It is a true (and unfair) fact that we know a lot of outstanding people who are changing the world, but simultaneously there are also a lot of other geniuses who remain largely unknown. So, if you have never heard about Vaclav Smil, Bill Gates will tell you about him with pleasure.
“There is no author whose books I look forward to read more than Smil,”, Bill Gates wrote in his personal
The professor emeritus of environment at the University of Manitoba Mr. Smil is writing on subjects as varied as the decline of U.S. manufacturing, agriculture, population change, and energy. This smart and hard-nosed scientist is obsessed with global systems and does not use cellphones. Gates calls him “a wide-range thinker”, and he is correct in this description.
In his works, the professor attempts to put numbers to the human use of energy across the history of mankind and to draw the line between various phases of human civilization. Focusing on energy transitions, he reveals plans for the necessary shift to renewables. Smil insists that to mitigate climate change, people need to significantly reduce global carbon emissions. Today, a transition to renewable energy sources looks inevitable and quite close future. But it also will entail a lot of difficulties and disruptions that most green-energy proponents could not even imagine.
Smil believes in both the necessity breakthroughs and the profound difficulty of revolution. He believes that five thousand years later, people will not use coal and oil as energy sources. Nuclear energy is one of the biggest failures in the energy industry, he writes, because no other power generation method ever had grown as fast as nuclear energy. But the key problem of the 1960s, creating an acceptable method of permanent storage of highly radioactive waste, is still not solved.
If you rather tend to think like an optimist, you will like Al Gore. He argues that energy radiated by the sun, the most available kind of energy on the earth, is enough for everyoney. Gore thinks that a complete conversion to renewables can happen in ten years. But if you read Smil’s Energy: A Beginner’s Guide, you are likely to be more pessimistic on this matter. There he discusses every aspect of the issue, from the energy costs to the photosynthesis of plants to the productive capacity of the biosphere. Smil explains that almost all available energy on the earth comes from the sun. Despite that fact, according to Smil, a switch to renewable energy will take generations.
Most energy resources, which human civilization use, are not renewable.
Smil defines the concept of “prime movers” as “energy converters able to produce mechanical energy in forms suitable for human use.” For the whole history of civilization, the best prime movers have been people: the average human can sustain from 60 to 100 watt of work throughout a working day. In medieval times people invented waterwheels (3,000W); a thousand years later—windmills (up to 10,000W); in the 1700s—the first prime movers powered by fuel (up to 3 million watts). Then, the stream turbine (75,000W) and gas turbine were invented. And at the moment, all of the best prime movers work on fossil fuels.
Energy density is the amount of energy per unit volume or mass. The definition is sometimes used to determine the capacity per volume of fuels and batteries. Smil uses energy density to compare different means of producing energy. While every fuel transition (for example, coal to oil to gas) humanity made in the past involved moving to higher densities, the density of solar or wind installations is far below. They simply take up more space and, therefore, demand a lot of power lines.
In times of concentration of manufacturing, people need to fundamentally reshape the modern energy infrastructure: harvesting energy from concentrated sources and diffusing it must be replaced by the method of gathering energy from diffuse sources and concentrating it.