on July 17, 2004
From his lifetime as an energy expert and prolific author, Smil writes insightfully about the major energy trends of the past century, and then he attempts to look into the future. He clearly presents, aided by dozens of well designed graphs, an enormous amount of information on global patterns for all energy sources and applications in an exceptionally well organized format. Clearly, Smil was an energy expert of the highest caliber of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, we are now four and a half years into the twenty first century, and it seems to have left Smil behind in a few places. Most of his data are actually pre-1999; and although a few references are dated 2002, almost none of the actual data are post-2000, even though the print date on the book is Nov. 2003. For example, the fact that he thinks there were tens of thousands of fuel cell vehicles on the road in 2003 gives away the fact that the book was largely written in 2001 using references mostly from the late nineties, some of questionable value. (Some "experts" at DOE as late as 1999 were predicting 10,000 FCVs on the road in 2003. Today, however, there are fewer than 400.) Yet, this does not significantly lessen the enormously valuable contribution of Smil's work.
Chapter 2 looks carefully at, in all major countries, a number of important linkages to energy, including such parameters as GDP, infant mortality, life expectancy, food availability, the "human development index", the "political freedom index", air quality, water quality, GHG emissions, war, and terrorism. In Chapter 3, he discusses literally hundreds of failed energy-related projections over the past 40 years; and he congratulates himself on predicting, in 1983, the total energy consumption in 2000 with uncanny accuracy, while the predictions of many others were off by more than a factor of two in either direction. (His forecasts of the various energy segments (coal, oil, gas, renewables) were all individually off by huge amounts. Maybe he got lucky on the total.) Clearly, his appreciation for the interplay of trends in efficiency, markets, resources, and competition was and is of considerable value. (It was also fun to see him point out the silliness of various projections by Amory Lovins, one of the most na?ve physicists among the vocal hydrogen-economy advocates.)
One agenda of this book is to refute the Peak Oil theory of Colin Campbell, as he so well presented in "The Coming Oil Crisis". Smil bases his refutation rather heavily on the fact that most pessimistic oil peak predictions prior to the mid 90's have by now been proven untrue. He points out that some predictions from the early seventies have by now missed the mark by more than 20 years. (He doesn't seem to appreciate that an additional 30 years of data collection and analysis might allow some refinement in the methods.) Rather than attempt a careful, independent, country-by-country analysis of the oil and gas reserves, as carried out by Campbell, he prefers to rely more on extrapolations of production trends of the last twenty years and faith in the power of market incentives to keep the oil and gas flowing liberally for 40 to 100 more years.
Smil is right to emphasize that energy intensity has decreased in the past 30 years and it will likely decrease much more in the next 30 years in some countries (especially, the U.S, Australia, and Canada). There are very positive and powerful life-style implications in this trend, which Paul Roberts, Richard Heinberg, and even David Goodstein and Colin Campbell do not fully appreciate. Smil is certainly right to point out that the immediate potential for enormous improvements in efficiency, especially in private transportation in the U.S., will help to relieve pressure on oil production. But had he taking the time to update his data on increasing oil usage in China and India since 2000, he would have surely realized that a continuation of the small rate of reduction of energy intensity in the U.S. would not begin to offset the voracious oil and LNG markets in the developing world.
Smil's treatment of non-fossil energy sources in Chapter 5 is, for the most part, well-researched, thorough, and sound. His treatments of hydro and wind energy in particular are outstanding, and his appreciation for world-wide biomass utilization pre-1999 is second to none. Unfortunately, his data on advanced biofuels are often 4 to 6 years out of date - cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel from rapeseed and mustard seed, algal biodiesel, and even biomethanol. (This last one is a surprise, as he clearly has some, albeit limited, appreciation for the huge potential of converting stranded natural gas to methanol for oxygenation and extension of gasoline.) Smil leaves the impression that energy balance of biofuels will not likely exceed 1.3, whereas in fact corn ethanol (with co-products) now is up to 1.77, cellulosic ethanol may exceed 2.5, and biodiesel from mustard and biomethanol from switchgrass will both likely soon exceed 4.
His last chapter on Possible Futures is also full of a lot of useful information on trends in various conversion efficiencies and technology developments, but it too is not without its problems. When an engineer or scientist makes errors of two orders of magnitude in important facts critical to projections (as Smil did in the cost of fuel cells), it calls into question the validity of his judgment and foresight regarding future transportation fuels. For a more up-to-date and useful perspective on transportation fuels, see my brief "Fuels for Tomorrow's Vehicles" or "The Hype About Hydrogen" by Joe Romm.
All in all, Smil's latest book is one that should be read by and on the shelf of all energy analysts - along with Campbell's, Romm's, and an up-to-date reference on advanced biofuels. The typical, interested citizen would be better directed to Joe Romm's exceptionally sound and highly readable book. - F. David Doty, PhD, engineering physicist.