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Robert Bryce

Author

A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations

January 27, 2022
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Ep 58: Robert Bryce - Author, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations
00:00 / 01:04

Bret Kugelmass
We are here today on Energy Impact with Robert Bryce who's the author of "A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations" and Host of the Power Hungry podcast. Robert, welcome to Energy Impact.

Robert Bryce
Thanks for having me, Bret. Glad to be with you.

Bret Kugelmass
Super excited to finally have this time to sit down with you. We've got a lot of friends in common and I've followed your work and just totally respect what you've pulled off. But you've had a long career of doing this, so I was hoping we could just take a minute to walk through some of that. First, tell us where you're from.

Robert Bryce
Sure. Well, Tulsa, Oklahoma is my hometown. I'm proud of long and deep Oklahoma roots. My great grandfather homesteaded in the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1889. My mom and dad are both from Oklahoma, moved- but I've lived in Austin now for 36 years. Proud father of three great kids. Lauren and I have been married for 35 years. I've had a very- I'm grateful for all the opportunities and been a lucky man.

Bret Kugelmass
Awesome. Austin for 30 plus years. You've probably seen a lot of change there.

Robert Bryce
I keep thinking, Well, why didn't I buy real estate back when I moved here? And I thought, Well, I didn't have any money then. And why don't I buy it now? Because I still can't afford it. It's still one house. One house and one spouse as my sister likes to say, that's enough.

Bret Kugelmass
That's great. Okay, so tell us, when did you- when in life did you start figuring out what you wanted to do? When did it really click for you?

Robert Bryce
Well, I'm what, 61 now, I'm going to get there soon, Bret. Well, in seriousness, I've been in the newspaper business or journalism all my life. Never had a real job. But as I started writing about politics in the late 80s and early 90s, I started to just gradually write more and be attracted more to the energy sector, because I realized, well, this is the world's biggest and most important industry. And being from Tulsa, which for a little while, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, was known as the oil capital of the world. Of course, growing up, my dad was in the insurance business, but he knew a lot of people that were connected with the energy business, who were either in the oil business or building pipelines. They were working all over the world, Panama, Iran. And I thought- so I had a little glimpse as a kid about what the industry was. And in fact, the first article I ever wrote- I had published was in my high school newspaper and it was an anti-nuclear piece against a nuclear power plant that was called Black Fox that was proposed East of Tulsa. That plant was never built. But now of course, as my dad used to say too soon old, too late smart. In my dotage now, I'm of course- I'm adamantly pro-nuclear and realizing well, there is no other option if we're going to try and decarbonize the electric sector than to go all in on nuclear. That's a brief bit of background, but the more I work on energy and power systems and networks and understanding the scale of the business, the more I'm increased- or more I'm convinced rather that yeah, this industry is- every other industry in the world depends on the energy sector. And so I continue to be just completely fascinated by it. And I'll add one other thing, Dan Yergin - I heard him speak last week - he said it was an industry that's about everything. And I thought, That's a great line.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, it feeds into absolutely everything. Your writing career- so you've written what, like six books or something?

Robert Bryce
Six. Yes.

Bret Kugelmass
Are they all on the energy sector?

Robert Bryce
Yes, my first book was on Enron, published now almost 20 years ago. In fact, it was 20 years ago this month, of course, that they declared bankruptcy. But yes, all the books have been on the energy and power sectors.

Bret Kugelmass
And where did like- when you're writing a book- I mean, I've never written a book, but I've fantasized about as a lot of people have.

Robert Bryce
Don't do it.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I've held out so far. Where does it take you? I mean, do you get to travel to explore ideas? How granular do you get to get with the material in like the physical world

Robert Bryce
That's a good question. Well, when I got the contract for "A Question of Power" which came out last year, I thought, Oh, well, I'm doing a book on electricity. Why don't I just make a documentary at the same time? How hard can it be? Well, it's hard. I wouldn't recommend it. But I knew that I was going to go all over the world. I knew if I was going to talk about electricity being the world's most important and fastest growing form of energy, I was going to have to travel. I knew I wanted to go to India. I didn't know at that time I wanted to go- would end up in Iceland, but I also knew I wanted to go to Lebanon, because I'd heard about the generator mafia. But I've been around the world in several countries before, but with this book in particular, I knew that I wanted to travel. I needed to see how electric grids work or don't work in other countries. And so that was one of the great joys of it, was being able to do all that.

Bret Kugelmass
And are you- you must come across other experts when writing this as well. Is there a- obviously, I follow the Energy Information- EIA online and then there are- the OECD has some publications. Is there like a go to organization that you say, Wow, this organization really does have a great global perspective? Or is that information just not out there? And that's why you have to kind of go around the world yourself hunting down some of these truths?

Robert Bryce
Well, you can't rely on one source for anything. That's what I know. And you have to synthesize a lot of things from a lot of different sources, as well, to kind of come to you know- I'm a journalist, right, so what do I do? I synthesize a lot of things and put them back together and send them out again. But if I'm gonna, if I would cite one source that I use more than any other, it's the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. I look at that spreadsheet, not on a necessarily a daily basis, but certainly weekly and sometimes several times a week, because by publishing their data in Excel, then you can do some comparative analysis in terms of energy consumption, like electricity consumption in Africa and then use that to make graphics. That, to me, is really important. Because especially in the era of COVID, I haven't used PowerPoint. And for most of my career I didn't do a lot of public speaking, but on webinars, nobody wants to just hear me talk. They want to see some graphics. I really started to use Excel more and use the BP Statistical Review to create my own graphics, which I find has been- it's been very powerful, because the key to making people understand a lot of the things in energy and power is to give them something that- a relationship, right, something. A comparative analysis that they can get pretty quickly.

Bret Kugelmass
And when you- okay, so you look at the BP Statistical Review. And then when you meet other people, let's say policy experts, whether they work for government or work for independent think tanks forever, do you find that most of the people that you come across that should have a good understanding of the nuances of energy markets across the world and different types of energy, do you find that they actually do, whether or not the literature or their public statements reflects it? I guess what I'm saying is - sorry, I know that was a weird question. But like when you meet with, let's say, a policy expert for the US government, would you find that they know what they're talking about, but maybe just can't say it? Or do you find they just don't know what they're talking about?

Robert Bryce
Well, let me back up for one other quick second. So BP, the BP Statistical Review- but I look at the IEA. In fact, I was just looking at an International Energy Agency report on rare- on critical elements, critical minerals this morning. And I also look at EIA data. And I know a lot of other people who are in this field and particularly in the energy field, they do as well, but the thing that the error that if - to your question - what error do I find most common in these discussions? It's people confusing energy and power. They're not the same thing.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, can you give us a two minute download on that?

Robert Bryce
Sure. So when we talk about power, people are generally referring to electricity like there's a power market. Well, okay. But energy and power are two different metrics. They're two different metrics and physics. Energy is the ability to do work. Power is the rate at which work gets done. I've said it many times. We don't give a damn about energy. What we want is power. I'll put sawdust in my gas tank, in my fuel tank in my car if I think when I press the accelerator it'll give me motive power, right? What we want is lighting power. We want microphone power. We want communications power. We don't really care where the energy is, what it is that is used. I don't- this microphone. I live in Austin. It could be a coal-fired power plant, could be nuclear, could be wind could be hydro, could be all those. I don't really care where the electricity comes from. But to make the- to go back. What is energy? Energy is a sum. Power is a rate. Energy is the ability to do work. Power is the rate at which work gets done. Energy is measured in joules or in gallons. It's an amount. Power is the rate. It is watts and we measure power in watts. That is the metric. Now, of course, we can measure it in horsepower. Watts and horsepower are both power metrics, just as joules and BTUs are energy metrics. But people in the energy sector, all the time, confuse them. And in particular, they confuse energy density and power density. Again, they're not the same things.

Bret Kugelmass
Oh, okay. Now get into that. What's the difference in energy density and power density? And why does it matter?

Robert Bryce
Sure. There are different metrics. So for energy density, we can have volumetric energy density. If I had this as can of soda water, well the energy density of this if I filled it with sawdust would be far less than if I filled it with gasoline or jet fuel, right? Okay, so that's volumetric or gravimetric, energy density by weight. That matters if we are talking about how to fuel our automobile, right, because you don't want something that's really heavy like a car battery. It's one of the reasons why electric vehicles have been so slow to take off, because the battery weighs so much, particularly when compared to gasoline. That's energy density. And that's, again, usually measured in volumetric or gravimetric terms, so by volume or by weight. The same metric applies in physics and sometimes it's called specific density - and they're different - but the proper term in physics is power density. Well, again, that's a rate. It's a measure of energy flow from a given area, volume, or mass. So the volumetric power density of the Model T engine was far less than the volumetric power density of a new Ford V6, right? So the amount of space in that engine- in the new engine is the output in watts, or horsepower, is far greater in that new Ford engine. But the key, the real key when we think about our energy and power networks today is aerial power density, which is how many watts per square meter can we- do we need to extract the amount of energy that we need. And it's why I'm so pro-nuclear. Because I visited the Indian Point Power Plant, the Indian Point nuclear plant before it was disastrously and villainously closed by the Cuomo Administration with the full support of the Natural Resources Defense Council: 2,000 watts per square meter. They were producing two gigawatts of power from a land area of one square kilometer, 2,000 watts per square meter. That's the problem with wind and solar. They're one watt per square meter for wind, 10 watts per square meter for solar. So that's power density.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. And so power density seems to matter - or the way that you've articulated it seems to matter - in terms of land consumption.

Robert Bryce
Yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
I think the argument that most renewable people might say is, Well, we have a lot of desert space or something. Let's just coat the deserts.

Robert Bryce
Yeah, right. Well, they don't live out there, do they?

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And I also find that arguments spurious. But I'm also wondering if you can translate this metric that you're referring to in terms of power density, all like systems, material consumption. That's how I think about a lot with nuclear. It's not just the land that it takes. But if you were to sum every piece of material that goes into a nuclear plant for its entire lifecycle, divide that about the energy that you get out, you're still- you're looking at orders of magnitude less. And I think that's important just because-okay, you can say that you can make any energy system more technologically advanced, but you're talking about like a couple percent efficiency increases over time. With nuclear, you're starting with orders of magnitude less stuff to make the power.

Robert Bryce
Exactly. And that's exactly right, Bret, and it's the critical, critical issue. And the proper way to phrase it - and I say proper, it's the way I do it, and it is the proper way - the lower the power density, the higher the resource intensity. When you're trying to make dilute energy systems into concentrated systems, you have to counteract that dilute nature with other inputs. Corn ethanol, which I've been a longtime critic of - a longtime critic of the wind business, as well - well, so with corn ethanol, to produce corn, what do you need? Well, then you need a lot of diesel fuel. You need a lot of fertilizer. You need a lot of land. In fact, in the Bloomberg- Dave Merrill has published some great graphics at Bloomberg on just the land sprawl of corn ethanol. Well, the same is true of wind. And so, Vaclav Smil and David Keith and Lee Miller - Vaclav Smil from University of Manitoba, Miller and Keith from Harvard - both had done the same analysis on wind and found that to just meet existing electricity demand in the US with wind, we'd need a land area of two Californias. Well, how many turbines would it be? It would be in the hundreds of thousands, all of which would require copper, steel, concrete, and enormous amounts of rare earth elements, which is another key issue in terms of resource inputs that you cannot be surmounted.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. And these resource inputs translate somewhat directly also to carbon footprint as well. That's the other thing I've never really understood about the whole renewable argument and getting to net zero. You could look and say, Okay, well, yes, it's a lot less, 10 times less than natural gas, but it still does have a carbon footprint. It doesn't seem - ad does nuclear, as everything - but it seems that you can run a more holistic assessment and say, Well, okay, if we're going to transform everything, how many more gigatons of carbon does that put in the air? And where are we in terms of our climate goals? If we do it perfectly, as you said, and then use that as a starting point to say, Is this a practical solution or not? That seems to get overlooked.

Robert Bryce
Oh, absolutely. I mean, the smelting of copper, the smelting of nickel. The IEA did a tremendous report in May- … that came out in May on critical minerals. And they looked at all these different things like the inputs for cobalt, the resource intensity of EVs versus conventional vehicles, the resource intensity of offshore wind and onshore wind relative to nuclear and natural gas, to your point. And the zinc intensity was one of the things that just jumped out to me. Well, you're not just gonna go- there are no big piles of zinc. You have to mine it and then you have to smelt it and then you have to transport it, all of which comes with CO2 emissions. And so the bottom line is, there ain't no free lunch. All of these things have a- they require big inputs and that just continues to be overlooked, particularly by this "all renewable" garbage that just gets continually promoted by environmental groups that have backed with hundreds of millions of dollars. I mean, it's just this- they've been very effective. I give them credit, but their viewpoint on the world is just- it's just completely wrongheaded.

Bret Kugelmass
I guess back to my original question, when you talk to who you see as some of the best policy experts, or let's say most powerful policy experts in the world, did they get it? Do they understand this argument? And they just say, Well, listen, we've still got to play nice with renewables, because politics and their voters and stuff? Or do they not get it?

Robert Bryce
Well, as everything, some do and some don't. I think the reality is that when it comes to the land use conflicts, this has clearly become the binding constraint around the expansion of renewables. I've written about this now for 10 years and put out a report in April with the Center of the American Experiment on this. There's something like 320 different communities now just in the US from Maine to Hawaii who have rejected or restricted wind projects. This summer alone, you had big solar projects rejected in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Montana. I think the- forget what the policy experts are saying. The reality on the ground is that rural communities around the world, not just in the US, are saying, We don't want your stinking renewable projects in our neighborhood. We don't want your 600-foot high wind turbines. We don't want your thousands of acres of solar projects. We don't want that here. Go somewhere else.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I've heard that same rhetoric from the financial community about when they try to invest in these projects, they're kind of squeezed down on margins, just because there aren't enough viable projects, because people can't secure the land rights in the renewable sector. But then this-

Robert Bryce
And that means their economic returns are lower. And I've heard the same thing from other people with very large corporations that they're just saying, Yeah, these projects are politically popular in Wall Street and in big cities, but when you actually look at them very closely, the economic return on investment is very low. And so, when will the renewable bubble or renewable mirage burst? I don't know. It has a lot of momentum behind it, but there's gonna be a lot of capital destroyed in the meantime.

Bret Kugelmass
When you talk to nuclear folks- because I speak to a lot of people in the nuclear sector and they often have this perspective of like, Oh, woe is me. Nobody wants nuclear. It's a social acceptance issue, so we can't build it. Like kind of making a lot of excuses. But then they don't look at the facts that you just said about how other industries, even well-liked in the media industries also have NIMBY problems and you know what? It doesn't make them throw their hands up in the air and just give up. They fight through it, no matter how hard it is. Do you also hear that same sentiment from nuclear people, that it's too hard because the public doesn't like us?

Robert Bryce
Well, let me just say one thing about- I really do not like that, that word NIMBY or the use of that word, because to me it verges on a slur. It is a slur. It's this idea, well, not in my backyard. Everyone everywhere cares about what's happening in their neighborhood and damn well they should. So this idea, well, we don't want that here. We'll okay, yeah, I get it. But I think that the overall my impression after I've been writing about energy and power systems 30 years, I think the public sentiment around nuclear has started- it is changing and is changing more rapidly than it has in the past and that there's a-

Bret Kugelmass
What do you think are some of the driving forces behind that?

Robert Bryce
Well, I think that- I think fundamentally, people are smart. They're starting to get it. And Karl Rove, who, of course, was George W. Bush's political adviser said, This assumption that the masses are asses, he said, is wrong. People pay attention. And I think that that's largely true. And I think that the reality, the impossibility of going to all renewables, people are starting to understand that. I think that- what I think one of the key issues is that younger people are inclined to be more pro-nuclear than their parents, because the parents grew up in a Cold War era, so they haven't been as brainwashed with the anti-nuclear rhetoric that my generation got through, partly because of the Cold War, etc.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Where do you see some of the- okay, so you see kind of a shift in perception, a shift in public acceptance of nuclear. Is this-

Robert Bryce
If I can interrupt, because I don't know that it's even public acceptance. I mean, what do I see? Look, as I said, I'm adamantly pro-nuclear. There are a lot of great companies and startups and others that have technologies that we could deploy, but the hurdles are, I think, particularly - if we can just talk about that for a minute - because to me, it's not so much the public acceptance of nuclear. It's still the cost to deploy and the length of time to deploy at scale.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay. I agree. By the way, I just want to just say with 100% conviction, that is true. That is exactly what I've found as well. It's not the public perception. It's the cost and time to deploy. Alright, now, I want you to like peel off the layers and examine those problems a little bit.

Robert Bryce
Sure. Well, let me start with the kind of the broader framework around what the US sector looks like. So yes, there's no question China and Russia are really winning the global race in terms of deployment of nuclear reactors. There's just no doubt about it. Rosatom and the Chinese national champions are just- they're stealing the cheese here. There's just no question about it. But what are the hurdles here in the US? I think one of the biggest is that the US, unlike France, unlike Russia, China, etc., they don't have one national utility. In the US, we have the most diffused ownership of any electric grid in the world. There's something like 3,000 different electricity providers. It's close to 3,200 in the United States.

Bret Kugelmass
Wild.

Robert Bryce
So you have almost 900 cooperatives. You have about 2,100 publicly owned electric utilities. And then you have less than 200 investor-owned utilities and then you have the publicly sponsored entities, the TVA and so on, LCRA here in Austin. Getting them all to sing from the same hymnal is no easy task. And some of these are very small co-ops. I was in Indianapolis last week, 12,000 meters, 10,000 meters. Oh, well, they're going to buy into a nuclear plant? Well, how is that? How long will that take? And what share will they have? And so that's kind of one of the- I think that has to be understood from the very beginning is this very- as Matt Wald said, to call it balkanized would be an insult to the Balkans, right?

Bret Kugelmass
That's correct. Yeah, yeah. But that- okay, so that's the US, but it's a big world.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, okay, so we see China and Russia. There are also a lot of other countries that don't have this grid balkanization issue. Why aren't they building more nuclear?

Robert Bryce
Oh, yeah.

Robert Bryce
Nuclear energy requires strong civil society. It requires strong civil institutions. As I wrote in my book, theft is the enemy of light. And if there's a country where corruption is rampant or the government is weak and there aren't strong civil institutions - the strong universities, strong systems of governance, corruption is kept to a minimum - you're just not going to be able to develop one. It's incredibly hard just to develop a reliable grid, much less to deploy a grid that's run by splitting the atom. It requires a lot of sophistication.

Bret Kugelmass
Why does it require more sophistication than a combined cycle natural gas plant?

Robert Bryce
Well, because you've got a fuel cycle that you have to manage. So you've got to have civil institutions that are going to say, Oh, well, we'll manage the control of those fuel rods or whether its fuel rods or some of the new reactors with pellets or billiard balls or one of these other fuel systems. You have to have trusted entities. And if you need trusted entities, well then your lender, whoever is going to finance it, has to have faith in those trusted entities. So, it's-

Bret Kugelmass
That doesn't seem too hard. Other countries do manage other - excuse me - other types of toxic waste.

Robert Bryce
Oh, yeah.

Bret Kugelmass
Like okay, it's hazardous, but it's in very small quantities.

Robert Bryce
Absolutely.

Bret Kugelmass
It's also like totally wrapped up in concrete and steel, so it's pretty easy to handle at the end of the day.

Robert Bryce
Sure.

Bret Kugelmass
So why is that hard? Like why- I'm still-

Robert Bryce
I think it goes back again to the governance issue. And so let me- so where are the countries today that have nuclear? Well, they're almost all in the OECD, right? They're almost all in the developed world. To flip that question around, well, why is Lebanon generating effectively all of its electricity with oil? It's because the country is so corrupt. They can't manage a supply chain that would finance pipelines. They can't even get a lender to lend the money to build a new power plant, because the government is so corrupt. Of any kind. So what did they do? They leased power ships from Turkey. I mean, or Nigeria, the same thing. I mean, these countries where corruption is rampant and where governments are weak, you can't make the grid work at all, much less fuel it by fission.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah. Okay. I think that makes sense. Let's carve the world in the pieces, so we just dumped half of the countries, let's say, there. What about a country, let's say, like India, where they have nuclear technology and they've got this huge energy demand and huge populations, great engineers, sophisticated scientists, all sorts of things. Why aren't they doing something similar to what China- China just came up and said, Okay, we're gonna do 200 gigawatts. Why hasn't India said that in any point in the last 20 years, we're just going to do 200 gigawatts of nuclear?

Robert Bryce
Well, again, I think the Chinese government, the central government in China is a lot stronger than the central government in India.

Bret Kugelmass
Let me re-ask then. Why haven't they just created a market structure that allows private institutions to do that within India?

Robert Bryce
Well, I guess my- that's a good question. I've been to India once. I'm not going to pretend that I'm an India expert, but I would say it's simply the ability to finance the power plant. Who's going to be that private entity in India that Goldman Sachs or Bank of America or JPMorgan is going to go, Oh, yeah, we trust them. We know they're going to get- they're going to get paid back on a loan of what, $5-10 billion. It's a big risk.

Bret Kugelmass
Though it does drive me crazy that they cost that much. And I think that's also another problem that needs to be challenged. I'm wondering if you've looked into this at all. When I was combing through some early data on our original build out of nuclear plants in the late 60s - let's say before the NRC was created - the cost to build a, let's say Point Beach 1 and 2. 1,100 megawatts, the same is like the AP-1000. Today's dollars, 700 million bucks, not five billion. 700 million. So it's like, where did things go wrong from there?

Robert Bryce
There's a lot of work that's been done on this. I know that the time to deploy the learning rate. Jessica Lovering has done some good work on this. Breakthrough Institute's done some good work on this. Some of that cost inflation is, I think, because of the spiral design-build process where they hadn't decided on the final design before they start building and then they get in the middle, Oh, well- It's one of the problems that plagues the Department of Defense when they're building new weapons. Instead of saying, Oh, yeah, we've done this. We tested it. We know it works. We're gonna build it just like this. I think that's part of the thing, but I think it's part of the reason. But to your point, I think the key now is we look at the future and we want to decarbonize at a time when there are 3 billion people. It's a point I make in both my new film "Juice" and also in my new book. There are 3 billion people in the world today who live in places where electricity consumption is less than what's used by an average kitchen refrigerator here in the United States, less than 1,000 kilowatt-hours per capita per year. So we need to deploy a lot more reactors if we're going to offer an option that's not coal for generation. But if that's going to be the case, then the reactors have to be deployable at scale. And they have to be smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper. They have to be a lot cheaper and they have to be manufactured instead of built in a bespoke manner.

Bret Kugelmass
I think all of that makes a lot of sense, too. So when you were making "Juice," since you brought it up, I think it's great to kind of add in that global perspective, because it really- there are these arguments that you kind of see circling out there. Well, we just need less. We need to consume less. But people aren't like, less travel. They're like, you're such an environmentalist, go on less vacations or less flights. It doesn't make sense.

Robert Bryce
We're using too much. Oh, come on. I don't use too much. I use just the right amount every time. I'm sure everyone else wastes energy. I don't. I don't ever waste energy. I use the right amount every time. So this idea of efficiency, and I mean, this is- I've heard this argument so many times. It does make me want to vomit. This is in the environmental groups, Rocky Mountain Institute, Sierra Club, Natural- oh, efficiency and renewables. That's all we need to do. This is a two legged stool they've been trying to stand on for decades.

Bret Kugelmass
Because it totally ignores the world that you were just referring to, which is like, okay, fine. Even if you're right, let's bring all of our consumption down, but we can't keep people in poverty, so let's bring them up. The total amount is still more than we have today.

Robert Bryce
And no one is going to say, Oh, yeah, sure. I'm going to use less. I'm going to drive less. I mean, who does that? I mean, there are a few people that will say that. But the reality is that- as Art Berman said it, Energy is the economy. And when economic growth increases, so does energy consumption. So this idea that, Oh, we're just going to use less? Well, that means less economic growth. What does less economic growth mean? It means fewer jobs. It means less income. There is no one, no politician anywhere ever got elected saying, I'm going to give you less. It just doesn't work that way. Yeah, we're gonna do less. Every year you're living conditions are gonna go down and you're gonna like it. Yeah, you're not gonna win, mister.

Bret Kugelmass
When you put out a book or a movie, what's the reaction that you get? Because I mean, listen, you're a very independent thinker. You're bringing forth new ideas. These aren't things that people have heard 100 times before. I imagine you're probably shocking some people. What's the feedback people give you? How does that inform how you move things forward? What happens after you publish something?

Robert Bryce
Well, that's an interesting question. What I realized in my dotage now as I get more gray hair was that I can't think too much about the reaction. I have, over time, just learned I have faith in what I'm doing. I know my numbers are right. I know my books are based on the physics, the math, and the history and they're fully fact checked. I know what I'm doing.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, I wasn't really implying that there is like criticism of your work. I'm actually- what I was really going for is like, when someone tells you or when someone responds to work that you've put out, if it helps you understand where there's still a gap in their knowledge or where there are gaps in your knowledge.

Robert Bryce
I gotcha. Well, I think it goes back to your idea about the worldview, right? And what are people's worldview? I ran into some person here in Austin a few months ago and his whole thing was, Oh, well, we just need to make energy more expensive. And I looked at him and I said, No, that's completely wrong, you don't understand. That's an elitist view of the world being spoken by somebody who's already made all the money they need and live in a nice house. And oh, you think it should be more expensive. Oh, okay. But that mindset, I think, to answer your question, I think that conflict, what do I run into in terms of this conflict? It's really a religious attachment that people have to the ideas that they've owned for a long time and they don't want to be disabused of them. And so that's where I think the conflict comes in.

Bret Kugelmass
I love that you just said that. There's almost like religious attachment. Do you find that that is true across the world and across all classes, where it's the people who are in- the well off people that have this religious attachment to energy?

Robert Bryce
I just was in California. In fact, I was just there earlier this week and we did some interviews - I'm working on another project - and talking to people about this religious aspect of environmentalism. And this idea of, Oh, we've sinned against the Earth and we have to get right with God, where it's not Jesus or Buddha or Jehovah. It's the Earth is God, so there are very similar kind of ideas in Christian belief and this environmentalism, which for a lot of young people is supplanting regular church going. But it's this idea of the fall from grace and that we need to get right with the earth again and we've done the wrong thing. And nuclear represents this ultimate bite of the apple of knowledge that we shouldn't have done and if only we go backward in time and use less. The degrowthers - Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein - all the, frankly, the radical “climatistas,” that's their view of the future. But it's one that's just completely divorced from modern reality and completely ignores the reality of extreme energy poverty in the world.

Bret Kugelmass
So what do we do to combat this? Because it almost seems, especially if you're tying it to the decline of traditional religion - and I don't know, actually, if that's going to continue to decline or not, but I imagine it is - what do we do to combat this environmental religious uptake?

Robert Bryce
More humanism. I mean-

Bret Kugelmass
You've got to replace it. Okay, so humans need a religion. So replace this new religion that they're finding with a humanism religion?

Robert Bryce
Well, I don't even necessarily, I think- I testified before the Senate in November - on November 16, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee - and that was my- that was the first thing I said. We need more energy realism and a big dose of energy humanism. We need to understand that whatever Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, whatever, we have to treasure the humans on this planet and we have to make sure that we nurture them to their highest potential everywhere. And that human flourishing is one- should be one of our key goals as a global society. And if we're going to make humans flourish, we need a hell of a lot more energy. We need a whole ton more electricity. I don't care what religious tradition you come from, but almost as far as I know, every religious tradition treasures the human soul, treasures human people. That- we need that more than more church going. We need belief that we need to help more people come out of poverty and into the lights and the modernity. That is modernity that brings women and girls, especially, out of grinding poverty. And one last point on that, and I wrote about this in Forbes a few weeks ago. It was during the Glasgow the COP26 meeting in Glasgow where there were some nuclear, pro-nuclear people there and, as you know many of them - Chris Keefer and Mark Nelson and others and Paris Wines - demonstrating in favor of nuclear. But the focus of COP26 was, well, let's use less hydrocarbons. Let's use less energy. On November 5, right after- it was right in the middle of the conference, in Sierra Leone, in Freetown, Sierra Leone in Africa, 144 people were burned alive trying to catch just a little bit of a gasoline that was leaking from a wrecked fuel tanker. Extreme energy poverty. That is the daily reality for billions of people in the world today. It's completely lost amidst these people, Oh, let's just use less or as this fellow here in Austin said, Oh, energy is too cheap, we need to make it more expensive. Okay. Oh, why don't you go live in Sierra Leone and see if you think you need the energy to be more expensive.

Bret Kugelmass
But unfortunately, does that also- is there like a larger Malthusian force behind that where then they say, Well, we also need less people, so take that.

Robert Bryce
Oh, sure. This Malthusianism has been part and parcel of the environmental movement for decades. I mean, and it even goes back- I lectured about this a few weeks ago, I spoke to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. And I hadn't done this lecture before, but I thought about it quite a lot before. I got quotes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1750: we need to go back to the garden, we're living too well. Malthus says, too many people. You can even see it in Thoreau and then later in Rachel Carson in Silent Spring: there was a time when we lived in harmony with the Earth. Edward Abbey: there are too many people we've sinned against the earth. You see it in Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein about what they're saying. There is a fundamental Malthusian outlook that there are too many people, humans are bad, and we need to use less and go back to the garden. It just permeates this idea that is the credo of these big environmental groups.

Bret Kugelmass
Do you see pockets of either policy or places where things are going right where you're like, Wow, if we could just take what's happening there and magnify it, that this would put us on the right direction?

Robert Bryce
Yeah, sure.

Bret Kugelmass
Calls for optimism, is the other-

Robert Bryce
Look, I'm incurably optimistic. As my late Molly Ivan said, I'm optimistic to the point of idiocy. But I see this rebirth. I'm really thrilled with some of the work that- well, some of the work that you're doing, some of the other, the pro-nuclear, pro-humanists. I could say Alex Epstein, he's very much pro-hydrocarbons, but he's a humanist. I think Michael Shellenberger, another example, Mark Nelson, Chris Keefer. People who are saying, No, we don't need less energy, we need more energy and we need that because it's good for people. And so I see these pockets of, I'll call them intellectuals - and I'm putting myself in that class to some degree - but we need to change the focus. We need to change the dialogue away from this Malthusian limited kind of anti-energy stance which it fundamentally was and is. And if you're anti-energy, you're anti-human. I see that's beginning to change. And I see similar movements afoot in Europe. I can't speak to Asia, but I think it's happening, but it's still pretty small.

Bret Kugelmass
Okay, so that's on like the social advocacy side of things. Anything in like the regulatory or operational or logistical, like pockets of things going right that we can capitalize off of?

Robert Bryce
Well, I think that on the federal level, I see that it's been slow. I mean, let's be clear. It's been very slow for Congress and NRC to take the kind of proactive action to really expedite the licensing and permitting of new reactors. And it's happening. You see what NuScale is doing and Kairos and some of the recent developments with Oklo. I mean, it's incredibly promising, but still a decade and a half, maybe more in terms of being deployed at scale. Not saying that we shouldn't do it. We should. We need to expedite it. I think that we see gradually, very gradually more bipartisan support of nuclear. And thankfully, finally, from the Democratic Party, which has been reflexively anti-nuclear since the 70s. In fact-

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, what's that about?

Robert Bryce
They're controlled by the Sierra Club. I mean, let's be clear, call it what it is. They're controlled by the extreme left of the environmentalisms in America and they've adopted this, reflexively, anti-nuclear attitude. I've looked. You have to go back to the Democratic platform of 1972 to see the last positive mention of nuclear power until their 2020 platform. They've been absent without leave for decades and now they've made some positive noises about it. But still, you look at the leaders of the Democratic Party in America, they never say anything positive about nuclear. Never.

Bret Kugelmass
Yep. And what about internationally? Anything you like that you see happening internationally? I always feel like we're launching these things at home. Since we are such a big ship to turn, it's just so much easier if we can point and say, They did that, proof is in the pudding, and let's get some competitive juices going and say, Oh. If Romania installed 10 gigawatts of capacity in 10 years, we're America. We can do it. Something like that.

Robert Bryce
Let's go to Bucharest, right. Bucharest, Romania isn't that right? Yeah, I think that's right. Anyway. Well, I think, you know, one of the things that may, Bret, bring around some more energy realism is the energy crisis in Europe. You see that, in fact, the conflict around the Nord Stream 2 pipeline causing massive fluctuations in natural gas prices in Europe. And so what was one of the reactions just in the last few weeks, you saw President Macron from France say, We're going to deploy small modular reactors. Well, that's something completely new. I think that there is a real possibility that the soaring prices of natural gas, which have been unnaturally low - and I say unnaturally low for natural gas, I'm mixing my vocabulary here - but they've been too low for a long time. And too low means- because there was just massive over investment in the shale revolution in the US. Now you're seeing some the natural gas market in the United States and globally equilibrate, but still for LNG delivered into the Asian market at 20 or $30 per million BTUs, it's just not economic to turn that into electricity. That's going to either give them the religion to go back to coal or look more closely at nuclear. And I think the latter is a good possibility, because of its inherent virtues.

Bret Kugelmass
I'm so glad that you brought that up, because I think that's right. I think that's going to be the driving force. A few crises that happen, give people that opportunity to re-examine things that they might have been a little bit dug in on for a while.

Robert Bryce
And you saw even after Glasgow then that the Japanese government is saying they're going to double down on hydrocarbons. They made good noises about nuclear, but the reality is, what are they doing? They're building ultra-supercritical coal plants. This, to me, is part of what I call the iron law of electricity: people, businesses, and countries are going to do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need. We're not going to have a global price on carbon. But if we can develop a new generation or generations of new modular reactors that can be deployed at scale, that have a safe fuel cycle, that are easy to handle, I think nuclear can really make great progress, but it needs to be expedited.

Bret Kugelmass
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, we're running out of time, but I want to make sure that you've got the final word. Are there any themes or topics that you want to touch upon that we didn't already?

Robert Bryce
Well, I think it's the conflict. I mean, to me, just building on the iron law, I think, to me one of the more interesting developments now that's happening is a re-carbonization - not decarbonisation - of economies all around the country and around the world. I was just in California. What's happening there? They've made their grid so unstable, partly due to the closure of San Onofre and now the pending closure of Diablo Canyon. You see the looming closure in Germany of three nuclear power plants. Those plants, whenever they are closed- we saw this at Indian Point in New York, which the Natural Resources Defense Council cheered on, the closure of the Indian Point Energy Center. A critically important piece of infrastructure for New York City. Cheered it on. What happened? That plant has been replaced by natural gas-fired power plants.

Bret Kugelmass
How are they not embarrassed of themselves?

Robert Bryce
Oh, they should be. It was- what they've done.

Bret Kugelmass
I know they wanted that, but you would have thought they would have cheered quietly or in private about it. They cheered publicly about. I just can't believe it.

Robert Bryce
It's gobsmacking how badly they've acted and what happened, Jeff Bezos gave them $100 million last year, $100 million.

Bret Kugelmass
So what's up with that? Can we speculate on like, yeah, where are the technophile billionaires that can make their own- come to their own conclusions on energy systems? Where are they when it comes to leading the charge? He's leading the charge - or not leading the charge - he's part of the charge in space. Where is he on energy? Why isn't he- sorry, I just don't get it. With the billionaire types, it's like, let's say you've accumulated tens of billions. You can see that no matter what your portfolio on its own is going to increase by a couple billion to even- maybe like Bill Gates is probably getting 10 billion in interest a year, Bezos 10 billion in interest a year. I just don't understand. I understand that they want to preserve their capital or there's a reason that they're rich. I've heard those things before, but I just don't understand. They can become the savior of the world and not get just remembered for the next 10 years, but get remembered for the next millennia if they were to just- what's happening there? Do you have any thoughts?

Robert Bryce
Well, I think Gates is, of all of that class, of the billionaire class - and I don't hang with those guys much, you know, I don't have a jet - but I think Gates has maybe been the one with what is it, Breakthrough Energy or the Breakthrough- their efforts on that. I think he's been the one that's taken most seriously. I don't know how, with Bezos and the rest of them, why is Michael Bloomberg giving the Sierra Club $500 million? Why? It's his "beyond carbon" campaign or "beyond coal" or whatever.

Bret Kugelmass
He's an entrepreneur. I don't understand why an entrepreneur with all that money isn't giving the money towards entrepreneurial solutions instead of these anti-human solutions.

Robert Bryce
I think it's partly they tend to be liberal Democrats. And that's been the dogma of the left for decades is that, to be reflexively anti-nuclear. But I think that, going beyond just the nuclear part of this, Bret, what really concerns me and deeply concerns me is the fragilization of the American electric grid. And what is clear after Winter Storm Uri- I'm in Austin and my wife, Lauren, and I, we were blacked out for 45 hours and we live right in the center of town. And after that happened, I mean, it did change how I think about these issues and really made me think again. It's been great timing, frankly, for my book and for the work that I'm doing on the electricity and the grid, but the fragilization of the grid and the closure of our baseload plants, our coal and nuclear plants, it's an ... I mean, it's incredibly dangerous what we're doing. And yet, what is happening at the federal level with the Build Back Better Act, massive continuation of the subsidies for solar and wind. Here at ERCOT in Texas, effectively, the only capacity that's being added to the ERCOT grid is all solar and wind. Why? Because it's where the money is. Because of these incredibly lavish federal subsidies. So adamantly pro-nuclear, but before we even talk about nuclear, we have to make sure we preserve the grid that we have and we don't make it worse, because blackouts nationally, they've gone up 13-fold in the last 20 years. Why is that? It's because we're doing stupid things.

Bret Kugelmass
And then the current response to that is build more natural gas to counteract the intermittent renewables. But not only does that counteract the intermittency, it also counteracts the carbon goals that you had to begin with.

Robert Bryce
Sure. And I'm pro natural gas, absolutely. If we're- if we have it in abundance, let's use it. But the natural gas industry is partly to blame here for that very reason. Oh, well, we're bros, we can hug with the renewable guys. Well, okay, that's fine. But as we saw here in Texas, natural gas is a just-in-time fuel. And Meredith Angwin, in her great book "Shorting the Grid," she coined this term "the fatal trifecta": over reliance on gas, over reliance on renewables, and over reliance on imports. And that's dangerous. We cannot let the grid fail. I think that that message continues to not- to be largely ignored in Washington and we can't afford that. Texas came very close to a complete grid meltdown. That would have been catastrophic.

Bret Kugelmass
Where can people find you? What are you working on next? How can we allow our audience to track your work over time?

Robert Bryce
Sure, thanks. Well, I've written six books. The latest one is "A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations." It's available at all your fine booksellers. My new [movie] is called "Juice: How Electricity Explains the World." You can find out more on our website juicethemovie.com. I'm on Twitter @pwrhungry, and my website is robertbryce.com, so I'm easy to find on the Google.

Bret Kugelmass
Robert, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. I've always enjoyed listening to you on all my friends' podcasts. I've enjoyed listening to your podcast. I mean, I just think you're such a- you're such an incredible thinker on this topic. So it's really an honor to have you.

Robert Bryce
Well, that's very kind. Thank you, sir.

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