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Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate [Hardcover]

by Vaclav Smil
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 16, 2010 0844743283 978-0844743288 First
There are many misconceptions about the future of global energy often presented as fact by the media, politicians, business leaders, activists, and even scientists—wasting time and money and hampering the development of progressive energy policies. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate debunks the most common fallacies to make way for a constructive, scientific approach to the global energy challenge.

When will the world run out of oil? Should nuclear energy be adopted on a larger scale? Are ethanol and wind power viable sources of energy for the future? Vaclav Smil advises the public to be wary of exaggerated claims and impossible promises. The global energy transition will be prolonged and expensive—and hinges on the development of an extensive new infrastructure. Established technologies and traditional energy sources are persistent and adaptable enough to see the world through that transition.

Energy Myths and Realities brings a scientific perspective to an issue often dominated by groundless assertions, unfounded claims, and uncritical thinking. Before we can create sound energy policies for the future, we must renounce the popular myths that cloud our judgment and impede true progress.

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Editorial Reviews


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,

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor of Environment and Environmental Geography at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: AEI Press; First edition (August 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0844743283
  • ISBN-13: 978-0844743288
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Vaclav Smil is currently a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He completed his graduate studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Carolinum University in Prague and at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of the Pennsylvania State University. His interdisciplinary research interests encompass a broad area of energy, environmental, food, population, economic, historical and public policy studies, and he had also applied these approaches to energy, food and environmental affairs of China.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy) and the first non-American to receive the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology. He has been an invited speaker in more than 250 conferences and workshops in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa, has lectured at many universities in North America, Europe and East Asia and has worked as a consultant for many US, EU and international institutions. His wife Eva is a physician and his son David is an organic synthetic chemist.

Official Website:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Energy Generation: The Hard Facts Unveiled September 7, 2010
We have often heard authoritative statements made by various reputable individuals about new ideas for producing plenty of energy in the near future - cleanly, efficiently and cheaply. These often involved new approaches combined with new scientific/technological advances of various sorts. But as the months, years and even decades pass by, we are left still waiting for these ideas, or perhaps some offshoots, to materialize. In this book, the author explains the reasons for these shortcomings and warns about any such statements that may currently being made. As the author puts it, the book is "aimed at criticizing assorted myths and misconceptions [about energy-related issues], and in doing so has mostly had to correct excessively positive or unjustifiably enthusiastic expectations and interpretation" (p. 156). Only in one case presented in the book has the opposite been done, i.e., to address a myth that is unjustifiably too negative. The myths discussed are related to: electric cars, cheap nuclear electricity, soft energy, peak oil, i.e., the so-called Hubbert's peak, sequestration of carbon dioxide, liquid fuel from plants, electricity from wind, and the pace of energy transitions. For some, this book may be an eye-opener; for others, it may confirm their suspicions. And for the enthusiasts who are, in all honesty, promoting some of these myths, the hard facts presented may be terribly discouraging.

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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By Chad M
This is a source no-nonsense answers about conventional and sustainable energy. I consider this book a welcome respite from the greenwashing that is happening too often both in academic writing and in the wider world. Prof. Smil's analysis is impeccable, and the reader can cross-reference topics in this book from its extensively documented sources.

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.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A covert doomer? November 5, 2011
Vaclav Smil's "Energy myths and realities" is a relatively good and interesting book about the alternatives to fossil fuels. The author discusses electric cars, wind power, solar power, biofuels and nuclear power. In fact, he debunks them! For instance, replacing fossil fuels with biofuels would lead to massive environmental destruction, less land available for food production and perhaps even massive starvation due to increased food prices. Wind power and solar power would only work in some areas, and can never replace fossil fuels on a national or global scale. "Greens" won't like this book. Smil is also sceptical of grand schemes for carbon sequestration, however, which presumably would make his book controversial among cornucopians, as well.

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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lots of Facts - like a typical Smil Book April 1, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This was probably an easy book for Smil to write because the popular press, the Internet, and cable news are so irresponsible. Almost all the so called environmentalists that one reads are technically uninformed. They don't understand math or science. They get carried away with their own wishful thinking.

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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Objective discourse on energy misconceptions
The book is important for anybody who is directly involved in energy-related matters. It is also interesting reading for those with a science bent. Read more
Published 21 days ago by RowanG
4.0 out of 5 stars Unusually Knowledgeable
Smil does a good job bursting the wishful thinking that many individuals maintain about energy. There aren't any magic bullets. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Maker
5.0 out of 5 stars This should be required reading for all elected officials...
...and, for all the starry-eyed "greenies" and their "climate denier" counter-parts. Read more
Published 2 months ago by William L. Karns
3.0 out of 5 stars a wealth of knowledge
Dr. Smil writes an excellent book on energy and how to look at the fallacies of some green energy claims. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Paul Cottrell
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but
Got this book because Bill Gates recommended it on his gates notes. Gates implied that it was very science-based. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Chris C. Mcnamara
5.0 out of 5 stars People should read
I have read this book. I picked it up off the new book shelf at the university where I teach when it was first published. Read more
Published 12 months ago by G
2.0 out of 5 stars Lazy Treatment of Energy Myths
I only read the sample but found that the author made several logical mistakes early on that suggested the book would offer no new ideas. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Fred W. Voetsch
5.0 out of 5 stars une synthèse exhaustive et intéressante des questions...
C'est un excellent manuel d'ingénieur écrit par un économiste. ça se lit comme un roman policier (avec moins d'hémoglobine !)
Published 15 months ago by CAT
4.0 out of 5 stars A good book on the energy policy debate!
I liked the core idea, presented by Smil, that energy dreams are not properly connected to reality. He presents many cases to prove his beliefs and, I think, he fairly mentions... Read more
Published 19 months ago by S. M. Jalali
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Whether one is for or against on or another source of energy, this book puts into perspective what is actually needed to achieve the promises that proponents make.
Published on March 15, 2012 by Edvard M. Baardsen
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