The energies we use don’t merely power our lives, they shape them – from the buildings we live in to the foods we eat and the alliances and enmities we form in (geo)politics. In the first part of the March bookshelf series, Yale Climate Connections highlighted books that explain the connections between energy and society and review the social history and impacts of fossil fuels. This second part features books that consider how renewable energies will reshape America and the world.

The descriptions of the books are drawn from copy provided by the publishers. When two dates of publication are included, the second marks the release of the paperback edition.

Special thanks to the YCC readers who suggested titles for this collection.


Energy Systems and Sustainability: Power for a Sustainable Future, 2E, edited by Bob Everett, Godfrey Boyle, Stephen Peake, and Janet Ramage (Oxford University Press 2012, 672 pages, $99.95 paperback)

Interdisciplinary in its approach and global in perspective, Energy Systems and Sustainability: Power for a Sustainable Future, 2E explores the economic, social, environmental, and policy issues raised by current systems of energy use. With a focus on sustainability, it analyzes the historical evolution of the world’s energy systems, the principles underlying their use, and their present status and future prospects. New to this edition are the increased coverage of the “peak oil” debate and the implications of China’s increasing energy use and the revised and expanded exploration of the sustainability of fossil fuel use, with new material on carbon capture and storage, the social cost of carbon, hybrid electric cars, and prospects for a hydrogen economy.

Renewable: The World Changing Power of Alternative Energy, by Jeremy Shere (St. Martin’s Press 2013, 2014 pages, $25.99)

Arranged in five parts – Green Gas, Sun, Wind, Earth, and Water – Renewable tells the stories of the most interesting and promising types of renewable energy: namely, biofuel, solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. Shere digs into the rich, surprisingly long histories of these technologies, bringing to life the pioneering scientists, inventors, and visionaries who blazed the way for solar, wind, hydro, and other forms of renewable power, and unearthing the curious involvement of great thinkers like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Nicola Tesla. Jeremy Shere’s natural curiosity and serious research come together in an entertaining and informative guide to where renewable energy has been, where it is today, and where it’s heading.

The Energy Revolution: The Physics and Promise of Technology, by Mara Prentiss (Harvard University Press 2015, 352 pages, $29.95)

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed – but it can be wasted. The United States wastes two-thirds of its energy, including 80 percent of the energy used in transportation. So the nation has a tremendous opportunity to develop a sensible energy policy based on benefits and costs. But to do that we need facts. Mara Prentiss interprets information from government reports and press releases, as well as fundamental scientific laws, to advance a bold claim: wind and solar power could generate 100 percent of the United States’ average total energy demand for the foreseeable future, even without waste reduction. Energy Revolution answers a crucial question: How can we get smarter about producing and distributing, using and conserving, energy?

The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy, by Lester Brown (W.W. Norton 2015, 192 pages, $16.95 paperback)

The old economy, fueled by oil, natural gas, and coal is being replaced with one powered by wind, solar, and geothermal energy. The Great Transition details the accelerating pace of this global energy revolution. As many countries become less enamored with coal and nuclear power, they are embracing an array of clean, renewable energies. Whereas solar energy projects were once small-scale, largely designed for residential use, energy investors are now building utility-scale solar projects. Some of the huge wind farm complexes under construction in China will each produce as much electricity as several nuclear power plants, and an electrified transport system supplemented by the use of bicycles could reshape the way we think about mobility.

Energy and Climate: Vision for the Future, by Michael B. McElroy (Oxford University Pres 2016, 280 pages, $36.95)

In Energy and Climate: Vision for the Future, McElroy provides a broad and comprehensive introduction to the issues of energy and climate change. The book includes chapters on energy basics, a discussion of the contemporary energy systems of the U.S. and China, and two chapters that engage the debate regarding climate change. The perspective is global but with a specific focus on the U.S. and China, recognizing the critical role these countries must play in addressing the challenge of global climate change. The book concludes with a discussion of initiatives now underway to reduce the rate of increase of greenhouse gas emissions, together with a vision for a low carbon energy future that could minimize the long-term impacts on global climate.

Renewable Energy: Power for a Sustainable Future, 4E, edited by Stephen Peake (Oxford University Press 2018, 584 pages, $54.95 paperback)

Renewable Energy provides both perspective and detail on the relative merits and state of progress of technologies for utilizing the various “renewables.” The underlying physical and technological principles behind deriving power from direct solar (solar thermal and photovoltaics), indirect solar (biomass, hydro, wind and wave) and non-solar (tidal and geothermal) energy sources are explained. The analysis then considers emissions, sustainability, cost implications and energy security, as well as the political and economic pressures to move society towards a low-carbon future. The book concludes by examining the prospects for the integration of renewables into national and international networks.

The solar revolution

Harness the Sun: America’s Quest for a Solar-Powered Future, Philip Warburg (2015/2016, 252 pages, $20.00 paperback)

In Harness the Sun, Philip Warburg takes readers on a far-flung journey that explores America’s solar revolution. Beginning with his solar-powered home in New England, he introduces readers to the pioneers who are spearheading our move toward a clean energy economy. Warburg shows how solar energy has won surprising support across the political spectrum. Some conservatives embrace solar power as an emblem of market freedom, while environmental advocates see it as a way to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet solar energy has its downsides and detractors too. Conservationists worry about the impact of large solar farms, and some local citizens groups resent the encroachments of solar projects. Harness the Sun offers a grounded vision of an American future fueled by clean sources of power, with solar at center stage.

The Switch: How Solar, Storage and New Tech Means Cheap Power for All, by Chris Goodall (Profile Books 2016, 288 pages, $14.95 paperback)

Solar panels are being made that will last longer than ever hoped, and investors are seeing the benefits of the long-term rewards provided by investing in solar. The Switch tracks the transition away from coal, oil and gas to a world in which the limitless energy of the sun provides much of the energy the 10 billion people of this planet will need. It examines both the solar future and how we will get there, and the ways in which we will provide stored power when the sun isn’t shining. Told through the stories of entrepreneurs, inventors and scientists from around the world, and using the latest research and studies, The Switch provides a positive solution to the climate change crisis, and looks to a brighter future ahead.

Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet, by Varun Sivaram (The MIT Press 2018, 392 pages, $29.95)

Solar energy, once a niche application for a limited market, has become the cheapest and fastest-growing power source on earth. What’s more, its potential is nearly limitless – every hour the sun beams down more energy than the world uses in a year. But in Taming the Sun, energy expert Varun Sivaram warns that the world is not yet equipped to harness erratic sunshine to meet most of its energy needs. And if solar’s current surge peters out, prospects for replacing fossil fuels and averting catastrophic climate change will dim. Financial, technological, and systemic innovations can brighten those prospects, Sivaram explains. But unleashing these innovations will require visionary public policy. Although solar can’t power the planet by itself, it can be the centerpiece of a global clean energy revolution.

Making it work

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, by Ted Trainer (Springer Publishing 2007, 198 pages, $99.99 paperback)

It is widely assumed that our consumer society can move from using fossil fuels to using renewable energy sources while maintaining the high levels of energy use to which we have become accustomed. This book details the reasons why this almost unquestioned assumption is seriously mistaken. Chapters on wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal, hydrogen, and nuclear energy argue that these are not able to meet present electricity demands, let alone the future’s. The real problem is that our consumer society is grossly unsustainable and unjust. Its commitments to affluent living standards and economic growth have inevitably generated global problems. These can only be solved by a transition to a society based on simpler ways, within a zero-growth economy. The role renewable energy might play in enabling such a society is outlined.

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, by Gretchen Bakke (Bloomsbury Books 2016, 384 pages, $27.00)

America’s electrical grid, an engineering triumph of the twentieth century, is turning out to be a poor fit for the present. Cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke unveils the many facets of America’s energy infrastructure and its essential role in personal and national life. The grid, she argues, is an essentially American artifact, one which developed with us: a product of bold expansion, the occasional foolhardy vision, some genius technologies, and constant improvisation. Most of all, her focus is on how Americans are changing the grid right now, sometimes with gumption and big dreams and sometimes with legislation or the brandishing of guns. The Grid tells the story of what has been called “the largest machine in the world.”

Energy Democracy: Germany’s Energiewende to Renewables, by Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann (Palgrave Macmillan 2016, 437 pages, $49.99)

Energy Democracy outlines how Germans convinced their politicians to pass laws allowing citizens to make their own energy, even when it hurt utility companies to do so. It traces the origins of the Energiewende movement in Germany from the Power Rebels of Schönau to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s shutdown of eight nuclear power plants following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. The authors explore how, by taking ownership of energy efficiency at a local level, community groups are key actors in the bottom-up fight against climate change. This book offers evidence that the transition to renewables is a one-time opportunity to strengthen communities and democratize the energy sector – in Germany and around the world.

Editor’s Notes: (1) Several books on wind power were also considered for this month’s bookshelf, but most titles, like these two from New Society Publishers, were practical how-to guides rather than studies of wind energy’s possible impact on society. (2) As a general rule, YCC bookshelves do not include self-published titles. In response to a reader’s suggestion, however, YCC concluded that a new title by National Renewable Energy Laboratory senior analyst and economist David J. Hurlbut – Creative Destruction of the Electric Utility of the Future – merited a mention.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...