Energy Tribune

The word “polymath” best describes Vaclav Smil. A distinguished professor of energy and environmental studies at the University of Manitoba, he has published 25 books, most on various aspects of energy. His first book, China’s Energy: Achievements, Problems, Prospects, was published in 1976. Last year he published two books: Energy: A Beginner’s Guide and Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Smil, a native of the Czech Republic, immigrated to the U.S. in 1969 and then to Canada in 1972. He was educated at the Carolinum University in Prague and received a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University, specializing in energy and environmental studies. He corresponded with ET’s Robert Bryce via e-mail in early June.

ET: Why are energy issues so poorly understood? And why are they so easily politicized?

VS: There has never been such a depth of scientific illiteracy and basic innumeracy as we see today. Without any physical, chemical, and biological fundamentals, and with equally poor understanding of basic economic forces, it is no wonder that people will believe anything. And, of course, everybody uses various forms of commercial energy, so everybody feels [free] to be an expert, politicians above all, all rushing in with their pathetic “solutions” based on a superficial grasp of complexities and [with the] compulsion to cater to the lowest common denominator.

ET: Energy at the Crossroads introduced me to W. S. Jevons, the British economist who pointed out back in 1865 that higher energy efficiency in machinery resulted in increased energy consumption. Will the Jevons Paradox always rule when it comes to energy use?

VS: Not necessarily. If we were to behave as rational adults and realize that beyond a certain point, the ever-increasing energy use does NOT improve our quality of life, then we could combine improved energy conversions with limits on overall consumption. Or do your readers believe that the U.S. standard of living is twice as high, the nation’s health care twice as good, and its level of education twice as high because it consumes twice as much energy per capita as does France or Japan?

ET: Of all the renewable energy sources, you seem to be most favorably disposed toward solar.

VS: Solar’s advantage is based on the highest power density: we will eventually have PV cells averaging 30 percent efficiency, and so we will collect easily 30-40 watts per square meter. With biofuels it is less than 1, with wind [it is] typically less than 5 watts per square meter, and you start running into enormous land requirements in order to supply our high-power-density societies. But the cost of PV will remain high for years to come.

ET: Wind and solar get a lot of hype. But it seems to me that unless they are attached to some sort of storage system (pumped storage, hydrogen conversion, battery, etc.) they will never displace the need for baseload fossil fuel generation. What’s your thinking?

VS: Baseload is ever more important as people sleep less, stores remain open into the night, etc. [Richard] Branson recently offered a $25-million prize for the invention of a method to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; we need a billion-dollar prize for an entirely new inexpensive mass energy storage system. That, more than anything else, would solve our problems as there [are] plenty of renewable flows, but all are intermittent.

ET: In your writings, you point out how many times Amory Lovins, the energy efficiency advocate who heads the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been wrong in his predictions regarding the adoption of renewable energy. I laughed out loud when I read your line, “Inexplicably, Lovins retains his guru aura no matter how wrong he is.” Why has Lovins been wrong so often? And why does he continue to get so much fawning press coverage?

VS: Amory has become a celebrity after wholesaling his fairy-tale of “soft” decentralized small-scale energies as THE solution (with its deep countercultural, Berkeleyish appeal), and it is the first law of celebrity-hood that, right or wrong, coherent or not, you retain the status. Combine that with the just-noted mass scientific ignorance of the population and with Amory’s sleek offerings of no-pain solutions (nothing will cost anything, or as he famously put it, “abating climate change for fun and profit”) and you have new believers signing up every time he speaks. By the way, by this time we all should have been driving nothing but Lovinsian hypercars (something like 200 mpg, made like new Boeing 787s solely from carbon composites) whose conceptual design he launched more than a decade ago; have you seen any?

ET: What do you think the U.S., Canada, and the rest of the world should be doing about carbon dioxide emissions?

VS: Not panicking, but surely trying to reduce the overall level of emissions. Even if we had no carbon dioxide out of combustion we still have enormous amounts of sulfur and nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, none of them good for people or ecosystems. And a high level of GHG emissions per dollar of GDP is simply a sign of an inefficient, wasteful economy. Opportunities are enormous: in the U.S. and Canada we could retain our quality of life (unless you thinks that four ATVs per family, two snowmobiles, and two Hummers are a must for living well) by consuming easily one-third less than we do now.

ET: In Energy: A Beginner’s Guide you say the potential costs of carbon sequestration are “mind-boggling.” And yet, politicos and environmental groups keep talking as though sequestration is a viable option. Is this another example of the disconnect between reality and fantasy that pervades energy discussions?

VS: Of course, and sequestration is the stupidest solution: keep producing the undesirable stuff and then try to hide it (even though you have no solid knowledge [of] how much of it will leak back into the atmosphere decades later!), instead of coming up with intelligent solution[s] trying NOT to produce it in the first instance – that is science and engineering. Sequestration is akin to supporting an addiction.

ET: In your book Energy at the Crossroads you advocate a course of action that would mean drastic cuts in energy use in the rich countries so that poorer countries can increase their energy use – thereby keeping global carbon emissions at a relatively small rate of growth. Isn’t that the essential point when it comes to debates about energy use and carbon emissions – that someone, somewhere, is going to have to use less energy? That’s not the kind of sloganeering that gets politicians elected, is it?

VS: I never push anything hard because I do not believe that any individual has all the solutions (unless one is Amory, obviously). I try to illuminate complexities, raise concerns, and suggest some desirable tools and sensible outcomes. We in North America will either smarten up and realize that 5 percent of the world’s population cannot keep using 25 percent of all commercial energy forever, or we will remain obtuse and the shift will be done for us by weakened economies and declining quality of life.

ET: Let’s talk about China. You’ve been watching energy trends in that country for three decades. Last year, China added over 100 gigawatts of new electric generation capacity, about 90 percent of which was coal-fired. This year, or next, China will pass the U.S. in carbon dioxide emissions. How do Chinese power plants compare to ones here in the U.S. in terms of efficiency? Second, can any of the global carbon-reduction schemes now being discussed have any effect without the cooperation of China?

VS: New Chinese coal-fired power plants are as good as new plants elsewhere – that is, close to 40 percent efficiency and near-perfect particulate removal by electrostatic precipitators; some even have flue gas desulfurization. But the sheer mass of coal is stunning: this year China will burn nearly 2.5 billion tons of it, and hence no global effort to reduce GHG emissions has any chance of real success without China’s keen participation – something nobody sees coming anytime soon. Some moves, some noises, but (not being a betting man) I am sure that their GHG emissions will be significantly up a decade from now.

ET: China aside, how probable is it that we’ll see real progress in reducing global carbon dioxide emissions?

VS: In Europe yes, with carbon taxes, slow-growing economies, and the push into wind. In North America there is no chance of that during the next 5 to 10 years, a modest possibility afterwards. Unless, of course, we get a global economic crisis.


Contact Robert

For information on speaking engagements or other interviews.