I read this book because I wanted an introduction to energy issues and because Vaitheeswaran writes for The Economist, my favorite news periodical. I loved it. The author conducts a fact-filled tour of old energy (oil), new energy (hydrogen) and many of the characters, companies and countries working in the biggest industry of them all. If you like the journalistic style of The Economist, then you will surely enjoy this book. It is densely factual, tempered in presentation, and very credible. As a bonus, unlike the Economist (which doesn't seem to promote individual journalists), the author introduces himself into the story on precious few occasions and it's usually in a hilarious and self-deprecating way; e.g., one day while visiting Los Angeles, he keeps missing appointments because his electric vehicle can't keep a charge.
The book is perceived as optimistic because the author hopes that liberalized markets (first section) combined with environmentalism (second section) will promote technologies (third section) that inexorably but gradually shift us from carbon-based fossil fuels to cleaner, more efficient fuels. And he's placing his bets on a portable hydrogen fuel cell that can plug into both your house and your car, and whose only byproduct is water vapor.
But the author does not euphorically see this future as necessarily destiny; you just know the publisher slapped the marketing sub-title on the cover. If entrepreneurial technologists are the heroes of his drama, then governments are the closest thing to villains. In the case of markets, he shows that California's failed electricity experiment was the wrong kind of deregulation (because regulators unwisely capped retail rates and saddled consumers and new entrants with the cost of so-called stranded investments). He reminds us that competitive markets require a "vigilant regulator and proper price signals" (i.e., deregulation does not mean "no regulation"). In the case of environment, the author seems more worried. He makes a case that global warming is a real issue worthy of action. After he expertly presents the facts (e.g., concentrations of CO2 are increasing), he concludes with a historical parallel-concerning climate phenomenon that are not fully understood but potentially devastating-that is positively chilling: new scientific evidence now shows that we previously underestimated the effects of ozone layer depletion, and if not for the flexible Montreal protocol signed almost two decades ago, the effects would have been much deadlier. Here again, interestingly, he sees myopic politics as the culprit (as global warming is a reverse public good without current, individual constituents) and prefers to put his faith in market economics. He claims that truly free markets will somehow tend to promote more efficient, less polluting companies.
The technology section is, believe it or not, entertaining. I doubt he can satisfy everybody here and I am not qualified to question his virtual neglect of solar power and his uncharacteristically decisive, cynical verdict concerning the future of nuclear power. His big theme for the future is "small is beautiful"-specifically, miniature fuel cells, small distributed power producers, and even he says, small hydro-projects instead of large destructive dams.
I totally agree with someone's idea that he could have helped with some charts, but not because the book lacks quantitative data. It does not. But some of the data could have been rendered more memorable in chart form; e.g., oil reserves by country, fuel efficiency statistics. Also, he doesn't really cover the stalled Bush energy bill or the Clean Skies Initiative, which is disappointing but I guess he finished the book before these were introduced. Mere quibbles for an otherwise outstanding book.