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Energy for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller

A Comprehensive (Perhaps Numbingly So) Look at Our Energy Options

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Energy for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller

Cover of the book Energy for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller

W. W. Norton & Company
Richard A. Muller made a splash when, through a "conservatively-funded" research project, his team returned results that strongly confirmed the scientific consensus in support of man-made global warming due to carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions. As a follow up to those headlines, and also his previous book Physics for Future Presidents, he dives deeply into all aspects of the energy debate, explaining it in terms that are both technically precise but also easily accessible to the average reader. While some of the details may cause the non-science-enthusiasts eyes to gloss over, most of the specific numbers can be skimmed over to reach the more accessible explanations.

About the Science

Muller divides his book into 5 distinct sections, which each focus on different elements of the current energy debate in our country. He is a scientist, so the book is mostly told from that perspective, giving an overview of the science and options rather than prescribing a definite strategy, though the last section does narrow the perspective in on his specific recommendations about how to proceed.

  1. Energy Catastrophes - Muller begins his book by addressing the energy related disasters that have often dominated the media discussions around energy policy. He has a chapter on each of the following three energy catastrophes, though his overall conclusions are that the first two are not as catastrophic as the public has been led to believe, though the third is very real and requires a prominent position in guiding energy policy:
    • Fukushima
    • The Gulf Oil Spill
    • Global Warming and Climate Change

    Oddly, though he has a chapter devoted to global warming, he does not have a chapter in this section devoted to energy security (though he does have a 5-page section on the subject in Part 2), despite the fact that he puts energy security alongside global warming as one of the driving factors in the energy debate. Presumably this is because energy security isn't so much an energy catastrophe as a pending energy catastrophe.

  2. The Energy Landscape - This section has 4 chapters focusing on the important sources of power production with current energy policy and technologies.
    • The Natural-Gas Windfall - America has access to a lot of natural gas, especially now that the process known as "fracking" has shown a cost-effective way to access natural gas that had previously been unreachable. Though Muller clearly supports natural gas as having a prominent role within America's energy solution, he does not shy away from the science controversies and questions related to fracking, encouraging further research in this area.
    • Liquid Energy Security - This chapter is critically important to Muller's overall discussion of energy policy. Muller doesn't believe that the U.S. has an energy crisis, but rather a crisis in easily accessing liquid energy without being dependent upon other nations... and that's where the energy security issue comes in.
    • Shale Oil - As with fracking, Muller's stance on this is to explain as much detail as he can about the process, clearly identifying the controversies and questions related to shale oil extraction and urging further study of this new technology.
    • Energy Productivity - The best way forward with energy policy is to work on ways that can reduce the need for energy, which results in a bigger benefit (both environmental and economic) for most key players. Here he outlines some current policy approaches that help improve energy productivity, such as the "decoupling plus" process used in California.
  3. Alternative Energy - This section focuses on various forms of energy which Muller classifies as alternatives to our most traditional (and environmentally dirty) energy sources: gasoline, coal, and even natural gas.
    • Solar Surge
    • Wind
    • Energy Storage
    • The Coming Explosion of Nuclear Power
    • Fusion
    • Biofuels
    • Synfuel and High-Tech Fossil Fuels
    • Alternative Alternatives: Hydrogen, Geothermal, Tidal, and Wave Power
    • Electric Automobiles
    • Natural-Gas Automobiles
    • Fuel Cells
    • Clean Coal
  4. What is Energy? - This section is pure physics, focusing on the scientific meaning of energy, including some basic thermodynamics concepts about the flow of energy.
  5. Advice for Future Presidents - Here Muller goes a bit beyond his merely informative position to offer his personal recommendations about energy policy, based upon the information presented in the rest of the book. Don't worry, though, because he isn't particularly long-winded about it. This whole section is less than 15 pages.

If you're looking for a book where you'll be gripped by every page, this book is not for you. Education, not entertainment, is the primary objective. He does, for example, include equations to help explain certain concepts. Muller's approach in this book is to provide a lot of details, but the book remains very readable, as long as the reader focuses on the information that they want to glean. I suspect that most readers will get the general idea of a section and then skim over many of the details, unless that specific energy source is something they deeply wanted to know about.

For example, Chapter 16: Electric Automobiles focuses on the possibility of having automobiles that are run entirely on electricity. This is something that Muller clearly doesn't put much faith in, as the section title "The Electric Auto Fad" makes clear. And once you've grasped his view on the matter, there really isn't much reason for the reader to read the one-page detailed descriptions of the Tesla Roadster, Chevy Volt, or Nissan Leaf ... unless you absolutely want to know more about those particular vehicles, or about electric autos in general. (I felt perfectly comfortable skimming those pages.)

Global Warming

Richard Muller was known by many as one of the most prominent "global warming skeptics." His work with the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project was funded largely by sources that are identified as conservative, so it was viewed with a great deal of suspicion within the environmental activism community. The results came back in support of the scientific consensus, asin Muller describes in the book: "we concluded that none of the legitimate concerns of the skeptics had improperly biased the prior results." Those who were concerned about global warming were quite excited. (See the response from our very own About.com Green Living Guide for an example.)

Though Muller acknowledges the reality of global warming and humanity's role in it, this doesn't mean that Muller is fully on board with the rhetoric of the environmental left. As he says in the book, "none of the well-known proposals to stop global warming that have been made have any realistic chance of working, even if they are fully implemented."

As a result, this presents a very different book on energy policy from many others. Not only is it written by a scientist, but it's written by a scientist who views the global warming skeptical movement to be rooted in very legitimate concerns ... concerns that he feels he's helped lay to rest. Anyone who's interested in energy policy will likely find Muller's perspective a unique one that differs from the other sources they've gotten from, which are often enmeshed firmly in only one side of the debate.

About the Book

This review is based on the original hardcover edition of this book.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: August 6, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-08161-9
Retail Cost: $26.95 (USA)/$28.50 (Can.)

The book comes in at a total of 350 pages. This includes the core 305 pages of the book (covering 5 major sections and about 20 chapters, as described above), plus an additional 15 pages of Notes, a 24-page index, and a slim "credits" section.

Notable Quotes

A good president has to be a leader, and that means more than making the right decisions. The president has to be the nation's instructor.

I thought scientists had a duty to be "properly skeptical" [...] On the other hand, skepticism must be balanced--a scientist should never be so skeptical as to be inconvincible. And skepticism carries with it a danger: that it can be taken as a call to inaction--let's wait until the scientists all reach 100% agreement, until there is no doubt left. Yet without proper skepticism, knowledge will not progress.

The role of a science advisor should not be to advise but rather to inform and educate so that the president knows and understands enough to be able to make the right decisions.

The true energy crisis in the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, derives predominantly from two issues: energy security and global warming. The security problem comes not from an energy shortage (we have plenty), but from an oil shortage--more precisely, from the growing gap between domestic petroleum production rate and the demand for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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