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.