Sunday, 23 August 2015

Power Shift - Robert Arthur Stayton ***

Reviewing this book is frustrating because it does a really important job - but doesn't do it in a particularly effective fashion.

Let's get into that important job first. The book is about the need to move to solar energy, driven by the impact of manmade climate change. The most impressive thing about Power Shift is that it persuaded me that we should produce significantly more of our energy from solar. I've got some problems with Robert Stayton's assertion that all our energy could come from solar for a couple of reasons. Most of his information is sweeping and global, but I think really it is US-based, assumed to apply globally. It would be much harder to get all of the UK's energy from solar than the US quite simply because we don't have frequent enough sunny days. It is also a little cherry-picking, taking pessimistic views of the alternatives and optimistic on solar. While I think we could produce a good percentage of UK energy from solar given sufficient storage, we would also need backup nuclear to fill in gaps and, most importantly to deal with situations Stayton doesn't cover, like Krakatoa-like incidents which would drastically reduce solar availability for a couple of years at a time.

However, Stayton is indubitably right in saying that solar is the obvious source and that we should be putting in far more effort both in collection and in storage technologies to iron out the daily and seasonal variation in solar capacity. Yes, we will probably need to work on carbon capture and storage to get us through to a mainly solar economy (plus the nuclear backup he doesn't like), but solar should be seen as far more significant than it currently is. And this book makes the case so strongly that if you read it, you may well be persuaded of this idea.

Now, though, the less encouraging side. I don't think anyone who isn't already convinced will read the book, because the only sensible way to persuade someone is to start with a balanced view and work towards the conclusion, where the book clearly starts from a specific viewpoint, obvious even in its subtitle. It also suffers from one of the oldest problems in publishing - the significant content is really only about three magazine articles, expanded to fill a book. You could quite easily get all the important message across in articles covering climate change, energy options and how to implement solar. The result is a lot of repetition and labouring of the point. As an example, Stayton lists out 20 'positives for solar PV [photovoltaic - i.e. solar panels generating electricity]', then proceeds to slowly explain each of these points separately. We really don't need much expansion on, for instance, 'Solar PV does not pollute our air,' but we get nearly a page.

This kind of heavy handedness is particular obvious in spending around 60 pages telling us very obvious background on how human energy use has gone from fire to modern consumption. It's neither very interesting nor highly relevant to the point of the book. Another problem is the way that the author pushes the bottom-up approach, building his argument on his own position where he generates 90% of his energy from solar panels on his house. The fact is, the vast majority of people in the UK could not do this, both in terms of the relatively tiny amount of energy generated over the darker half of the year and also because many UK homes simply aren't suitable to stick solar on the roof. We tend to have much smaller houses than in the US - and, for instance, though my roof is technically big enough, it's not south-facing, which immediately renders it pretty much useless for generation. By giving us a model that just doesn't work for most of us, Stayton hinders rather than helps the message.

While Stayton's countrymen in the US are still arguing in large numbers that manmade climate change doesn't exist, the fact is that the arguments of this book are likely to be ignored. Which is a shame, because as I noted, it has genuinely persuaded me that we ought to make solar our biggest source, provided we put enough effort into developing more efficient energy storage mechanisms. There's a lot to interest anyone serious about our energy impact on the planet here, provided you are tolerant of the book's lack of conciseness. So it's a qualified cheer for this vision of a solar future.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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