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“Energy Myths and Realities”- A 10 year retrospective of Vaclav Smil’s work, one of Bill Gates’ favorite authors

image credit: From Gates Notes-A Rational Look at Energy
James Buchen's picture
Field Service Engineer II Honeywell UOP

I am a Field Service Engineer in oil refining overseeing installation and start up of process units. After four years in refining, I am looking to transition to utility scale power generation....

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  • Jul 2, 2020

Recently I started following Gates Notes. It is a blog of global issues Bill Gates is focusing on. Due to his large influence in the world, I am interested in his thoughts on the global energy future. Gates is a prolific reader and highlights books he thinks are important to follow. Last year I read “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling showing the trends in how human livelihoods have improved in the long run. This year I picked up a ten-year-old book by Vaclav Smil, “Energy Myths and Realities”, it is a sobering look at our energy future. Gates is a big fan of Smil’s work and highlighted the reality checks that Smil offers. I decided to read this and respond to some of Smil’s predictions with hindsight of the last 10 years.

For a little background, Vaclav Smil is a prolific Czech-Canadian writer in environmental science and public policy. As professor Emeritus at University of Manitoba, he is no slouch when it comes to researching for the books he writes; 30 of the 195 pages in my copy are devoted to notes and references. In that regard I respect the facts that he presents. This book is a grounding point to counter the hype in 2010 about the future of various energy technologies. Most of the conclusions that he comes to I agree with, but as a reader and citizen in a world that needs an energy transition, we are not left with firm direction on solutions. I’ll respond to each section of the book. Some of it is still relevant 10 years later, such as the direction of electric vehicles. Other topics have shrunk in focus, such as when peak oil will occur.

Electric Vehicles

Smil starts off with a relevant topic for 2020 on electric vehicles. As with most of the topics in the book, he looks into the past first. In the U.S., at the turn of the 20th century, there was a fight over which vehicle technology would win out, electric, steam powered, or gasoline. In 1896, La Jamais Contente produced an electric car decisively winning the first U.S. track race over its gasoline competitors. In 1899 there were more electric vehicles than gasoline and by 1901 six charging stations allowed travel between New York and Philadelphia. Steam was coming off the industrial revolution as a known technology and produced a car that posted a land speed record of 205.4 km/h in 1906. So why did gasoline win out? Reliability over long distances, infrastructure to support a car network, and cheap production techniques from the Ford Motor Company.

In 2010, Smil took a relatively bleak look at electric vehicles. The charging network does not exist for mass adoptions. Millions of people park their vehicles on the street every day without access to a garage or charger. Charging with a fast charger has shown to degrade long term battery life making the gasoline station approach of fast chargers a less reasonable solution (See Figure 8). Finally, even if we were to convert everyone to electric at the snap of a finger, in the U.S., we would need 25% more electricity produced to meet the new demand.

Smil resents the stagnation of the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards between 1990 and 2010. Improved engine efficiency would have had a greater effect on lowering emissions than the paltry growth of electric vehicles in the same time frame. Thankfully the CAFE standards have increased since the writing of his book, and can help reduce emissions while an alternate takes hold.

That alternate may be electric vehicles after all. Since Smil did his analysis 10 years ago, we are now seeing a resurgence of electric cars led in prominence by Tesla with 17% market share of all EVs followed by a few Chinese companies in BYD, BAID, and SAIC. Back in 2010 when Smil was writing this book, IHS Global Insight predicted EVs to only reach 0.6 % of new car sales worldwide by 2020. In reality, 2.5% of new car sales in 2019 were EV. That is a 400% increase over prediction.

Despite shattering predictions, there is still a lot of work to do. The charging infrastructure for a heavily electric fleet needs to be developed and utilities need to adapt to the influx of electricity demand should this EV growth continue. Even if EVs do end up being the majority of new car sales, it will still take decades to turn over the current fleet of vehicles.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy has had a bad rap. People point to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and now Fukushima as to why nuclear is a dangerous energy source. This is despite nuclear being one of the safetest, if not the safest energy source on average with the added benefit of having low carbon intensity. Smil is in favor of nuclear saying it “should be a part of any serious attempt to reduce the rate of global warming.” Despite that he recognizes the challenges that have presented the industry. In the 1970's, a primary issue plaguing nuclear was economics and regulation. At the time there was labor shortage and energy surplus. The labor shortage caused extreme delays and cost overruns. At the same time energy demand growth was shrinking making the final product look less promising to investors. On top of this, an enormous amount of regulations and statutes were being added. From 1971 to 1978 the number of regulations increased from around 100 to over 1600; in 1978, 1.3 regulations were being printed per day. Keeping up with such changes is extremely difficult and costly for plants that were either in construction or planning to be constructed. This resulted in numerous plants to shut down before even opening. Since the turn of the century there has only been 1 new nuclear plant built in the United States.

Recently, there has been a reemergence of nuclear in the energy debate as a reliable source of clean energy. The Department of Energy has recently set aside $230 million for advanced nuclear energy demonstrations. Companies have popped up with new Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) designs that may bring nuclear back into the limelight if they can successfully show the safety, energy, and economic benefits. For now though, nuclear is predicted to be stagnant at roughly 10% of the world’s electricity production.

Soft Energy, Peak Oil, and Carbon Sequestration

I am going to gloss over these three sections of Smil’s book. These were informative sections, but their relevance today is small compared to the others. The first, Soft Energy, was an idea promoted by Amory Bloch Lovins. The basic premise was that decentralized small renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biofuels, and geothermal along with energy conservation and efficiency would be a “gentle, pleasant and manageable” path compared with hard energy sources of fossil fuels and nuclear power. Smil does not attack the technologies but the exaggerated promises and scales. Lovins had predicted that 33% of the U.S. energy fleet would be filled by soft energy by 2000. In reality, less than 0.5% had been achieved. Smil sees nothing wrong in the technologies but cautions against unrealistic expectations.

There is one “Soft Energy” policy that has been enacted by California recently that I would like to bring up. It requires all new residential buildings to have solar power. Vox highlights some of the pros and cons of this policy. Broadly, the benefits are a mandated path to produce clean energy and increased scale to reduce cost. The draw backs are that this is an expensive way to expand solar, being 2-6 times more expensive than a renewable energy farm, and California is already struggling with the management of the Duck Curve. The coming years will show how this approach fares.

The next topic, Peak Oil, was somewhat humorous to read in retrospect. Oil has had two major crashes because of too much supply in the last 10 years. One in 2014-2016 and again recently with Covid-19 and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. I do recall back in 2010 worries of peak oil and its detrimental effects on the economy being discussed in college. It was a theoretical point when humans had reached maximum oil production and a point society would struggle to cope with this. Even without knowing of the future oil gluts, Smil highlighted this myth as overblown since such predictions did not take into effect the ability to access harder to reach deposits like oil sands and deep sea drilling nor the ability for the market to adapt should oil reach excessive prices. With the advent of fracking and the natural gas boom, the US has become a net energy exporter. Worries of energy independence and running out of fuel has vanished for the next several decades. 

Carbon Sequestration has been a topic of contention for a while. On the face of it, it sounds like common sense. There is too much CO₂ in the atmosphere, let us remove it with sequestration to prevent global warming. The problem is there is no technology proven to safely remove carbon on large enough scales to matter. An estimated 10 billion tons of CO₂ per year would need to be removed from the atmosphere to affect our climate. Smil discusses several organic and technical solutions to do this. An organic solution is planting new forests. The problem is that planting a new forest the size of all forests in north America and Russia would remove less than 1 billion tons of CO₂. Doing that 10 times over every year is simply impossible. A technical fix could be adsorbing the CO₂ onto Magnesium Oxide (MgO) or the abundant Serpentinite (Mg₃SI₂O₅). The problem is the sheer scale requiring 33 billion tons of the ore each year to capture the CO₂ produced from the 12 billion tons of fossil fuels extracted each year. Ramping to this scale would be difficult for something that does not create a sellable product at the end. Other solutions described in the book have similar problems and their efficacy is called into question.

Biofuel Future

Another discussion that has seemed to vanish is the biofuel future. Personally, I dismissed biofuels after a chemical engineering senior project I had in college. In this project the class was supposed to attempt to design an ethanol plant using current technology and prices as reference material. During this project, no group successfully designed a profitable ethanol production plant. The sheer difficulty in finding documentation showing economic feasibility shut down my personal expectations for biofuels.

Now, an undergrad’s design project should not be the case on which we make energy decisions. Instead we should pay attention to some of the first principles that Smil presents. Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane has a power density of 0.45 W/m², U.S. ethanol from corn has a power density of 0.25 W/m². In 2005, the worldwide demand for liquid fuels was 2 billion metric tons of crude oil. To meet this demand with sugar cane, 40% of the worlds entire cultivatable land would be required, with corn that would be 72%. Without going into other issues such as sustainable soil practices, infrastructure, and economics it is infeasible to use this much land area. Biofuels will not likely be the main energy source for transport in the future.

Wind Energy

Wind energy is the topic that Smil concedes the most potential to. He recognizes the strides in the technology allowing for a country such as Denmark to achieve 21% of its electricity from wind in 2010. (This has grown to 47% in 2019). He acknowledges studies that show wind’s intermittency can be handled without problem if it is less than 10% of the installed capacity. He also counters opponents to wind who claim that turbines kill an excessive amount of birds, when tall buildings and high voltage lines kill far more.

Still, Smil attacks proponents of wind energy as being overly optimistic. Assuming a realistic 2 W/m² energy density on average from wind, the U.S. would need 900,000 km² of wind energy equivalent to the size of Texas and Kansas combined. On top of the land area, the U.S. would need a massive upgrade to the electricity grid which does not have enough connection points nor high voltage capacity to take up this added resource.

To counter the amazing achievements from Denmark, Smil points out that they are in a wind dense region that cannot be extrapolated everywhere. Additionally, they have the added benefit of high voltage trade with nearby countries who are able to supplement Denmark with nuclear and fossil fuel options when intermittency becomes a problem.

Smil does not count out wind’s role in the energy future, he is just putting a reality check on the potential. He aspires for perhaps 15% of global production by 2030 and no more than 30%.

Pace of Energy Transitions

Back in 2008, Al Gore proposed a radical change of the U.S. energy grid challenging the nation to produce 100% renewable electricity in ten years’ time. Smil responds to this by comparing this proposal to past energy transitions and deconstructing what a complete energy overhaul would like. Starting in 1860 it took 50 years for oil to be 10% of the world’s energy and another 30 years to capture 25%. Similarly, natural gas took 70 years to rise from 1% to 20% of all energy. We may have more knowledge at our fingertips to help speed up the next energy transition, but we also have a much larger scale to do it on.

Our current energy system is complex network extracting fuels from around the world, then transporting and processing them at refineries and power plants. There are 3,000 large active tankers and 300,000 miles of pipeline. To abandon this infrastructure abandons over $5 trillion in assets. Somehow, we have to rebuild an equivalent amount of new renewable power with a new infrastructure to back it up.

Personally, in the oil industry, I have seen billion-dollar projects delayed over a decade due to economics, politics, and regulation. I cannot imagine coordinating a joint worldwide effort to produce a several trillion-dollar overhaul in the course of decade.

What Does This Book Tell Us?

I will admit, when I picked up Smil’s book I had hoped to receive predictions based on research of how we can transition to an energy landscape without CO₂. What he leaves readers with are reminders. He reminds us to not fall for energy promises of unproven technologies and ideologies. He reminds us of the shear scope of the problem.

Transitioning off fossils fuels is an effort to upend an industry that is centuries in the making with trillions of dollars of assets already in place. It is an inherently slow process to change that infrastructure. The most proactive thing that Smil reminds of is to invest our time in the areas with most realistic potential.  

With those reminders I must turn back to the readings of Hans Rosling in “Factfulness”. Rosling takes a longer-term view on things and shows us how our instincts and biases can make it difficult to see our progress and potential. Since Smil’s book came out, electric vehicles have made a small, but seemingly lasting mark. Cost per kWh of both solar and wind have dropped making them more cost effective than coal. Growth of the renewable energy industry has beat predictions from the EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) and IEA (International Energy Agency). This energy industry may not be able to keep pace with Moore’s law, but the growth is undeniable, and investors are paying attention.

There is a massive mountain to climb if we are to have a carbon neutral future. There is no point in giving up looking at the daunting peak. Thankfully, we might just have a bit of momentum to work with. 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 2, 2020

Really great piece, thanks for sharing James! I think to hold 'experts' accountable, it's important to always look back at predictions and not only point out what went right/wrong, but to try to understand why and use that to inform future predictions.

Given that, I challenge you to bust out your crystal ball! Any informed predictions of some conventional knowledge / common predictions today that you think will fall short when we look back on them in 2030?

Thanks again!

James Buchen's picture
James Buchen on Jul 2, 2020

My naive prediction is fairly large growth of solar and wind in the next 10 years in developed nations. The growth will predominantly be on community solar, and utility scales. Residential will continue with incentives from governments. Total GW installed will likely be near the top end of predictions made by the EIA and IEA and driven mostly due to cost reductions and stagnant innovation in fossil fuel industries.

Renewables growth may stagnate near the end of the decade due to issues with infrastructure and it will likely take government/policy intervention to push forward high voltage lines. Additionally, intermittency will likely become an issue as renewables gain traction. This will slowly increase renewable cost due to needing storage or excess buildout. Progress in the storage industry will be needed if renewables are to take a majority of the energy production.

Coal will further decline with natural gas being the major fossil fuel of choice in developed nations. Developing nations will continue to consume coal exported from countries like the US. 

I personally think that new SMR technology has potential to bring nuclear back into conversation, but public perception will always be an issue with that industry. Given the push back in Germany, we may see further nuclear decline despite innovation in the field. 

Electric vehicles will continue to grow but still not be a major part of the car fleet by the end of the decade. 

Hydrogen economies may start poping up in isolated areas for shipping or for small fleets of government/company vehicles. Hydrogen will likely still be in its infancy if it survives at all. 

In general predictions made by EIA and IEA are good baselines. They tend to be on the conservative side, showing limited decline of fossil fuels in our future. Even if they can't exactly predict the future they do highlight the headwinds in each section of the industry. Industry can adjust based on the variables that affect the predictions.

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Jul 10, 2020

"He reminds us to not fall for energy promises of unproven technologies and ideologies."

Wise. Unfortunatly it seems to me, at least in the US, that there's a growing apetite for ideological purity. Nuclear is seen as a compromise, and is thus unacceptable. These are the same types who'd have you believe plastic straws and climate change pose the same risk to our civilizations. 

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