Can we live again in 1964’s energy world?

February 27, 2013

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"Everything has to get worse. We are behaving so badly."

Vaclav Smil, you should know, talks very fast in staccato bursts and doesn’t own a cell phone.

The University of Manitoba professor, perhaps one of Canada’s most precise energy analysts, also doesn’t want to be the servant of a communication machine.

"Everyone wants a piece of me," he adds. Authorities from China, Japan, Russia and the United States pester him with speaking invitations and information requests all the time. Even Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates makes demands on him.

And that’s because Smil actually knows something about energy in a world that has grown largely energy illiterate, thanks to a now threatened diet of cheap hydrocarbons.

For nearly 40 years now, Smil, a Czech émigré and polymath, has studied the world’s energy systems. He grew up in the political darkness of the Soviet Empire and has matured in the moral emptiness of its American counterpart.

Although heralded around the world for his insights, he remains largely unknown in Canada. Yet the prolific academic has penned some 30 books and 400 articles on how the world recklessly spends both energy and valuable natural resources.

All of Smil’s work is dense, number-filled, literate and chock full of intriguing history. Altogether, his energy writing delivers a sober two-pronged message: North Americans have grown fat and lazy by burning too many fossil fuels. Yet energy transitions are by their very nature protracted, difficult and unpredictable.

Wood to coal

Although oil shocks and boomtowns can unsettle economies in just years, real energy transitions in large global economies often unfold over decades if not generations, Smil observes.

Take one of the world’s first major energy transitions from wood to coal as a source of heat, he says. At first aristocrats considered coal a foul and smoky substitute for wood. But a tree famine in northern Europe and England forced along the hydrocarbon’s adoption by the 17th century.

It really took the invention and deployment of the steam engine to transform coal into an empire builder. Even so, coal didn’t provide the world with nearly 90 per cent of its primary energy until 1930 before being partly replaced by oil.

So transitions take a long time. "The 19th century was a wood century and the 20th was a coal century." Oil didn’t reach its peak as central energy source until the 1970s and still accounts for one-third of the world’s energy needs. In fact, the global economy remains a full-blown fossil fuel civilization that mines coal, oil and natural gas to satisfy the majority of its energy diet.

Even the transition from horse to car took a long time, adds Smil. In 1885, Gottfried Daimler built one of the world’s first combustion engines. "Thirty-three years later the number of horses in the world peaked and then the transition went very fast." But it took 50 years to remove the horse from urban streets and farms.

Energized all the time

Our overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels creates another problem. In 1850, the average European or North American used energy intermittently.

You’d put the fire on in the morning, harness a horse or roll up some sails, says Smil. Energy use was organic and the night skies often fell dark.

Today people use energy 24/7 and at fantastic levels. Every home plugs into an ever-increasing number of glowing gadgets, each promising more comfort and entertainment than the last one. "There are no peaks and valleys. It’s not just the quality but the constancy of energy use that has changed," explains Smil every so quickly.

Now don’t get Smil wrong. He thinks modern societies consume way too much energy (North Americans consume twice as much as Europeans and yet aren’t twice as smart or happy, he adds sarcastically). Moreover, we lavishly waste much of it on the overproduction of cheap and unnecessary junk.

He believes a transition to "non-fossil future is an imperative process of self-preservation" as well as a moral necessity. Harnessing renewable energy flows, is both desirable and inevitable, he adds.

But the old-fashioned engineer and historian doesn’t think the transition to cleaner forms of energy will be easy, quick, rational or smooth.

That’s a lot of exajoules

One of the first obstacles is just the amount of quantifiable fossil-fueled power that must be replaced. Consider, says Smil, that North Americans gobbled up about six exajoules (EJ) of energy in the form of wood, animal power, coal and some oil in 1884. (The Japanese earthquake and tsunami released about two EJ of energy.)

Today North Americans happily burn our way through 100 EJ of which only 7 EJ come from renewables, such as hydroelectric dams. In other words, the U.S. would have to find 85 EJ from wind, geothermal or wind or "nearly 30 times the total of fossil fuels the country needed in the mid-188s to complete its shift from biomass to coal to hydrocarbons." That’s a tall order requiring new infrastructure and massive re-engineering.

The second issue for Smil is capacity. Renewables such as wind and solar just don’t have the same ability to make concentrated energy as fossil fuels. Capacity is the constancy of energy that an electrical power plant can actually deliver divided by what it could produce if it operated 24/7. No power plants, of course, work that way.

Nuclear plants, if they are not leaking or down for repairs, can operate 90 per cent of the time. Coal-fired plants can chug along 65 per cent of the time before they need to be cleaned and repaired. But a solar installation can only pump out juice 20 per cent of the time. A wind farm can muster power 25 to 30 per cent of the time or slightly more if perched offshore.

Next comes power density. It’s the rate of flow of energy per unit of land area. A coal mine or oil field can deliver great power density. So, too, can a hydroelectric dam. But not renewables. Fossil fuels, despite their declining quality, still offer power densities two to three times greater by orders of magnitude than wind, biofuels or solar.

Smil then offers an uncomfortable calculation. In the early years of the 21st century, the fossil fuel industry (mining, processing and piping) occupied 30,000 square kilometres, or an area about the size of Belgium. The low power densities of renewables, just to replace one-third of the demand for fossil fuels, would require a land base of 12,500,000 km for turbines, solar arrays and transmission lines. That’s a territory the size of the U.S. and India.

Renewable challenges

To Smil each renewable or alternative to fossil fuels offers a unique challenge. He thinks that solar, of all renewables, offers the greatest potential. It’s the only alternative that currently delivers flows of energy that readily surpass the demand for fossil fuels.

But capturing and transporting those flows at the right commercial scale still proves elusive. "We don’t yet have the storage capacity. Solar energy works only when the sun shines."

Nuclear, he says, is "as dead as it can be." It promised cheap energy but delivered the world’s least economic source of power as well as persistent waste issues. Only Alberta wants to build nuclear reactors to manufacture more bitumen, a proposal he calls "madness incarnate."

Wind will require millions of turbines and massive land disturbance that may be "environmentally undesirable and technically problematic." It’s also an intermittent source of power that requires extensive back-up, usually in the form of coal-fired stations. And in large parts of the world the wind simply does not blow regularly.

Biomass or growing modified trees, sugar-rich crops or algae to fuel inefficient vehicles poses another problem altogether. Civilization has already appropriated 40 per cent of all plant growing activity on Earth for food, fibre and feed. This appropriation has already modified, reduced and compromised ecosystems to "a worrisome degree." Devoting more the world’s precious soils to produce something like ethanol, says Smil, is "stupid."

Refashioning a ‘supersystem’

The engineer’s bottom line is sobering, if not completely politically incorrect. Over the last 100 years the world has spent trillions of dollars building the most extensive energy network ever conceived. Millions of machines now essentially run on 14 trillion watts of coal, oil and natural gas. The quality of these fuels is declining, and keeping the whole show going is getting more and more expensive every day.

Refashioning what Smil calls the world’s costliest "supersystem" into something cleaner and sustainable will be a gargantuan task that requires "generations of engineers."

"Yet everyone is broke. So how are we going to build hundreds of billions worth of solar and wind farms?"

To Smil the only moral response remains a "significant reduction in fossil fuel use." The scientist proposes going back to the future — or the 1960s, to be precise.

"In the 1960s people didn’t have three car garages, fly to Las Vegas to gamble or drive SUVs, but they lived comfortably," says Smil. More importantly, they consumed 40 per cent less energy than people today.

"We can return to 1964 with no problem. Living in 1964 is not a sacrifice."

Nor would getting there impose draconian challenges. Switching to 97 per cent energy efficient furnaces (that means they burn 97 per cent of the gas instead older varieties which send 55 per cent up venting stacks), mandating diesel-fueled vehicles and deploying high speed trains would all be part of the solution.

"Bombardier makes rapid trains in this country," declares Smil. "Yet there is not high speed train between Montreal and Toronto. Canada doesn’t have a significant high speed link. It’s incredible!"

‘It will have to collapse’

Smil recognizes that reduced energy use is not yet seen as desirable or politically unacceptable but "replacing entrenched precepts," he adds, is never easy.

In the absence of "radical departures" from that status quo, Smil sees but one all-too human reality:

"Everything is going to have to get worse."

That seems to be the global course at the moment, as oil dependent jurisdictions such as Japan, North America and Europe pretend their "overdrawn accounts, faltering economies and aging populations" don’t exist.

Smil, for example, regards China’s rise as an industrial and authoritarian superpower as a copycat of the worst excesses of the U.S. energy experience. To Smil, a long-time opponent of the Three Gorges Dam, the Chinese may well outdo Americans in gratuitous materialism.

"China will speed the day of reckoning and India is coming next," he says. He calls the new fossil fuel gobbling economies "riders of the apocalypse." Their energy ascent is physically not possible without an energy descent in the developed world, explains Smil.

"There is no shortage of delusionary people," adds Smil. "I’m a stupid, old fashioned 19th century engineer. Things move slowly."

In fact, no society has really begun any transition other than that of collective global economic stagnation and accelerating investments in fossil fuels.

"Americans are living beyond their means, wasting energy in their houses and cars and amassing energy-intensive throwaway products on credit," he recently wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

Yet no U.S. politician has yet advocated a reduction in fossil fuel energy use by 40 per cent even though avoiding catastrophic climatic change now demands such behavioural changes.

"We will never act voluntarily. It will have to collapse. That’s optimistic," he quips.

You know, he repeats, "Living in 1964 is not a sacrifice."

The conversation ends. Another investigator wants to pump Smil for more straight energy talk.

But perhaps his best advice still remains the concluding sentence of a 2011 article in American Scientist:

"None of us can foresee the eventual contours of new energy arrangements — but could the world’s richest countries go wrong by striving for moderation of their energy use?"

Next Wednesday in Andrew Nikiforuk’s ‘The Big Shift’: What drove our last big shift, from horsepower to steam, and upheavals it caused.


Vaclav Smil, one of the world’s greatest energy analysts and thinkers, has long argued that the key to managing energy supplies is to consume less energy, not more. The pursuit of higher energy spending does not make us richer or wiser, says Smil.

Nor does high energy consumption improve security, happiness, equality or build stronger democracies, adds Smil.

In fact, Smil advocates a return to energy consumption levels prevalent during the 1960s. That means using one-third less energy than currently consumed by the average North American household. "We must break with the current expectation of unrestrained energy use in affluent societies," says Smil.

In Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society, the scientist highlighted some uncomfortable truths associated with high energy spending.

High energy spending makes civilizations fragile.

"Expansion of empires may be seen as perfect examples of the striving for maximized power flows, but societies commanding prodigious energy flows, be it late imperial Rome or the early 21st century United States — are limited by their very reach and complexity. They depend on energy and material imports, are vulnerable to internal malaise, and display social drift and the loss of direction that is incompatible with the resources at their command."

High energy spending fosters insecurity.

"The Soviet Union nearly doubled post Second World War per capita energy use but with a crippling share channeled into armaments. Enormous energy use could not prevent economic prostration, a fundamental reappraisal of the Soviet strategic posture and Mikhail Gorbachev’s initiation of long overdue changes."

High energy spending weakens economic prosperity in agriculture.

"Increased energy subsidies may be used with very poor efficiency in irrigation and fertilization, may support unhealthy diets leading to obesity, or may be responsible for severe environmental degradation incompatible with permanent farming (high soil erosion, irrigation-induced salinization, pesticide residues)."

High energy spending encourages materialism but not cultural greatness.

"It is enough to juxtapose the Greek urban civilization of 450 BCE with today’s Athens or Florence of the late 15th century with Los Angeles of the early 21st century. In both comparisons, there is a difference of one order of magnitude in per capita use of primary energy and an immeasurably large inverse disparity in terms of respective cultural legacies."

High energy spending does not bring happiness.

"Just the reverse is true: it tends to be accompanied by greater social disintegration, demoralization, and malaise. None of the social dysfunction — the abuse of children and women, violent crime, widespread alcohol and drug use — has ebbed in affluent societies, and many of them have only grown worse."

High energy spending diminishes human diversity.

"In natural ecosystems the link between useful energy throughputs and species diversity is clear. But it would be misleading to interpret an overwhelming choice of consumer goods and the expanding availability of services as signs of admirable diversity in modern high energy societies. Rather, with rampant (and often crass) materialism, increasing numbers of functionally illiterate and innumerate people and mass media that promote the lowest common denominator of taste, human intellectual diversity may be at an historically unrivalled low point."

High energy spending does not lead to greater energy savings or efficiencies.

"Efficiency gains in engines or electrical gadgets have not been invested wisely but applied to the overproduction of short-lived disposable junk and into dubious pleasures and thrills promoted by mindless advertising."

High energy spending does not improve quality of life.

"Higher energy flows actually erode quality of life first for populations that are immediately affected by extraction or conversion of energies, eventually for everyone through worrisome global environmental changes."

From: Energy in Nature and Society by Vaclav Smil (MIT Press).

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society (TCI). Funding was provided by Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation. All funders sign releases guaranteeing TSS full editorial autonomy. TSS funders and TCI neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS’ reporting.

Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years and cares deeply about accuracy, government accountability, and cumulative impacts. He has won seven National Magazine Awards for his journalism since 1989 and top honours for investigative writing from the Association of Canadian Journalists.

Andrew has also published several books. The dramatic, Alberta-based Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002. Pandemonium, which examines the impact of global trade on disease exchanges, received widespread national acclaim. The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, which considers the world’s largest energy project, was a national bestseller and won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and was listed as a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence In Reporting on the Environment. Andrew's latest book, Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer, was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011.

Tags: powering down, Vaclav Smil