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Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations

In energy matters, what goes around, comes around—but perhaps should go away

Vaclav Smil

2011-05SmilF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageTo follow global energy affairs is to have a never-ending encounter with new infatuations. Fifty years ago media ignored crude oil (a barrel went for little more than a dollar). Instead the western utilities were preoccupied with the annual double-digit growth of electricity demand that was to last indefinitely, and many of them decided that only large-scale development of nuclear fission, to be eventually transformed into a widespread adoption of fast breeder reactors, could secure electricity’s future. Two decades later, in the midst of the second energy “crisis” (1979–1981, precipitated by Khomeini’s takeover of Iran), rising crude oil prices became the world’s prime existential concern, growth of electricity demand had slumped to low single digits, France was the only nation that was seriously pursuing a nuclear future, and small cars were in vogue.

After world crude oil prices collapsed in 1985 (temporarily below $5 per barrel), American SUVs began their rapid diffusion that culminated in using the Hummer H1, a civilian version of a U.S. military assault vehicle weighing nearly 3.5 tonnes, for trips to grocery stores—and the multinational oil companies were the worst performing class of stocks of the 1990s. The first decade of the 21st century changed all that, with constant fears of an imminent peak of global oil extraction (in some versions amounting to nothing less than lights out for western civilization), catastrophic consequences of fossil fuel-induced global warming and a grand unraveling of the post-WW II world order.

All of this has prompted incessant calls for the world to innovate its way into a brighter energy future, a quest that has engendered serial infatuations with new, supposedly perfect solutions: Driving was to be transformed first by biofuels, then by fuel cells and hydrogen, then by hybrid cars, and now it is the electrics (Volt, Tesla, Nissan) and their promoters (Shai Agassi, Elon Musk, Carlos Ghosn) that command media attention; electricity generation was to be decarbonized either by a nuclear renaissance or by ubiquitous wind turbines (even Boone Pickens, a veteran Texas oilman, succumbed to that call of the wind), while others foresaw a comfortable future for fossil fuels once their visions of mass carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) were put in practice. And if everything fails, then geoengineering—manipulating the Earth’s climate with shades in space, mist-spewing ships or high-altitude flights disgorging sulfur compounds—will save us by cooling the warming planet.

This all brings to mind Lemuel Gulliver’s visit to the grand academy of Lagado: No fewer than 500 projects were going on there at once, always with anticipation of an imminent success, much as the inventor who “has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers” believed that “in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate”—but also always with complaints about stock being low and entreaties to “give … something as an encouragement to ingenuity.” Admittedly, ideas for new energy salvations do not currently top 500, but their spatial extent puts Lagado’s inventors to shame: Passionately advocated solutions range from extracting work from that meager 20-Kelvin difference between the surface and deep waters in tropical seas (OTEC: ocean thermal energy conversion) to Moon-based solar photovoltaics with electricity beamed to the Earth by microwaves and received by giant antennas.

And continuous hopes for success (at a low price) in eight more years are as fervent now as they were in the fictional 18th century Lagado. There has been an endless procession of such claims on behalf of inexpensive, market-conquering solutions, be they fuel cells or cellulosic ethanol, fast breeder reactors or tethered wind turbines. And energy research can never get enough money to satisfy its promoters: In 2010 the U.S. President’s council of advisors recommended raising the total for U.S. energy research to $16 billion a year; that is actually too little considering the magnitude of the challenge—but too much when taking into account the astonishing unwillingness to adopt many readily available and highly effective existing fixes in the first place.

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