Vaclav Smil: Energy Transitions

Energy transitions: future without fossil energies is desirable, and it is eventually inevitable. But the road from today’s overwhelmingly fossil-fueled civilization to a new global solar energy system based on efficient conversions of renewable flows will be neither fast nor cheap. Vaclav Smil is bullish on gas and other transitional technologies that can pave the way to solar technology and other renewables.

Distinguished Professor and author Vaclav Smil explores technological transitions of past, present and future that are critical for understanding how to shift to a low carbon future.

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba and the author of over 30 books, most recently Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. His interdisciplinary research encompasses solar energy, environment, food, population, economics, history and public policy studies. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and has lectured widely in North America, Europe and Asia.

Here is a review of his book “Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years” from his website:

There is something arrogant about an author who in the same book covers economics, history, and physical science. He questions the peak oil calculations, instructs us on which will be the leading civilization of the future, and criticizes the global warming scenario among a multitude of other expectations for the future. Here are some examples of his trends for the next fifty years.

He questions the estimate that peak oil production will be reached between 2012 and 2020 because (1) estimation models are simplistic, (2) many past estimates have failed, and (3) published reserve estimates are not complete or to be trusted. He carefully considers the probability of Europe, Japan, Islam, Russia, and China or the United States as the leading civilization of the future. Europe is too heterogenous, Japan too old, Islam too backward, Russia too primitive, China still has a long way to go, and we all know the retreating fortunes of the United States.

His discussion of global warming stresses the limitations of our knowledge. Especially the computer models we use to project future warming rely on “highly uncertain assumptions” (p.178). He stresses that IPCC forecasts consider a 21st century global temperature increase of less than 1.5 C unlikely, but also an increase of more than 5 C as equally unlikely. Thus the most probable global warming in the 21st century will be in the range 2.5 to 3 C (p. 180). Most societies will have to adapt to the cost and consequences of this gradual temperature increase, but will be able to do so.

The book is thoroughly footnoted, and the author provides 37 pages of references. Vaclav Smil is a careful thinker, who despite the broad spread of his discussion has mastered the subject matter and carefully considers his words. He is the first to admit his prognostications can not be on the button, that all he wants to point out is “a wide-ranging, historically based interdisciplinary appraisal of sudden discontinuities and unfolding trends,”(p. xi). An insightful read.