Outdated already: Distorted analysis, faulty predictions and mythology in Vaclav Smil’s “Energy Transitions”

Having just finished Energy Transitions, the work of widely lauded energy historian and polymath writer Vaclav Smil, I am left disappointed.

I must admit that I had high expectations. The book was referred to me by a senior environmental journalist, and given Smil’s reputation I was expecting a very well researched, careful collection of coherent arguments that would change the way that I see the current shift to renewable energy, and provide me with new insights which would no doubt shake my convictions.

I should note that I am sympathetic to Smil’s approach – one of caution that emphasizes historical patterns and uneven development. I should also note that the historical aspects of the book are very interesting and a great primer for those who are studying the energy transitions of today.

But unfortunately, while these historical aspects were strong, when the book got to recent developments and the current situation (circa 2010) I found that I was reading the work of an man whose admitted vast knowledge of the past does not transfer to the present, let alone the future. This great intellect has been outpaced by real-world developments, and his commentary on the future proves no more or less clumsy than many others.

And it happened in only three years.

Failure to disaggregate

My greatest difficulty with Energy Transitions is not with any one piece of data or omission of data, but with the basic framing of issues. Throughout 153 pages, Smil relies on “energy” as a quantity expressed in joules, or at times GW, and in more than a dozen charts does not bother to disaggregate electricity, heating and transport.

From the historical perspective this may work, given that many fuel sources, like coal, were at one point or another widely used for all three. However, in the early 21st century and studying the current energy transition this is a fatal flaw.

This is interesting as those who know Vaclav and his work better than I do note that he is firm on how difficult it is to transfer energy between these sectors.

The primary transport fuel of much of the world is various forms of petroleum. Most nations got off of burning large amounts of oil for electricity years or decades ago; those that still do are largely islands, isolated regions and petroleum producing nations that maintain absurd and costly subsidies for oil consumption.

Likewise, we aren’t effective with powering transport with any of our main sources of fuel for electricity – coal, hydropower or nuclear reactors, and have had limited success with natural gas (mostly due to the problem of liquefaction).

So what we are left with is a meaningless lumping together of some very different sources and means of energy use. This is a great dis-service to our current energy transition to renewables, which is mostly happening in the electricity sector.

I will note that while solutions are readily available, with the exception of China we largely haven’t even started the energy transition in the heating sector. Transportation is much farther off, and here I am entirely sympathetic to Smil’s argument and approach. Our transportation sector and thus our global economy is hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels. With all due respect to Elon Musk it will take more than a few Teslas to make this transition, which is both quite technically and organizationally challenging and likely decades off.

However, by using this frame Smil misses rapid and important changes in electricity generation, particularly in Western Europe where most nations are getting 30% or more of their electricity from renewables.

You would think in a book titled “Energy Transitions” that this would be noted.

Cherry picking of examples

One of the ways that Smil gets away with this rather large oversight is cherry picking of data. While he says that he has made his choices based on studying the world’s largest economies, those that are missing are telling.

When looking at Europe Smil chooses the three nations that have the lowest levels of renewable energy penetration and have made the least progress in Western Europe – Britain, France and the Netherlands.

Smil excuses Germany (the world’s fourth-largest economy) due to a lack of historical data based on shifting borders – which is understandable but does distort his findings. However, I seemed to have missed the explanation of why the Netherlands (the world’s 17th-largest economy by GDP) is included but Italy (the eighth-largest) and Spain (13th-largest) are omitted.

Of course, to include Italy, which is currently meeting 30% of electricity demand with renewables, or Spain, which is above 40% this year, would undermine Smil’s main point about the dominance of old energy forms and “necessary” slowness of the transition. To say nothing of Brazil (the world’s sixth-largest economy, seventh-largest when the book was published), whose shift to renewables in the transport sector would unravel his argument.

Even within the nations that are studied, the failure to disaggregate energy sectors means that significant developments are overlooked. For instance, there is no mention of China’s 87 GW-thermal of solar thermal capacity in 2008(1), or the 10-20 GW-th that was being added annually to reach 118 GW-th by the time the book was published in 2010(2).

Meaningless critiques and mythologies

Beyond these two significant, structural concerns, Smil’s statements about the current transition to renewables are deeply rooted in late 20th-century biases that bear little relation to reality. He spends some time on the energy density of renewable energy as it relates to available land area, particularly dismissing wind, as if he did not realize that wind turbines are easily co-located on farmland, grazing land, and even – gasp – “settlements”!

(There is a wind turbine across the river from where I catch the subway in Boston. My toddler and I discuss it often, and so far I have no health complaints. I cannot say that I have no concerns about the natural gas plant it is next to.)

I should note that PV and wind have been most widely deployed in nations with well above average population densities, including Germany (5x as dense as the world average), Denmark (more than 2x as dense) and Spain (almost 2x as dense).

I must note that related concerns about the power density of renewables are significant – but again, only as they apply to the transportation sector.

Smil also seems to have unrealistic ideas about siting, suggesting that renewables can only be sited in the most ideal locations, and noting that it is a long way from North Dakota to the East Coast to transport electricity from wind. I must inform the professor that wind developers have built 400 MW of wind generation in Maine, and see potential for another 4 GW of cheap wind there. Incidentally, this is largely on commercial forestland – which is ideal as the roads are already there. I must also inform him that the nation where PV is most widely deployed – Germany – has worse natural conditions for PV than the vast majority of the United States, including all major cities on the East Coast.

Additionally, Smil bemoans the small size of individual generating units – as if it were not possible to aggregate millions of solar panels or hundreds of wind turbines together, to produce plants up to 550 MW (Topaz PV project) for solar or 1 GW (Shepherds Flat) for wind.

There are multiple other fanciful concerns of Smil’s – such as his concern about rare materials used in PV (more than 90% of PV produced is crystalline silicon and does not use cadmium, gallium or tellurium), or his bizarre and unsupported claim that large-scale deployments of these technologies must be studied for two decades.

Frankly, these are such ridiculous critiques that normally I would not bother to address them, except that in this case, they come from none other than the pre-eminent energy historian of our time.

Errors/omissions, unsupported claims and bad predictions

There are other instances where Smil is simply wrong. When he states that “affluent countries could make the coming transition easier by substantially reducing their clearly excessive high per capita energy use… there is little evidence of any determination to embark on such a challenge” I must refer him to Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, which has grown its economy while both reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and where energy efficiency and reduction of use is a key pillar of the energy transition.

But Smil chose not to look at Germany.

Smil very carefully states that one cannot know the future course of events, and that “lessons of past energy transitions may not be particularly useful for appraising the coming transition…”, but then appears unable to resist the temptation of making statements and assessments about that transition.

On page 119 Smil talks about the challenges moving from a system based on high energy densities in centralized locations and moving to a decentralized energy system of many producers, stating that “the challenges of this massive infrastructural reorganization should not be underestimated and the tempo of this grand transformation would have to be necessarily slow”, but without any real support for this statement, which appears to be another artifact of his attachment to 20th century energy systems.

Predicting PV adoption: Bad choice

But what was a particularly bad move was Smil’s choice to handicap rates of PV price declines on page 123-124. Here Smil makes a number of observations about system prices, noting that complete PV systems were USD 8.75 per watt in 2009.

As anyone familiar with the PV industry knows, these prices have nearly fallen in half, such that U.S. residential system prices – which are higher than German prices – are at USD 4.72 per watt four years later.

Thus Smil’s expectation that PV will not hit grid parity until 2020-2025 is already outdated. I have argued elsewhere that grid parity is not necessarily the point of mass PV market adoption (reality is more complicated than economic models), but I will skip that here and merely point out that Smil’s understandably conservative but highly inaccurate concerns about price make utterly invalid his estimates of timing of adoption.

This mistake about price also undermines his predictions about China: “Could anybody expect that the Chinese will terminate this brand new investment and turn to costlier methods of electricity generation that remain relatively unproven and that are not readily available at GW scale?”

Well, while China has not walked away from coal, in 2013 the nation is building around 10 GW of PV, with 12 GW planned for 2014. In part because it isn’t costly, and also because it isn’t unproven, and finally because it is available at roughly GW scale (not that this actually matters for individual units).

Smil also makes poor choices in political predictions: “Could we expect that the world will simply walk away from fossil and nuclear energy infrastructures…”. I will note that this was written before the Fukushima Disaster. Japan and Germany, the world’s third- and fourth-largest economies, as well as Belgium, Italy and Switzerland are walking away from their nuclear infrastructures.

A false sage

The reason that I am taking this time to thoroughly debunk this flawed work by an admittedly great historian is that it provides a powerful validation of persistent mythologies which affect our understanding of renewable energy. What is truly dangerous is these myths appear to be accepted by some of the leaders that we need to get us out of the mess that we are in, including not only editors of major environmental and science publications and Bill Gates, but Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Kerry Emanuel.

As such, Smil’s work affects public opinion and policy at the highest level, and provides easy excuses for those who are choosing to not confront the challenge of Climate Change in a meaningful way. As such, Smil joins world leaders in failing in his responsibility to future generations.

Ultimately, Smil’s work shows the failings of age, of a man who cannot escape the biases of the world that he has lived in, who cannot wrap his mind around the current changes. As a historian he provides us with valuable information about past developments, however Vaclav Smil has shown that he cannot be trusted to predict the future, or even to explain the present. His work is already outdated.

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20 comments

  1. “Of course, to include Italy, which is currently meeting 30% of electricity demand with renewables…”
    this itself seems a little misleading, switching from discussion of rate of uptake of “new renewables” (wind and solar) to all renewables- looking at Wikipaedia it looks as if only about 10% comes from wind and solar, the rest from “old renewables” hydro and geothermal. This paints a very different picture than the author suggests and more support for Smil. Also the author fails to discuss the variable nature of wind and solar which will surely be a huge drag on their taking over more than 30-40%-ish of electricity generation no matter how much is installed- and meeting such targets will take decades still.

    The broader point that Smil fails to discuss different energy sectors is not really that relevant to the main point, precisely since he is indeed talking about total energy transitions, which is fundamentally what counts: so what if wind and solar meet a fifth or a quarter even of electricity if you cant change transport and industry. Including Brazil would have distorted the picture rather than making it more accurate- its climate and sheer size of suitable land resource is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, so atypical.

    Smil compares the rise of wind and solar with nuclear which achieved far more much faster- yet he is also highly critical in the book of nuclear energy myths and false promises, which the author here ignores to support his narrative of Smil being old and attached to 20th C energy systems.

    “Japan and Germany, the world’s third- and fourth-largest economies, as well as Belgium, Italy and Switzerland _are_ walking away from their nuclear infrastructures.” Astonishingly, yes, but the author fails to note that this is to walk into more coal not wind and solar, for obvious reasons of energy density, thus again paradoxically supporting Smil’s case about the limitations of renewables. Smil may have omitted Germany but many others have pointed out the failures of renewables there as well, for much the same reasons Smil suggests: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/germanys-energiewende-a-cautionary-tale/

    1. As for Italy, I use the reports of the nation’s grid operator, which are only available in Italian. But where did I say “new” renewables? I don’t see Smil looking in depth at European nations with a high degree of hydro either – except Sweden, where he ridicules one of their failed experiments with biomass and fails to mention their notable successes.

      Italy has added an impressive amount of PV in the last three years, but like many European nations it is using a mix of new and old renewables – mostly hydro in this case. Also, it is true that Italy was a pioneer in geothermal, but I would hardly call that an “old” renewable energy source. For a higher portion of your “new” renewables, I suggest that you look at Spain, which getting 20% of its electricity from wind and more than 5% from solar PV and CSP, not counting biomass. Or Portugal, which also has a large amount of wind as well as hydro. Or Denmark.

      You can continue to defend Smil’s point about the “overall” energy transition. I don’t think that’s a useful frame. As I said in my piece – what progress has been made is largely in electricity, we haven’t done much with heat (I have the bad habit of often ignoring biomass, which comes from my agreement with Smil in seeing many forms of biomass as a problematic solution as best) and the transport sector is a long way off.

      Yes, it is going to take action on several fronts. We need to move more rapidly on heating (we can) and I will personally argue that transportation is going to take societal changes (a shift to mass transit other low-or-no-carbon transport in cities) to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions in transport. None of that makes the contributions of the energy transition in electricity invalid.

      I didn’t get to variability. That is an issue and is being tackled by strong moves towards energy storage in Germany, Italy, Japan and California: http://www.solarserver.com/solar-magazine/solar-report/solar-report/energy-transition-20-energy-storage-and-solar-pv.html

      As for the “move to coal”, in the case of Germany, you are repeating the German Coal Myth: https://energymediasociety.com/2013/02/10/the-german-coal-myth/. Japan replaced its nuclear power with petroleum and natural gas – while it builds the equivalent of seven nuclear reactors worth of PV annually: http://www.solarserver.com/solar-magazine/solar-news/current/2013/kw49/quarterly-japanese-solar-pv-module-demand-rises-above-2-gw-imports-more-than-half.html.

      I would hardly call that slow.

      As for the argument about energy density, I dealt with that in the piece, and I suggest that you re-read it.

      I’m not going to spend my time debunking another piece of Breakthrough Institute propaganda, as I have already done that with their very poor piece on the global solar industry: https://energymediasociety.com/2013/07/08/the-global-solar-market-is-bigger-than-germany-and-the-us-or-why-the-bti-is-wrong-about-the-future-of-solar-pv/

      1. The point is obviously that hydro is not increasing much if at all; so “30% renewables” sounds a lot but only 10% is “new”- the whole point of the argument that Smil makes is that renewables are not increasing very quickly, which is true- wind and solar have generally not even yet matched the hydro that was already in place in many countries since the ’50s.
        “Japan replaced its nuclear power with petroleum and natural gas – while it builds the equivalent of seven nuclear reactors worth of PV annually: ”
        How do you get that? When functioning, Fukishima Daiichi was generating 4.3GW. The article you link to states Japan’s demand for solar pv is 2GW but this is only installed capacity not actual delivered power which is only about 30% for pv (85% for nuclear). Again, you seem to support Smil and agree that Japan’s nuclear is not being replaced by renewables?

      2. I said nuclear reactors, not nuclear power plants. Japan shipped 2 GW of PV in the third quarter of 2013 = 7 GW expected in 2013. I’m using an average nuclear reactor size of around 1 GW http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=104&t=3.

        Capacity factors are interesting; however as PV tends to produce power when it is needed most (during the day) and nuclear reactors produce power 24/7 whether you need it or not (until they produce zero power), I don’t find that as useful.

        Japan is not going to replace its nuclear generation fleet with renewables in one year, or three. It’s going to take more time.

        Is the only frame you can see this in whether or not I agree with Smil? On a number of things he is correct. But his statements about the “necessary” slowness of the transition are supported by myths about renewables, and he missed significant progress that has been made in a number of nations.

        I cite Italy because it is the eighth-largest economy (his stated criteria is largest economies). Better examples, as I have stated before, are Denmark (which he addresses), Spain and Portugal (I leave out Sweden because I am not as impressed with their move to biomass). For recent developments, Germany and Italy have moved very quickly in the last three years with PV; but the aggregate numbers aren’t that high yet mostly because it has only been three years of accelerated growth from feed-in tariffs.

  2. Really great. Enjoyed reading it even more, the second time through. Energy transition is a very, very difficult thing and expertise on previous transitions is enormously helpful in analysis of our current transition, with one caveat: one must integrate the very new, different factors of the present challenge. And, stay up to date as certain latent forces burst forth. It appears Smil has not met this admittedly difficult challenge. Indeed, the mix of expertise and obtuse reaction(s) has appeared more frequently in his work of late.

    1. Thank you Gregor.

  3. “Minders of a fragile national power grid say the rush to renewable energy might actually make it harder to keep the lights on.”
    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/dec/02/nation/la-na-grid-renewables-20131203

    1. Yes, the U.S. grid is outdated and yes, we have not invested sufficiently in it. Yes, adding variable renewable energy generation makes balancing more complex.

      This last point is often highly over-estimated. Germany has moved to 23% electricity production from renewables (2012), and maintains an extremely reliable grid. http://www.renewablesinternational.net/german-grid-reaches-record-reliability-in-2011/150/537/56183/

      Likewise, very high penetrations of renewables (over 40% of electricity demand) have not caused mass blackouts in Spain or Denmark.

      So I’m going to call concerns about reliability yet another mythology propagated by the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, spread by a lazy and ill-informed press.

      1. Interesting that the renewables link you referenced did not mention anything about coal “CHEAP CARBON EXTENDS COAL’S DOMINANCE IN GERMAN POWER MIX” http://www.platts.com/latest-news/electric-power/london/german-coal-fired-power-rises-above-50-in-first-26089429

      2. You do not appear to have read the article which you cite. It notes, as I have in a previous post, that the largest change in Germany’s energy system has been a drop in natural gas: “Coal plants increased production by about 5% to 130.3 TWh in the first six months of 2013 as output from gas-fired power plants fell 17% to 21.9 TWh”.

        Germany is replacing expensive natural gas in part with cheaper coal. But you seem to be more interested in reiterating the German Coal Myth: https://energymediasociety.com/2013/02/10/the-german-coal-myth/

      3. Hmm, who do yo believe? “The high use of renewable energy in eastern Germany driven by government green energy policies is causing instability to its own electric grid as well as to neighboring countries, resulting in industrial companies having to purchase generators and emergency back-up systems rather than face replacing equipment damaged during disruptions of service”
        http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/2013/01/23/germanys-green-energy-destabilizing-electric-grids/

      4. Who do I believe? As a journalist, I am going to favor the German grid operator (the source cited in the Renewables International article): http://www.bundesnetzagentur.de/cln_1931/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/EN/2013/130919ElectricitySupplyReliable.html?nn=404530

        I am going to look with greater skepticism on your source, a anti-renewable energy think tank backed by Koch Industries and with ties to the Cato Institute and ALEC: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Institute_for_Energy_Research

        I doubt that this will evolve into be a constructive conversation. You do not appear to be open to learning anything, as you seem to be emotionally vested in supporting the views of fossil fuel and nuclear industry propagandists. As such, I’d like to ask you to stop commenting unless you have something better to contribute.

  4. It is interesting how Germany is used on both sides of this debate “If I were a German citizen, my blood would (or should) be boiling right about now. Because, not only has my country embarrassed me and my fellow citizens in front of the world at the least opportune time, but my electricity is far more expensive than my fellow Europeans”
    http://canadianenergyissues.com/2013/11/18/public-perception-global-warming-and-nuclear-power-playing-the-trump-card/

    1. I don’t think that you, or the publication that you cite, is in any position to speak for Germans – though that does not seem to stop many others in the English-speaking press. However, the Germans have spoken for themselves, and more than 2/3 of them support the Energy Transition: http://energytransition.de/2013/08/germans-still-overwhelmingly-support-energiewende/

  5. Roy Cossairt · · Reply

    Any chance Mr. Bill Gates will be commenting here?

  6. […] whereas Smil spoke of a “necessary slowness” (a claim I debunked in my review), my co-author and I instead show that the transition to renewable energy is a choice. […]

  7. […] Historian Vaclav Smil put forward is his utterly flawed work “Energy Transitions”, which I debunked a year and a half […]

  8. […] what the future will look like. Many experienced writers, analysts and even grid operators have made assumptions which have been proven wrong, both about limits to cost declines and the ability of grids to […]

  9. […] what the future will look like. Many experienced writers, analysts and even grid operators have made assumptions which have been proven wrong, both about limits to cost declines and the ability of grids to […]

  10. […] More fundamentally, the analysis that wide-scale deployment of renewable energy will be dependent upon fundamentally new technologies is contrary to the actual experience of nations which are decarbonizing their electricity supplies through the use of wind and solar. It is also in line with mythology and bad predictions made by Bill Gates’ chief energy advisor, Vaclav Smil. […]

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