Why do we continue to rely on fossil-fuel-burning electrical generating plants that pollute the environment when cleaner technologies exist? In The Dirty Energy Dilemma, Benjamin Sovacool explores the structural barriers [End Page 746] that have prevented a transition to renewable energy sources in the American electrical supply industry.
In the first part of the book, Sovacool lays out the problems with our current system of electric generation at large plants powered by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors. He identifies "The Big Four Energy Challenges" as rising fossil fuel prices, increasing pollution, inefficient and brittle transmission networks, and widespread system vulnerability to natural disasters, sabotage, and financial manipulations. Renewable energy sources have the potential to address these challenges, he argues. "The Big Four Clean Solutions" of energy efficiency, distributed generation, combined heat and power, and renewable energy will do a better job of providing needed energy while protecting consumers and the planet.
The bulk of Sovacool's book is devoted to an explanation of why our electrical generation system remains wedded to the old and resistant to the new. Sovacool argues that there are four main reasons: financial and market impediments, political and regulatory obstacles, cultural and behavioral barriers, and aesthetic and environmental challenges. His evidence is drawn primarily from interviews with utility executives, energy researchers, and advocates of renewable energy, published reports from government agencies and think tanks, and secondary literature. In these chapters, Sovacool covers a wide range of challenges to change including subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy, financial incentives for utilities to expand consumption rather than to curb it, the widespread belief in American society that energy consumption is a fundamental right, and the aesthetic objections to renewable energy installations.
How can we solve these problems? Sovacool concludes by reviewing "The Big Four Policy Mechanisms": require utilities to buy clean power, end subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power, build environmental externalities into the price of electricity, and educate the public and protect the poor. Such approaches will, he argues, overcome the structural barriers that have blocked previous attempts to implement renewable energy systems and give them the necessary momentum to begin displacing fossil fuels.
This is not a conventional work in the history of technology. The Dirty Energy Dilemma is part scholarly analysis and part advocacy. As such, it has both strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, this work tackles a major topic—our electrical production system—and provides a comprehensive view of how it works and the possibilities for its improvement. Sovacool's arguments are presented clearly and leave the reader with a sense of optimism that effective changes can be implemented. His interviews with energy experts, utility managers, and advocates of renewable energy expand our understanding of the contemporary electrical supply industry. This approach also has a downside, however, particularly for those Technology and Culture readers who prefer nonpartisan approaches to controversial topics. For example, some of Sovacool's arguments lack symmetrical analysis. The statements [End Page 747] of utility executives are routinely challenged, while the claims of renewable-energy advocates are largely accepted at face value. The technical challenges facing fossil fuel systems are magnified while those involving clean power sources are glossed over. The admirable desire to make information easy to understand results, unfortunately, in oversimplifications. The real world is a messy place and the use of a tidy schematic argument structure ("The Four Big …") does not always capture this complexity.
In the end, Sovacool's book presents clear opinions on matters with large environmental, political, and social consequences. While readers may disagree with some of its claims, The Dirty Energy Dilemma, with its strengths and weaknesses, tackles issues central to our collective future.
Christopher Jones is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. His research focuses on the development of energy transport infrastructure in the American mid-Atlantic region.