12 realities on energy change from an energy realist – part 1

Known as one of Bill Gates’ favourite authors, a leading global thinker on energy, and a candid realist, Dr. Vaclav Smil’s opinions on energy are sought by many – including the World Bank. He’s written more than 20 books on energy transition and related topics. Gates is quoted as saying, “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie.”

Dr Smil. Photo by: Olibroman at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0


Recently, the About Pipelines Blog reached out to Dr. Smil, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Environment and Geography, to get his insights on the pace of energy change and innovation.

We quickly found out Dr. Smil rarely gives interviews – apparently not even to nationally established news organizations like The Globe and Mail. However, in our recent email exchange he had a few choice words about general energy literacy and the role the energy industry has in building public knowledge.

The answer lies in human behaviour


Dr. Smil views climate change as a global issue, as he noted in a 2015 address to engineering students at McGill University. In his view, the primary solution for carbon dioxide emissions can’t be achieved only through national or technical efforts. Rather, the primary solution is in human behaviour, where each person has a duty and responsibility to use energy in ‘rational’ ways.

Instead of an interview, Dr. Smil gave this blog permission to draw from one of his papers: Examining Energy Transitions: A Dozen Insights Based on Performance. (University of Manitoba. 2016.)


12 basic energy realities underlying change


Dr. Smil argues it’s almost wishful thinking to expect the shift in primary global energy sources to mirror the speed of progress in modern electronics, especially when viewed in the light of how our society is structured and historical data on the pace of change to different fuel sources.

He concludes that changing our current global energy system, which overwhelmingly relies on fossil fuels, to replace it with biofuels (e.g., sugar cane and corn) and electricity generated intermittently from renewable sources (such as wind and solar), will occupy us for generations.

Dr. Smil points to 12 realities, based on historical performance, that we must keep in mind as we consider the future of energy supply. We’ll present his 12 points in a three-part blog series, doing our best to explain each point in layman’s terms. In this post, we’ll look at the first three.

  1. Historically, the progress of specific energy transitions at a national level has ranged from very slow (more than a century) to very rapid (just a few years). Examples include:
    • The U.K., where it took more than 100 years for coal to become the primary energy source.
    • The Netherlands, which transitioned from coal to primarily natural gas (41 per cent) in a single decade following the decision in 1965 to close down all the country’s coal mines.
    • Denmark, where wind-powered electricity generation went from 12 per cent in the year 2000 to 41 per cent in 2014.


  2. In contrast, all global energy transitions have been gradual, prolonged affairs.
    • After reaching five per cent of the global primary energy supply (around 1840), it took coal 35 years to rise to 25 per cent, and 60 years to reach 50 per cent.
    • Crude oil and natural gas took even longer – 40 years for crude oil to go from five to 25 per cent of the global primary supply (1915 to 1955), and nearly 60 years for natural gas to reach similar levels.
    • Dr. Smil notes, as the supply becomes more diversified, no primary source will again provide most of the total supply as traditional biofuels or coal once did.


  3. Our society is still overwhelmingly fossil-fueled.
    • In 2015, fossil fuels provided at least 85 per cent of the world’s total commercial primary energy supply, excluding the contributions by traditional biofuels (wood, charcoal, straw, dung), whose consumption cannot be accurately measured.
    • Commercial non-fossil energies continue to be dominated by hydro and nuclear electricity, but the exact share of their combined contribution depends on the conversion factors used. Dr. Smil reasons hydro and nuclear supplied about eight per cent of the world’s primary commercial energy in 2014.


On January 23, in part 2 – we’ll look at the next five points of Smil’s paper, including:

  • Why the need to shift primary energy sources?
  • Insights and reasons for the slow pace of transition.
  • Evidence that progress is gradual, even in the case of the most determined, deliberate, and costly shift.