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.


megaregionsThe development of cities has always been a fascinating topic for historians, engineers, and anyone interested in how we live and work. But cities do not live on their own, any more than individual humans do. In the article Megaregions and Mobility, authors Catherine L. Ross and Myungje Woo look at the growth of cities into megaregions that accumulate population, production, commodity trading, and capital on a huge scale. In a globalized world, economic, commercial, and transportation systems are closely linked and interdependent.

The article was published in the wonderful The Bridge, a journal from the National Academy of Engineering (part of the National Academy of Sciences).

Although we can talk about global networks, in commerce, information, and other ways global interactions are concentrated in specific regions called “megaregions.” These new economic and geographic units, have been developing for decades.  Megaregions are “networks of metropolitan centers and their areas of influence” that have developed social, environmental, economic, and infrastructure relationships, according to the authors.

Megaregions extend beyond metropolitan areas, across geographic and political borders lines, illustrating a rich-get-richer dynamic as more and more people and economic activities are concentrated in them. In the United States, the 10 largest megaregions (seven of which have populations of more than 10 million) represent 80 percent of U.S. economic activity. By 2050, the U.S. population is projected to increase by another 130 million people, which, the authors suggest, will increase the size and density of existing megaregions.

The microeconomics of nuclear power

New developments in power generation are being designed around old technologies, sometimes at new scale. Using newer transmission and generation systems, and working with new storage solutions, companies are trying to create systems that are much smaller than the huge, industrial-scale gen stations and grids of the 20th century.

One example, from a recent Energy Biz magazine:

“… What’s radical about NuScale is the size of its reactors and its modular approach. Rather than building a large, 1,400-megawatt plant costing several billion dollars, NuScale is designing small – 45-megawatt – reactors, largely developed at Oregon State University, and underground containment vessels small enough to be built in this country and shipped by rail. An end-user can start with a single reactor and scale up as needed. That completely changes the economics of nuclear energy.”

Energy grid basics

Transmission linesElectric power is generated and ‘shipped’ to consumers across a system know as an energy grid. The grid is a network of transmission lines connecting power generators to consumers. The grid is used to transport electric power (megawatts or megavolt-amperes) over transmission lines.

Electricity generation and consumption must be balanced across the entire grid or a region or country because energy is consumed as it is produced. A failure in one part of the grid can cause current to re-route itself to flow from the remaining generators to consumers over transmission lines of that may not have that capacity. This re-routing and “flooding” of power to another part of a grid will cause further failures. When this happens from one part of the grid going down, then knocking down another part of the grid it’s called a cascading failure.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation was formed in 2006 to coordinate power grid developments and develop protocols to maintain a stable grid. Because of the interconnected energy grids across North America NARC has advisory powers in parts of Canada and Mexico. In Europe this is done by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity.

The cheapest and simplest topology for a transmission grid is a tree shape where power from a large supply, like a generating station, radiates out into progressively lower voltage lines until the destination homes and businesses are reached. Historically this was the first type of energy grid deployed. Now transmission grids require greater reliability which can be provided by mesh networks. Mesh networks include many redundant connections in networks that provide for failure. If one link is severed the entire grid will not collapse. Mesh grids use more wiring, more connections and are more expensive. Mesh networks are most often deployed in transmission grids between primary power sources.

Electrical systems found in Europe and parts of Asia are called looped grids. These systems are designed to provide more even power distribution and some redundancy.