Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion: From the Venture Capital Firms of Silicon Valley to the Halls of Congress, Hopes Are High That a New Energy Economy Is Dawning. Vaclav Smil Explains Why Our Transition Away from Fossil Fuels Will Take Decades-If It Happens at All
Smil, Vaclav, The American (Washington, DC)
During the early 1970s we were told by the promoters of nuclear energy that by the year 2000 America's coal-based electricity generation plants would be relics of the past and that all electricity would come from nuclear fission. What's more, we were told that the first-generation fission reactors would by then be on their way out, replaced by super-efficient breeder reactors that would produce more fuel than they were initially charged with.
During the early 1980s some aficionados of small-scale, distributed, "soft" (today's "green") energies saw America of the first decade of the 21st century drawing 30 percent to 50 percent of its energy use from renewables (solar, wind, biofuels). For the past three decades we have been told how natural gas will become the most important source of modern energy: widely cited forecasts of the early 1980s had the world deriving half of its energy from natural gas by 2000. And a decade ago the promoters of fuel-cell cars were telling us that such vehicles would by now be on the road in large numbers, well on their way to displacing ancient and inefficient internal combustion engines.
These are the realities of 2008: coal-fired power plants produce half of all U.S. electricity, nuclear stations 20 percent, and there is not a single commercial breeder reactor operating anywhere in the world; in 2007 the United States derives about 1.7 percent of its energy from new renewable conversions (corn-based ethanol, wind, photovoltaic solar, geothermal); natural gas supplies about 24 percent of the world's commercial energy--less than half the share predicted in the early 1980s and still less than coal with nearly 29 percent; and there are no fuel-cell cars.
This list of contrasts could be greatly extended, but the point is made: all of these forecasts and anticipations failed miserably because their authors and promoters ignored one of the most important realities ruling the behavior of complex energy systems--the inherently slow pace of energy transitions.
"Energy transitions" encompass the time that elapses between an introduction of a new primary energy source (coal, oil, nuclear electricity, wind captured by large turbines) and its rise to claiming a substantial share (20 percent to 30 percent) of the overall market, or even to becoming the single largest contributor or an absolute leader (with more than 50 percent) in national or global energy supply. The term also refers to gradual diffusion of new prime movers, devices that replaced animal and human muscles by converting primary energies into mechanical power that is used to rotate massive turbogenerators producing electricity or to propel fleets of vehicles, ships, and airplanes. There is one thing all energy transitions have in common: they are prolonged affairs that take decades to accomplish, and the greater the scale of prevailing uses and conversions the longer the substitutions will take. The second part of this statement seems to be a truism but it is ignored as often as the first part: otherwise we would not have all those unrealized predicted milestones for new energy sources.
Preindustrial societies had rather simple and fairly stationary patterns of primary energy use. They relied overwhelmingly on biomass fuels (wood, charcoal, straw) for heat and they supplemented their dominant prime movers (muscles) with wind to sail ships and in some regions with windmills and small waterwheels. This traditional arrangement prevailed in Europe and the Americas until the beginning of the 19th century, and it dominated most of Asia and Africa until the middle of the 20th century. The year 1882 was likely the tipping point of the transition to fossil fuels, the time when the United States first burned more coal than wood. The best available historical reconstructions indicate that it was only sometime during the late 1890s that the energy content of global fossil fuel consumption, nearly all of it coal, came to equal the energy content of wood, charcoal, and crop residues. …