Transforming Electricity

the coming generation of change

Posted: 7 November 2000

Author: Walt Patterson
Earthscan, London, 1999, £12.99 pb

The enthusiastic heralding of revolutions is part of the frenetic backdrop to modern technological change. Such clarion calls are nowhere more familiar than in the field of environment and sustainability, where they have become something of an occupational hazard. But this book - with its powerful and engaging imagery, its readable style, its panoramic scope and its relaxed authority - is a classic of the genre.

Walt Patterson is a respected veteran of the energy business. book coverHe secured his well-earned reputation many years ago with his definitive book on the politics and technology of nuclear power. With a physics background, a key role in the establishing of Friends of the Earth in the UK and a more recent career as a professional energy analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Patterson is as comfortable with the complexities of the world's electricity systems as he is with the diverse imperatives of modern environmentalism.

With plenty of well-drawn examples and succinct historical excursions, Patterson guides us through the whirlwind of technical and institutional change now sweeping the global electricity supply industry. Emerging technologies like combined cycle gas and wind turbines, solar and fuel cells, along with computerised control and new power electronics are coming together with trends towards privatisation, liberalisation, decentralisation and globalisation to mix a heady cocktail of implications for the electricity supply which so many of us take for granted.

Avoiding the sterile polemics of nuclear and renewable energy critics and advocates alike, Patterson offers a refreshing vision of how this newly invigorated industry may actually make some long-due progress on the daunting challenges of climate change, pollution and worldwide energy poverty. Yet, showing how old habits, assumptions and stabilities of the past century of evolution in electricity systems are now being swept away, he reveals the prospect of new inequities and insecurities as well as desperately-needed solutions.

In this book, as in life, energy efficiency is the Cinderella of the story. It might have been nice to read more about the technologies and policies which are transforming the way we use electricity. Likewise, it is surprising amid the repeated allusions to new direct-current transmission and generating technologies to find the relative neglect of important developments like the advent of 'intelligent meters' and the potential future interactions between electricity and transport systems.

Nevertheless, Walt Patterson has achieved in this book an excellent introduction for the lay reader at the same time as presenting a stimulating tonic for the energy specialist. He has managed to condense a huge amount of important but indigestible material into an exciting and informative read. Just like his earlier work on nuclear power, it would be surprising if some of the key players in the electricity revolutions of the twenty-first century don't trace their interest back to this book. If that happens, the Environment owes Walt a doubly weighty debt.

Reviewer: Andy Stirling

Reviewer Info: Dr Andy Stirling is an environmentalist and fellow at SPRU (science and technology policy research) at the University of Sussex, England.