In November, The New York Times asked a number of prominent energy experts to assess president-elect Barack Obama’s chances of ending American dependence on imported oil. Vaclav Smil, the prolific environmental thinker at the University of Manitoba – he’s written 25 books – was one of these experts. The only way that Mr. Obama could significantly advance this objective, he said, would be with the help “of a deep and lasting recession.” Otherwise, he said, “there will be precious little of any rapid change.” As for Mr. Obama’s promise to enact a cap-and-trade regime to discourage the use of fossil fuels, “it will only further cripple America’s industries.”
Why so bleak, Prof. Smil?
“Energy systems are inherently inertial,” Prof. Smil said. “Energy transitions take decades to accomplish. Anyone who expects Mr. Obama to transform the world will be disappointed [and] the degree of disappointment that must follow such naiveté will be phenomenal.”
Prof. Smil expands on these blunt judgments in the December issue of The American, the business magazine published by the American Enterprise Institute, where he describes in precise detail the time-consuming process of “energy transition.” He notes that humans relied almost exclusively on biomass for millennia – wood, charcoal, straw, supplemented everywhere by muscle and here and there by wind (sail) and waterwheel.
In many parts of the world, Prof. Smil notes, humans still relied on these ancient energy sources until the middle of the 20th century – “and in large parts of Africa and Asia the grand energy transition from biomass fuels to fossil fuels has yet to be completed.” He identifies 1882 as “the tipping point” in the United States, the year in which Americans first burned more coal than wood. But the global “tipping point” didn’t occur until the turn of the century.
“Looking only at modern primary energies on a global scale,” Prof. Smil says, “coal receded from 95 per cent of total energy supply in 1900 to 60 per cent in 1950 and to less than 24 per cent in 2000. But coal’s importance continues to rise in absolute terms and [has begun] to rise again in relative importance.
“Coal is relatively more important in 2008 (29 per cent of primary energy) than it was at the time of the first energy crisis in 1973 (27 per cent). In absolute terms, it now supplies twice as much energy as it did in 1973. The world has been returning to coal. Worldwide, the coal mined in the 20th century contained more energy than any other fuel, edging out oil by 5 per cent.
“The common perception is that the 19th century was dominated by coal, the 20th century by oil. This perception is wrong. In global terms, the 19th century was still part of the millennia-long wooden era and the 20th century was the coal century. And coal still generates 40 per cent of the world’s electricity, 70 per cent of China’s electricity and 50 per cent of India’s electricity.”
In anticipating energy transitions, Prof. Smil advises, count in decades, not in years. It took 50 years for the world to move from the advent of commercial oil to the stage where it supplied 10 per cent of global primary energy. It took another 25 years for oil to supply 25 per cent. The comparable periods for natural gas were 50 years and 40 years.
Where are we now? Alternative energies supply less than 5 per cent of their respective global markets. Non-conventional oil – the Alberta and Venezuelan oil sands combined – supplies less than 3 per cent of the world’s crude oil and less than 1 per cent of its primary energy. Renewable energies (mostly biofuels and wind-generated electricity) supply 0.5 per cent of primary energy; wind, by itself, supplies only 1 per cent of global electricity.
“And now Al Gore is telling us,” Prof. Smil says, “that the United States can completely repower its electricity generation in a single decade … can produce 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable, carbon-free sources within 10 years.” He does the math to show that such a transition would cost more than $4-trillion (U.S.) – and would still fail. It is physically impossible, he says, to do six decades of rebuilding in 10 years. Such romanticism, he says, is delusional: “None of the promises for greatly accelerated energy transitions will be kept.”
Yet, for all his apparent pessimism, Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor of the environment and provocative author of three books last year alone (Energy in Nature and Society, Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years, and Oil: A Beginner’s Guide), says that it’s also delusional to regard our environmental destiny as inevitably disastrous.
“Our capacity to be eternally stupid is immense,” he said in an interview a couple of years ago, “but our capacity to adapt and change and pull ourselves out of deep crisis situations is equally amazing. At any given time, the cards seem stacked this way or that. Right now, globally, the cards are stacked in a catastrophic way. We are now in this deep, deep pessimism. But these things never last forever.” He advises patience.