By Vaclav Smil: Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl

Vaclav Smil is an intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable expert on a wide range of scientific and social topics related to energy. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a respected author of many books.

In this September 2015 talk at McGill University he touches on many important topics including:

  • We are a fossil fuel civilization and will remain so for a long time.
  • Over the last 25 years we have reduced our dependence on fossil energy by only 3%.
  • Power density is critical when comparing energy alternatives.
  • Renewable energy is not renewable and does not have the density to replace fossil energy.
  • Green products are not green.
  • Nuclear energy is dead. What’s left is being developed in the wrong places.
  • CO2 capture is not a solution for climate change.
  • Developed countries do not use energy rationally. Canada (and the U.S.) are the worst offenders in the world.
  • Food and energy have never been cheaper and we should expect to pay a lot more in the future.
  • The solution to reducing waste and energy consumption is higher prices.
  • Innovation is an overvalued and exaggerated topic. All of the critical technologies civilization depends on were invented over 100 years ago.
  • There are more important issues to worry about than peak oil including water scarcity, money printing, low interest rates, and high youth unemployment.
  • Most big events in history were unexpected. We can expect surprises in the future.
  • Reasons for hope include the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, and the fact that we can have comfortable lives at a much lower level of consumption.

I agree with almost all of Smil’s points except:

  • Smil believes we are unable to accurately predict the effect of rising CO2 and therefore he is not worried about climate change. I’ve done enough reading of climate science to be confident we should be very worried.  While we are not able to precisely predict the outcome, the probable outcome of our current path ranges from dangerous to catastrophic.
  • Smil believes that with fracking and other technology improvements we will have plentiful oil for at least a hundred years. I think we will have energy shortages within 10 years. Our different views are probably rooted in different assumptions about the link between energy and the economy. Smil thinks any oil shortages will increase the price of oil thus enabling new and more expensive sources. I think rising oil prices will reduce worker productivity and incomes which will make more expensive oil unaffordable and therefore supply will reduce in an escalating feedback loop as inexpensive oil is depleted. I also think that oil depletion and consequent rising production costs are the main cause of rising debt, money printing, and low interest rates that Smil worries about.

This lecture is a must watch for people seeking to understand the issues that really matter to our experiment with civilization.

4 thoughts on “By Vaclav Smil: Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl”

  1. I’ve read just about all of Smil’s books, and he seems to “get” all of the issues across the board — topsoil, energy density, and so on– and then he’ll say some incredibly techno-optimistic think like oil for a century. How could he not know that it is not the size of the tap than matters, not the tank, and that the production rate is about to drop dramatically? How can he not know that we can’t get the quarter of the oil in the arctic (and natural gas, and by far most of America’s coal) because of sea ice and permafrost, and even if we tried, it would take 30 years to put the infrastructure in place, with a dubious EROI for whatever fossils we managed to obtain. Sea ice and rogue icebergs will mow down oil rigs, permafrost buckle pipelines and melting and frost heaves bust up roads and rail – trying to keep them running is surely a huge subtraction of EROI.

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    1. You are discussing the most interesting aspect of our predicament. How is it possible that most people, including really smart knowledgeable people like Smil, deny the immediacy and magnitude of human overshoot? I think denial is genetic and is central to what makes us human.

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