Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, recently published Vaclav Smil‘s article which takes a critical look at alternative energy promises and realities. This is worth reading line by line in its entirety, so let me just quote one thing that ought to whet a thinking reader’s appetite.
It takes several lifetimes to put a new energy system into place, and wishful thinking can’t speed things along.
Smil does not dismiss alternative energy sources. But he does point out the extraordinary difficulties involved in rapid conversion of entire societies to new energy sources, many of which are not just new but also insufficiently mature to be technologically and economically feasible. These difficulties are too often incompletely understood, or merely dismissed or hidden, by promoters of alternative energies. As examples, Smil cites Al Gore’s 2008 plan to wean the entire U.S. off fossil fuel energy in just a decade. Somewhat less ambitious was Google’s 2008 plan to completely cut out coal generation in the U.S. by 2030. The most expansive of such plans was a 2009 plan by Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of UC Davis to convert the energy economy of the entire world to “renewable” sources by 2030.
Smil next targets the role of governments and subsidies in developing novel technologies and energy sources. Again, he does not condemn government involvement and subsidies as such. After all, much of the development of nuclear energy around the world has been backed by government research and seed money. What he does point out that is the ready availability of subsidy money tends to obscure the real costs of new technological developments. Ideological zeal compounds the problem by obscuring or ignoring technological difficulties, using “creative” accounting and dismissing all criticism. And so, when reality sets in and the real costs and the technological limitations become clear, governments begin to throttle back on subsidies. At that point, alternative energy houses of cards begin to teeter and, as always, ordinary taxpayers are left to pick up the sometimes extravagant tab for the folly of well-heeled zealots. The most recent example of this is Germany, whose energy travails are well documented in Smil’s article.
Which, to me, is a very great pity because it gives science and technology an undeserved black eye and promotes distrust in new research and development.