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Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects

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Energy transitions are fundamental processes behind the evolution of human they both drive and are driven by technical, economic, and social changes. In a bold and provocative argument, Energy History, Requirements, Prospects describes the history of modern society's dependence on fossil fuels and the prospects for the transition to a nonfossil world. Vaclav Smil, who has published more on various aspects of energy than any working scientist, makes it clear that this transition will not be accomplished easily, and that it cannot be accomplished within the timetables established by the Obama administration. The book begins with a survey of the basic properties of modern energy systems. It then offers detailed explanations of universal patterns of energy transitions, the peculiarities of changing energy use in the world's leading economies, and the coming shifts from fossil fuels to renewable conversions. Specific cases of these transitions are analyzed for eight of the world's leading energy consumers. The author closes with perspectives on the nature and pace of the coming energy transition to renewable conversions.

192 pages, Hardcover

First published May 26, 2010

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About the author

Vaclav Smil

93 books3,611 followers
Vaclav Smil Ph.D. (Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of Pennsylvania State University, 1971; RNDr., Charles University, Prague, 1965), is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2010 was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
Profile Image for John.
271 reviews17 followers
January 1, 2020
I found this book hard to get into for about the first twenty pages or so. I think it was the sentences: they were long and had maybe one too many twist to them, which when combined with the font size made it difficult to follow. This kept this book on my shelf for far too long. Recently, I'm not sure exactly why, I decided to plow ahead.

I'm not sure what happened, whether I got the rhythm of reading this book or Vaclav Smil got the rhythm of writing it, because once the pace of "Energy Transitions" gets going, it's as nearly unstoppable as the networks of dependencies between the infrastructures of production, transportation, and consumption that hold energy systems in place long past even when it is in their commercial favor to be displaced.

What makes it hum along is a kind of density of facts where you're constantly impressed with the thoroughness, as you're given a new appreciation for facts that you had rough comparisons between but had no idea of the exact magnitude. The comparable utility of the fact density of this book resembles the utility of the energy density of fossil and nuclear fuels: you could try to go elsewhere but given the unprecedented level of effort it would take you to make up the difference, one should prepare for a more modest quality of life.

Don't judge anything by how long it said it took me to read this, that's just how long it was in the queue for me to review it. This book is tight! It's only 153 pages of main text and you will understand the history of energy like never before and understand it in very little time.

Here's an example that just shows the density of facts and intensity of research on display: "...In parts of forest-rich Germany annual use was on the order of 50-60 GJ/capita by the eighteenth century (Sieferle, 2001) and fairly reliable U.S. data indicate that by 1850 the country consumed annually as much as 97 GJ/capita for all uses. Surveys of traditional rural energy use done in China of the late 1970s found that in a family of four or five people 12-15 GJ/capita were needed for cooking and water heating and that at least 3.3 MJ/m^3 were needed daily for minimum heating during four to five winter months in Northern China (Smil, 1993). Consequently, minimum annual wood and crop residues use in Chinese villages added up to 16-20 GJ/capita."

Will this attention to detail, you will develop a sliver of the author's informed view that contingency matters in how energy usage trends manifest and how entrenched certain trends are. This level of attention to the facts helps develop a profound skepticism about how knowledge about how energy transitions will develop and how easy such transitions will be.

Given this background, you will then be able to appreciate the tremendous patience with which he debunks two kinds of astonishing naivete: projections of energy share per source based on simple deterministic mathematical models of temporary regularities and policy proposals for unprecedentedly rapid energy transitions. It's clear that these projections and proposals have none of the rigor would allow one to have an accurate picture of the development of energy resources pages in just over 150 fact-filled pages. Often, they don't even get the present right.

All of this isn't to say that Smil thinks that nothing should be done to bring about energy transitions to lower-impact energy societies. On the contrary: though intense scholarship he knows better than most of us how necessary it is and how hard it will be.
Profile Image for Ericka Wicks.
63 reviews
November 10, 2020
Though heavy with statistics, the analysis was necessary to accurately access the timeframes of past energy transitions and their drivers. A note of caution would be that the drivers of our current energy transitions are different, so applying learnings from the past isn't clear-cut (which is not made as explicit as it could be). His outlook on reaching decarbonization and climate objectives is not pretty. We have lots of work to do and different modes of thinking to apply and actions to take beyond what Smil discusses int his book.
Profile Image for Ellen.
11 reviews
June 8, 2020
I thoroughly enjoyed this well-researched book which gives expert analysis and opinions of renowned scientific author Vaclav Smil. While sections of the book have a 'text-book' feel, and are dominated by numerical comparisons and statistical analysis, I found the dedication to facts and informed conclusions vital to presenting a compelling and exciting narrative for the coming energy transition, and made sure to read every word. While offering extensive quantitative analysis, Smil also offers a qualitative review of the state of the current energy situation and our hopes of decarbonization, and occasionally uses satire to illustrate the delusions of political and industrial players. I was grateful that he provided a practical, candid closing statement and offered critical and constructive steps for the future.

Smil takes the reader through a detailed history of energy transitions and offers an in depth understanding to even the most dilettante of readers. The comprehensive chronicle reveals how humankind began to harness and manipulate energy flows, how new discoveries and innovations elevated humans to a carbon intense energy system, and how we can begin to decarbonize in the future. Smil's in-depth research and quantification of energy usage looks carefully at the rates of diffusion of energy technologies to allow intelligent comparisons of previous energy transitions with our eventual decarbonization. He emphasizes the importance of understanding energy conversion factors and power densities and looks critically at the challenges and realities of having a 100% renewable grid and the realities of our dependence on coal for the synthesis of currently indispensable materials... and so much more. This book will enable you to engage in intelligent conversations about energy, climate change, and decarbonization and I highly recommend it to anyone with hopes of participating in the next energy transition.

"A world without fossil fuel combustion is desirable, it will be eventually inevitable, and we should work to accelerate its arrival, but the process will be costly and it will take time as well as extraordinary commitment."
Profile Image for Aftr.
15 reviews2 followers
January 19, 2014
As always with Smil, a dose of strong smelling salts for those who prefer nonsense to analytic rigor.
Profile Image for John Jennings.
58 reviews2 followers
October 10, 2022
Really appreciate Smil for his understanding of how much modern society relies on technologies like Internal Combustion Engines and Steam Turbines that have been around since before 1900, and Gas Turbines that have been around since the mid 20th century.

In this book I particularly appreciated the survey of renewable energy reserves. I think many policy makers would benefit from Smil's understanding that Wind and Solar are really the only renewable energy flows that could potentially replace society's current need for energy; and even then we can expect that transition to take several decades at minimum, with myriad issues associated with their diffuse energy density and concentration that is often away from population centers. Biofuels and hydro can only be scaled so far; and provide no more than a small portion of current energy. They may be important for their flexibility. Notably nuclear technology can provide low carbon electricity without many of the hurdles of renewables, but lukewarm public perception and high cost due to extreme regulation has prevented its spread since 1978.
Profile Image for Prash.
6 reviews
November 16, 2018
An important book to understand energy transitions as accurately as possible
Profile Image for WildWoila.
268 reviews
September 13, 2020
A cautionary history of the slowness and unpredictability of energy system transformation. Unnecessarily data heavy. Thankfully, for now looks overly pessimistic.
Profile Image for Parker.
122 reviews
February 24, 2022
Energy Transitions
-Human prime movers can exert max capacity of 100 Watts of mechanical energy (1000W on a bike).
-Harnessed animals can do 250W-800W (simple yoked ox, well harnessed horsepower =745w).
-water wheels:300BC Alexandria water wheel 100W continuous, 1500W Roman, Louis XIV's Versailles water wheel pump 4,000W
-1640 Netherlands tower wind mills 10,000W
-1770 James Watt's coal fired steam engine (2% efficiency) at 100,000 W
-1900 large internal combustion engines 5MW
-1915 steam turbine electric generation 25MW (25% efficient)
-gas turbine 100MW in 1976, combined cycle 340MW Siemens 2008
-Three Gorges dam is 22.5GW

To make a transition to renewables feasible over the next 1 or 2 generations, we need to limit our annual per capita energy use to 1,900W. Roughly 1000W per capita is the inflection point when quality of life improves and above that there isn't much need for more. USA hasn't been much better off since the first measurement in 1947 when per capita use was about 2500W. EU mean is about 2300W and the US is now about 5000W, but 5% below where it was in 1980.

History of Energy
-The Americas never invented the wheel. There were no draft animals to pull, no need for a wheel. And so never going to come up with gears or water wheels.

-In 1846 in the New England peak oil production hit 160,000 barrels (sperm whale oil) then declined. Whale declines followed as the country moved to coal gas and kerosine. (first oil wasn't struck until 1989 in Pennsylvania).

-In 1893 a new Daimler-Maybach gasoline engine installed in a car that won the Paris-Bordeaux race rated less than 30 g/W, leaving no place for heavier steam engines in road transportation.

-In 1893 Diesel sold only 300 copies of his 10,000 print book. "It is undoubtedly better to decentralized small industry as much as possible... This goal can only be achieved by an independent machine". His engine's most important uses in heavy machinery... helping to create the very opposite of Diesel's vision.
Profile Image for Gerry.
4 reviews62 followers
September 2, 2014
Starts off with a laundry list of statistics that gets a little dull, but second half gets a lot more interesting.
Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews

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