Kate Mackenzie Five big energy problems for the 21st century

A piece by academic and author Vaclav Smil in the OECD Observer (undated, unfortunately) paints a gloomy picture of energy transition this century:

An impartial examination of some basic principles reveals five factors that will make the transition to a non-fossil world far more difficult than is commonly realised. These are: the scale of the shift; the lower energy density of the replacement fuels; the substantially lower power density of renewable energy extraction; intermittency of renewable flows; and uneven distribution of renewable energy resources.

More on those points:

1. The shift of the scale: He compares the current era to 1850, just before the last large-scale shift of energy supplies. Then, Smil writes, most energy came from biomass (eg woodburning). Today, it comes mostly from fossil fuels. Today, he writes, “even if we were to replace only 50% of all fossil fuels by renewable energies during the coming decades, we would have to displace coal and hydrocarbons flows of about 6 TW”. The problem is, he says, there is no readily-available source of that scale of power.

2. Energy density: “In the last two energy transitions, from biomass to coal and then from coal to hydrocarbons, lower energy-density fuels were supplanted by more concentrated sources of energy.” Not this time around. Replacing petroleum with liquid biofuels, for example, would require a 1.5 ratio – and that will be more costly and more difficult.

3. Power density of energy production - this refers to the rate of production per area of land. Fossil fuels, Smil writes, yield a hefty 102 – 103W per square metre; hydro and wind power are more like 10W for the same area; while only solar gets above 20W.

4. Intermittency: Anyone familiar with energy knows about this; many newer sources of energy such as wind and solar aren’t good for baseload supplies; while storage is also a challenge for non-fossil fuel sources.

5. Geographic distribution: Much is made of an uneven distribution of oil and gas, but renewable flows are also spread out unevenly: cloudiness in the equatorial zone reduces direct solar radiation; whole stretches of continent have insufficient wind; there are too few sites with the best potential for geothermal, tidal or ocean energy conversions, etc.

Lots of interesting points there. Smil is a distinguished professor – we’re not sure in what, as his staff page refers to interdisciplinary research in a range of areas, but he’s based in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba, Canada. We’ve seen him referred to as a ‘futurist’ and his interests include energy, population, and China.

We were intrigued by a blog post suggesting he believed climate change hasn’t been visible in the past 10 years. His views on climate change are described in more detail in this review of Smil’s recent book ‘GLOBAL CATASTROPHES AND TRENDS: The Next Fifty Years’ in American Scientist:

Smil is blunt in his criticisms of the global-warming pessimists, saying that we simply don’t know enough about the complex interactions and feedbacks that may take place to be able to reliably quantify the likely consequences of the warming that is occurring. His estimate is that there will be a temperature increase of 2.5 degrees to 3 degrees Celsius over the next hundred years, a figure that is about at the midpoint of recent projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Apparently the industrialized nations in the Northern Hemisphere have the wealth and technical capabilities to handle this increase, but poor countries in the global South, which are already carrying an unmanageable load, will find it quite burdensome. (Smil’s usual concern with the interaction of variables is not in evidence in this case. Does he think that the multitudes who cannot cope will quietly disappear?) Although he stresses the difficulty of estimating future sea levels, he says that “a cautious conclusion” would be that they will rise about 15 centimeters by 2050—“clearly a noncatastrophic change.” He concludes surprisingly that the market impacts of a moderate warming will be “a trivial sum in all affluent countries” (which prorates to about $180 a year per capita), citing in support work by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus. (Other respected economists disagree.)

Smil’s analysis of climate change is more complex and nuanced than that supplied by even sophisticated journalists and essayists. Thus we learn that our actions have already changed the global nitrogen cycle much more than the carbon cycle (which gets all the attention), and that those changes will create problems more intractable than the ones resulting from excessive levels of carbon dioxide. Losses of biodiversity and invasive species have impoverished our ecosystem and have had major economic consequences. (Presumably these are not included in the “trivial sum.”) Finally, the chapter on environmental change takes up the problem of antibiotic resistance. I will spare you the depressing details.

In his OECD article, Smil argues that there is no pressing need for a shift away from fossil fuels, apart from climate change (he believes there is adequate fossil fuels for generations to come). On climate change, he writes:

Even then, because of the enormity of requisite technical and infrastructural requirements, many decades will be needed to capture substantial market shares on continental or global scales. A non-fossil world may be highly desirable, but getting there will demand great determination, cost and patience.

H/T Gregor’s Delicious feed.

Related links: Choosing an energy deficit (Gregor)