Book Review

Earth: The Sequel
The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming,
(2008, New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company, Inc.).
Written by: Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn

Reviewed by: Sean Killian, November 2008

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, has advised presidents and corporate executives on climate change and other environmental issues. Unlike the anti-establishment approach used by more radical figures in the environmental movement, Krupp’s approach to change is not to fight the system but to work within it. His book, “Earth: The Sequel,” holds true to this approach. Told primarily through the personal stories of cleantech entrepreneurs, the book presents renewable energy as both an urgent environmental need and an attractive business opportunity. For those concerned primarily with the future of the planet, the book attempts to establish a sense of urgency by citing scientific data on population growth and environmental rates of change.  For those concerned with the future of the energy industry, the book establishes a sense of urgency through a persuasive argument that a price on carbon is imminent and getting ahead of the curve now is necessary. He uses  both calls to action, and a multifaceted argument that the time is now, to advocate for immediate legislation.

The Set-Up

Krupp implicitly says that entrepreneurs are the brokers between environmentalists and scientists on the one hand, and politicians and corporate executives on the other. Choosing to tell the story through these brokers allows Krupp to maintain a narrative and to keep multiple audiences interested. It also prevents skeptics from viewing the book as a lobbying brief from the Environmental Defense Fund. While Krupp clearly is seeking to drive policy change, he has produced a documentary about real people, real technologies, and real opportunities, all backed up with current and historical facts and figures.

His book, published last year, is timely. It begins with a recognition that a new industrial revolution in energy stands to secure the world against the dangers of global warming, and it is happening amid a “worldwide concern about the enormous threat of greenhouse gases, growing realization that we are prisoners of petroleum, and accelerating advances in technology that make possible unprecedented breakthroughs in how we make and use energy.” Entrepreneurs, Krupp states and then illustrates, will lead that charge, “stabilize our climate, generate enormous economic growth, and save the planet.”

The Structure

What follows are six chapters on renewable energy subsectors, followed by one on clean coal, one on additional approaches like green materials and energy efficiency, and a final chapter on next steps. In sequence, Krupp covers solar thermal, photovoltaics, biofuels from organisms and biomass, ocean energy, and geothermal energy. Wind is neither covered in a chapter nor much discussed. Wind is only touched upon in his chapter on next steps, in which he discusses “mining the skies” for wind energy at high altitudes. This may be because wind energy is much more developed than other renewable energy subsectors. Although readers would have benefitted from a clarification as to why the most established renewable energy did not earn much ink, the omission does not detract greatly from the quality of the book. In contrast, and perhaps because clean coal is overshadowed in the current literature by sexier technologies, Krupp is more thorough in his chapter on clean coal than he is in any other chapter.

From a structural standpoint, Krupp drills down on each renewable subsector through its constituent components. In his chapter on ocean energy, for example, a third of a chapter each is dedicated to waves, currents and tides. In his chapter on biofuels, he discusses cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, and living organisms like yeast. He also explains each technology’s relative advantage over another. A key advantage of solar thermal over photovoltaics, for instance, is “the capacity to store energy as heat, which is far cheaper than storing electricity.” For ocean energy, it’s consistency and density.

The Narrative

The most compelling aspect of the book is the documentary style with which he presents the information. Within each chapter, he profiles start-ups and business offshoots through extensive dialogue with the entrepreneurs that founded them and the investors that support them. The following is a random sampling of some of the many start-up technologies featured in the book:

1.    GreatPoint Energy has raised $137 million in venture funding to develop catalysts that dramatically speed up the coal-to-methane conversion process, winding up with a product nearly as cheap as coal but twice as clean.

2.    Alstom is exploring cryogenic processes that would chill flue gases to the temperature at which carbon dioxide would precipitate out all by itself into dry ice. Defrosting it results in a stream of pure gas that can be stored. (Alsom is a large company entering a new space.)

3.    AquaEnergy is harnessing ocean energy from a cluster of buoys to which steel cylinders fitted with pistons are attached. As the buoys rise and fall with the waves, the pistons stretch and pull hoses that pump water into a turbine with the force of a 650-foot waterfall.

4.    GreenFuel is using 30 nine-foot-high triangles of clear pipe filled with a kind of algae soup  at MIT to sequester carbon dioxide from flue gases and to harvest algae for biofuel, removing 82 percent of carbon dioxide on sunny days and 50 percent on cloudy ones. They call it Emissions-to-Biofuel (E2B).

The book is riddled with cutting-edge technologies: use of spectrometry to determine the best time to harvest crops for uses as biofuel, use of an enzyme found in glial brain cells to rapidly speed up the uptake and release of carbon dioxide for sequestration in coal plants, or use of photonic crystals to recycle the photons that slip through silicon, making photovoltaics much thinner and cost effective.

Krupp never loses his initial message of the role of entrepreneurship as he describes innovative technologies and their pathways to the market. He peppers each chapters with revelations into the mind of the entrepreneur. Take Bernie Frank, who was chastised by Forbes magazine for building an ice hotel that melted. He built it again. “Because,” he explained, “we’d learned how not to do it,” which Krupp points out is a crucial way station for many cleantech inventors on the way to success. Several chapters later, Krupp quotes another entrepreneur, who says, “If you succeed the first time, you won’t really understand why.” It is a recurring theme of the book.

In addition to the wealth of information Krupp provides about innovative start-ups, he also includes the names of must-know utilities like American Electric Power and Pacific Gas and Electric, and the role of private equity firms like Texas Pacific Group and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.  He also cites important government institutions, like the Electric Power Research Institute, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Including big utilities and federal institutions in his list of energy start-ups offers readers a more complete handbook to the industry.

The Bigger Picture

While the individual stories of technologies and start-ups are inspiring, Krupp always comes back to the seriousness of the situation. In particular, he acknowledges our continued medium term reliance on coal and offers ideas on how we might balance utilities’ need to survive and the country’s demand for energy with the larger need to reduce emissions. (“If burned in conventional plants, carbon dioxide emissions from coal over just the next twenty-five years will exceed total coal emissions from the last two and a half centuries.”) Krupp points out that coal gasification technologies will make it possible in the short term for utilities to substitute new natural gas plants for previously planned conventional coal plants, and carbon capture and sequestration technologies will allow the same utilities to dramatically reduce their emissions in advance of a probable price on carbon. Development of these technologies will also be critical to develop for deployment in China, which “makes 80 percent of its electricity from coal and adds a new 500-megawatt coal-fired plant every four days,” and surpassed the United States in 2006 as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Krupp also addresses throughout the book the need for legislation and market development. Staying true to his narrative format, Krupp uses the disagreement between General Electric and Alstom on which clean coal technologies will succeed to make the case for a cap-and-trade system, which would allow the market, and not the government, to find the best ways forward.  In addition, Krupp educates readers on regulatory issues related to renewable energy technologies, such as the need for geothermal leases and tidal permits. An advocate of market driven forces to achieve environmental goals, the bigger picture issue of market development and policy reform  is not lost on Krupp.

The Result

By explaining the latest technologies and describing the current state of businesses in the role to develop and deploy them, “Earth: The Sequel” could become dated in a relatively short period of time. Krupp’s book also does not cover every energy-related climate issue the world faces, most notably, perhaps, omitting the transmission and distribution challenges the United States will face in the near future. In addition, the book’s limited real estate offered to wind energy and to energy efficiency is somewhat odd. Other than that, there is not a lot to criticize. Through stories of entrepreneurs and facts to back it up, Krupp presents a case for both business and science, often perceived to be dichotomous. He offers a book that is both accessible and informative, giving its readers scientific facts, a rolodex of players, and a comprehensive sense of the sector. The book’s real value add is its persuasive presentation of the opportunities for both business and science to develop renewables, and its compelling storytelling through the eyes of entrepreneurs. For these reasons, this is a book that every Erb student should read, regardless of career track.

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