Vaclav Smil: energy cuts more viable than growing renewables
Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He has published more than 40 books and about 500 papers on these topics. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. “Humanity has experienced three major energy transitions and is now struggling to kick off a fourth. In the past, humanity has typically adopted energy sources that have greater ‘power density’, packing more punch per gram and requiring less land to produce. Renewables, however, are lower in density than fossil fuels. In a future powered by renewable energy, society might have to devote 100 or even 1000 times more land area to energy production than today. That shift, Smil says, could have enormous negative impacts on agriculture, biodiversity, and environmental quality. Meanwhile, despite years of promotion and hope, wind and solar account for just about 1% of the world’s primary energy mix. Smil suggested at one recent lecture that if we all cut consumption, lived more efficiently, and ate less meat, the biosphere would do fine. That’s it’, Smil says. ‘Nobody is really talking about it’.” More at – Meet Vaclav Smil, the man who has quietly shaped how the world thinks about energy | Science | AAAS.
Vaclav Smil: renewables transition can’t meet climate deadlines
Los Angeles Times interview of Vaclav Smil, economist and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba:
“Q: Much of the climate debate, you write, is dominated by catastrophists who are certain humanity finds itself on the eve of destruction, and that technology will save the human race. How should the rest of us think about real solutions?
A: Nothing can be more counterproductive than any certainty regarding complex affairs. In managing our energy affairs we should not waste 40% of our food, not heat or cool poorly designed but oversize houses, not waste fuel and materials driving SUVs.
Q: Many people think we can rapidly switch to renewable energy. You believe this is a delusion, and the transformation will take decades.
A: It’s not a matter of belief. It’s the size and inertia of the global energy system. Fossil fuels now supply about 83% of the world’s energy. What are the chances that after going from 86% to 83% during the first two decades of the 21st century the world will go from 83% to zero during the next two decades?
Q: You call the Four Pillars of Modern Civilization ammonia, plastics, steel, and concrete. It seems most people think of only electricity generation and transportation.
A: You are quite right, most people think of decarbonization as just an electricity problem. Without nitrogen fertilizers based mostly on natural gas we could feed only about half of today’s humanity. No material is made in larger quantity than cement. Steel comes second and iron smelting needs coke made from coal. Synthesis of plastics needs natural gas and oil as feedstocks and fuel. Making just these four materials requires nearly 20% of the world’s total energy supply generating about 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonizing this massive demand cannot be done in a matter of years.”
More at – The energy historian who says rapid decarbonization is a fantasy | Los Angeles Times.
Vaclav Smil: hope for quick shift to renewables is wishful thinking
“That’s Vaclav Smil, the prolific University of Manitoba thinker, writing in this month’s issue of Scientific American. When Smil says something I usually listen. Smil starts by noting an underappreciated fact, that only 3.35% of the 10% of so energy that renewables are providing right now comes from ‘new’ renewables — solar, wind, and liquid biofuels. The majority of renewables are still of the ‘old’ variety, hydroelectric power and wood chips. Sadly, new wind and solar currently provide a tiny fraction of national energy needs — wind: 1.19%, solar: 0.16% (2014 stats). Smil’s core argument is simple: While reasonably promising, renewable energy is simply not quick and widespread enough. It has delivered very little in terms of overall contributions to the nation’s energy portfolio. When it comes to dreams of rapid renewable expansion, as Smil tells us, history is not on our side. Even traditional sources like coal, oil and natural gas took about 50 to 75 years to contribute significantly to the energy portfolio. What can we do to make this transition at least somewhat easier? Energy efficiency for one is a very pressing need. As Smil says, ‘Recent studies have shown that there are no insurmountable technical problems to reducing energy use by one third’.” More at – Vaclav Smil: “The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking” | Scientific American.
Vaclav Smil: “What I see when I see a wind turbine”
“Although wind turbines exploit the wind, which is as free and as green as energy can be, the machines themselves are pure embodiments of fossil fuels. Large trucks bring materials to the site, earth-moving equipment beats a path, and large cranes erect the structures. All these machines burn diesel fuel. So do the freight trains and cargo ships that convey the materials. A lot of energy goes into making steel. To make the steel required for wind turbines that might operate by 2030, you’d need fossil fuels equivalent to more than 600 million metric tons of coal. A 5-MW turbine has three roughly 60-meter-long airfoils, each weighing about 15 metric tons, made mostly from glass-fiber-reinforced epoxy or polyester resins. The glass is made by melting silicon dioxide in furnaces fired by natural gas. The resins begin with ethylene derived most commonly from liquefied petroleum gas or natural gas. To get 2.5 TW of installed wind power by 2030, we would need to incorporate the equivalent of about 90 million metric tons of crude oil. For a long time to come — until all energies used to produce wind turbines and photovoltaic cells come from renewable energy sources — modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels.” More at – What I see when I see a wind turbine (Numbers Don’t Lie) | IEEE Journal.
Vaclav Smil: energy transitions, crunching the numbers
YouTube video and notes: “Humanity initially derived the majority of its energy from biomass. It then transitioned to coal until midway through the 20th century, when oil became the majority source. In Smil’s opinion, peak oil is not coming any time soon. He states that the only reason we are attempting to decarbonize is to combat global warming. In 1991, humanity derived 91% of our primary energy from fossil fuels. Even as late as 2018, we still derived 89% of our primary energy from fossil fuels, despite huge amounts of investment in renewables. We are a fossil fueled civilization. The production of the four pillars of modern society — steel, cement, ammonia (used for fertilizer), and plastics — is very energy intensive, and will be very difficult to decarbonize. In the years since 1992, society has become more carbon intensive in spite of all the money that has been invested in decarbonization and greener technology. The decarbonization of the four pillars is almost certainly going to be far more difficult than the decarbonization of the electricity and transportation sectors. Smil states what he feels is the best way for humanity to decarbonize: Absolute cuts in per capita energy consumption, particularly in rich countries. Smil feels that combating excessive consumption is the best way to decarbonize. More at – Vaclav Smil Lecture on Energy Transitions — Video & Notes | Medium.com.
LAWRENCE ELECTRIC VEHICLE SHOWCASE – 4TH ANNUAL
Sunday, 2 October 2022, 10:00am-2:00pm – FREE
South Park, northeast corner, Lawrence KS 66044
Sustainability Action Network welcomes our two co-sponsors this year to the fourth annual Lawrence Electric Vehicle Showcase: the City of Lawrence Sustainability Office and the Transit System, and the Sustainability Science Fair. So far there are 23 electric cars coming including a Lucid Air, lots of electric bicycles from three bicycle shops, a Ford F-150 Lightning pickup, a Rivian pickup, and a brand new Gillig battery-electric bus from Lawrence Transit.
The public will be able to talk with the EV owners, and learn the advantages of driving an EV. The U.S. transportation sector now produces more climate heating emissions than does the electric generation sector. Plug-in EVs are zero carbon when charged with renewable energy, and greater motive efficiency means lower carbon footprint, even when charged by coal fired electricity. EVs get 100mpg equivalent or better, and the typical driving range of various makes is from 100 miles to 315 miles (Teslas up to 400 miles).
For fourteen years now, since first producing The Story of Stuff in 2007, Annie Leonard has highlighted the wastefulness and ecological damage of a throw-away society, as well as the behind-the-scenes driving force of fossil fuel companies profits. The vast majority of products in modern industrial societies derive from petroleum, either as plastic items, plastic coatings, plastic packaging, or various chemicals and fuels. The corporations responsible try to maximize profits through a rapid replacement cycle, in large part by pushing planned obsolescence and single-use items. It’s called “throughput”, AKA “input/use/output”, by which petroleum is extracted, made into stuff, worn out, and discarded. The faster this materials extraction cycle can be driven, the greater the profits, and the more ecological and cultural damage occurs. This reality defines the classic opponents: the neo-liberal, laissez faire corporatists who want complete freedom, and the ecologically minded people who strive for community control and environmental protections.
Annie Leonard aligns herself with the environmentalists. She said in a Yes Magazine interview “Over the years, I’ve learned that we can’t solve the waste problem by working only on waste. We must examine the economic and cultural forces that drive such massive waste production” – Annie Leonard on Life After Stuff. And speaking about the approximately 8.3bn tons of plastics that have been produced worldwide since 1950 she said “Recycling alone will never stem the flow of plastics into our ocean. We must address the problem at the source” – Our plastic pollution crisis is too big for recycling to fix | Annie Leonard. We have to reduce the production plastics derived from petroleum, and keep petroleum in the ground. She has very creatively put her message into a series of videos in parallel to the Story of Stuff: The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Microbeads, and The Story of Microfibers. Many others in the series can be viewed at – Movies Archives – The Story of Stuff Project.
SUSTAINABILITY ACTION ANNUAL MEETING AND SCREENING OF “BAG IT” FILM
Friday, 22 January 2021, 7:00pm
virtual Zoom meeting, Lawrence KS 66044
You are invited! The Sustainability Action Network annual meeting will feature an on-line screening of the film “Bag It”, about plastics pollution and banning the bag. The film is an hour and fifteen minutes. Following the film will be a open discussion of plastic pollution, and how to get the City of Lawrence to finally ban the bag.
Sustainability Action has been advancing ecological sustainability since 2007. We focus on helping individuals live a sustainable lifestyle, while pushing institutional policy change that can impact the broader population. We work in areas of renewable energy, healthy climate, local food and permaculture, multi-modal transportation, prime farm soils preservation, and ecosystem protection.
Some of our 2020 actions and accomplishments include:
- Along with collaborating groups, we got the City of Lawrence to commit to 100% renewable energy
- The bicycle boulevard we promoted got built on 21st Street
- We helped stop for the fourth time a mega-retail center in the 100-year floodplain of the Wakarusa Wetlands
- We got the City of Lawrence to negotiate with Black Hills Energy to provide renewable biogas in Lawrence
- We challenged Evergy’s transparency in their cleanup of Lawrence coal ash pits, and in their plans for shutting the Lawrence Energy Center coal plant
- We sent testimony to the Kansas Corporation Commission in opposition to Evergy’s discriminatory rooftop solar rate proposals
The meeting will also include: an introduction to our Board, a review of our 2020 accomplishments, an open discussion on projects for the upcoming year, a brief financial report, and Board of Directors election. To join the meeting, just click this Zoom link at the time – https://zoom.us/j/91950806764?pwd=TUpEdzdUNUtMMGN4UWpvVmRQQ2FIdz09. The passcode for entry is 137922.