With The Prize written some 20 years ago, Daniel Yergin established himself as the authority on the development of the oil industry. With the Quest he has brought the developments in the world oil industry up to date but has also produced the most authoritative account of every other significant source of energy I have seen. It is a tour de force.
At the moment, November 2011 , the book remains extremely topical as it considers the impact of recent events like Fukushima in Japan (the worst nuclear disaster in quarter of a century) and the disruption to world oil supplies caused by the "Arab Spring" especially Libya.
Globalisation and the rapid progress of the developing world where people exist on 3 barrels of oil/person/day compared to 14 barrels/person/day in the developed world highlights the importance of the quest for energy. Will enough energy be available to meet the burgeoning demand and which technologies will triumph and at what cost? How can security of energy be protected? What will be the impact of environmental concerns, especially climate change, on future energy supplies?
Fossil fuels still account for more than 80% of world energy. The first part of the book looks at the complex world of oil since the Gulf War and the importance of the growth of China. There are key new energy sources. The USA now gains 50% of its oil supply from Canada's shale oil. But since the start of the 21st Century the greatest innovation has been in the development of shale gas, turning imminent shortage of supply in the USA to over 100 years of supply today. Shale gas has changed the competitive position of everything from nuclear to wind power.
Yergin is at his most fascinating in tracing the development of each of the important technologies involved in energy supply. For example he traces the development of electricity from Edison's light bulbs in 1882 and the titanic battle of AC versus DC between Edison and Westinghouse. Westinghouse's alternating current prevailed and it provided the foundation of large scale power generation. He describes how Insull, the architect of modern electrical distribution, made electricity universally available. The growth in demand for a host of new devices from personal computers to DVD players to smart phones poses big demands on electricity and Yergin examines, in detail, each of the key sources of power.
Climate change has become one of the dominating questions for the future. Renewables have experienced a rebirth and Yergin assesses in depth each of the key renewables - wind, solar and biofuels. He maintains that conservation is making the biggest contribution to the energy balance. Transportation is the key. But which way will the internal combustion engine go? Can the electric car of biofuels depose petrol as king?