On Vaclav Smil?
Jan 2023 - Alex Alejandre

To Vaclav Smil, all existence balances the equation of energy in and out, as food and fuel, labor and heating. Animals and civilizations alike grapple with Malthus.

This worldview offers a sobering, hard approach to the world: We can calculate how much energy a field receives from the sun, at what rate it’s converted, how much energy we expend to harvest it etc. to know the limits of our cities. We can calculate how much we consume, how much we must collect. Uncertainty emerges when we invest this capital for potential efficiencies like tools and infrastructure.

We see how our first cities overcame the brutal, short life of nature. For a premodern city, operating on the edge of Malthusian crunch, putting 999 joules in, to get 1000J out of a plant, when that next invention brings 1% efficiency, it cuts the cost to 990J, energy profit rising 1000$ from 1J to 10J, surplus for civilization, specialization, future inventions. Each development pulled us out of the struggling mire.

Unfortuately, the next 1% efficiency gain cuts our cost to 980.1J, out profit only doubles to 19.9J. Further R&D yields diminished marginal returns. (Increasing efficiency allows us exploit even more inputs as newer tasks are profitable.) A zerosum environment produces zerosum mindsets, chasing efficiency However, when constrained to a fixed input budget, to chase efficiency a society will grow ever complexer yet no richer. Stagnation is civilization’s optimal failure mode, stuck in a local minimum yet not wiped away. Increasing inputs (e.g. settling new lands) staves this off. More powerful though less efficient, horses and steam engines outcompeted oxen and waterwheels, because they allowed us to increase inputs. Increasing power to further harness new inputs leads to revolutionary progress like the great divergence and great convergence in spite of reduced efficiency.

What happens when we run out of new inputs? Without new horizons and vistas to boldly explore, we too will stagnate, locked at the asymptote forever. There are limits to growth. On Earth alone, at our historical 3% growth in energy, the planet would literally boil in 400 years. Thankfully we’re not there yet. Nuclear offers even higher energy returns, geothermal sources are untapped, our own solar system offers many Earths of material and space.

Why did we Stop?

Then why does our society already preach efficiency, reduction, degrowth? Yes, let’s reduce waste. To forego the promises of energy is to lock our children on Earth forever.

Indeed, Vaclav Smil embraces efficiency for political reasons.

Right or Wrong?

Energy Myths and Realities

His deep dive into net zero futures, concluding renewables can’t drive modern civilization.

AEI Press publishes him, a fossil fuel industry mouth piece

He does believe in climate change, estimating 2.5-3c rise.

Climate change resulting from emissions of CO2 (and from releases of other greenhouse gases) will have an indisputably global effect

But he is unsure how to model some aspects:

Global warming will … lengthen the growing seasons and intensify water cycling (i.e. the overall amount of precipitation will increase) in many regions. This combination will result in higher plant productivity, a trend that was already evident throughout most of the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century. But what the long-term effect of such changes will be is not clear. Will the additional productivity be promptly negated by higher rates of respiration in a warmer world? Will most of its increment be stored in long-lived tissues, such as trunks and major roots, or tissues with rapid turnover, such as foliage and fine roots? And, most fundamentally, will global warming eventually convert forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources?

He rejects peak oil:

Obviously, there will come a time when global oil extraction will reach its peak, but even that point may be of little practical interest as it could be followed by a prolonged, gentle decline or by an extended output plateau at a somewhat lower level than peak production. At the beginning of 2013, there are no signs that the beginning of this new oil era (regardless of its specific course) is imminent, and forecasting its onset remains an exercise in futility. Only one thing is abundantly clear to me: for the past 15 years I have been quite confident that there is no imminent danger of any sharp peak of global oil extraction followed by an inexorable production slide — and early in 2013 that confidence is greatly strengthened by new facts. Is it too much to hope that even some catastrophists and peak-oil cultists will find it impossible to ignore those numbers? https://web.archive.org/web/20190320204528/https://www.aei.org/publication/memories-of-peak-oil/

On nuclear:

Nuclear energy’s discouraging record is even more unfortunate given that nuclear generation is the only low-carbon-footprint energy option readily available on a gigawatt-level scale. This is why nuclear power should be part of any serious attempt to reduce the rate of global warming. At the same time, it would be naïve to think that nuclear power could be (as some suggest) the single most effective tool for combating climate change in the next ten to 30 years. The best hope is for it to offer a modest contribution. https://web.archive.org/web/20190320204536/http://www.aei.org/publication/a-realistic-future-for-nuclear-energy/

Public unease about safety and problems with costs, liability, and permanent storage do not make a flourishing nuclear industry impossible, but they do demonstrate the enormous influence that mistaken public risk perception can have on government policy and reveal the consistently inept bureaucratic handling of the challenge so far https://web.archive.org/web/20190320204536/http://www.aei.org/publication/a-realistic-future-for-nuclear-energy/

Carbon capture makes little sense:

Mass balances and cost considerations are enormously challenging. To sequester just 10% of all CO2 emitted from fossil fuel combustion, we would have to develop a new global industry that could handle the same mass of CO2 annually as the global mass of crude oil production. And the process would have to work in the opposite direction by spending huge amounts of money and energy to force billons of tons of supercritical CO2 fluid underground rather than bringing highly profitable oil above ground. http://web.archive.org/web/20230710184612/https://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/VS.PICTET.pdf

carbon capture is itself unrealistic because of the “big numbers” involved. To capture and sequester even a third of global CO2 emissions, Smil argued, the CCS industry would need to grow to the size of the current oil and gas industry within two or three decades. He noted that while the oil and gas industry has been in constant development and growth since the 1860s, creating a comparably sized CCS industrial infrastructure would need to be accomplished by 2050 to align with efforts to reach net zero emissions. … Pressurizing it and forcing it down in the ground, and what? Making sure it will stay there,” he added, noting that just putting it in the ground would not be good enough because it would start leaking on the scale of “eight billion tons of carbon a year, year after year after year.” https://www.desmog.com/2023/11/03/vaclav-smil-tells-shell-canada-president-carbon-capture-is-the-stupidest-solution/

Natural gas is key to decarbonization:

On the long road to complete decarbonization natural gas remains –when properly produced, transported and distributed– the least carbon-intensive fuel and this advantage is strengthened by its high conversion efficiencies https://web.archive.org/web/20230710183029/https://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Natural-Gas-in-the-New-Energy-World.pdf

If I were in charge of the planet: The most practical thing to do to reduce the emissions during the last 20 years would have been to rapidly close down as many coal-fired power plants as possible and replace their generation with combined-cycle 60-percent-plus-efficient natural gas plants https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/04/25/magazine/vaclav-smil-interview.html

although

methane leakages during extraction, processing, and transportation do diminish the overall beneficial impact of using more natural gas, but they do not erase it, and they can be substantially reduced https://web.archive.org/web/20230710183517/https://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Spectrume.June_.pdf

Coal:

While fossil fuels remain the very foundation of modern economic growth, spreading prosperity and a decent quality of life, they are no longer seen in that light. Rather, they are perceived as undesirable, outright dangerous, or even immoral, since their continuing use is thought to pose an unprecedented threat to the survival of modern civilization. Growing fears about rapid global warming caused by emissions of CO2 from the combustion of fossil fuels are behind this increasingly stringent judgment, and these fears feed (mostly unrealistic) visions of an accelerated global transition to nonfossil energies.

  • Energy Myths and Realities

Coal has always been more polluting in terms of particulate matter and sulfur oxide emissions than other hydrocarbons, and because it also has the highest CO2 emissions per unit of released energy, it is seen as the most undesirable choice. A closer look at coal’s attributes and the history of its use shows that this judgment is unfair and suggests that if the fuel’s conversion were done with the most efficient techniques available today, we would have no reason to view it so negatively. Crude oil—largely because of the continuing indispensability of refined fuels for the entire transportation sector occupies a more exalted place than coal. Although its considerable environmental impact is a concern, the main worry about oil is that its global extraction may peak in the very near future, and that this peak will not be followed by a prolonged production plateau but, rather, by a steep decline that will bring a multitude of economic and social hardships—in the most extreme versions, the end of modern civilization. That is why the first myth I debunk in this part of the book is the peak oil myth

  • Energy Myths and Realities

More

Hydroelectricity is the best, the most sustainable—I hate that word, sustainable. That’s the best form of renewable energy there is today, right? Because it runs all the time. Wind—well, you know, even in Manitoba, it’s not there 75 per cent of the time…. People feel constrained to be publicly correct to build a wind turbine farm…. Why do we do these stupidities, right? Well, because we feel renewable energy is only solar and wind, right? Not hydro apparently. Most people don’t think that way. http://web.archive.org/web/20190320154208/http://news.umanitoba.ca/vaclav-smil/

shift to nuclear energy or to modern conversions of renewable energy flows was always inevitable. If fuel resources and technical abilities to recover them at affordable price were the only limitations, we could anticipate at least another century or more of coal, oil and gas. Global warming has made the transition to non-carbon energies a matter of some urgency, but we must nevertheless be realistic about the size and speed of such a shift http://web.archive.org/web/20190320194549/http://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/VaclavSmil_EnergyTransitions_OECDObserver304_November2015_COP21_lowres.pdf

The myth that the future belongs to electric cars is one of the original misconceptions of the modern energy era, dating back to the introduction of the very first passenger vehicles. https://web.archive.org/web/20190320204535/http://www.aei.org/publication/myth-the-future-belongs-to-electric-cars/

Fossil fuels now supply about 83% of the world’s commercial energy, compared to 86% in the year 2000. The new renewables (wind and solar) now provide (after some two decades of development) still less than 6% of the world’s primary energy, still less than hydroelectricity. http://web.archive.org/web/20230710174144/https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-09-05/the-energy-historian-who-says-rapid-decarbonization-is-a-fantasy

Canadian Deindustrialization

Every G7 country and most industrialized countries make glass. Even Venezuela makes glass. Canada has to import it at a cost of $2 billion a year. One would think a market that big would produce someone capable of selling into it but not in Canada.

I am surprised of how much Canada spends on something so basic like pasta. We export 2.2 billion worth of wheat each year… yet we spend over 500 million each year to import pasta made from the wheat we sell.