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Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations

Vaclav Smil paints a sobering picture of the energy crossroads before us.

In a sense, the search for new energy is part of a much broader change whose outcome will determine the fortunes of the world’s leading economies and of the entire global civilization for generations to come.

From American Scientist:

…This all brings to mind Lemuel Gulliver’s visit to the grand academy of Lagado: No fewer than 500 projects were going on there at once, always with anticipation of an imminent success, much as the inventor who “has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers” believed that “in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate”—but also always with complaints about stock being low and entreaties to “give … something as an encouragement to ingenuity.” Admittedly, ideas for new energy salvations do not currently top 500, but their spatial extent puts Lagado’s inventors to shame: Passionately advocated solutions range from extracting work from that meager 20-Kelvin difference between the surface and deep waters in tropical seas (OTEC: ocean thermal energy conversion) to Moon-based solar photovoltaics with electricity beamed to the Earth by microwaves and received by giant antennas.

And continuous hopes for success (at a low price) in eight more years are as fervent now as they were in the fictional 18th century Lagado. There has been an endless procession of such claims on behalf of inexpensive, market-conquering solutions, be they fuel cells or cellulosic ethanol, fast breeder reactors or tethered wind turbines. And energy research can never get enough money to satisfy its promoters: In 2010 the U.S. President’s council of advisors recommended raising the total for U.S. energy research to $16 billion a year; that is actually too little considering the magnitude of the challenge—but too much when taking into account the astonishing unwillingness to adopt many readily available and highly effective existing fixes in the first place.

I had no idea who Smil was before he became known as the man tutoring Bill Gates on Energy. Since then, I’ve grown quite smitten.

Bill Gates Recommends Reading the following of Smil’s books to learn more about energy:
Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties;
Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years;
Enriching the Earth: Fritz Habery, Carol Bosch; and
Transformation of World Food Production, and Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization.