Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Debate
© 2010 Vaclav Smil
Nothing lasts forever, including coal and oil. Regardless of their environmental impact (as noxious fumes or released greenhouse gases), ultimately humanity will have to transition away from fossil fuels for want of supplies. Vaclav Smil warns in Energy Myths and Realities, however, that a shift to renewable energy is a long-term project, not something that can be done in a mere decade. In this brief on the intersection between science and public policy, Smil analyzes the prospects of various energy alternatives, and takes apart viral hopes and hysteria.
Immediately after the Fukushima disaster, Germany announced that it would be abandoning nuclear power and replacing it in toto with renewable energy. The fact that certain economic realities have instead forced the planning of new coal power plants is not surprising; historically, every transformation of the energy sector has taken decades, and at the early stages there’s no way of knowing which application of a technology will prove the best. Smil is therefore not optimistic about the prospects for an all-electric automobile fleet; it would require supporting infrastructure (networks of charging stations, for instance), and such an increase in energy that only doubling down on coal and oil could meet. Because wind and solar are still struggling to make inroads into the energy market, they can hardly be relied on to supply a greatly expanded electric fleet. An expansion of coal and oil to power these new cars would thus only transfer the pollution. The right approach to the cars themselves is still being tinkered with, from fuel cells to hybrids. A more recent approach, used by the Chevrolet Volt, is to use gasoline as a generator inside the car, recharging the battery.
Smil is more dubious about biofuels, which he argues are both inefficient and disruptive to food markets. He is ambivalent about wind and solar, either, at least at the national-grid scale proposed for them. In certain locales and markets, they can make sense and pull their weight, but the chances of their supplanting coal and oil in terms of reliability and affordability are remote in the extreme. Smil is more hopeful about hydroelectric (when geographically possible) and nuclear energy, though the latter has a serious public relations problem. Even so, there’s a chance for revival: even in Japan reactors are coming back online, with more scheduled for the future. In addition to analyzing the prospects for various alternatives, Smil also addresses popular misconceptions relating to energy, from peak oil to nuclear energy too cheap to meter.
Ultimately, the author says, the world will move away from fossil fuels, particularly oil; economics and technology may expand our current capacity, but it is a finite resource. He does not expect any drama, however, — neither a sudden peak oil global collapse, or a sudden leap forward into the bright and happy carbon-clean future.
Book review by Bill Gates