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Is Vaclav Smil a Pessimist or Voice of Uncomfortable Truths?

06/01/2015 10:25 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Last week a mantra (by some) stood out to me: that Vaclav Smil is a "pessimist" because of his recent article titled "Revolution? More like a Crawl". Admittedly, the title doesn't reek of optimism, but the article itself fully acknowledges the advances being made in today's energy landscape, yet refrains from turning that reality into an overhyped, oversimplified narrative of solving climate change, which too many lazily fall into the trap of doing in my opinion. The thing is, say what you will about Smil, he knows his stuff and comes with an awful lot of evidence to support his ideas.

Now, according to Websters, a pessimist is a person who habitually sees or anticipates the worst or is disposed to be gloomy. But Smil's views in this piece (and in general, I find) are based on extremely deep analysis, this time around energy transitions -- globally, as well as for the world's major economies (U.S., China, Japan, Russia, U.K., France) -- covering a 150-year period.

Without fail, he finds that energy transitions -- the time it takes for an energy source to move from 5 percent of the market to larger shares like 25-30 percent -- take decades of gradual penetration. That's decades. In other words, this isn't just grumpy, gloomy opinion stuff. With good reason (and data to back it up), Smil shines a positive light on the transitions currently happening, but bluntly challenges leaders who tout "quick and transformative changes" that can happen in a matter of years because, to date, they haven't. So it's pretty sensible to conclude they won't:

Undoubtedly, the U.S. is experiencing two notable energy transitions, from coal to natural gas and from fossil fuels to new renewables in electricity generation. These shifts are welcome because they promise to bring cleaner and less carbon-intensive supplies. But they cannot be rapid, and they bring their own technical, economic and social challenges. Energy infrastructure is the world's most elaborate and expensive, and the longevity and inertia of many large energy enterprises make it impossible for any large, complex national system (to say nothing of the global level) to reconfigure itself even in three or four decades.

The timing is good on this because, of late, the heightened enthusiasm around solar and wind has gotten almost comical at times. I'm as excited as the next person for their progress because I want the climate problem fixed, but we can't just drop everything else because renewables alone are here to save the day.

Electricity generation by new renewables has been growing fastest, but it is far from taking over ... the contribution of new renewables (wind and solar) to the country's total primary energy consumption (including all industrial and transportation fuels) remains very modest: it rose from just 0.1 percent in the year 2000 to 1 percent in 2010 and to 2.2 percent in 2014.

Cue the "but battery storage will change all that" choir. I'm going to move beyond Smil's researched conclusion that battery storage's progress "will be, as it has been, slow and incremental" to one of solar energy's biggest advocates, Jigar Shah, who lays out a long list of questions and challenges storage faces to be taken seriously as the answer to the world's energy problems. Shah admits he doesn't have the answers, but says somebody needs to if storage is going to attract the level of funding needed to thrive and grow.

Furthering the energy systems challenge dialogue is Jesse Jenkins and Alex Trembath with their recent in-depth article "A Look at Wind and Solar, Part 2: Is There An Upper Limit To Variable Renewables?" The answer, they find, is very much yes, mainly because of supply and demand. By delving into capacity factor ("it is increasingly difficult for the market share of variable renewable energy sources at the system-wide level to exceed the capacity factor of the energy source"), the authors conclude: "It's clear that wind and solar alone will come far short of decarbonizing the electricity system, let alone the full energy sector." Their work continues to illustrate just how painstakingly complicated this stuff can be. The bottom line? Ease and energy systems do not go hand in hand. Therefore, speed and energy transitions don't either.

Which takes me full circle to why I wrote this piece. Is it pessimistic, really, to present an in-depth roadmap about where we've been before as a kind of context to potentially help us make smarter choices looking ahead, particularly as we stare down the barrel of an issue that has way more question marks than it does answers? I'd think we'd want every bit of rigorous research we can get our hands on because of the vast uncertainties and potentially massive consequences we face. Unlike some of the snarky comments I read that Smil simply gets off on being negative, I believe his good intentions when he writes: "Accepting this reality is essential in order to chart a path for lasting progress: sensible policies cannot be built on mistaken beliefs or on wishful thinking."

I, for one, remain optimistic we can tackle this hairy issue if we stay hungry for hard-to-digest information like Smil's. I believe his findings, as well as the others, further the case we've got to keep fervently working to advance all of the zero carbon technologies because nothing's a sure thing and because history has shown us time and time again that transitions are really hard and really slow. Satirist H.L. Mencken once said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." Let's make sure satire doesn't morph into reality on this one because, put bluntly, we're not getting where we need to go anywhere near fast enough.