NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 14, 2009

Natural gas was supposed to become the most important source of modern energy and we were should have been driving fuel cell cars by now, however, these alternative fuels have not lived up to their expectations, says Vaclav Smil, author of "Energy at the Crossroads."

In 2007, the United States derived about 1.7 percent of its energy from new renewable conversions -- corn-based ethanol, wind, photovoltaic solar and geothermal -- and natural gas supplied 24 percent of the world's commercial energy.  In 2008, coal-fired power plants produced half of all U.S. electricity, nuclear stations 20 percent and there is not a single commercial breeder reactor operating anywhere in the world.

The point is clear: all of these forecasts and anticipations failed miserably because their authors and promoters ignored one of the most important realities ruling the behavior of complex energy systems: the inherently slow pace of energy transitions, says Smil:

  • It took oil about 50 years since the beginning of its commercial production to capture 10 percent of the global primary energy market, and then almost exactly 30 years to go to reach 25 percent.
  • Analogical spans for natural gas are almost identical: approximately 50 years and 40 years.
  • Regarding electricity, hydrogeneration began in 1882, the same year as Edison's coal-fired generation, and just before World War I, water power produced about 50 percent of the world's electricity.
  • Nuclear fission reached 10 percent of global electricity generation 27 years after the commissioning of the first nuclear power plant in 1956, and its share is now roughly the same as that of hydropower.
  • But coal has reigned supreme since the late 1890s; in 2008, it supplied twice as much energy as it did in 1973.

The historical verdict is unassailable, and barring some extraordinary commitments and actions, none of the promises for greatly accelerated energy transitions will be realized.  However, a world without fossil fuel combustion is highly desirable.  But we should prepare ourselves for a slow transition, says Smil.

Source: Vaclav Smil, "Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion," The American, November/December 2008.

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