By: Katrina Napora, GMU Student Contributor
Energy’s Digital Future by Amy Meyers Jaffe offers a prospective analysis of how advancements in technology influence not only the energy sector, but the geopolitics surrounding it. Jaffe considers the historical context that allowed oil to rise into power as a dominant energy source, as well as the international players that surround oil and natural gas, such as China, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Russia. By establishing the context, she then discusses how digital advancements have the potential to perturb the existing framework, for better and for worse. She focuses on the potential that automated, electric vehicles have, as well as what supplemental advancements are needed to achieve this goal. In addition, Jaffe also folds in important topics such as data analytics, 3D printing, and 5G technology, and considers their potential contribution both to automated vehicles as well as independent influences on the energy sector. The book also considers the intermediate consequences of the digital revolution on the energy sector and the gap between wide scale development and the declining economic and political power of oil. By providing a short- and long-term view of how energy may change in the coming decades, Jaffe attempts to encompass the digital advancements of the future and present it to a broad audience.
Summary of Book’s Main Themes
The Global Geopolitics of Oil
Jaffe first explains the context of the current geopolitical climate of oil trade, focusing on the United States and its key partners and rivals. The United States, due to its shale oil and natural gas, has become a net exporter of petroleum. In contrast, China, due to its booming population growth, has become a net importer. However, Jaffe, also notes that China plays a significant role in the development of energy technology, going so far as to steal ideas for battery storage from other countries.
Jaffe also notes that Saudi Arabia and Iran both are net exporters of global oil due to their geologic resources, as is Russia. Russia, in particular, is an important source of oil to western Europe, whereas Saudi Arabia and Iran have widespread influence.
Technological Advancements and Energy
Once establishing the key players, Jaffe discusses how technological advances may influence energy in the future. Among these, automated and electric vehicles take the forefront. The potential implications of automated vehicles on the energy sector include the decreased ownership in vehicles as they transition into either a pseudo-public transportation or as a secondary income source as they are sent to go taxi for others. This could reduce the number of vehicle miles travelled and thus oil usage, but also may increase miles travelled due to searching for potential fares. In addition, electric vehicles could act as external batteries and create microgrids in rural areas. The electric vehicles would store energy for usage and then during hours where energy availability is lower, such as overnight for solar-charged house, the electric cars would feed energy back to the house or the grid. However, Jaffe notes the challenges associated with developing fast enough response times for automated vehicles. In order for vehicles to dynamically respond to their environment and coordinate with each other, the speeds of receiving, interpreting, and sending data must be as close to real time as possible. As a result, 5G or higher data speeds are needed for such a system to work.
3D printing was also considered for its impact on reducing oil usage by condensing the global supply chain. Rather than transporting and storing large warehouses full of finished products, 3D printing of both plastics and metals would allow for the raw materials to be shipped and stored, and made upon request, reducing the number of individual products that must be separately created and shipped.
The Declining Influence of Oil
Finally, Jaffe considers the immediate future as she argues that oil is losing its economic and geopolitical power. The gap between the interest in investors for oil companies and the market readiness of renewable alternatives means that there could be not enough capital to support oil companies during the transition period, destabilizing the oil infrastructure. Despite this, Jaffe argues that within the context of geopolitics the 1973 oil crisis would not happen today due to the existing alternatives of natural gas and rapidly developing renewables, as well as the diversified portfolio of countries with oil development on three different continents. As a result, the geopolitical power of those with high concentrations of oil has decreased, and the means of wielding their resources has changed. Saudi Arabia, for example, protested a perceived unequal burden in oil development costs by flooding the market with their oil reserves, driving the cost down to dangerously low levels and destabilizing the market.
Reviewer’s Critique of the Book
Although the author incorporates her research and demonstrates her skill as an analyst on the topic, the bias of her background presents itself throughout the book. Jaffe, as an academic living in Texas, holds her own country in high regard and her nationalism bleeds into her writing and choice of words. The second chapter is devoted almost entirely to China, and the antagonism towards the country and its energy policy, while not ungrounded in circumstances, is clearly from a place of American pride. In one example, Jaffe talks about the lack of privacy that a young woman who recently moved to China experienced, as she was under near constant surveillance. While this in it of itself is concerning, it also contributed little to nothing to the contents of the book. China does play a major role in the energy sector, both as a major importer and in its technological developments and its thefts in terms of patents and developments. Yet any nuance in such descriptions gets lost as the personal opinions of the author dominate through her word choice and focus of attention on the ill-deeds of the nation.
Structure and Style of Writing
Jaffe attempts to cover wide swathes of information about the intersectionality of multiple disciplines, and yet still provide complex, technical information to a broad audience. However, the book lacks a cohesive arc throughout the book. Rather, each chapter tends to try and incorporate a new facet of overarching topic. As a result, though, each one tends to be self-contained within the chapters and lacking a bridge between sections. Furthermore, although the descriptions of the technology are shallow enough for any interested reader to digest, it also lacks the substance to be compelling. By attempting to be informative and grounded in analytics while also accessible, the book itself becomes bland and lacking.
Challenges of Prospective Analysis
There are inherent challenges when writing about what may happen in the future. Foremost, the book is now grounded in the time of its publication. When read in five or twenty-five years, some of the assumptions of the book will come across as naïve or perhaps ill-placed, as the readers will have more hindsight than the author was capable of. This knowledge gap that places the readers more “in the know” than the writer will make the book seem antiquated at best and obsolete at worst. Furthermore, even if the predictions made in the book come to fruition exactly as described, rather than providing an interesting context as to the ‘why’, the book simply makes projections and discusses the hypothetical implications. This makes the book incredibly timely and worthwhile to read within the first few years of publication- but that value decreases as time passes. Arguably this is true for any book aiming to project into the future, but Jaffe chooses to almost focus on models and predictions exclusively, rather than root her predictions with the contextual knowledge of those emerging technologies that could influence trends. In contrast, books that describe and analyze the current situation before incorporating elements of potential futures have a longer staying power. Someone who reads such a book twenty years later still discovers new information- both about the time period in which it was written, but also the implications for what is relevant to their present. Energy’s Digital Future is, unfortunately, too wrapped up in its present and relies on topical knowledge that will become the past all too quickly.
Final Review and Recommendations
Energy’s Digital Future is overall an informative book that fundamentally lacks that dynamic narrative arc many good nonfiction books have. If someone already has an interest in digital technology and its influence on society, they may be disappointed in how long it takes to begin discussing such components. Likewise, if someone has no prior interest in energy nor technology, they may find it difficult to finish. However, if someone has a prior interest in energy or in global energy geopolitics, this book does provide a fresh perspective with compelling data and models, and some chapters offer fascinating insights into the implications of energy transitions away from oil.
 This paper is in response to an assignment in the course, Introduction to Energy Law, EVPP 505-202/POGO 750-021, taught by Professor Bubbosh.