Vaclav Smil: Why Energy Transitions take such a long time

[The RATE of World oil production (also known as Peak Oil) peaked in 2005 and has been on a plateau since then. Hirsch wrote that we ought to prepare 20 years ahead of time for peak production, but he should have said 50 to 100 years, as you’ll see from Smil’s explanation of energy transitions. Clearly once oil production begins to decline, we aren’t going to be able to make the transition. Firstly because so much fossil fuel is required to build low, perhaps negative EROI “renewable” energy contraptions, second because the order of magnitude of what needs replacing is colossal, and third because oil will be rationed and used to grow, distribute, and cook food plus other uses essential to basic survival. Alice Friedemann]

Vaclav Smil: Why Energy Transitions take such a long time

Excerpts from: Smil, V. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities. AEI press.

A widespread belief in the acceleration of technical advances owes a great deal to what I call Moore’s curse, the idea that the rapid and sustained improvements in the performance of microchips represent the norm in modern inventiveness. In reality, advances in microprocessor abilities are a highly atypical example of technical progress. A closer examination of tropical biodiversity was to yield a cornucopia of potent new drugs; it has not. And the quest for artificial intelligence has yielded less than astonishing results-the very logic and accomplishments of this decades-long effort are now questioned even by one of the field’s creators. Even a casual observer of the modern energy scene would be aware of exaggerated or failed promises and dreams that did not come true, ranging from the dream of energy self-sufficiency for the United States, first called for by 1973, to the dream of commercially exploited superconductivity to make intercontinental electricity transmission a reality.

Mao’s Great Leap Forward, launched in 1958, was based on a delusionary idea that a poor, underdeveloped nation could catch up with the world’s most advanced economies in a single, frenzied spurt of a few years. This impossible goal involved mass replication of primitive, small-scale techniques, with hundreds of millions of people forced to cut down trees, mine poor iron ore and coal, and build primitive backyard furnaces to smelt substandard iron. But this leap ended in the worst man-made famine in history, in which more than 30 million people died.

Energy Today

Today coal provides 29% of primary energy, more than the 27% during the first energy crisis in 1973. During the 20th century coal contributed more energy than any other fuel, edging oil by about 5%. The common perception of the 19th century dominated by coal and the 20th by oil is wrong. Globally, 1800 to 1900 was still part of the thousands of years of the wooden era, and by a small margin, 1900-2000 was the coal century. Now coal generates 40% of the world’s electricity, 80% of all energy in South Africa, 70% in China, and 60% in India.

It took oil 50 years from first commercial production in the 1860s to capture 10% of global primary energy, and another 30 years to go from 10 to 25% of the total.

It took Natural gas over 70 years (1900-1970) to go from 1 to 20% of the total.

Hydropower provided 17% of electricity in 2008.

Nuclear power 27% at its peak, but now is about the same as hydropower.

It took over 50 years for any internal combustion engine (gas or diesel) to displace agricultural draft animals in industrialized countries.

The Steam turbine was first invented in 1884 and continues 125 years later to generate over 70% of the world’s electricity in fossil and nuclear-fueled power plants, with the rest coming from gas and water turbines and diesels [my comment: so I guess we never left the Steam Age….].

Why Energy transitions are gradual

Significant market penetration requires a lot of financing, developing, and perfecting massive and expensive infrastructures.

the oil industry process about 30 billion barrels of liquids and gases a year, weighing 4 billion tons. Fuel is extracted in over 100 countries using rigs, refineries, 3,000 large tankers, and 300,000 miles of pipelines. Even if an alternative were found, writing off this colossal infrastructure that took over a century to build would amount to discarding an investment worth well over $5 trillion dollars.

Inefficient machines aren’t replaced by better ones quickly because the marketing and servicing of the older ones is well established, and problems with the new machine aren’t known yet. Businesses prefer predictability over investment into something not well known yet. Supply-chains can slow down adoption as well. A refinery needs to be modified to produce low-sulfur diesel fuel, filling stations to dispense alternative fuels.

All energy transitions take decades. The greater the scale of the existing infrastructure, the longer the substitutions will take. This seems obvious, but is apparently ignored by unrealistic milestones for electric or fuel cell cars or clean coal or renewable devices.

No alternatives have even reached 5% of the global market. Non-conventional oil, mainly from Alberta’s oil sands supplies about 3% of the world’s crude oil and 1% of all primary energy. Liquid biofuels, wind, geothermal, and PV comprise less than .5 percent of the world’s primary energy.

Sure we have more powerful technical means to effect a faster energy transition, but we face an incomparably greater scale-up challenge. The absolute quantities needed to capture a significant portion of the total supply are huge because the transition is of an unprecedented magnitude. In the late 1890s energy consumed was equal to about half a billion tons of oil. Now replacing half of fossil fuels with renewable energy would equal about 4.5 billion tons of oil, 9 times greater than the 1890s.

In 2008 USA fossil and nuclear nonrenewable generation was 3.75 PWh with installed capacity of 870 GW with a load factor of 50%, which took 57 years to build. In 2008, wind and solar electricity generated 1.2% of the total, with installed capacity of 25 GW and a load factor of 24%. Even if High-voltage transmission existed, the USA would have to build 1,740 GW of new wind and solar capacity in a decade, 1.75 times as much as it built during the past 50 or more years.

But that is not all. Such a feat would mean writing off in a decade the entire fossil and nuclear generation industry worth at least $1.5 trillion dollars plus another $2.5 trillion to build the new renewable capacity. Where would America get this much money within a decade? And the new plants would have to be in areas not currently linked with HV transmission lines to major consumption centers (wind from the Great Plains to the east and west coasts, PV solar from the Southwest to the rest of the country), requiring a massive rewiring of the United States.

Limited transmission capacity to move electricity east and west from the Southwest, Texas and Midwest is already delaying new wind projects. the US has about 212,000 miles of HV lines, and inadequacy of the country’s poorly inter-connected grids is a major bottleneck for a rapid development of wind and solar generation capacities, while the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that an investment of $1.5 trillion would be needed by the year 2030 to improve the grid’s reliability and connectivity.

The final cost is likely to escalate, given that the regulatory approval process alone is likely to tame many years before new construction can start.


It is a grand delusion to think that in 10 years the US can achieve wind and solar generation equaling the thermal power plants that took 60 years to build, while incurring write-off and building costs on the order of $4 trillion, concurrently expanding its electricity grid by at least 25% and modernizing the rest—while also reducing regulatory approval of megaprojects from many years to mere months.

This entry was posted in An Overview, Infrastructure, Vaclav Smil. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.