The Energetic Future

Solving the power problems of the 21st century will mean letting go of some cherished myths

3 min read

Since 1900, Vaclav Smil tells us in his suggestive but frustrating new book, the amount of energy produced and consumed by the world has grown 12-fold--from about 35 million trillion joules (exajoules) to 400 EJ. If that trend were to continue, by 2100 the world would be consuming 5000 EJ, if you are able to imagine on the scale that Smil habitually does.

Obviously, this isn't going to happen, if only because of limited material resources. But how is growth to be limited, and how can the escalating needs of the world's growing population be satisfied without running out of fuels, wreaking havoc with ecosystems, and ruining the climate? The answers are not pat, and fittingly Smil claims not to "rigidly forecast or arrogantly prescribe," though he does confess to a "propensity to doubt and to judge."

Energy At The Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties: By Vaclav Smil; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2003, 427 pp. US $35, ISBN 0-2621-9492-9

Among the big things he doubts are predictions that the world is running out of fossil fuels and that renewables will soon rule the roost. In painstaking detail, he shows that those declaring that oil is just about exhausted have turned out to be wrong again and again, and that coal reserves are almost inexhaustible. When countries like England or Holland have switched from coal to oil or gas, it's been because the alternative was superior, not because the black stuff itself was all gone.

In one of the many provocative charts that adorn this book, the reader is reminded that wind, solar, and geothermal energy--though growing rapidly--still account for less than 1 percent of the world's primary energy.

Taking issue with the dominant trend in U.S. energy policy--and one that engineers are predisposed to like--Smil argues persuasively that improving energy efficiency is not the answer to all problems. As cars get more fuel-efficient, he says, motorists drive longer distances, more than canceling the gains; as houses get more energy-efficient, families build bigger homes; and so on.

Smil is a pioneer and towering figure in the interdisciplinary study of energy, material cycles, and the environment. As the author of about a dozen major books, including Scientific American Library's Cycles of Life and The Bad Earth (one of several about China), he is a lot better qualified than most to address our energy future. His preferences--for conservation and renewables, without closing the door to nuclear reactors and big dams--seem sensible enough.

Why then is Energy at the Crossroads rather wearying and unsatisfying? One reason is an overly hasty style: many charts come with inadequate labels and legends, and almost every paragraph contains a sentence that begins without an article--"Cumulative effects of..." "Substantial increase of..."--as if it were simply too much trouble to observe the normal conventions of speech. The book seems not quite a book but an assemblage of lecture notes and PowerPoint slides, meant to be seen from the 37th row of an auditorium, but not examined closely.

Distressing, too, is Smil's coyness. Often he holds his conclusions until late into the book, or he fails to ground them in an argument. Why, for example, if long-range forecasts always are so inaccurate, does Smil believe it is essential to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions? One may agree--and this reviewer does--but it would be nice to have a better idea what Smil's reasons are.

Like many experts writing about global warming, Smil states that shaping our energy future "is primarily a moral issue, not a technical or economic matter." This is questionable. To moralize the matter only creates a false barrier between those of us who think about it all the time and those who have better things to do. And it gives the political game away to those who would pander to middle-aged voters with motorcycles or sports cars who just want to have their fair share of fun before their too few days on Earth are over.

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