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The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology

by Mara Prentiss

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-674-72502-7
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

A surprisingly optimistic analysis of the world’s unsustainable, wasteful energy consumption.

Solving the energy crisis through self-denial is a nonstarter, writes Prentiss (Physics/Harvard Univ.), but it may be unnecessary since “recent U.S. data suggest that increases in energy efficiency and changes in technology mean that decreases in energy use may not require sacrifices.” In fact, “some energy-saving changes have been accompanied by life-style improvements.” Per-capita energy use in the United States has held steady since 1960. The amount of energy required to create a dollar of gross domestic product has fallen steadily and is predicted to drop by another half by 2040. Further improvements are inevitable, and scientific laws do not favor the continued burning of fossil fuels. The second law of thermodynamics guarantees enormous inefficiency in any cyclic heat engine, which includes fossil fuel–burning power plants and the internal combustion engine. An automobile wastes 80-85 percent of gasoline’s energy, but electric motors can be over 99 percent efficient. In the middle chapters, Prentiss explains the design, operation and future role of power sources from water, wind, sun and other renewables. Dense with charts, graphs and equations, these chapters will be difficult going for many general readers but illuminating to those who persist. Ultimately, Prentiss states bluntly that wind power can supply 100 percent of America’s energy needs. Generating power from renewables is already practicable, but wind and sun are often absent, so storage and distribution remain the main barriers. Confident that this is temporary, Prentiss delivers a detailed, definitely not dumbed-down explanation of possible solutions, concluding, “we are on the cusp of an energy revolution, which might significantly improve the lives of almost everyone on earth if only we have the courage to seize the opportunity.”

In a genre rife with forecasts of doom and exhortations in favor of frugal living, Prentiss provides impressive evidence that things may work out just fine.