Around the world, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy appears to finally be under way. Renewables were first promoted in the 1960s and 1970s as a way for people to get closer to nature and for countries to achieve energy independence. Only recently have people come to see adopting them as crucial to preventing global warming. And only in the last ten years has the proliferation of solar and wind farms persuaded much of the public that such a transition is possible. In December 2014, 78 percent of respondents to a large global survey by Ipsos agreed with the statement “In the future, renewable energy sources will be able to fully replace fossil fuels.”
Toward the end of his sweeping new history, Energy and Civilization, Vaclav Smil appears to agree. But Smil, one of the world’s foremost experts on energy, stresses that any transition to renewables would take far longer than its most ardent proponents acknowledge. Humankind, Smil recounts, has experienced three major energy transitions: from wood and dung to coal, then to oil, and then to natural gas. Each took an extremely long time, and none is yet complete. Nearly two billion people still rely on wood and dung for heating and cooking. “Although the sequence of the three substitutions does not mean that the fourth transition, now in its earliest stage (with fossil fuels being replaced by new conversions of renewable energy flows), will proceed at a similar pace,” Smil writes, “the odds are highly in favor of another protracted process.”
In 2015, even after decades of heavy government subsidies, solar and wind power provided only 1.8 percent of global energy. To complete the transition, renewables would need to both supply the world’s electricity and replace fossil fuels used in transportation and in the manufacture of common materials, such as cement, plastics, and ammonia. Smil expresses his exasperation at “techno-optimists [who] see a future of unlimited energy, whether from superefficient [photovoltaic] cells or from nuclear fusion.” Such
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