Sunday, January 11, 2009

no quick fixes...,

GlobeandMail | In November, The New York Times asked a number of prominent energy experts to assess president-elect Barack Obama's chances of ending American dependence on imported oil. Vaclav Smil, the prolific environmental thinker at the University of Manitoba - he's written 25 books - was one of these experts. The only way that Mr. Obama could significantly advance this objective, he said, would be with the help "of a deep and lasting recession." Otherwise, he said, "there will be precious little of any rapid change." As for Mr. Obama's promise to enact a cap-and-trade regime to discourage the use of fossil fuels, "it will only further cripple America's industries."

Why so bleak, Prof. Smil?

"Energy systems are inherently inertial," Prof. Smil said. "Energy transitions take decades to accomplish. Anyone who expects Mr. Obama to transform the world will be disappointed [and] the degree of disappointment that must follow such naiveté will be phenomenal."

Prof. Smil expands on these blunt judgments in the December issue of The American, the business magazine published by the American Enterprise Institute, where he describes in precise detail the time-consuming process of "energy transition." He notes that humans relied almost exclusively on biomass for millennia - wood, charcoal, straw, supplemented everywhere by muscle and here and there by wind (sail) and waterwheel.

In many parts of the world, Prof. Smil notes, humans still relied on these ancient energy sources until the middle of the 20th century - "and in large parts of Africa and Asia the grand energy transition from biomass fuels to fossil fuels has yet to be completed." He identifies 1882 as "the tipping point" in the United States, the year in which Americans first burned more coal than wood. But the global "tipping point" didn't occur until the turn of the century.