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Energy transitions and the end (or not) of civilization

Steve recently posted (not I) on the possibility of a big breakthrough in cold fusion technology (hey, he is at the University of Utah after all; on Fleischmann and Pons see here). But even if that occurs in the near future energy transitions tend to be a very slow process as explained by Vaclav Smil (reference below), which should make you a bit more pessimistic.

He suggests that it was in the 20th century that we finally did the transition to oil from coal, and that the 21st should be a slow transition to natural gas, with increasing role, but not yet dominant by alternative technologies. By the way, Smil is way more skeptical than Steve on the possibilities of what he refers to as 'soft energy illusions.'

The process is really slow. He shows that, in the US, only in the 1880s coal surpassed wood as the main energy source, something that occurred in China somewhere in the 1960s, and is still happening in some places in Africa. The 19th century was still part of the millennia dominated by wood burning, and the 20th century was dominated by coal, with oil becoming relevant towards the end. By the way, coal still generates almost 30% of the world's electricity. The figure below shows the time frame of energy transitions.
Given the slow transitions and the effects of biofuel consumption on climate change it would seem that we are doomed. However, Smil is considerably more optimistic (on this he resembles Steve) on the possibilities for the survival of civilization.

The biggest change in last two centuries with respect to energy use is the rapid increase in efficiency. As he notes, in open fires only 5% of wood's energy ends up as useful heat, while today's most efficient furnaces convert around 95% of natural gas to heat. So with better batteries, non-oil based fuels, less wasteful transmission of electricity, and more efficient technologies in general one can expect per capita stocks of useful fossil fuels will be only marginally smaller by the end of the century, and perhaps with a significant reduction on their environmental impact.

In fact, he suggests that with about half today's energy demand it is possible to maintain the quality of life associated with the world's developed countries, and, hence, the eventual decline in oil's share in the global energy supply will not mark the end of civilization (which I'm glad, since I'm kind of personally attached to civilization).

Also, I should point out, increased efficiency may come out of regulation, as noted by Smil. For example, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, which allowed for a doubling of the average efficiency from 13.5 to 27.5 mpg (and you thought regulations do not work!), were incredibly efficient. The other way to improve efficiency is economic growth (as I argued before; that was I, not Steve).

So it seems that if you want to preserve civilization, growth and regulation is the way to go. Of course that is no guarantee that that we'll get either regulation or the kind of technical change that comes with growth (in particular, austerity seems to suggest a prolonged period of stagnation, but that should not make you happy even from an environmental point of view).

Smil, Vaclav (2010). Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate. AEI Press. Kindle Edition. 


  1. Smil rules; I cite him. I agree that there will be no overnight transition even if some "weird" energy source is proven. Weird here would require a minimum of an order of magnitude reduction in cost of joules.

    But, I have done a very BOTE (Back Of The Envelope) guesstimate, based on prior major transitions (coal to oil, e.g., is not that).

    My guess is 1 to 2 generations.

    Mail me if you want details.

    1. At some point just post them on the blog.


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