Energy Transitions by Vaclav Smil, published in 2010, is short. Reading it took time. The book is a narrative survey of some studies of changes in the way humans have used energy to perform work. Humans and animals convert biological mass (food) and heat and light from the sun into chemicals that grow into muscles or power muscles. Humans use energy to collect food or to collect fuel to cook food. In modern times many humans use energy to work for wages or profit to pay for fuel, energy and food. Humans used energy to capture and domestic animals, to gather and plant seeds, and to practise agriculture to have more food. Humans used energy to make tools. Humans used energy and tools to gather more material and make new tools. In the last few hundred years, humans have used fossil fuels and radioactive minerals to make machines which convert heat energy to mechanical power or to electrical energy.
Scientists have measured or estimated the energy used and the work perfomed. In the industrial revolution, which is still happening in parts of the world, some humans in some societies in some places replaced biomass with fossil fuels as the principal energy source. World-wide, humans have deceased the use of biomass (wood and straw) as fuel to generate heat, compared to other fuels. External combustion could change the biomas wood to charcoal, or fossil fule coal to coke or heat to power in steam engines. Internal combustion of refined petroleum generated more energy and power. Energy could be converted to electricity. Electricity needs transmission infrastructure and energy sources. European and North American countries made several energy transitions in the 19th and 20th centuries. They use coal, petroleum and natural gas – fossil biomass to thermally generate electricity, and petroleum in internal combustion engines and turbines to power transportation and industry. The book sketches the changes involved in doing work with machines, and getting energy from biomass, fossil fuels, radioactive minerals, geographical/geological forces (wind, tide, geothermal) and from solar radiation.
This book discussed, primarily, how hard it will be for humans enjoying or transitioning to high energy consumption to transition to more sustainable sources of energy. The book mentions the fear that the world is running out of some resources, noted in the 1972 Limits to Growth report commissioned by the Club of Rome. The book mentions dematerialization but concentrates on energy. His 2013 book Making the Modern World on dematerialization notes that recyling has changed the production of steel and aluminum in parts of the world.
Dr. Smil’s sine ira et studio approach will disappoint climate action warriers. He notes that governments and industries have taken action on some of the environmental issues that concerned North Americans and Europeans in recent decades. We don’t hear much about acid rain because of steps taken to reduce emissions of sulfites in flue gases and nitates in automotive engine emissions.
The book suggests that modern and modernizing societies will not easily stop burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are denser sources of energy than biomass. Modern machines need fossil fuels. Fossil fuels power electical generation, petroleum production, chemical production, and the production of ceramics and metals. China has invested in coal production and thermal generating plants to power its modernization. The “West” cannot tell the formerly colonized peoples of the earth that they should not aspire to the things the West has.
Wind power can be harnessed but requires vast infrastructure to get the power where it can be used. It is not a dense power source. Photo electric is not a dense power source. The fuels made from biomass – eg. ethanol are not dense and are costly to produce. The earth cannot generate biomass to burn as fuel or convert to fuel without devastating changes.
Politicians make treaties that cannot be implemented due to national politics. The techno-utopian publicists for capital promise that technology will save the world some day. Every country with resources and technology has adopted neo-liberal economics and politics, and waits for some fabulous invention to be made. Governments and industry continue to wait, promising to adopt, at some point, new technology.