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