When Vaclav Smil says something about energy I usually listen. That is because he is one of the few people able to transform wishful thinking and dreams into facts and numbers.
In his article in this month’s Scientific American “A Global Transition to Renewable Energy Will Take Many Decades” he argues that renewable energy delivered very little in the US energy portfolio – compared to what has been promised – and it not widespread enough. A transition to renewable energy is particularly challenging for several reasons.
The first is scale. Simply generating the energy required to meet future needs with any new source is huge and a daunting challenge for every nation.
A second factor is the inability of renewables to provide reliable, uninterrupted supply of electricity, especially with an increasing share demanded at night to power air conditioning and the electronic infrastructures of megacities, servers for example.
The third factor is the opposition, both political and economic, to make the shift from fossil to renewables infrastructure. Even if we were given free renewable energy, it would be unthinkable for nations and corporations to abandon the enormous investments they have made in the fossil-fuel system, not in the short-medium term, anyway.
Nevertheless, there are many environmental and health reasons to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, what can we do to make this transition easier? Smil argues that
“One way to do this is to avoid picking energy winners. Governments cannot foresee which promising research and development activities will make it first to the free market, and hence they should not keep picking apparent winners only to abandon them soon for the next fashionable option …… Spending on a variety of research activities is the best strategy. Who would have guessed in 1980 that during the next three decades the best return on federal investment in energy innovation would come not from work on nuclear reactors or photovoltaic cells but from work on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale deposits?
Governments also should not offer large subsidies or loan guarantees to companies that are jumping onto the latest energy bandwagon, exemplified by Solyndra, manufacturer of photovoltaic solar systems, which received $535 million from the U.S. government before promptly going bankrupt. Subsidies can accelerate the advance of nascent energy conversions, but they should be guided by realistic appraisals, and they require steady commitment, not flitting from one exaggerated “solution” to another.”
At the same time, prices of all forms of energy should reflect, as much as possible, the real costs which include both the immediate and the long-term environmental and health impacts of creating that energy.
The most important way to speed up the gradual transition to renewables is to lower overall energy use, by increasing efficiency. As we reduce energy demand we can retire fossil fuel sources and accept the fact that we should pay more to properly account for energy’s environmental and health consequences.