What does an energy transition look like?
Energy historians and policy analysts have struggled with this question since the 1970s. Will we know when we are in a transition away from fossil fuels?
If a transition goes on for decades, what will be the final tipping point? Will it be a catastrophic event, such as the Macondo Blowout and Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, or the Fukushima nuclear problems in Japan? Maybe per-gallon gasoline prices rising above $5? Possibly a diplomatic conflict that escalates with nations going to war?
Or might that final push will come from a book? Not just any book, mind you. It would have to be a book by a particular author – not just any writer.
Daniel Yergin, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning “The Prize” (subsequently made into a PBS documentary series), may be that writer and The Quest – his latest work which presents readers with a portrait of our energy transition – may be that book. Yergin, Chairman of Cambridge Energy Associates, appears regularly on television (CNBC) and radio (NPR) as the leading analyst of the world’s energy markets – particularly petroleum. He personifies the emergence of the energy sector as a leading engine of the world economy.
There is little that is actually ground-breaking in “The Quest”; rather, what rocks the ground under our feet is the weight of Yergin’s authority. As the highly-paid analyst for energy corporations and international leaders, Yergin consistently dampens the alarmist calls of observers who bemoan dwindling oil supplies, the human responsibility for climate change, or the importance of conservation technology. He has often been accused of being a voice of the establishment; however, his impeccable data and analysis appear beyond reproach. In “The Quest,” he places this reputation in the field of energy – like a gambler’s tall stack of chips – on transition.
At the root of our energy moment, Yergin explains, is a fundamental realization of “how important energy is to the world.” By creating a portrait of the varying factors that compose the “globalization of energy demand,” Yergin is unequivocal in his assessment of the challenges facing energy-reliant nations.
No environmentalist paean, “The Quest” intimates that this shift serves as an opportunity for investors. “If this is to be an era of energy transition,” Yergin writes, “then the $6 trillion global energy market is ‘contestable.’ That is, it is up for grabs among the incumbents – the oil, gas, and coal companies that supply the bulk of today’s energy – and the new entrants –such as wind, solar, and biofuels – that want to capture a growing share of those dollars.” Readers will picture Yergin, the insider, in a low voice, sharing with them his vision of a remarkably different energy future. It is powerful stuff.
Particularly in his specialty field of petroleum, “The Quest” creates a new energy reality by binding together events of the last few decades. Part One, which extends over 300 pages, picks up where Yergin left off in “The Prize,” which was originally published in 1991. With his thorough research and narrative flare, Yergin explores the history of the last three decades with petroleum by hopping readers around the contemporary world of oil, focusing on the Caspian Sea and Iraq while also discussing emerging consumers such as China and concepts such as “Peak Oil.” “The Prize” stands as such a seminal book that it is somehow comforting to have this petroleum narrative updated to the present.
Of course, lots of intelligent people have recently written about our energy conundrum. Yergin’s “The Quest,” though, is different due to its quality and breadth, but also because of the importance of his voice in the global discourse over energy. “The Quest,” therefore, takes on an importance as symbol that may be greater than its coverage – terrific though it is – of an array of topics dealing with the human pursuit and application of energy.
In the rest of “The Quest,” the reader is ultimately left to ponder whether or not Yergin has bitten off more than he should have: Part Two concerns energy made from nuclear, natural gas, and hydrogen; Part Three investigates climate change; Part Four brings the rebirth of alternatives right up to the present; and Part Five veers into related contemporary issues, such as biofuels and electric vehicles, rather inexplicably retracing easily available history. These additional sections complete an expansive portrait of our energy moment; however, they give “The Quest” the feel of an encyclopedia. Critics may feel that “The Quest” – coming in at more than 800 pages – is a challenge to the American people in more ways than one.
But, most importantly, “The Quest” challenges readers to react and, then, to act. One thing is certain, writes Yergin, “The world’s appetite for energy in the years ahead will grow enormously. The absolute numbers are staggering. Whatever the mix in the years ahead, energy and its challenges will be defining for our future.”
“The Quest” doesn’t offer Yergin’s prescription for our energy future. But what the book does do is to clearly and carefully outline the diverse factors we will need to consider as we move toward an energy transition. Readers of Yergin’s important book should end up better positioned to play their own role in the quest for our energy future.