Energy Myths and Realities — Summary
Book by Vaclav Smil
There are several myths regarding the future of global energy that are frequently portrayed as facts by the media, legislators, corporate leaders, activists, and even scientists, wasting time and money and impeding the development of progressive energy policy. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate debunks the most popular myths in order to pave the path for a constructive, scientific response to the global energy crisis.
When will the world’s oil supply run out? Should nuclear energy be used more widely? Are ethanol and wind power feasible energy options for the future? Vaclav Smil warns the people to be skeptical of overblown claims and unachievable promises. The global energy shift will be costly and time-consuming, as it will rely on the construction of significant new infrastructure. Traditional energy sources and established technology are resilient and adaptive enough to see the globe through this change.
Energy Myths and Realities provides a scientific viewpoint on a problem that is frequently dominated by baseless statements, unjustified claims, and irrational thinking. Before we can develop a solid energy policy for the future, we must dispel popular illusions that obscure our judgment and stymie meaningful development.
Civilization is not coming to an end. Peak oil hypotheses that assert this are not backed by evidence.
In the 1990s, a group of retired geologists and scientist Richard Duncan proposed a radical new idea known as peak oil.
According to this belief, humankind was depleting the world’s oil supply at such a rapid pace that a severe oil crisis was on the horizon. They also claimed that the end of the oil period would be a watershed moment for mankind, resulting in the abolition of industrial civilization as early as 2025!
However, these assertions are utterly incorrect and unjustified:
A major flaw with peak oil ideas is that they are unduly focused on the supply side of the equation, i.e. world oil production while ignoring the demand side and how it is impacted by oil prices. They assume that the steadily decreased oil output over the years indicates a physical lack of oil, whereas in fact, it is just due to a decline in demand. This effect was visible following oil price increases in 1978 and 2004, for example.
Furthermore, our future need for oil is expected to fall as we increase our use of other fuels, as well as technical breakthroughs, efficiency gains, and improved resource management.
So, while mankind will ultimately move away from oil owing to dwindling resources and rising extraction costs, our reduced use of crude oil will not herald the end of civilization, but rather a gradual shift to something different.
Peak oil ideas are likewise unjustified in claiming to know how much oil is still in the earth, while the amount of this projected ultimately recoverable (EUR) oil is unknown.
According to recent estimates, there are still largely unexplored oil resources, and worldwide EUR oil is believed to be 400 billion barrels — nearly treble what most peak oil theories say. This number does not include unconventional oil deposits such as tar sands or bitumen, which increase the prospective reserves.
Carbon sequestration is an expensive, ineffective, and unsafe method of combating global warming.
There has recently been a lot of discussion on how to mitigate the global warming effect produced by excessive CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions.
As China and other emerging nations boost their energy consumption, global CO2 emissions are expected to climb dramatically over the next few decades.
Some scientists have recommended carbon sequestration as a solution, which involves trapping and storing greenhouse gases so they do not pollute the climate.
Is this, however, a viable solution? No, it is both expensive and inefficient.
This approach is incapable of removing enough CO2 from the atmosphere to even appreciably reduce the gas’s growth.
Furthermore, artificial carbon sequestration would necessitate the construction of around 160,000 CO2 capture towers, commonly known as “artificial trees,” which would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the additional costs of compressing, transporting, and storing the gas.
Plants, of course, are constantly sequestering carbon as they inhale CO2. However, intervening in global warming using plant-driven carbon sequestration would need a significant amount of land, money, and time for the plants to mature — 40 to 80 years.
Furthermore, storing sequestered carbon is complicated and dangerous. The carbon’s acidity may erode away at the storage facility, causing the carbon to flow out again.
Furthermore, storage capacity now exists for about a fourth of yearly global carbon emissions, implying that many more storage sites would be required for large-scale sequestration. The issue is that people do not want carbon storage facilities near their houses since they are intrinsically dangerous: harmful metals might infiltrate into the drinking water supply due to the stored carbon’s high acidity.
It is not practical nor efficient to replace crude oil with biofuel.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about plant-based ethanol as a great green energy source. Its supporters claim that it would make us independent of crude oil, reduce carbon emissions, and stabilize earnings for grain farmers, who will supply the raw material for its manufacturing.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that straightforward.
The manufacture of biofuel from plants is both expensive and environmentally hazardous.
Crop cultivation demands a substantial amount of land. For example, if we were to utilize sugar cane as a biofuel to replace regular gasoline, we would need more than 40% of the world’s cultivated land only for this purpose.
Furthermore, the world’s population will surpass nine billion by 2050, and we simply cannot devote that much territory to biofuel production when people also need to plant food crops to consume.
We also cannot destroy additional land for the purpose since deforestation is already an issue, and cutting forests on such a large scale would have disastrous climatological implications.
Furthermore, biofuel is not a viable alternative in many oil-powered cars.
In the United States, for example, many automobiles have such poor fuel economy that, from an environmental standpoint, it would make more sense to improve this element rather than convert them to operate on biofuel.
Furthermore, many modern cars, ships, and airplanes are designed to run on refined oil products, which biofuel cannot replace.
As a result, before implementing large-scale biofuel production, the complete transportation infrastructure should be enhanced and optimized to overcome these difficulties.
Wind energy is too complex to capture to power the entire planet.
If you’ve ever been caught outside during a storm, you know how powerful the wind can be.
Indeed, studies reveal that winds at 100 meters height have the capacity to create up to 78 terawatts of energy globally.
Wind energy potential in the United States alone is over twenty times bigger than all of the country’s current electrical generation.
Does that make sense?
Unfortunately, a closer analysis finds that wind energy lacks the potential to be a dominating energy source in 25 years.
To begin with, the energy potential of the strongest winds is difficult to capture since they blow in the jetstream, approximately eleven kilometers above the planet. Their placement also shifts with the seasons, making use of them inconvenient: it would necessitate the deployment of large numbers of flying generators linked to the earth by metal lines.
Second, typical wind farms have their drawbacks: they require a huge amount of land since the turbines must be spread widely from one another, resulting in very little electricity per square kilometer.
Furthermore, residents may protest to wind farms because of their appearance, believing that the unsightly structures obstruct their view of the countryside or the shoreline. In addition, turbines are noisy and endanger nearby bird and bat populations.
For these reasons, wind turbines provided just approximately 1.25 percent of the world’s electricity in 2007.
Third, wind energy is subject to the whims of the wind, which is notoriously unreliable.
Wind speeds fluctuate depending on the time of year and geographic location, therefore if the wind were the world’s primary energy source, a large network of transcontinental high-voltage transmission lines would be required to balance out the fluctuating imbalances in worldwide output. Price swings would be exacerbated by wind fluctuations.
Be patient: it will take decades for any new energy invention to be accepted.
As you are surely beginning to realize, there is no silver bullet, no easy and quick solution when it comes to energy policy. Patience and cautious thought are required. Remember these few rules of thumb when someone claims that the world’s energy landscape will change radically very quickly:
First, don’t underestimate the longevity of traditional energy sources. It is usually a slow process to transition to new types of fuels or energy production processes. According to research, established energy supply patterns can last for decades. Rather than rushing to adopt a new energy source, such as biofuel, on a broad scale, we should first focus on improving efficiency in the production and use of existing sources.
Second, be skeptical when someone says that a new energy source will be widely and joyfully accepted on a worldwide scale. Even plainly superior energy technologies will be implemented gradually.
Furthermore, many protagonists in the energy debate have their own goals, therefore they frequently use deceptive reasoning or misinterpret facts from scientific studies to support their claim that something will happen soon.
Even if an objective source is discovered, it is difficult to anticipate in detail how people and industry would switch to a new energy source. Unforeseen setbacks and hurdles are unavoidable.
Third, keep in mind that any meaningful adoption of a new energy breakthrough will very definitely demand large and costly infrastructure changes. These changes necessitate huge investments as well as the resolution of legal and environmental challenges, both of which require time.
Energy policy choices should be objective, with a focus on minimizing environmental impact.
As mankind discusses how to power our planet for the next few decades, it would be wise to keep the following three issues in mind:
To begin, there are several conflicting ideologies and interests at work, but energy policy decisions must be founded on a reasonable and objective cost-benefit analysis.
For example, the oil and gas sector is already heavily advocating for carbon sequestration as a solution to global warming, but they are hardly impartial experts: the capacity to store carbon would be a new cash stream for them while also making them appear less culpable for global warming.
Second, keep in mind that there are significant geographical variances in energy consumption and output. Some energy advances, for example, may be simpler to execute in poor nations than in developed ones, because the latter already have fully-fledged economies based on fossil fuels, and people are accustomed to having cheap electricity to charge their iPads.
Third, all choices should be guided by the principle that preventing or reducing environmental harm is always preferable to attempting to mitigate it afterward.
For example, in 2005 and 2006, biofuels were grandiosely promoted, only for further investigation to disclose how detrimental their production is to the environment.
Meanwhile, rather than focusing on ways to capture the carbon already in the atmosphere, wealthier countries should focus on limiting their own energy use in order to become less reliant on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.