Reviewed by William Sweet
By Daniel Yergin; Penguin, 2011; 816 pp.; $38; ISBN 978-1594202834
Daniel Yergin, probably the best-known and most widely quoted American in all matters having to do with energy, is in the spotlight again with a big new book.
A very young Yergin made his reputation in 1977 with Shattered Peace. He consolidated that reputation in 1991 with The Prize, which won a Pulitzer Prize and gave him a second career as an energy consultant. He demonstrated in both books a gift for entertaining the general reader while also satisfying specialists—no mean trick.
He has done it again, differently, with The Quest, a comprehensive survey of the global energy scene that focuses on developments of the last 10 years. While each of Yergin’s first two books had one compelling story to tell, The Quest has many. Few readers, perhaps, will want to plow through it from beginning to end. But if you want to know what’s been going on in oil exploration, unconventional gas, the alternative green technologies, biofuels, electric vehicles, or climate policy, you’ll find that Yergin consistently provides judicious treatments laced with memorable anecdotes and colorful personalities.
Yergin’s greatest strengths lie in his thought-provoking historical and geopolitical narratives. If you happen to wonder, for example, why the collapsing Soviet government let go of Ukraine, Belarus, and the "stans" with a flick of the wrist but then fought two nasty wars in Chechnya, you might consider how pipeline politics evolved during the 1990s in the Caspian and Caucasus regions. As Yergin notes: "The [preferred] Russian pipeline passed through Chechnya, where in that same year  the second Chechen War would erupt between Russian forces and Islamic rebels. That conflict forced the shutdown of the Russian pipeline."
If Yergin has a weakness, it’s a tendency to sometimes omit, amid all the fascinating detail he’s delivering, the main thing we might want to know. Having described, for example, the immensely complex and expensive oil developments in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that ended up producing 2.8 million barrels of additional oil per day, he neglects to mention what proportion of world consumption that represents or how it compares to increases in China’s oil demand in the same period.
For the record, 3 million barrels per day represents something less than 4 percent of daily oil consumption, and the increase in China’s daily consumption during the period that the Azerbaijani and Kazakh fields were developed was almost certainly greater. It goes to show, as a former Shell CEO famously said, that the age of easy oil is over, and that from now on, getting new oil will be tough in every way.
Technology is not Yergin’s main interest or greatest strength, and sometimes that leads him slightly astray. Curiously, he puts a chapter about solar energy ahead of one about wind, which has been the biggest single story in electricity generation in the last two decades.
Yergin tells a nice story about how California subsidies combined with innovation at a Danish farm machinery company called Vestas Wind Systems produced a wind revolution. But he doesn’t mention the importance of techniques and materials borrowed from the aerospace industry or explain, really, how the modern wind turbine differs from the windmills that used to dot the U.S. Great Plains. By the same token, he doesn’t seem to fully grasp how challenging it will be, technically, to get solar cells to match wind in cost and performance.
But those are quibbles. This is an excellent, comprehensive book that anybody interested in energy will want to own.
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About the Author
William Sweet runs IEEE Spectrum’s EnergyWise blog. He covered energy and policy at Spectrum for more than a decade and is now a contributing editor.