of book that would ordinarily entice me. In general, I am averse to the idea of individuals tackling climate change. At best, I think it’s ineffectual, as even if a couple hundred thousand Brits and Americans read this book and drastically change their lives, China could wipe out any carbon savings they achieve in the matter of weeks. At worst, it detracts from the real fight, and makes the couple hundred thousand people, who may be important decision-makers and are at least voters, feel like they’ve checked the climate change box and don’t, for example, need to vote for politicians who support climate policy.

The book was mentioned in a recent take down of recycling programs in the New York Times (yes, this is a main source of information in my family), so my husband bought it. It’s a real how-to book that discusses the climate implications of the food you eat, appliances you buy, car you drive, etc. He found it packed with interesting facts and perspectives. For example, it reinforced to him just how GHG-intensive air travel is. Based on my husband’s recommendation, I also bought it. Warning for fellow non-Kindle users, though: the hard-cover book that I ordered almost two months ago has yet to show up.

Amazon also tells me that Goodall’s book is similar to Sustainable Energy – without the Hot Air, which Professor Richard Green recommended in the comments last year.

book cover

  1. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World, by William Nordhaus

This is a wonderful book. Nordhaus is an economist, but he covers the science, economics and politics of climate change. The writing is extremely clear and engaging, and I think he gives a balanced treatment to controversial topics. I have already recommended the book to colleagues for use in classes, but that shouldn’t dissuade casual readers. I have considered buying it for my dad – a representative informed, non-expert – for Christmas in previous years, but he already has a stack of books in his queue on topics in his area of interest (e.g., history), and he’s already beamed at enough hand-made-toothpick-holder-type gifts from me.

  1. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance

book coverBoth my husband and my 15-year-old son highly recommend this book, though my husband warns that it’s on the hagiography end of the biography spectrum, and the reviewer at the New York Times seems to agree. As an energy person, my husband thought it provided an interesting perspective on how a visionary is trying to transform transportation through electrification, including Tesla and the proposed “Hyperloop” in California. (In case the idea of the Hyperloop hasn’t reached you, it’s Elon Musk’s proposed alternative to the controversial high-speed rail that is supposed to carry Californians between the Bay Area and Los Angeles.)

If you read the book and like it, you might share my husband and son’s tastes. They are currently obsessed with the Amazon show, The Man in the High Castle, a dystopian version of early 1960’s America where the Japanese control the West and Nazi’s control the East. It’s a little dark and violent for my tastes.

That’s all I have for this year, but very curious to hear any other recommendations. Also, one of the commenters last year asked for suggestions on energy-themed movies, so feel free to add those. (The Man in the High Castle doesn’t count as energy-themed.)

Happy December to all!

Cross-posted from the blog of the Energy Institute at Haas (tag line: Research that Informs Business and Social Policy).

Comment to “Good energy books for 2015

  1. Didn’t know that there was a book about Elon Musk, this i have to read, i was lost into so many movies about him. How can a man risk everything and manage to build such great things in 1 life is amazing.

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