The Harsh Realities of Energy

On My Mind / by Vaclav Smil /

There is no faster, easier fix for America’s energy crisis than to simply begin living within rational limits.

Credit: santacrewsgirl

From corn-based ethanol to clean-coal technology, from Al Gore’s push for carbon-free electricity within a decade to T. Boone Pickens’s vision of wind power from the Great Plains, everyone has a favorite plan. Enthusiasm springs eternal for a new nuclear era, or for turbines tapping the enormous power of ocean currents and the atmosphere’s jet stream. But unfortunately these plans offer aspirations, not realistic goals: Converting all of America’s farmland to corn for ethanol would produce just 12 percent of today’s gasoline needs; the birth of clean coal or the rebirth of nuclear are fraught with fearful costs and apprehensions; turbines aloft or in the deep are beyond the threshold of realistic engineering applications.

Consider this: It took 45 years for the US to raise its crude oil use to 20 percent of the total energy supply; natural gas needed 65 years to do the same. As for electricity generation, coal produced 66 percent of the total in 1950 and still 49 percent in 2007 — wind-driven generation now produces 1.5 percent and solar photovoltaic a fraction of that. Whatever the eventual solution, whether it is converting the country’s filling stations to natural gas or hydrogen, or building new long-distance high-voltage transmission lines to carry Arizona’s solar electricity to New York and North Dakota’s wind power to California, the new requisite infrastructures are unlikely to be completed in the next few years.

Ultimately, this is a problem of scale: A small country with modest per-capita energy use can accomplish any energy transition much easier than a large, populous nation with exceptionally high energy consumption. The US now claims about 21 percent of global energy and uses about three times as much per capita as the EU. We must ask ourselves the hard question of whether this profligate consumption is necessary, or sustainable. America’s energy transition to nonfossil energies promises to be a long, arduous process. To speed it up and ease the pain, we must, paradoxically, slow down, and begin consuming less of everything.  — Vaclav Smil is a professor in the study of energy, food, and the environment at the University of Manitoba.

Originally published April 7, 2009

Tags carbon data energy

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More

Now on SEEDMAGAZINE.COM

  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.

Portfolio

Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2012 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM