New energy: climate change and sustainability shape a new era
A new energy revolution – similar to shifts from wood to coal to oil – is inevitable as climate change and oil scarcity drive a global search for sustainability in power production. But even the promise of renewable energy holds drawbacks.
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NO OVERNIGHT BOOMSkip to next paragraph
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Unlike the gold rush that spawned an overnight boom, America's first commercial oil well caused hardly a ripple. Sunk in 1859 in Titusville, Pa., it cranked on for years before oil became a big player in American energy.
Adopting renewable energies will also take more time than people realize. In 2008 Al Gore announced his Repower America plan to transition the US to renewable fuels within 10 years. Google and T. Boone Pickens proposed similar quick-action plans.
Smil doesn't see much realism here. He has studied a dozen energy transitions that occurred since 1800, including those from steam engines to gasoline and diesel engines, from wood and charcoal to coal, and the adoption of oil and natural gas.
"It's a very long process," he says. "It takes decades – 30, 40, or 50 years."
Consider oil: It was cleaner-burning than coal, contained 60 percent more energy per ounce, and offered unmatched precision for controlling engines.
But from that first commercial oil well in 1859, oil took 45 years to gain just 5 percent market share against coal, and 40 years more to gain a third of the market. That snail-like pace stemmed from the need to build refineries, railroads, pipelines, and eventually filling stations – plus a fleet of autos and ships to use the fuel. Meanwhile, the US built coal-powered Liberty-class transport ships for Britain early in World War II – even though these steam engines were half as efficient as diesel engines.
Smil believes that the transition to renewables could take even longer. It will mean replacing a fossil fuel infrastructure that took 150 years to build and is valued at $15 trillion worldwide and $2 trillion in the US. That would be heavy political lifting, considering government debt and the uproar sparked by the $787 billion stimulus bill in 2009.
"It's simply a [matter of] scale," says Smil. "We're talking about massive new investments."