Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate Hardcover – Aug 16 2010
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Numerous energy-related issues have increased public discussions to the point that energy has become a permanent part of national policy concerns and/or debates.... In his well-researched book, Smil (Univ. of Manitoba, Canada), author of numerous energy-related works, examines the scientific authenticity of information available to the public based on "first principles, basic engineering realities, and simple but revealing quantification" and warns of promoting any simplistic solutions to deep worldwide dependence on fossil fuels. He concludes with an interesting chapter titled "The Pace of Energy Transition," arguing that it takes more than money and good wishes to replace an existing infrastructure. Smil's suggestion to reduce energy consumption via increasing energy efficiency in all sectors is hard to challenge. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals; general readers. (CHOICE)
The book provides the insights of a careful, experienced observer into the arrant nonsense that is routinely presented in calls for radical changes in energy consumption practices....A readable, sensible survey of why a massive energy transformation is problematic. The book does a good job of relaying the academic literature on new energy technologies. It is a healthy corrective to the special pleading that has marred the U.S. discussion of energy. (Regulation Magazine)
America needs energy, it’s how to get which is the massive debate. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate is a realistic approach to the energy crisis that encourages progress but at the same time realizes there is no silver bullet solution to America’s energy issues. With thoughtful research, Vaclav Smil looks at history and draws a map to where we are now and the many solutions that sit before us. Energy Myths and Realities is a core addition to any environmental and political studies collection. (Wisconsin Bookwatch)
Prof. Smil is an expert on the history of technological innovation. . . . Prof. Smil methodically sets out to show that the facts do not support either the romantics, who think we’ll be saved by wind turbines, or the techno-optimists, who think that electric cars are right around the corner. (The Globe and Mail)
Smil (environment and environmental geography, U. of Manitoba, Canada) debunks myths and misconceptions about energy to provide a more realistic understanding of energy affairs and introduce skeptical perspectives of future energy options. The myths relate to electric cars; nuclear electricity; soft energy; peak oil and the consequences of oil depletion; carbon dioxide sequestration; liquid fuels from plants, including ethanol from corn; wind power; and the rapid pace of energy transitions. (Booknews)
Mandatory reading for U.S. policymakers. (National Review)
Energy is both a technical topic and a political one; all too often, the political claims and assertions get far more play than sober technical reality. In Energy Myths and Realities, Vaclav Smil does a brilliant job of examining the crazy quilt of claims and assertions about energy. With great wit and simple, clear arguments, he shows that most of the wild claims we hear-in all directions-have no basis in reality. (Nathan Myhrvold, James Beard Award–winning coauthor of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and Modernist Cuisine at Home, and author of The Photography of Modernist Cuisine)
Vaclav Smil is a giant among energy scientists and historians. In this book, he explains why fossil fuels remain dominant, why it is so hard to scale up wind and solar technologies, and why nuclear power, despite having been over-hyped in the past, is one of our best hopes for meeting future energy needs and dealing with global warming. (Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, co-founders of Breakthrough Institute)
Investment opportunities into new energy sources and related conversion techniques are, at times, molded by preconceived ideas that can sometimes lead to excessively positive and unjustifiably enthusiastic expectations. By criticizing the assorted myths and misconceptions surrounding energy innovations, Vaclav Smil provides readers with refreshing insights which are often missing in today's energy policy debates. (Philippe Rohner, Senior Investment Manager, Pictet Asset Management)
Vaclav Smil is a master thinker about the master resource of energy. A multidisciplinarian, Smil combines basic economics, technological understanding, and historical insight to skewer false energy visions. Energy reality, he reminds us, is determined by the free marketplace, not by words or wishes. (Robert Bradley, founder and CEO, Institute for Energy Research)
I recommend this book to everyone who spends time working on energy issues – not to cheer them up but to help them have a stronger framework for evaluating energy promises. (Bill Gates, thegatesnotes.com)
About the Author
Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor of Environment and Environmental Geography at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
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The writing style is clear, occasionally witty, very authoritative, rather formal but also relatively accessible. The book reads like a set of scientific reports - one for each topic being addressed; consequently, one might say that the prose is often rather dry.Read more ›
His vision is way too technical and ignores a lot af thing (political, economical, process to make and dismantel the producer of energy...). Talk about energy reduction thaht is the most rational choice if you really studie energy, but he don't say a word about that
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The writing style is clear, occasionally witty, very authoritative, rather formal but also relatively accessible. The book reads like a set of scientific reports - one for each topic being addressed; consequently, one might say that the prose is often rather dry. As is standard for scientific reports, the text is dense with information, contains a great many facts and figures, has several useful diagrams and is extensively referenced. This book is likely to be most appreciated by those who are concerned about future energy production/consumption, e.g., policy makers, politicians, scientists, engineers and interested members of the public.
The book has two shortcomings. One is that it tends to conflate technical problems and political problems. If the author is right, the problems with wind power are inherently technical, which would make this particular form of energy unrealistic no matter what. However, the problems Smil mentions in conjunction with nuclear power seem mostly political: economic downturns, curious political decisions, bureaucratic regulations and fear-mongering affecting public perception. Perhaps they are difficult to solve, but they are not unsolvable in principle. It's unclear why Smil gives nuclear power short shrift in this manner, and why he writes off breeder reactors (which, of course, work eminently well, if governments build them).
The other problem is that Smil doesn't say how the energy crisis should be solved in the first place. Since he does believe in global warming being a problem, he should be for a phase-out of fossil fuels. Yet, since he debunks all alternatives to fossil fuels, the reader is left wondering what on earth we should do next! He concedes that nuclear power might play a "modest" role in the future, but what should play the predominant role? Smil never says. Perhaps he secretly supports oil, coal and gas?
Still, the book did make me think. For a long time, I assumed that we can replace both fossil fuels and nuclear power with solar, wind, hydro, biofuels, recycled garbage and some rather exotic alternatives ("wave power" etc). And, of course, energy conservation. Of these, only hydro is controversial in "Green" circles. However, if Smil is right, most of these "alternatives" cannot meet present or future demand, and the only one that perhaps could do it (biofuel) is undesirable. The search for renewable energy would then be a wild goose chase - or worse. However, if climate change is real, then fossil fuels need to be phased out anyway! This means that our predicament is much worse than expected.
Perhaps there are some solutions. Robert Bryce proposes in his books that massive investments in nuclear power and natural gas might save us. Even some Greens, such as James Lovelock, call for an expansion of nuclear power. Let's hope they are right! If not, we're left with the scary scenario of James Howard Kunstler in "The Long Emergency". Kunstler actually accepts many of Smil's points, and precisely for *that* reason believes that civilization is doomed to collapse.
Well, I suppose we could always keep our recycled garbage...
[This review was revised on 26 Sep, 2012]
Topics such as energy output per square meter of acreage is a perennial topic in Prof. Smil's, and a good way to compare solar and wind resources with nuclear energy. Prof. Smil pioneered this particular comparison method, now followed by many authors, including Robert Bryce in "Power Hungry." The severe problems with biomass and biofuel energies are also resolved in this book, hopefully not too late for the Indonesian rainforest and other rainforests. The facts in this book -- if known and respected decades ago -- could have averted some ecological boondoggles.
I appreciate the candor that Prof. Smil delivers. In addition, the ongoing and growing need for conservation is well-argued by Prof. Smil in this book and in the film "Surviving Progress," in which he appears. For sustainable energy answers that are probably as non-partisan as humanly possible, this book and the author's other ones are a treasure trove of knowledge.
Many of my neighbors for example drive Priuses. They don't seem to realize that almost without exception domestic economy cars are four cylinder internal combustion engines. Most are gasoline four stroke Otto cycle engines and some are diesels. The Prius is no exception. A better name for the power delivery system in a Prius is 'electric transmission'. That's an alternative and less deceptive name. The power for a Prius comes from its small four cylinder gas engine. The electrical-battery systems don't create power they just transmit it.
Some environmentalists long for a 'pure' electric car so as to be free of hydrocarbons altogether. But of course the electrical power they use comes from the burning of coal (mostly).
So called hybrids made no sense at all with lead acid batteries. They only work today because of more efficient lithium-ion batteries. Ed Begley Jr. the Hollywood actor started a whole conspiracy theory because he didn't understand batteries. He blamed the early experimental GM hybrid's failure on corporate greed when those cars were simply too heavy because of their lead acid batteries. Now environmentalists demand better batteries than lithium ion ones. They don't seem to realize that there never may be such batteries. Lithium Ion batteries may be the limit. Who knows? Environmentalists just imagine technology they don't understand it.
Much the same story is also the case with photovoltaics. Environmentalists just assume that cheap efficient solar cells will soon be invented. That could come true of course, but it isn't true now. When something doesn't come true environmentalists tend to blame some engineer for being stupid of some industrialist for being a greedy conspirator. They never seem to consider that maybe they themselves have some obligation to understand the issues.
In fact America has been very successful in managing our environment - but you would never guess that from the media. Air pollution is way down and water quality is nearly perfect. At least that's true where I live. Two generations ago Tom Lehrer had a hit satirical song called 'Pollution'. Much of what he sang about then was true. But it isn't true today. We solved most of our pollution problems thirty or more years ago. Today we can indeed 'drink the water and breathe the air'. How odd that some want to imagine that we failed.
Smil points to many of the failed environmental initiatives. Kennedy made it a national goal to go to the moon - and we did so. Nixon made it a national goal to eliminate our use of imported oil - and he failed. But nearly every other president since has also made that a goal and all have failed. Smil explains why.
Lots of energy "solutions" proposed by various camps left and right are looked at and most are discredited as wishful thinking. Smil outlines the ways wind and nuclear energy have been over-hyped by their proponents, even though he has positive things to say on their inclusion in energy strategies. Biofuels and biomass energy are rather harshly (and appropriately) criticized. Carbon sequestration similarly is debunked as a large-scale solution to just keep burning fossil fuels. Electric cars aren't going to be dominant anytime soon, and they wouldn't solve our problems if they were. Smil rightly explains why "peak oil" won't look like what most people say about it (it will be a plateau and slow decline in production and use). He also hits on a pet-peeve of mine, where everyone thinks technological advances in all industries look like Moore's Law, when he points out the ways the principle doesn't apply to the realities of energy production and the relatively slow pace of energy transitions in the past. Most of this analysis is done well, and I particularly appreciated that he made an effort to explain exactly where the misconceptions on each topic come from, in order to point out where they went wrong, before giving his more grounded assessments. Some solutions have valid reasons to be included in strategies to provide energy while mitigating global warming, and Smil hints at some of their (more realistically scaled) potential, even if he spends more time taking down overoptimistic assessments.
It's an excellent resource to read if you wish to participate in informed debate on energy issues we face today. Recommended.
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