Industrial Deals HPC Best Books of the Year Holiday Dress Guide nav_sap_plcc_ascpsc $5 Albums Electronics Gift Guide Limited time offer Try it first with samples Handmade Gift Shop Holiday Home Gift Guide Book a house cleaner for 2 or more hours on Amazon TNF TNF TNF  Echo Devices starting at $29.99 Save $30 on All-New Fire HD 8. Limited-time offer. $20 off Kindle Paperwhite GNO Shop Now HTL17_gno

Customer reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties (MIT Press)
Format: Paperback|Change
Price:$13.04+ Free shipping with Amazon Prime

on December 31, 2013
If you liked Vaclav Smil's "Energy: A Beginner's Guide" and "Oil: A Beginner's Guide," you'll love this book, which is much broader and deeper and more interdisciplinary than those two primers. This is an excellent text on energy for students, educators, business people, legislators, government officials and ordinary citizens who want to be energy-literate. This 428-page book (373 pages of narrative) contains 136 helpful charts and diagrams, and an excellent bibliography. Highly recommended.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on August 27, 2013
Great content for technical energy matters. It has a lot of helpful examples and resources to better understand energy needs and evaluate options.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on October 22, 2011
Smil makes a powerful case for planning without forecasting. Uncertainty does not imply inaction, and the most important plans we make are sometimes the ones that do not get implemented.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on February 26, 2004
An excellent overview of the energy picture with a thorough discussion of why predictions tend to fail. Before anyone gets too carried away with doomsday scenarios of impending energy crisis they should read this. Conversely, anyone not concerned about the state of our planet and our rate of energy consumption should also read this. Unfortunately, although the messages of the book are very appropriate for the common person, Smil's writing style may not be. His prose exudes a well educated elitism that at times can be stuffy and difficult to follow. (Or maybe I am just jealous because his command of the language is far superior to my own.)
0Comment| 27 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on February 20, 2006
Read this for a Global Energy course, and I might I write that this is one book that I would not recommend to any one that is not working or investing in the industry. This read was very 'heavy' for the passive reader, and covered a large amount of numbers and forecasts that the author himself disputes.
0Comment| 3 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on September 21, 2007
Regardless of your position on global warming, this is a very scholarly and informative must-read book.
0Comment| One person found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
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.
11 comment| 64 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on February 18, 2005

Vaclav Smil

MIT Press 2003

A Book Review by Steve Baer (

December 2003

So many good things about Vaclav Smil's Energy at the Crossroads make it difficult to explain the shortcomings.

Smil's arguments are straightforward and his statistics, with one giant exception, are extensive.

He doesn't bring the false drama to his chapters on oil that so many authors are unable to resist. Smil knows a great deal about our use of fossil fuels. Who should know more than he after over thirty years of study, yet he says he doesn't know how much more oil there is, or how long it will last. Smil is skeptical of such pronouncements. His long chapter on "against forecasting" is alone worth the price of the book. Our relationship with energy is simply too complex for us to see into the future. Some may not wish to read books like this. After all, isn't it easy to say, "I don't know and don't think anyone else does either"?

I am so glad for the few sentences Smil writes about himself, about his youth in Czechoslovakia. He tells of splitting the mountains of firewood during the summer which he lights (with difficulty) before dawn in the winter; about the oil furnace and now the 90% efficient natural gas stove that supplies any heat the sun doesn't for his passive solar home in Manitoba.

Energy at the Crossroads lifts up and away from its numbers and graphs. The joy of the hot-rodder or jet pilot appears many times as Smil recounts how we have arrived at our turbo jets, our 500 kW households (including vehicles), our enormous oil tankers, so effective that shipping costs hardly change with distance. These certainly are accomplishments to revel in, and Smil does. He includes some marvelous paragraphs on steel, energy's companion, guardian and nursemaid for today's technology. With Smil, when you reach the edge of a chapter's topic, the adjoining territory, which he hasn't time to explore thoroughly, is likely completely familiar to him. For Smil has studied more than the carbon in coal, oil, wood and gas. He has also investigated Nitrogen and Phosphorous, which he mentions in passing.

While Smil rejoices in the powers we have, he never appears determined to go ever forward. He is too open minded and sophisticated to crave ever larger, ever more powerful anything. In several places he asks what was so bad about life in France or Japan during the 60's when these accomplished societies used modest amounts of energy. Why do we need more? Smil would be just as happy if we were to go sideways.

Despite the strengths the overall mood of the book is wrong. The problem must be the forces at work on Smil; the pressures he and the rest of us contend with.

First, consider his publisher the MIT Press. Smil mentions how pleased he is that the MIT Press published his last five books. The MIT Press may sell many copies of its books, but they put little effort into editing. The present volume introduces terms such as TOE after we have gotten used to GJ and EJ and never explains what the letters mean (ton of oil equivalent). Why didn't MIT help its author? In Smil's earlier book, Energies, power and energy are confused. The same confusion is in D.E. Nye's book on electrifying America. No freshman could pass physics I making these mistakes. Smil deserves better. Sales, cover design, jacket blurbs, and promotion must outweigh clarity and accuracy with the MIT Press.

An even greater disappointment than ship shod editing is the statistics and treatment of renewable energy. Smil knows all about the power of people at work; how many Watts they are worth, how someone lifting sacks compares to a conveyer belt. He has discussed this in other books. Why does he leave out the muscle power of six billion people from his energy accounting? Why does he forget his own solar heated house?

Something has cast a spell over Smil's energy accounting. Smil's statistics are a hormone to accelerate growth of electricity, coal, oil and large industries. There should be a warning, like those on medicine bottles, of the side effects of taking these studies seriously - the impairment of architecture, agriculture, city planning, and birth defects in forming societies. According to Smil there is no travel by foot or bicycle. No work is done by the strengths of our bodies; no light or warmth passes through windows; clothes don't dry on clotheslines. We don't use brooms, mops, shovels or picks, only power tools. The only renewable energies are wind generators and photovoltaic panels, both of which remain heavily subsidized and are manufactured chiefly by huge international corporations. What introduced this mood into the book? It doesn't fit with the details.

Let us remember what is would cost each and every one of us six billion if we had to pay at today's prices for the sunlight that hits our earth. It would be about $50,000 per day for each of us and another $4,000 a night for a full moon. Though we will never pay this, it doesn't make it any less valuable or any less important to remind ourselves of, as we sell ourselves things dug or pumped out of the earth.
0Comment| 15 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on September 16, 2004
Certainly a solidly researched book. Mr. Smil leans over, it seems, to be "objective," but the arguments are weighted; we are warned against the gloom and doom version of the Hubbertites, and it would seem, indeed, that it is sheer folly to predict the imminence of the oil "peak." Much of the argument against the "peakists" (Campbell, Leherrere, etc.) seems to be based on a close reading of Odell--hardly an entirely reliable source. So it seems we will be able to depend on cheap oil for a long time... But then comes the chart on p. 211, which shows 3 (count em) peaks, the first of which is virtually identical to that of Campbell and Co., and the least optimistic of which puts the peak around 2035--essentially the official US version (peak in 36 years). The median is around 2025.

Sorry, Mr. Smil, but 20 years is not, from a historical perspective, a huge difference. The peak is coming soon, we will have to face it, and you do very little to consider the really horrifying implications. Mass starvation, anyone? How will all the fertilizer needed to produce the crops to feed the planet be produced without cheap oil? The author rather hopefully suggests that a new energy source might even replace oil, just as oil once replaced coal. Such as??? To back up his argument on this, (again, p. 211) he quotes no less than Lovins, whom he excoriates elsewhere.

But, have no fear, technology will rescue us, at least in the case of oil--and those rapidly depleting wells? Well, in the past they haven't petered out as quickly as foretold, so that means next time they won't either... Innovations will help us get 65% of the oil, instead of the former 40%... Wind power? Forget it... not a really significant factor, even after 2025, when (according to Mr. Smil himself) oil will be in decline. Why not? The technology won't be developed! It can be for oil, but not for wind! Don't ask why!

A very slanted book, then, still betting everything on oil, despite the fact that it itself demonstrates the imminent end of the fossil fuel regime.

For a more convincing read, see Richard Heinberg's *The Party's Over*.
11 comment| 18 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on July 1, 2009
the book arrived quickly and in the condition described. i was very pleased with the purchase.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse