Renewables: The Final Frontier

Why historian Vaclav Smil thinks there are no easy solutions to our energy problems

  • Paul Lachine
 

Back in the 1960s, when NBC was first developing the Star Trek series, a producer fretted that "Spock, the guy with the pointed ears, would scare the crap out of every kid in America."  Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, was an aloof humanoid from the planet Vulcan, the chief science officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Every seven years, Vulcans experience an overpowering mating urge (think Bill Clinton). The rest of the time they forswear all human sentiment in favor of pure, bloodless rationality. Vulcans are what we humans would call hard-hearted. They don't believe in fairy tales and pixie dust, that Dorothy can click her heels and go home again.

When it comes to energy, the scientist who best exemplifies Vulcan logic is Vaclav Smil. The world's foremost energy historian, he began a recent essay with this blunt statement: "Our transition away from fossil fuels will take decades -- if it happens at all."

The author of dozens of books, Smil is a brainy polymath. A distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba, he finds most American energy discussions naive, simplistic, cliched, innumerate, and, ultimately, maddening. He does not believe that our cars will soon be powered by fuel cells or pyrolyzed turkey guts, that clean coal can solve the climate problem, or that venture capital will discover an energy analogue to the cellular phone.

Al Gore's proposal to re-power America with renewable energy in a decade is "delusional," Smil writes. "Gore has succumbed to Moore's curse, the belief that performance improvement in energy systems can model that of computer processing power."

Energy systems are not virtual, they are heavy metal -- copper and steel and megatons of concrete. Their operating systems don't change; 60 hertz never goes obsolete. Upgrading power plants is generally unnecessary, except where pollution controls are concerned, and replacing them is expensive, which is why there are hundreds of 40-year-old coal plants. In short, you can throw your laptop out every few years and order a new one, but Hoover Dam will still be plugging the Colorado River centuries from now.

Given climate realities, we desperately need a rapid energy transformation, but wishing can't make it so. As a Vulcan might say, what is desirable is not necessarily probable. Change takes time. James Watt's steam engine revolutionized the mining and transportation of coal, but it still took a century for coal to displace wood. Solar photovoltaic cells were invented 55 years ago, and yet today in the U.S. they produce less electricity than Glen Canyon Dam. Eight years after its introduction, the ingenious Prius has yet to become 1 percent of the automotive fleet.

Like it or not, Smil believes we are captive to past investments, to the multi-trillion-dollar energy networks we have already created, and, above all, to the scale of our energy appetites. Only the last of those factors seems amenable to rapid change, and thus his advice to President Obama: "Explain to the nation that Americans, who consume twice as much energy per capita as rich Europeans (and have nothing to show for it), should try to live within some sensible limits, which means using less fuel not more."

In his books, Smil explains how prehistoric cultures harvested the energy from sunlight, plants and firewood. In the Southwest, energy shortages were generally caused by drought and expressed as famine. When the Anasazi ran short of protein, they began eating each other: "man corn." We have much larger appetites today. Melanie Moses, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, calculates that a typical North American consumes energy at a rate sufficient to sustain a 66,000-pound primate.

That's a very big ape, and Smil is not the only one asking whether it's realistic to meet his gargantuan appetite with wind and solar, dilute flows of power that today provide less than 1 percent of U.S. energy. Unlike oil shale -- the thermodynamically doomed effort to turn chicken manure into chicken salad -- wind, solar and geothermal have high energy returns and a bright future. Nonetheless, it will take many doublings before they will meet a significant percentage of our needs.

Smil can envision running a lightly populated state such as Montana or Wyoming on renewables once its fossil fuels run out. Urban areas present a more difficult problem. By abusing a calculator and common sense, one can sketch out a renewable blueprint for a city like Phoenix, but after awhile the numbers begin to seem like so much Hohokam. Phoenix long ago exceeded its carrying capacity and is likely to remain dependent on imported oil, gas and nuclear power, for as long as such things last.

In his personal life, Smil is an avid conservationist, proud of his super-efficient house and frugal Honda. In his recent work, there is a hint of frustration with what he sees as the cannibalization of our host planet. Contemplating our journey to the future, where no man has gone before, he writes, "I am always trying to imagine what would be the verdict of a sapient extraterrestrial informed about the behavior of affluent Earthlings." 

Unless saving energy quickly becomes the nation's focus, we already have the answer: "Beam me up, Scotty, there's no intelligent life down here."

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.