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Some Suggested Books

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Most of my reading about energy comes from articles and text books, but here are a few books on energy that folks may find helpful. Below is a longer list of other, nonfiction books that I’ve enjoyed, or at least found informative.

the questThe Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin

This is not a humble title, and this is not a humble book. Yergin spends roughly 800 pages providing an insightful encyclopedia to the whole of the energy world, including its history, different resources, the industry, and renewable technologies. From incredible research to entertaining anecdotes, this is a must-read for anyone involved with energy today.

Read the rest of my brief review here.

Read more at the Christian Science Monitor.





Fueling Our Future: An Introduction to Sustainable Energy, by Robert Evans Fueling Our Future

This book was given to me by the author, Robert Evans, while he was teaching at UBC and I was a student there, working on agriculture and renewable energy, specifically Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. Evans delivers a concise assessment of local and global concerns with energy supply and demand, followed by a catalog of existing and emerging energy technologies. In our busy lives, this is a welcome book in its insight as well as its brevity.

Read more at Cambridge University Press.




Food Energy SocietyFood, Energy, and Society, by David Pimentel

Pimentel has continued to update this book with subsequent editions since its initial publication. He is known to be decidedly against biofuels production from food crops, and since that was my stance when I first began investigating biofuels technology, this book was a natural fit for me. Since then I have softened my anti-ethanol stance, but Pimentel’s work remains well researched and highly informative, if not always objective.

Read a review at CRC Press here.

Read more about the author and his work on his website here.


Other Non-Fiction Books:

Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen

Devt as FreedomAfter reading “Ingredients of Famine Analysis,” another article by this Nobel Prize-winning author, I continued to enjoy and learn from his excellent work. I used that article in another post on my site here, and used this book for my doctoral dissertation. Sen provides comprehensive context for the roles of individuals and various institutions in assessing the most important goals for economic development.

Read more at the Harvard Law Review.

Read more about the author and his work on his website at Harvard.




Teaching as a SuTeaching_SubversiveActbversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner

This book is not nearly as subversive as the title suggests. It’s one of two books I’ve ever read on how to be a teacher, and it maintains the simple tenant that education should foster sound critical thinking, as this is essential to a functioning democracy. A central theme is that teachers are not there to deliver information, but to ask challenging questions. Published in 1969, it contributed to the civil rights movement and the general questioning of where we were headed as a nation and as a society.

Read more on Postman’s website here.

Written by Jason

July 23rd, 2010 at 10:11 am

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Cars and People [May] Compete for Grain

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This passage has some very useful information, but I disagree with Brown’s point that grain prices are only now tied to petroleum prices because of increased biofuel production. He’s right to point out that the first generation of technologies are placing increased stress on agricultural land, but grain prices have long been tied to petroleum prices due to the heavy reliance on petroleum products such as diesel and chemical inputs, as well as other inputs derived from natural gas and other fossil fuels. A report published by the Farm Foundation last year found five main factors that drove 2008’s increased food prices, with number one being the coincident increase in petroleum prices.

Furthermore, at this point in the U.S. ethanol is not a substitute for petroleum, but a complement, as it is blended into our gasoline supply, with very little E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) available today. This is different from the system in Brazil, where their enormous fleet of flex-fuel vehicles means that when oil prices rise, people can simply switch to sugarcane ethanol, which is not nearly as reliant on petroleum or other fossil fuels as corn and other grains in the U.S.

Here in the U.S., as oil prices rise, we may see a slight decline in demand for gasoline, which means a decline in demand for the ethanol blended into it. And if oil prices rise, whether we’re making ethanol or not, grain prices have long followed the price of petroleum. The way to decouple this trend has much less to do with biofuels, and much more to do with the inputs used to produce our crops under an industrial agricultural system.

Brown’s excerpt here also ignores the reality illustrated by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, that famines and food shortages don’t stem from a lack of production. There is more than enough food in the world, but have serious distribution problems.

Finally, most people agree that corn ethanol is only a short-term bridge technology on the road to a renewable fuels future. Within the decade we will have leveled out at the federally mandated limit of corn ethanol production, 15 billion gallons in 2015, and will be using increasing amounts of biofuels derived from cellulose and agricultural wastes. This technology is nearly cost competitive today, and will almost surely become much more so in the next few years.

June 01, 2010

Lester R. Brown

At a time when excessive pressures on the earth’s land and water resources are of growing concern, there is a massive new demand emerging for cropland to produce fuel for cars—one that threatens world food security. Although this situation had been developing for a few decades, it was not until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when oil prices jumped above $60 a barrel and U.S. gasoline prices climbed to $3 a gallon, that the situation came into focus. Suddenly investments in U.S. corn-based ethanol distilleries became hugely profitable, unleashing an investment frenzy that will convert one fourth of the 2009 U.S. grain harvest into fuel for cars.


The price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. Historically the food and energy economies were separate, but now with the massive U.S. capacity to convert grain into ethanol, that is changing. In this new situation, when the price of oil climbs, the world price of grain moves up toward its oil-equivalent value.

Read the entire excerpt here.

Written by Jason

June 1st, 2010 at 9:45 am

How to feed the world

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As evidenced by the other comments on this site about their articles, I very much respect and enjoy The Economists’ coverage of the news, particularly food, energy, and environmental issues. But I take exception to this week’s article on how to feed the world for a couple of minor issues and one major disagreement. The minor issues are the reasons they fail to consider in the spike in food prices in 2007-2008. Most leading analysts[1] pointed to five factors that caused this spike: The high price of oil; several poor harvests from major grain providers such as Australia and Russia; the increasing income in places like China and India, leading to more food consumption, particularly meat, which is much more resource intensive; the increasing use of food and agricultural land to produce biofuels; and the declining U.S. dollar. The Economist described the first four in an article last year, but did not include the devaluation of the dollar. In this week’s article, they state, “None of the underlying agricultural problems which produced a spike in food prices in 2007-08 and increased the number of hungry people has gone away.” But oil prices have fallen considerably and this year’s harvests were much better, as they even point out a few sentences later. But this is nit-picking, especially given the fact that oil prices will likely indeed rise again, and several ecological issues threaten global harvests even more severely in the coming decades.

Slightly larger problems exist in the explanation of lack of research into agricultural productivity. It’s true that public expenditures have been on the decline, but much of this is due to trade liberalization and attempts at having private industry            provide services once offered by government. So the reduced government spending is true, but a bit of a half truth. The decline in productivity gains could also be a sign that we are maxing out the potential in soil for those grain crops we have been breeding and improving over generations now.

The glaring problems with the article, though, are the contradictions between calling for increased government intervention and even giving away seed while also touting free markets, and that they neglect a central truth so clearly illustrated by the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen: There is not a food production problem; there is a food distribution problem[2]. In the case of the former, it’s difficult to reconcile those two, at least the way it’s explained here.

Nov 19th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Business as usual will not do it

IN 1974 Henry Kissinger, then America’s secretary of state, told the first world food conference in Rome that no child would go to bed hungry within ten years. Just over 35 years later, in the week of another United Nations food summit in Rome, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry.

This failure, already dreadful, may soon get worse. None of the underlying agricultural problems which produced a spike in food prices in 2007-08 and increased the number of hungry people has gone away. Between now and 2050 the world’s population will rise by a third, but demand for agricultural goods will rise by 70% and demand for meat will double. These increases are in a sense good news in that they are a result of rising wealth in poor and middle-income countries. But they will have to happen without farmers clearing large amounts of new land (there is some scope for expansion, but not much) or using up lots more water (in parts of the world, water supplies are stretched to their limit or beyond). Moreover, they will take place while farmers also wrestle with the consequences of climate change, which, on balance, will do more harm than good to farmland round the world.

Read the entire article here.

[1] Such as Abbott, P.C.; C. Hurt, and W. E. Tyner. “What’s Driving Food Prices?” Farm Foundation Report, March, 2009.

[2] Sen, A. “The Ingredients of Famine Analysis.” Qtrly Jrnl of Economics, 1981.

Written by Jason

November 19th, 2009 at 6:01 am