Vaclav Smil on Renewables in Scientific American – a Rebuttal

Vaclav Smil recently hit the big time as “the Man Bill Gates Thinks You Absolutely Should Be Reading” (Wired Magazine 11.25.13). As Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and recipient of many awards, the plug from Gates was only his latest acclaim.

The Jan 2014 issue of Scientific American carries Smil’s article “The Long Slow Rise of Solar and Wind: Why, contrary to popular belief, we are not likely to wean ourselves from fossil fuels quickly” (subscription required). [Update: Smil’s article is available (PDF, no charge) on his website here.] The thrust of the article is contained in its last lines: “The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources … will require generations of perseverance.”

I find the article infuriating, with its proofs by assertion, guilt by association, slippery logic, and the sprinkling of escape clauses that could be intended as vaccinations against future criticism. Maybe there’s a good payoff in personal branding to play contrarian against the momentum of renewables, but there is already so much misinformation flowing from so many suspect sources, that “experts” should avoid adding to it. Much more damage is done when a reputable author publishes “soft scorn” in a reputable magazine, than when blatantly partisan screed appears in blatantly partisan media.

Smil begins with an attempt to discredit Amory Lovins by citing his almost 40-year-old prediction on the speed at which renewable energy would spread, which turned out to be far too optimistic. There is no mention of any broader context, such as federal policy decisions that effectively delayed renewables for decades. A reader unfamiliar with Lovins might infer he is not a good source, and might therefore miss his 2011 book Reinventing Fire, which is probably the best researched (and sourced) plan available for shifting the US from a fossil-based to a renewables-based economy—and with a net gain to the economy! Or his August 2013 article “Separating Fact from Fiction In Accounts of Germany’s Renewables Revolution which is probably the best debunking of the oft-echoed anti-solar myths that Germany’s electrical grid is being sabotaged by the high percentage of renewables, that Germany is turning back to coal, etc.

Smil continues by claiming that the slow pace of renewables “is not surprising. In fact it is expected” because shifts from one source of power to another always take 50 or more years. He provides charts showing the growth of coal, oil, natural gas, and “modern renewables” (wind, solar, geothermal, liquid biofuels) as a percent of global energy supply plotted over the decades since 1840. However, elsewhere in the article he admits: “A mere three sequences do not dictate the tempo of future global energy transitions. And [breakthroughs in nuclear power or energy storage] could hasten another change.”

Exactly. Given the tremendous scale of change wrought by technology and politics and population in the 170 years since coal hit Smil’s entry-level mark of 5% of world energy supply, why is his timeline to fuel dominance anything but coincidence? He spends plenty of space describing why each timeline is accurate, but no space arguing why they are or should be or must be similar. The world is littered with the debris of claims of causation found to be mere correlation (see any superstition, or the ultimate global average temperature versus the number of pirates). Even taking on faith that Smil’s timeline could be predictive, it should halt at fossil fuels. Nuclear power is a glaring counter-example of a major power source that did not follow Smil’s timeline and therefore invalidates it for non-fossil fuels. Nuclear is far from dominant more than 50 years since the days of “Our Friend the Atom” and has by now achieved, at best, a very dubious future.

On the other hand, the accelerating adoption of renewables has clear, major causal drivers. One is the imperative to shrink carbon emissions to better manage the consequences of a warming planet. Another is the cost of solar, which tracks an exponential curve downward (not unlike Moore’s law for integrated circuits), versus fossil fuel extraction and production costs which will continue to climb relentlessly, if not monotonically higher. The adoption of distributed solar where there is no reliable grid is another driver, and it appears to be taking the same non-linear leap in many areas of the developing world, as the leap from no phones directly to cell phones did (skipping land lines). Yet another driver causing accelerated adoption of renewables is security. FBI Director James Comey recently said “Cyber attacks and organized cyber criminal activities will emerge as the greatest threat to national security over the next decade.” “Behind the meter” distributed solar combined with battery storage will become an ever more affordable and appealing alternative to power-grid vulnerabilities.

This is not our great-great-great grandfather’s energy industry. Smil would seem to characterize the context and environment and challenges related to the adoption of renewables today as about the same as those of coal 150 years ago—or at least close enough for him to claim he can predict the timeline of renewables adoption because it matches that of coal. But most of today’s industries didn’t even exist back then, and those that did bear faint resemblance to their descendants today. The Edison Electric Institute, an association of investor owned utilities, weighs in, in a January 2013 report: “Recent technological and economic changes are expected to challenge and transform the electric utility industry” (pdf). Little is the same, much is different, and the path to renewables dominance is not constrained by the history of coal.

One can never be sure of an author’s intent when writing a polemic. Is he misinformed? Is he a shill for some vested interest? Does he believe that becoming a fly in the ointment will improve his following? Some clues:

  • “After more than 20 years of highly subsidized development, new renewables … have claimed only 3.35% of the country’s energy supply.” One might suppose this means, even with help of big subsidies, renewables have grown far less than 1% per year (about 3% in 20 years). This is classic How To Lie With Statistics and is misleading in at least two important ways. First, renewables subsidies in the US have been very choppy over the last 20 years, repeatedly degrading long-term confidence with boom/bust cycles. The most recent “solar coaster” was in 2008 when it was entirely unclear until it occurred, whether the Bush administration would extend the 30% Federal Tax Credit. It was extended, to 2016, meaning the solar industry now entering 2014 is again facing another near-term policy question – how to make business plans for 2017 and beyond. Meanwhile subsidies for fossil fuels (which renewables must of course compete against) have remained consistent and huge ($544 billion worldwide in 2012, slightly up from 2011) for many decades. Second, a more revealing statistic about renewables (solar in particular) is that while it took over 50 years from the sale of the first commercially available solar cells, to reach the first 100 gigawatts (GW) of global installed capacity in late 2012, it will take only 3 years to install the next 100 GW as we continue on the path of doubling installed capacity every 2 to 3 years. Smil’s statistic hints at sub 1% growth per year; real growth of solar has been running at 33% per year.
  • “Of course it is always possible that a disruptive technology or a revolutionary policy could speed up change.” This hedge allows Smil to say “I told you so” regardless of whether his main thesis holds or falls apart, and it makes him look to me more like a noisemaker than an independent (much less disruptive) thinker. In fact the disruptive technology is already here: the price of solar panels dropped 70% since 2000 (this and related stats are here, part of Zach Shahan’s great CleanTechnica site). As a result, solar has moved from niche to mainstream: “FERC: Almost All New US Electricity Generation Coming from Solar.” On the policy front, solar in the US is more cumbersome to install than in most of the rest of the developed world. Our permitting, installation and sales costs are almost double those of Germany. Imagine the dazzlingly fast adoption of renewables if we added revolutionary policy changes to the existing disruptive technology! The biggest hurdle to revolutionary policy in the US is education; Smil, echoing and adding deceptions, makes that hurdle a little higher.
  • “Another factor is the intermittent nature of wind and solar.” Ah yes, the sun doesn’t shine at night. This talking point easily finds its way over the low bar at Fox News. Better insights include that solar delivers energy at close to when it’s needed most (peak demand is in the afternoon), and the most expensive electricity for utilities to provide is the “spinning” resource to meet the spikes during peak demand.
  • “If electric utilities had an inexpensive way to store massive amounts of excess power … then the new renewables would expand much more quickly. Unfortunately, decades of development have provided only one good, large scale solution [pumped hydro].” This is the third time Smil has resorted to his escape-clause hedge that breakthroughs of this or that or whatever kind will invalidate his thesis. A glance at 170 years of technological innovation should give pause to everyone who asserts what cannot be done. Meanwhile, utilities are beginning to mandate significant amounts of storage, and battery innovations, as the subject of wide and intense research for the burgeoning electric vehicle market as well as for energy storage at every level from the home to the grid, are inevitable (who knows exactly what and when… maybe Don Sadoway’s liquid metal battery).
  • “In Germany, all this variability can cause serious disruptions in electricity flow for some neighboring countries.” Not so much, as Smil would know if he’d kept up with Amory Lovins’ work (see above) instead of disparaging him.
  • “Governments should not offer large subsidies or loan guarantees … exemplified by Solyndra …” Solyndra! Two years after Solyndra went under, some form of “solar equals Solyndra” or “the death of Solyndra means the death of solar” seems to be a go-to rant for every anti-solar partisan. When Smil proclaims Solyndra reveals the dangers of the government picking winners, he joins the crowd of anti-solar, anti-government partisans who can’t seem to understand that the DOE loan guarantee program performed better than silicon valley venture capital firms at picking winners.
  • “… prices of all forms of energy should reflect as much as possible, the real costs, which include both the immediate and the long-term environmental and health impacts of creating that energy.” This is absolutely valid, and in fact is the reason we must shift off fossil fuels as fast as economically practicable. But instead of pursuing the straightforward carbon-impact logic, Smil shifts to sophistry, saying, “The impacts range from greenhouse gases and black carbon from burning fossil fuels … to the cost of a high-voltage supergrid to link far-flung wind and solar farms.” That is, he is implicitly equating the impact of burning gigatons of carbon with the “impact” of upgrading the US grid infrastructure. Infuriating.

I will give Smil credit for promoting energy efficiency as the most important way to speed the path to renewables. Though his article is fraught with deceptions and half-truths, it will truly be very difficult to ramp up renewables as fast as we need to, and fast-payback efforts to reduce energy demand will be key. It’s too bad Smil didn’t point to Lovins’ great Reinventing Fire which so clearly and carefully shows us how to do exactly that.


One thought on “Vaclav Smil on Renewables in Scientific American – a Rebuttal

  1. Great comeback to a very deceptive article. I hope you have sent this as a letter to Scientific American. I agree with Vaclav Smil on one thing: that a continental-scale supergrid is essential to make non-dispatchable renewables work at the lowest aggregate cost. I have been upset with wind & solar energy project developers for not advocating for the supergrid; I think I know why they have not: until recently, a supergrid would imply lots of new overhead lines, or else a great leap into a superconducting grid (a great concept, but not ready for prime time). I recognized this problem a long time ago, and have devoted myself to inventing/developing high capacity underground electric pipelines of a new design, “elpipes,” which are sort of a mash-up of a powerline, a pipeline, and a train. Elpipes enable a robust and underground HVDC grid.

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