Review of “Mad Like Tesla” by Tyler Hamilton

Review of “Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy” by Tyler Hamilton ( ECW Press, 2011)
Review by Tom Adams
An unprecedented energy revolution is underway destroying energy economics as we know it. So says Tyler Hamilton in “Mad Like Tesla”. To support his thesis, he surveys a wide range of energy innovations under development that he considers wholesome. The innovations he reviews include liquid biofuels from algae, an ultra capacitor concept, a proposed mechanical means of inducing nuclear fusion, space based solar power, an energy conserving pump impeller design, and an unexplained perpetual motion scheme. Whether it is one or more of the specific technologies he reviews or not, Hamilton wants you to know that the era of fossil fuels is over.

Hamilton is a prominent energy journalist in Ontario. “Mad Like Tesla” has received favourable reviews and garnered other laudatory attention from among others Bob McDonald on the venerable CBC national science show “Quirks and Quarks”. Ben Chin, former provincial Liberal candidate who worked in the Premier’s office and then moved to a senior position at the Ontario Power Authority has described Hamilton’s journalism as part of the intellectual foundation for Ontario’s Green Energy Act.

For Hamilton, energy markets are a failure. (pp. 135, 229-230) He argues that “there is no sign…that green energy is some kind of a fad.” For proof he points to the high growth rates for various renewable energy options with no recognition of the role of subsidies in driving that growth. (p. 231) For Hamilton, “success” can be measured by megawatts installed, irrespective of whether those investments yield real net benefits.

Hamilton’s writing is energized by a higher calling to bring about the salvation of human and economic relations from the what he sees as the immediate likelihood of human induced climate catastrophe and fossil resource exhaustion.

Like many sharing Hamilton’s catastrophist outlook, he believes that continued fossil fuel usage is about to cause a climate catastrophe. At the same time, he also believes that fossil fuels supplies are about to be exhausted. The book is silent on how to square the apparent inconsistency of both too much and too little fossil energy. Neither is Hamilton clear on how much wealth he thinks we should sacrifice to abate what quantity of carbon emissions.

Without any recognition of their limitations, Hamilton calls for “aggressive” deployment of existing wind and solar technologies. Hamilton raises no concern for the obsolescence of investments in existing wind and solar technologies in the event that the power generation technology breakthroughs he expects actually materialized. Instead, his concern is that existing technologies, which he apparently sees as beneficial in every respect, are an insufficient response to the twin crisis of too much and too little fossil fuel that he foresees.

To explain why renewable and fusion energy technologies have not already taken over much greater market share, Hamilton’s points repeatedly to conspiracies. Corporations, particularly energy and financial companies, are reported to be monolithic and actively blocking wholesome energy innovation. (p. 17) As Hamilton sees it, the primary challenge for wholesome energy innovators is overcoming the dark forces wishing the innovators to fail. (p. 22, 229 – 230) Hamilton’s claims of conspiracy suffer from pervasive subjectivity. Astoundingly for a science journalist, Hamilton baldly claims, “what is possible or not is in the eye of the beholder.” (p. 169)

Hamilton advocates for energy utilities to take on more risky technological adventures. (p. 109) There is no hint in the book that Hamilton has weighed this proposal against the track record of energy innovation in the utility sector or the unfavourable impact this approach would have for the utility sector’s cost of capital.

Hamilton hopes to ward off climate and economic catastrophe with rapid deployment of non-fossil energy supplies and energy conservation technology. However, Hamilton finds hope by ignoring the failures of wholesome energy options he prefers.

If comment is from some energy claimants he regards as right thinking,, or, then Hamilton makes no effort to cross-check. For example, to support his belief in “peak oil” (p. 107), Hamilton points to the Canadian geologist David Hughes. Hamilton quotes Hughes approvingly, stating “The party’s coming to an end.” (p. 25) By this, Hughes means that supplies of fossil fuels are on the verge of exhaustion.

But how reliable is the track record of David Hughes? In May 2007, at an energy conference sponsored by Queen’s University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, Hughes forecast that North America’s production of gas would peak in 2009 and that consumers would start suffering a growing shortage of natural gas by 2012 despite massive importation of liquified natural gas (LNG) and a sharp drop in consumption. He anticipated that North America would not be able to build capacity fast enough to receive all the LNG we would require. He calculated that the extracting shale gas would require almost as much energy as it yielded, presumably making shale gas expensive.

The trajectory of North America’s gas market since 2007 has featured plunging prices, rising demand, a collapse of LNG imports, and a proliferation of proposals to start exporting LNG.

The recent work of Hughes now looks wildly off base.

Hamilton’s reliance on Hughes is particularly important in light of Hamilton’s emphasis on the coming catastrophe of fuel exhaustion. Hamilton’s warmth towards catastrophism replaces his journalistic duty to check the record on Hughes.

Hamilton’s investigations of the technologies he profiles stay at the information depth typical of press releases. One technology he profiles is an impeller design by an Australian inventor Jay Harman that mimics the swirling shape of a lily. Hamilton reports the lily impeller to be a dramatic improvement over all available alternatives.

Objective third party reviews or scientific papers examining the lily impeller are difficult to find. Searches on Google Scholar, Engineering Village, Web of Knowledge, or HWilson Web
libraries, which together cover a large portion of all science and engineering scientific papers, come up dry. This is a bit surprising, given Harman’s claims that the lily impeller solves troubling problems with cavitation, has a 25% efficiency advantage, and a 15-30% drag reduction. There does appear to be some basis for Harman’s claims. Impeller designs similar to Harman’s lily impeller are available commercially and the concept does appear to have advantages. However, Hamilton’s reporting does little to put Harman’s achievements in context, let alone substantiate his claims of dramatic performance breakthroughs.

Hamilton’s knowledge of energy history in his home province is wanting. In profiling a company pursuing an algal fuel option, he discusses the history of the founder as previously starting a successful energy company in Ontario called Alliance Gas Management. Hamilton claims that the success of Alliance arose from an arbitrage based volume buying. (pp. 146-7)  In fact, the arbitrage Alliance successfully parlayed into a substantial commercial venture was using cheaper market priced gas purchased in the early days of deregulation to undercut the cost of utility gas, which was burdened with high cost, pre-deregulation supply contracts. Alliance Gas became valuable, not through fundamental value creation, but because utilities were sitting ducks, having engaged in risky long range energy contracting. Outperforming regulated utilities in newly deregulated markets, though highly profitable for some, is not in an of itself evidence of especially profound ability.

Hamilton sees a mass shift to electric vehicles as a certainty. The question for him is when, not if, we switch to electric vehicles. (p. 203) He claims that “The global transition to electrified transportation is gaining momentum.” (p. 16)

The market evidence for this assertion appears thin at best. Electric vehicle makers and their parts suppliers have drawn on rich subsidies in Korea, Japan, the United States, Ontario, Canada, China and Europe. Not withstanding prices far below cost, the sales of electric vehicles are not doing well. For example, the Nissan Leaf and GM Volt are far both behind their official North America sales forecasts. The GM Volt has showed up on at least one prominent list of worst product flops of 2011. There is a proliferation of electric motor cycles happening but it appears that many of these devices are replacements for pedal bicycles. When the weak U.S. economy turns around, electric vehicle sales there may pick up, but the immediate future for electric cars does no appear to support Hamilton’s forecast.

Hamilton’s comments on the physics and economics of energy are frequently poorly supported and are sometimes obviously incorrect. For example, he claims that photovoltaic (PV) cells capture solar electrons (p. 68) whereas PV cells are converting energy from photons into electrical potential.

Hamilton argues that the high economic and environmental costs of oil create a need for new electricity generating technology. (p.89) This logic is tenuous at best. In developed parts of the world, almost no electricity is now generated from oil. For example, in the U.S. the fraction of total power generation attributable to oil has declined almost monotonically from 3.2% in 1999 to less than 0.9% in 2010. The little oil used to generate power in the U.S. is almost exclusively used off grid or for supplying power during peak demand periods. Neither of these niches are attractive markets for renewables. World over, electricity and oil products are likely to remain rarely substitutes one for the other unless electric vehicles start to gain meaningful market share. Oil’s use to supply substantial amounts of grid power is generally limited to regions where the cost of capital is too high to afford more efficient generation options. This creates a barrier to oil’s displacement with capital intensive renewables, even where the long run cost of delivered power from renewables is lower than the expected cost of oil-fired power.

Hamilton assumes that the outlook for power prices in North America is rising (p. 89). This is certainly the case in Ontario, where the provincial government appears to have been influenced by Hamilton’s green energy proscriptions. In other Canadian province, particularly those with careless green power subsidies and megaproject promotion policies, power rates are also trending upward . However, in the U.S., the federal government’s well regarded Energy Information Administration’s most recent long term energy outlook anticipates declining inflation-adjusted electricity costs for U.S. consumers.

With Hamilton’s arguments so frequently and obviously littered with flaws, one wonders what important questions he didn’t know to ask of those he interviews in the book.

Hamilton betrays no doubts about the overall benefits of the energy options he surveys. In his hope-oriented view, the energy options he profiles can only produce positive social and economic results. Could the radical genetic alteration of algae, one of the primary life forms on earth, have negative consequences? Could viral interactions with algae, so basic to their natural ecology, represent a challenge to algae’s potential to provide liquid fuel at a reasonable cost? Would not space based solar power require frequent flights to geostationary orbit, a vastly more energy intensive process than merely getting to altitudes the shuttle once flew at, and result in negative environmental impacts? None of these questions interest Hamilton.

Energy consumers are at best an afterthought in Hamilton’s field of vision. Hamilton’s book, like too many energy technology and policy discussions, operates within a clouded energy theory of value where the meaning of energy systems is tied to some specific mechanistic objective rather than in some way improving the lives of consumers. Without recognizing that the sole purpose of production is consumption, there is no way to weigh the trade-offs that energy systems inherently impose on us.

Explicitly following the model that created the nuclear industry, the U.S. government started pouring billions of tax dollars into renewable energy, initially under Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. This history is carefully summarized in Daniel Yergin excellent new book “The Quest”. Governments in developed countries around the world followed the lead of the U.S. with further billions. More recently, governments have been directing not just billions but hundreds of billions of dollars from captive ratepayers into renewables. Despite this prodigious pump priming, only a few elements of the renewable energy industry can today deliver energy to consumers at a competitive cost once the fog of subsidies is lifted. Could it be that subsidies have impaired the process of innovation?

We are not on the cusp of unprecedented change in the world of energy. The rules of energy economics are not about to be replaced by some recently discovered, brand new rationality. Technology innovation is one key to our energy future but so is keeping the cost of capital to the energy sector low. Environmental costs need to be counted and minimized but not at the expense of destroying the wealth generation that fuels the capacities of society to prioritize environmental protection. The long established patterns of economic change in the energy sector will continue with new technologies supplanting less efficient alternatives. Existing infrastructure will continue to be a precious asset. Government meddling in the energy sector is not about to become wise.

Hamilton’s book is little more than a collection of press releases, spiced with a few human interest details then shaped with pretty editing into an information marshmallow — soft, sweet, and unhealthy.


  1. “Could it be that subsidies have impaired the process of innovation?”

    IMO: Of course they have (and always will). If any innovations or new technologies are recognized as having potential merit by the marketplace (investors, entrepreneurs, consumers), they won’t require government subsidies to attract privately-funded development, marketing and consumer embracement. What other widely-applicable principle could likewise explain why we had (and still have) to buy and use CFL “replacement” bulbs? What government subsidies haven’t sent “innovation” from the frying pan into the fire at an artificially necessitated and excessive cost to taxpayers and ratepayers?

  2. Tom, it might be interesting to subject Tyler’s past enthusiasms to the test of hindsight, as you did to David Hughes’s. Tyler’s enthusiasm is an appealling personality trait (as is yours!), but without your critical thought, it leads to the kind of uncritical, one-note boosterism you describe. Ironically, I think TH’s reporting on nuclear issues was usually more impressive than his reporting on green tech, because he didn’t get carried away. (Besides, if he had any anti-nuke leanings, history has almost always been kind to them! 😉 )

  3. I have been scrolling through 30+ year old newspapers, nicely bound in two large books (a Christmas gift from my brother picked up for $1. each) that were published under the name of Canadian Renewable Energy News. I feel confident, after reading your rather unflattering review, that TH could have read those same newspapers and (perhaps with the exception of the impeller)produced a book that would have contained the same basic belief in breakthrough technologies that he touts in this book as “new” energy related technology. Electric cars, $1 per Kwh solar, 3 MW wind turbines, biomass from wood chips, wave power, ethanol blended gasoline, government subsidies on renewables, tidal power, hydrogen power, lift translators for hydro, fuel cells, wood gasification and energy from elephand manure. All of these breakthrough technologies in just the first few monthly issues in 1978.

    Same old, same old!

  4. Look on the bright side, Parker: At least the renewable dreams haven’t faded away, like those about a nuclear-powered future! I’m old enough to remember dreams about breeder reactors on every lake and river, electricity too cheap to meter, planting soybeans across Antarctica, uranium-powered cars and (gasp!) airplanes, etc.! The nuclear future’s not what it used to be, but the renewable future is, roughly.

    I still think we’ll get commercially competitive solar electricity (even in Canada) relatively soon — and long before we get any nuclear reactors that attract willing investors.

  5. Very interesting, Parker.

    H (does he desrve the courtesy of TH ?) and I have had a few exchanges. One of the recent ones was in response to him using his Twitter account to indirectly potty-mouth some work I’d done. Our resulting private email exchange was decent enough, at least towards the end. If you read the comments at his blog, specifically the way he participates, I think a person with any reasonable level of objectivity would conclude that he’s a close-minded greenie (I know, that’s not a news flash).

    A much earlier exchange I had with him was an almost comical semantics exercise (at least on his part), where he justified his slant on things by stating something along the lines of him being a columnist and not a journalist.

    It’s certainly a key problem with the web — how it mostly contributes to close-minded thinking (by both “sides”), by making it easy for people to seek out self-reinforcing information sources. Except in more extreme cases (do one or both of the Star and Post qualify as extreme ?), that’s at least the benefit of newspapers — one tends to have the possibility of being exposed to a range of stuff.

  6. Thomas, to help square your inability to understand the “inconsistency” between too much fossil fuel usage and too little fossil fuel supply leading to climate change (or perhaps even a “catastrophe”), consider the following mind-boggling concept: fossil fuel is a finite resource. Unlike the Econ 101 model where high demand creates greater supply, high demand for finite resources like fossil fuels creates lower supply. We, as humans, can’t just manufacture more at will to meet increasing demand (if you think demand is not growing, please go count the number of fuel-burning cars in India and China). We can try to pull more from the ground (as we are doing, but at a rate insufficient to keep up with growing demand, and at a greater cost). Eventually the ground will run out of oil. No amount of private- or publicly funded technology will reverse this. But before we get there we’ll have had to consume the billions of barrels of oil still available to us– that’s what’s harmful to the environment. Price (for your beloved energy consumers) of oil energy will go up as we run out; demand will diminish with increasing price. All goods will cost more and we’ll all be riding bicycles to work in a perhaps irretrievably damaged and toxic environment– not necessarily because we want to stay fit or save the environment, but because we simply can’t afford to keep a car. We can keep driving our fuel consuming cars towards such a negative growth future or we can find viable alternate energy sources. How much the government should be involved or not in finding and developing these alternatives is a secondary debate, and not the substance of TH’s book. Maybe you should think twice about slamming those who support the innovation of alternative energy sources– yes, not all the ideas are going to have merit, but the more shots on goal you get, the more likely you’re gonna score. Or at least go out and buy a GM Volt– you’ll be a trendsetter, ahead of the market.

    • Six,

      The Volt is a bust for consumers — far too costly for the value even after taking into account the billions in subsidies writing down the sticker price. Even if the cost of the Volt was reasonable, I’m concerned about the reliability of what seems to be a prototype rushed to market. The vehicle is terribly complex. As some Prius owners discovered with unintended acceleration, complexity can hide defects. As for how we fuel our cars in the future, one good candidate is synthetic diesel from natural gas. The amount of gas getting flared right now would make a serious dent in the market for road fuels if converted to synthetic diesel. Shell has recently commissioned a gas-to-liquids facility in Qatar. It looks like their product is going to be so profitable against current oil prices that lots of folks will be going down that road in future. No-sulphur synthetic diesel burned in engines with urea injected exhaust cleanup would be a pretty good way to get around.


  7. What!? No nuclear future!?

    If we can’t have fast breeder reactors in large numbers very soon, what future is there?
    Eating raw food in the dark while shivering in cold homes because there was no wind on a cloudy day? OR eating raw food sweating our butts off in boiling homes because there was no wind on a cloudy day? Say it ain’t so Norm. Say it ain’t so!

    I wonder why humanity apparently refuses to learn histories lessons?
    Greed maybe?

    Hi Tom!

    Best regards to all…

    Sean Holt.

  8. Me, I actually think that the “LFTR” Liquid Thorium-fueled reactor may turn out to be a practical source of energy. It’s got a few problems/challenges, but so do the competitors. I also think that cheap solar – something like – will probably be a huge game-changed in electricity. During my career solar has changed from an off-peak nuisance to an on-peak solution, with a production curve that matches our electrical load much better than nuclear or ROR hydro or wind. Maybe better than cogen.

    Of course I’d like to choose my own investments, and not have my cash taken and invested with all the wisdom of Question Period or election campaigns or some secret meeting between industrialists and politicos – whether or not Tyler H is in the room. (Does that make me an ideolog? Hope not.)

    • I don’t have a preferred FBR but my favorite solar idea is Morgan Solar. Check out this: Morgan Solar is mentioned in Tyler Hamilton’s book. Note that Nicholas Morgan wrote a favourable review of Mad Like Tesla on the Amazon site without acknowledging that his family’s company was promoted in the book. This is another instance of the solar industry following the policy techniques of the nuclear industry. AECL employees, like Morgan Brown and others, used to write letters to the editor promoting Candu without acknowledging their interest.

  9. Actually Tom, My favorite breeder design happens to be one of my own I conjured up to solve some nasty features of sodium cooled FBRs – sodium-water reactions and the increased balance of plant and associated cost considerations needed to mitigate this.

    I start with an easily manageable 300mwt pool type reactor core with silicon carbide clad
    fuel rods made by simply filling them with molten fuel from a pyro-processing fission
    product removal system. The rods are arranged to allow for passive safety using the Doppler resonance effect demonstrated so spectacularly at the EBR II reactor as part of the IFR program back in the 80’s. I chose silicon-carbide because of it’s high melting point, excellent heat transfer and low reactivity with sodium. The cladding can simply be reheated above the melting point of the enclosed fuel such that it can be easily drained for reprocessing. To eliminate sodium/water reactions, I replaced the Rankin steam cycle with a closed Brayton Nitrogen cycle as nitrogen is not reactive with sodium. This eliminates the secondary heat transfer loop and allows nitrogen to flow thru heat exchangers directly immersed in the pool of liquid sodium coolant. Much experience was gleaned using N2 turbines heated by nuclear power during the aircraft reactor experiments starting in the 50’s and ending in the early 70’s. I have a similar arrangement for a lead cooled FBR except here I use a closed CO2 Brayton cycle instead of nitrogen for increased efficiency. To keep Norm happy and to extend energy reserves by a factor of four over uranium, FBR’s can be configured to breed and use thorium for fuel as well. However, the simplicity and inherent safety of my concept changes little regardless of fuel. And all parts use existing technology and can be mass produced in factories then shipped and assembled where needed. The concept is also scalable in either direction. However beyond a certain size, say 600mwt, assembly line manufacturability ceases to be an asset as multi-megawatt machinery tends to be site built with all the added expense and engineering this entails. If you know any aspiring Phd’s looking for an idea for their doctoral thesis, they may be interested in reading this post -or not, as the case may be.

    I have to have cancer surgery tomorrow morning so I may not be able to blog for a while.

    Keep at em with the truth Tom. At some point it starts to hurt!

    Best regards always…

    Sean Holt.

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