Friday, March 23, 2018

Meet The Guy Who Taught Bill Gates About Energy

We are fans, more after the jump.
The only other person I can think of who was as clear-eyed about the subject was David J.C. MacKay, more on him after the jump as well.

From the journal Science, March 21:

Meet Vaclav Smil, the man who has quietly shaped how the world thinks about energy
As a teenager in the 1950s, Vaclav Smil spent a lot of time chopping wood. He lived with his family in a remote town in what was then Czechoslovakia, nestled in the mountainous Bohemian Forest. On walks he could see the Hohenbogen, a high ridge in neighboring West Germany; less visible was the minefield designed to prevent Czechs from escaping across the border. Then it was back home, splitting logs every 4 hours to stoke the three stoves in his home, one downstairs and two up. Thunk. With each stroke his body, fueled by goulash and grain, helped free the sun's energy, transiently captured in the logs. Thunk. It was repetitive and tough work. Thunk. It was clear to Smil that this was hardly an efficient way to live.

Throughout his career, Smil, perhaps the world's foremost thinker on energy of all kinds, has sought clarity. From his home office near the University of Manitoba (UM) in Winnipeg, Canada, the 74-year-old academic has churned out dozens of books over the past 4 decades. They work through a host of topics, including China's environmental problems and Japan's dietary transition from plants to meat. The prose is dry, and they rarely sell more than a few thousand copies. But that has not prevented some of the books—particularly those exploring how societies have transitioned from relying on one source of energy, such as wood, to another, such as coal—from profoundly influencing generations of scientists, policymakers, executives, and philanthropists. One ardent fan, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in Redmond, Washington, claims to have read nearly all of Smil's work. "I wait for new Smil books," Gates wrote last December, "the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie."

Now, as the world faces the daunting challenge of trying to curb climate change by weaning itself from fossil fuels, Smil's work on energy transitions is getting more attention than ever. But his message is not necessarily one of hope. Smil has forced climate advocates to reckon with the vast inertia sustaining the modern world's dependence on fossil fuels, and to question many of the rosy assumptions underlying scenarios for a rapid shift to alternatives. "He's a slayer of bullshit," says David Keith, an energy and climate scientist at Harvard University.
Give Smil 5 minutes and he'll pick apart one cherished scenario after another. Germany's solar revolution as an example for the world to follow? An extraordinarily inefficient approach, given how little sunlight the country receives, that hasn't reduced that nation's reliance on fossil fuels. Electric semitrailers? Good for little more than hauling the weight of their own batteries. Wind turbines as the embodiment of a low-carbon future? Heavy equipment powered by oil had to dig their foundations, Smil notes, and kilns fired with natural gas baked the concrete. And their steel towers, gleaming in the sun? Forged with coal.

"There's a lot of hopey-feely going on in the energy policy community," says David Victor, an expert on international climate policy at the University of California, San Diego. And Smil "revels in the capability to show those falsehoods."

But Smil is not simply a naysayer. He accepts the sobering reality of climate change—though he is dubious of much climate modeling—and believes we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. He has tried to reduce his own carbon footprint, building an energy-efficient home and adopting a mostly vegetarian diet. He sees his academic work as offering a cleareyed, realistic assessment of the challenges ahead—not as a justification for inaction. And he says he has no ax to grind. "I have never been wrong on these major energy and environmental issues," he says, "because I have nothing to sell."

Despite Smil's reach—some of the world's most powerful banks and bureaucrats routinely ask for his advice—he has remained intensely private. Other experts tap dance for attention and pursue TED talks. But Smil is a throwback, largely letting his books speak for themselves. He loathes speaking to the press (and opened up to Science only out of a sense of duty to The MIT Press, his longtime publisher). "I really don't think I have anything special to say," he says. "It's out there if you want to know it."...MUCH MORE
HT:  FT Alphaville's Further Reading post, March 22

Back in 2012 GMO's Jeremy Grantham was warning about the impending civilization-destroying shortage of fertilizers, specifically phosphorus and potash. His argument was published in the journal Nature, just about as prestigious a platform as one is likely to mount, save maybe Proceedings of the Royal Society—A, but that's for physics and engineering. Anyhoo. Mr. Grantham said the world was going to run out but that is not the way commodities work. A commodity's price will ration supply to the highest use (although in cases like corn the allocation function is distorted by government ethanol policies). Additionally, price will incentivize both increased production and substitution.

To date the only commodity the world has run out of is, oddly enough, a fertilizer in the form of guano. We were pretty close on whale oil before Mr. Rockefeller's mass production of kerosene saved the whales. And then there's menhaden but that's a whole 'nother story.
If we are going to run out of anything in the foreseeable future it is probably helium and because of that, in the spirit of conservation, I no longer say "That's as funny as three helium atoms, HeHeHe"

The fert fight starred in a couple posts including "Vaclav Smil Takes on Jeremy Grantham Over Peak Fertilizer" in which our hero came out swinging from the opening bell:
We posted the whole of Mr. Grantham's Nov. 15 Nature piece for fear it would go behind Nature's paywall.
To date it hasn't. Also to date I haven't come through on my assurance in Nov. 24ths "Jeremy Grantham "On the Road to Zero Growth" as His Co-head of Asset Allocation Does the Full Monty". I promise I'll get to it.

We have almost as many posts on Professor Smil as we do on Mr. Grantham. This is the first time they've been together. I feel very uncomfortable being on the opposite side of Mr. G on just about anything but in this case Smil is right.
From The American:
Jeremy Grantham, Starving for Facts
 A column by legendary asset manager Jeremy Grantham is more suitable for the tabloids than for one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific weekly magazines....MORE.
Some of our posts on Mr. Smil:
Vaclav Smil: Planet of the Cows
Our readers may know Mr. Smil as a big deal in the Thinking-about-Energy biz. Here he is thinking about bovines....
...Previous Smil at Spectrum:
Vaclav Smil: "Advanced Economies Must Still Make Things"
Vaclav Smil: "Cellphones as a fifth-order elaboration of Maxwell’s theory"
Calories In, Kilowatts Out: Apparently Sweating Is Important
"Happy Birthday to Moore’s Law" (plus party pooper Vaclav Smil)
And non-Spectrum Smil:
Vaclav Smil On Energy: "Revolution? More like a crawl"
Bill Gates on The Most Astounding Statistic In Vaclav Smil's New Book

Bill Gates Summer Reading List (Vaclav Smil has two entries)
Energy--'Vaclav Smil is Correct: Never Forecast'
Energy: "The man who’s tutoring Bill Gates … "
Vaclav Smil: "In energy matters, what goes around, comes around—but perhaps should go away"
Vaclav Smil: "The Manufacturing of Decline"
Serious Thinking on Energy: An Interview With Dr. Vaclav Smil
A Major Piece: "Why the tech revolution isn’t a template for an energy revolution"
Bill Gates Reviews Vaclav Smil's "Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines"
The other genius level thinker about energy died a couple years ago this April: 
Energy and Artificial Intelligence Expert Professor Sir David J.C. MacKay Has Died, Age 48 
When people want to talk with me about energy I usually start by asking if they have read his book yet.
It's a really good book, see the links in the above story if interested.

And if you don't read his book, you have no excuse. He put it on the internet for free download.