New Documentary Focuses on the World’s Insatiable Thirst for Energy

Published April 14, 2015

Chicago’s Heartland Institute recently hosted Johan Norberg, an analyst and writer from Sweden, to discuss his documentary, “Power to the People.”

The trailer for Johan Norberg’s latest documentary was released last year and the documentary itself will premiere on the WORLD Channel  Monday, April 27.  The effort explores how innovation and new technologies are meeting our world’s growing energy needs.  Hence, the biggest challenge to be faced, given a world that is literally overflowing with energy, is not insufficient energy supply, but how world citizens will safely convert, store and pay for it. 

Modern energy sources are something we all need, and more energy sources will be needed in the future. We take for granted that with the flick of a switch there will be power for whatever our needs may require, but we shouldn’t. Power, coupled with the magic of machines — such as the washing machine — made life easier, especially for woman, who then found time to visit the library and to explore other uses of their times, freed as they were from the toil of manual labor.

As illustrated in the documentary trailer, the thirst for energy in developing countries will only grow as economic freedom spreads. People there see how we in the west live and refuse to be left behind.  This, in turn, presents an incredible challenge to man- and woman-kind, for as costs rise and concern for climate change increases, these questions loom large: How are we going to maintain our standard of living?  How do we reduce our impact on the planet?  And how will we get power to ALL the people?   

Norberg travels the world to assess energy needs

In his documentary Norberg travels the world, peeling back along the way the layers of the global challenge of how best to meet the thirst for energy.  Often questioned is the conventional wisdom on what works and what doesn’t.  Norberg’s journey starts in the Moroccan bazaars of Marrakech, which functioned fine for eons without modern conveniences, but where electric lights, computers, cell phones and credit card readers are now everywhere.  Even more telling is Norberg’s journey to a remote Berber village in the Sahara Desert.  Few realize that more than half of the world still cooks its food over open flames.  This, however, is rapidly changing, including in the before-mentioned remote Berber village where women now cook on gas stoves.  Some women even have refrigerators. 

Those living in Africa without power yearn for a water pump to take showers and to irrigate crops, a refrigerator to store food, electricity for lights, and a phone to keep in contact with the world.  To them electricity is not a modern luxury, for without assess to electrical power life and death often hangs in balance. Because animal dung is still used to cook food, the toxic pollution emitted often causes death.  Once an African village is electrified, not only does the economy improve, but those in the village experience a new-found happiness.  It could be argued that coal plants are bad, but coal isn’t a bad trade off when compared to the deadly pollution of animal dung. 

“Power to the People” also examines global efforts to solve our energy dilemma. Even the best of intentions sometimes result in unexpected consequences. For example, Germany’s decision to abolish nuclear power and increase the use of renewable energy has sent retail prices soaring.  Germany’s cost for energy is now among the highest in Europe.  For some citizens its use is now considered a luxury.  Germany’s decision to abolish nuclear power and to increase renewable energy has resulted in an actual increase in the use of lignite coal-burning plants. As such Germany learned the hard way that it takes temporary dependence on energy from fossil fuels to build a new clean energy economy. Imposing tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels to protect the German solar industry has also slowed things down. 

What happened in Germany is a lesson that needs to be heeded.  In an effort to pick winners by giving subsidies, Germany found that solutions made from the top-down seldom succeed.  It’s also a crappy way to use taxpayer money.  What is happening in Germany is the opposite of an energy transition.  With the banning of gas and nuclear power, and with the stark reality that the sun doesn’t always shine or the wind blow, Germany must now depend on dirty coal for its energy needs and accept the CO2 that comes with it. So in trying to go green to save the world, Germany had no choice but to revert back to an energy source is had initially deemed undesirable, which, in turn, spiked energy prices. 

Norberg explores the energy debate in this country

Here in the U.S., Johan Norberg’s documentary explores the great debate in a country whose energy consumption is now only surpassed by China. He reveals, perhaps surprisingly, how cities like New York consume far less energy per capita than the rest of the country. The controversy over America’s promising new energy source in hydro fracking is also examined, as is the folly of top-down government-imposed solutions. It was G.W. Bush who claimed that this nation was on its way to an ethanol era.  And it was a great time for corn growers!  The continued federal subsidies for corn ethanol have sent food prices soaring, minus the promised renewable energy return.

In 1953 Eisenhower urged that nuclear power be created, only to have many plants shut down prematurely in the 70’s, 80’s and beyond, rather than wait until the market could determine energy needs. [Thorner comments:  Nuclear is the cleanest from of energy.  Once constructed, and with proper maintenance, nuclear plants can last for 100 plus years.  Nuclear power still gives the biggest bang for the buck once the plant is built and is in operation. Nuclear is also safe and reliable. Since the time of Admiral Rickover the Navy has successfully and safely used nuclear power for its ships and submarines. Yucca Mountain is a safe place to store nuclear waste having been thoroughly vetted, but it has become politically unacceptable to those on the Left who wish to curtail the use of nuclear.]  

Although daunting, Norberg believes the energy challenge can be met, especially if governments steps back from imposing top-down solutions. Coal, Oil, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Hydro, Biomass, Wind, and Solar must all be in the mix, but each source comes with its own problems.  

As with most new innovations in technology, the process that led to fracking followed a long series of inventions in the private sector, absent when government tries to make transitions from the top-down, and the very reason why centralization fails.  With more people connected to the Internet, at their fingertips is the sum total of man’s knowledge to be explored and expanded.  In other words, more eyeballs to look at problems will result in solving problems.  In China three billion individuals now have access to the Internet; two billion have the Internet in their pockets.  This thirst for energy is sure to lead to energy solutions, especially here in America where American ingenuity and creativity is still very much alive, in contrast to European tradition where top-down decisions are routine and expected. 

Purchasing “Power to the People” in various forms 

As a companion to the documentary “Power to the People”, an eBook by Johan Norberg has been published which reports on the making of the documentary and the challenges of providing power for an energy-hungry planet. The book is also available in a paperback version on AmazonGo here for further details.

Heartland Institute moving to Arlington Heights

Having celebrated its 30th anniversary last year while occupying leased office space on the 27th floor of one of Chicago’s signature high-rise buildings, Joseph Bast, president and CEO of The Heartland Institute,  announced that in June The Heartland Institute will move from Chicago to Arlington Heights (a suburb of Chicago) to a building purchased exclusively to serve as its permanent home and headquarters.


[Originally published at Illinois Review