Essential energy and power information resources

world oil pricesEnergy pricing and market data. The US Energy Information Administration, the statistical agency for the U.S. Department of Energy, has created an online pricing data and market information system online here.

The EIA collects information, analyzes prices, and disseminates energy information to trading markets, policy makers, and the public. The access to, and cost of, energy is of obvious importance to modern society. The EIA is important because it is a primary source of energy information and, by law, its data, analyses, and forecasts are independent of approval by any other officer or employee of the United States government.

best energy booksThe following is a list of the best books on the basic concepts and fundamental issues of energy, energy production, and the systems society uses to power itself.

Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects by Vaclav Smil. Smil is a prolific and phenomenal writer. He is on the faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. His interdisciplinary research covers a broad area of energy, environmental, food, population, economic, historical and public policy studies. Smil is also the author of one of the foundation textbooks in the field:Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties.  For beginners, or co-workers and staff who need to get up to speed on these issues quickly, Smil compiled a series of his essays in Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization.

A remarkably clear and cogent overview of energy issues and the economics of energy and power production is ENERGY: The Master Resource by Robert Bradley and Richard Fulmer. The book is set up as a textbook, but is written more engagingly and has excellent infographics. The sources cited alone are worth the cost of the book. Bradley and Fulmer (who also blog at systematically cover the systems of energy production and distribution, but go beyond describing the technology and explore the economics of each component part, including many different alternatives.

For an aggressive alternative view of ‘green’ energy solutions there’s Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. While you may argue with his tone and occasional outspoken comments, his basic argument centers on four imperatives for any energy system redesign “power density, energy density, cost and scale.” These key considerations come up again and again in the literature from either side of the green energy issue.


Infrastructures have evolved to support human life, food production, trade, and everything we consider modern civilizations. Nowhere is that more apparent, more directly in your everyday experience, than in cities.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser explores the rise and development of urban areas, the economics of cities, and the depth of systems and cultural structures found in cities. Glaeser does cover some of the obvious ground here, explaining city structure and looking at historical examples of cities around the world that prosper and perish.  But this is not just a history of the city– he is not just updating Mumford.  Glaeser uses bits of sociology, history, economics, and provides some interesting case studies along the way in the form of biographies.

Glaeser explores different cities across the globe and explains how certain economic or political models shape the success or decline of urban areas. He uses common historical frameworks– agricultural, industrial and information age systems of organizing production and life, and suggest that changes in structure and culture can support or erode urban economies. One his better examples of this is a discussion of the restrictions put in place for building urban housing like those in modern California, New York and Paris where a tightly restricted housing supply forces prices to skyrocket. More and more, cities with restrictive development become islands of the wealthy. Meanwhile other cities and suburbs expand and grow with widely available housing and other opportunities.

The World's largest cities (From Wolfram Alpha)
1 | Shanghai, China | 13.68 million people |
2 | Mumbai, Maharashtra, India | 12.69 million people |
3 | Istanbul, Turkey | 12.61 million people |
4 | Karachi, Sind, Pakistan | 11.62 million people |
5 | Beijing, China | 11.29 million people |

Asia at nightHalf the world’s population now lives in cities and half the world’s most global cities are Asian. Coming out in late May is Malcolm McKinnon’s book Asian Cities: Globalization, Urbanization and Nation-building. McKinnon’s book is timely and may provide a new take on the two major forces shaping urban developments in this century: urbanization and globalization. But his travels and research also led him to a third influence on and by these cities, their role as nation-builders.

Top five books

book reviewsIt is always difficult to come up with a top five list of almost anything but I will try to create top five reading lists covering the books on each category in infrastructures. This first list covers the introductory materials, the most basic books on infrastructures, the systems and technologies of the structures of civilization. This list isn’t meant to create argument or controversy (not that lists of books about infrastructure are the subject of too many violent confrontations) but rather act as a guide to getting your feet wet, so to speak.

The Works: Anatomy of the City, by Kate Ascher digs deep into the guts of New York City using clearly written text, pictures, maps and other graphic descriptions of structures and processes that keep New York City running. The Works is also written for designers and architects. Ascher uses descriptions to identify the sometimes dense graphics and drawings and then uses information graphics and maps to illustrate some of the more unique concepts found in the infrastructures of one of the worlds largest and busiest cities. While the book is mainly about New York the systems described here are found everywhere. By using the term anatomy she clearly and accurately describes the way the book dissects a major city. It is a wonderful book that you can turn back to over and over again, digging into its examples and unearthing wonderful resources.

Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, by Barry LePatner is it a polemic, part rant and part reasoned argument about the difficulty facing many communities with deteriorating infrastructure. Whether you agree with his arguments is almost beside the point. Too big to fall is an excellent book underlining the need for infrastructure improvement, maintenance and investment not just in bridges and roads but across the spectrum. LePatner makes a compelling argument for how the United States transportation network has become a liability to ongoing transportation and commercial activity because of the many failures and structural problems caused by lack of investment and long-term neglect. The book dwells on the neglect and bad planning but also does a very good job of explaining the road networks, bridges and structural systems that make up transportation infrastructure. The books material argument is a solid case and LePatner cites legal and design engineering evidence in a powerful set of examples that will lead you to draw conclusion that this is a major problem which is not going to go away anytime soon.

Infrastructures: A Field Guide is one of the best general books on the subject. It has a broad coverage and is well written. Infrastructure is a glossy, general book on the different technologies and systems that make up modern infrastructure. Written by Brian Hayes Infrastructure is a field guide to industrial and modern technological landscapes. One of its striking features are the wonderful photographs of one or two on every page of infrastructure systems, industrial sites, cities and the landscapes created by infrastructure developments. Hayes writes clear descriptions of the systems that keep the modern world running, including energy production, shipping, transportation, agriculture  and the various varied methods of managing the waste we create.

The Landscape of Contemporary Infrastructure, by Shannon and Smets,investigates how design determines the organization and flow of the infrastructures in cities and towns. The design and organization for structure features, the placement of structures and the use of the systems over time contributes to the character of cities. These issues are explored in four dense chapters that lay out the different approaches by different designers and architects. Each chapter outlines projects from some of the world’s important designer/developers including Arata Isozaki, Paul Andreu, Xaveer De Geyter, Jean Nouvel and Ricardo Bofill. The book is a textbook and suffers from some fairly dense prose, but it is one of the best new books on urban design and the problems of development that confront modern infrastructure.

Engineering the City: How Infrastructure Works by Levy and Panchyk, might strike some people as a children’s book but it is actually an excellent introduction to the different systems and structures that are required for human civilization. beginning with water and land use the authors use simple line drawings, creative descriptions, examples and cogent prose to unravel the many different systems and structures required to create cities and keep them running.

In no way is this meant to be a definitive list of the only books that cover infrastructure in a general way. These are, in my opinion, the best books to get you started in understanding the issues and problems of modern infrastructure.