Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion

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Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion

Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion

By Vaclav Smil
<> From the
Magazine: Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Filed under: Big Ideas <>

Today's talk of a quick transition away from fossil fuels will prove to be
blowing in the wind.

During the early 1970s we were told by the promoters of nuclear energy
that by the year 2000 America's coal-based electricity generation plants
would be relics of the past and that all electricity would come from
nuclear fission. What's more, we were told that the first generation
fission reactors would by then be on their way out, replaced by
super-efficient breeder reactors that would produce more fuel than they
were initially charged with.

During the early 1980s some aficionados of small-scale, distributed,
"soft" (today's "green") energies saw America of the first decade of the
21st century drawing 30 percent to 50 percent of its energy use from
renewables (solar,wind, biofuels). For the past three decades we have
been told how natural gas will become the most important source of
modern energy: widely cited forecasts of the early 1980s had the world
deriving half of its energy from natural gas by 2000. And a decade ago
the promoters of fuel cell cars were telling us that such vehicles would
by now be on the road in large numbers, well on their way to displacing
ancient and inefficient internal combustion engines.

These are the realities of 2008: coal-fired power plants produce half of
all U.S. electricity, nuclear stations 20 percent, and there is not a
single commercial breeder reactor operating anywhere in the world; in
2007 the United States derives about 1.7 percent of its energy from new
renewable conversions (corn-based ethanol, wind, photovoltaic solar,
geothermal); natural gas supplies about 24 percent of the world's
commercial energy-less than half the share predicted in the early 1980s
and still less than coal with nearly 29 percent; and there are no
fuel-cell cars.

This list of contrasts could be greatly extended, but the point is made:
all of these forecasts and anticipations failed miserably because their
authors and promoters ignored one of the most important realities ruling
the behavior of complex energy systems-the inherently slow pace of
energy transitions.

It is delusional to think that the United States can install in
10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to that of
thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct.

"Energy transitions" encompass the time that elapses between an
introduction of a new primary energy source oil, nuclear electricity,
wind captured by large turbines) and its rise to claiming a substantial
share (20 percent to 30 percent) of the overall market, or even to
becoming the single largest contributor or an absolute leader (with more
than 50 percent) in national or global energy supply. The term also
refers to gradual diffusion of new prime movers, devices that replaced
animal and human muscles by converting primary energies into mechanical
power that is used to rotate massive turbogenerators producing
electricity or to propel fleets of vehicles, ships, and airplanes. There
is one thing all energy transitions have in common: they are prolonged
affairs that take decades to accomplish, and the greater the scale of
prevailing uses and conversions the longer the substitutions will take.
The second part of this statement seems to be a truism but it is ignored
as often as the first part: otherwise we would not have all those
unrealized predicted milestones for new energy sources.

Preindustrial societies had rather simple and fairly stationary patterns
of primary energy use. They relied overwhelmingly on biomass fuels
(wood, charcoal, straw) for heat and they supplemented their dominant
prime movers(muscles) with wind to sail ships and in some regions with
windmills and small waterwheels. This traditional arrangement prevailed
in Europe and the Americas until the beginning of the 19th century, and
it dominated most of Asia and Africa until the middle of the 20th
century. The year 1882 was likely the tipping point of the transition to
fossil fuels, the time when the United States first burned more coal
than wood. The best available historical reconstructions indicate that
it was only sometime during the late 1890s that the energy content of
global fossil fuel consumption, nearly all of it coal, came to equal the
energy content of wood, charcoal, and crop residues.

The Western world then rapidly increased its reliance on fossil fuels
and hydroelectricity, but in large parts of Africa and Asia the grand
energy transition from traditional biomass fuels to fossil fuels has yet
to be completed. Looking only at modern primary energies on a global
scale, coal receded from about 95 percent of the total energy supply in
1900 to about 60 percent by 1950 and less than 24 percent by 2000. But
coal's importance continued to rise in absolute terms, and in 2001 it
even began to regain some of its relative importance. As a result, coal
is now relatively more important in 2008 (nearly 29 percent of primary
energy) than it was at the time of the first energy "crisis" in 1973
(about 27 percent). And in absolute terms it now supplies twice as much
energy as it did in 1973: the world has been returning to coal rather
than leaving it behind.

These are the realities of 2008: coal-fired power plants produce
50 percent of U.S.electricity, nuclear stations 20 percent, and there
are no operating commercial breeder reactors.

Although oil became the largest contributor to the world's commercial
energy supply in 1965 and its share reached 48 percent by 1973, its
relative importance then began to decline and in 2008 it will claim less
than 37 percent of the total. Moreover, worldwide coal extraction during
the 20th century contained more energy than any other fuel, edging out
oil by about 5 percent. The common perception that the 19th century was
dominated by coal and the 20th century by oil is wrong: in global terms,
the 19th century was still a part of the millennia-long wooden era and
20th century was, albeit by a small margin, the coal century. And while
many African and Asian countries use no coal, the fuel remains
indispensable: it generates 40 percent of the world's electricity,
nearly 80 percent of all energy in South Africa (that continent's most
industrialized nation), 70 percent of China's, and about 50 percent of

The pace of the global transition from coal to oil can be judged from
the following spans: it took oil about 50 years since the beginning of
its commercial production during the 1860s to capture 10 percent of the
global primary energy market, and then almost exactly 30 years to go
from 10 percent to about 25 percent of the total. Analogical spans for
natural gas are almost identical: approximately 50 years and 40 years.
Regarding electricity, hydrogeneration began in 1882, the same year as
Edison's coal-fired generation, and just before World War I water power
produced about 50 percent of the world's electricity; subsequent
expansion of absolute production could not prevent a large decline in
water's relative contribution to about 17 percent in 2008. Nuclear
fission reached 10 percent of global electricity generation 27 years
after the commissioning of the first nuclear power plant in 1956, and
its share is now roughly the same as that of hydropower.

These spans should be kept in mind when appraising potential rates of
market penetration by nonconventional fossilfuels or by renewable
energies. No less important is the fact that none of these alternatives
has yet reached even 5 percent of its respective global market.
Nonconventional oil, mainly from Alberta oil sands and from Venezuelan
tar deposits, now supplies only about 3 percent of the world's crude oil
and only about 1 percent of all primary energy. Renewable
conversions-mainly liquid biofuels from Brazil, the United States, and
Europe, and wind-powered electricity generation in Europe and North
America, with much smaller contributions from geothermal and
photovoltaic solar electricity generation-now provide about 0.5 percent
of the world's primary commercial energy, and in 2007 wind generated
merely 1 percent of all electricity.

The absolute quantities needed to capture a significant share of the
market, say 25 percent, are huge because the scale of the coming global
energy transition is of an unprecedented magnitude. By the late 1890s,
when combustion of coal (and some oil) surpassed the burning of wood,
charcoal, and straw, these resources supplied annually an equivalent of
about half a billion tons of oil. Today, replacing only half of
worldwide annual fossil fuel use with renewable energies would require
the equivalent of about 4.5 billion tons of oil. That's a task equal to
creating de novo an energy industry with an output surpassing that of
the entire world oil industry-an industry that has taken more than a
century to build.

The scale of transition needed for electricity generation is perhaps
best illustrated by deconstructing Al Gore's July 2008 proposal to
"re-power" America: "Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing
100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean
carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable,
affordable, and transformative."

Nuclear fission reached 10 percent of global electricity
generation 27 years after the commissioning of the first nuclear power

Let's see. In 2007 the country had about 870 gigawatts (GW) of
electricity-generating capacity in fossil-fueled and nuclear stations,
the two nonrenewable forms of generation that Gore wants to replace in
their entirety. On average,these thermal power stations are at work
about 50 percent of the time and hence they generated about 3.8 PWh
(that is, 3.8 x 1015 watt-hours) of electricity in 2007. In contrast,
wind turbines work on average only about 23 percent of the time, which
means that even with all the requisite new high-voltage
interconnections, slightly more than two units of wind-generating
capacity would be needed to replace a unit in coal, gas, oil, and
nuclear plants. And even if such an enormous capacity addition-in excess
of 1,000 GW-could be accomplished in a single decade (since the year
2000, actual additions in all plants have averaged less than 30
GW/year!), the financial cost would be enormous: it would mean writing
off the entire fossil-fuel and nuclear generation industry, an
enterprise whose power plants alone have a replacement value of at least
$1.5 trillion (assuming at least $1,700/installed kW), and spending at
least $2.5 trillion to build the new capacity.

But because those new plants would have to be in areas that are not
currently linked with high-voltage (HV)transmission lines to major
consumption centers (wind from the Great Plains to the East and West
coasts,photovoltaic solar from the Southwest to the rest of the
country), that proposal would also require a rewiring of the country.
Limited transmission capacity to move electricity eastward and westward
from what is to be the new power center in the Southwest, Texas, and the
Midwest is already delaying new wind projects even as wind generates
less than 1 percent of all electricity. The United States has about
165,000 miles of HV lines, and at least 40,000 additional miles of new
high-capacity lines would be needed to rewire the nation, at a cost of
close to $100 billion. And the costs are bound to escalate, because the
regulatory approval process required before beginning a new line
construction can take many years. To think that the United States can
install in 10 years wind and solar generating capacity equivalent to
that of thermal power plants that took nearly 60 years to construct is

And energy transitions from established prime movers to new converters
also take place across time spans measured in decades, not in a decade.
Steam engines, whose large-scale commercial diffusion began with James
Watt's improved design introduced during the 1770s, remained important
into the middle of the 20th century. There is no more convincing example
of their endurance than the case of Liberty ships, the "ships that won
the war" as they carried American materiel and troops to Europe and Asia
between 1942 and 1945. Rudolf Diesel began to develop his highly
efficient internal combustion engine in 1892 and his prototype engine
was ready by 1897. The first small ship engines were installed on
river-going vessels in 1903, and the first oceangoing ship with Diesel
engines was launched in 1911. By 1939 a quarter of the world's merchant
fleet was propelled by these engines and virtually every new freighter
had them. But nearly 3,000 Liberty ships were still powered by oil-fired
steam engines. And steam locomotives disappeared from American railroads
only by the late 1950s, while in China and India they were indispensable
even during the 1980s.

A decade ago the promoters of fuel-cell cars were telling us
that such vehicles would by now be on the road in large numbers.

Automobilization offers similar examples of gradual diffusion, and the
adoption of automotive diesel engines is another excellent proof of slow
transition. The gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine-the most
important transportation prime mover of the modern world-was first
deployed by Benz, Maybach, and Daimler during the mid-1880s, and it
reached a remarkable maturity in a single generation after its
introduction (Ford's Model T in 1908).

But massive automobilization swept the United States only during the
1920s and Europe and Japan only during the 1960s, a process amounting to
spans of at least 30 to 40 years in the U.S. case and 70 to 80 years in
the European case between the initial introduction and decisive market
conquest (with more than half of all families having a car). The first
diesel-powered car (Mercedes-Benz 260D) was made in 1936, but it was
only during the 1990s that diesels began to claim more than 15 percent
of the new car market in major EU countries, and only during this decade
that they began to account for more than a third of all newly sold cars.
Once again, roughly half a century had to elapse between the initial
introduction and significant market penetration.

And despite the fact that diesels have been always inherently more
efficient than gasoline-fueled engines (the difference is up to 35
percent) and that modern diesel-powered cars have very low particulate
and sulphur emissions, their share of the U.S. car market remains
negligible: in 2007 only 3 percent of newly sold cars were diesels.

And it has taken more than half a century for both gasoline- and
diesel-fueled internal combustion engines to displace agricultural draft
animals in industrialized countries: the U.S. Department of Agriculture
stopped counting draft animals only in 1963, and the process is yet to
be completed in many low-income nations.

Finally, when asked to name the world's most important continuously
working prime mover, most people would not name the steam turbine. The
machine was invented by Charles Parsons in 1884 and it remains
fundamentally unchanged 125 years later. Gradual advances in metallurgy
made it simply larger and more efficient and these machines now generate
more than 70 percent of the world's electricity in fossil-fueled and
nuclear stations (the rest comes from gas and water turbines as well as

There is no common underlying process to explain the gradual nature of
energy transitions. In the case of primary energy supply, the time span
needed for significant market penetration is mostly the function of
financing, developing, and perfecting necessarily massive and expensive
infrastructures. For example, the world oil industry annually handles
more than 30 billion barrels, or four billion tons, of liquids and
gases; it extracts the fuel in more than 100 countries and its
facilities range from self-propelled geophysical exploration rigs to
sprawling refineries, and include about 3,000 large tankers and more
than 300,000 miles of pipelines. Even if an immediate alternative were
available, writing off this colossal infrastructure that took more than
a century to build would amount to discarding an investment worth well
over $5 trillion-but it is quite obvious that its energy output could
not be replicated by any alternative in a decade or two.

Renewable conversions now provide about 0.5 percent of the
world's primary commercial energy, and in 2007 wind generated merely 1
percent of all electricity.

In the case of prime movers, the inertial nature of energy transitions
is often due to the reliance on a machine that may be less efficient,
such as a steam engine or gasoline-fueled engine, but whose marketing
and servicing are well established and whose performance quirks and
weaknesses are well known, as opposed to a superior converter that may
bring unexpected problems and setbacks. Predictability may, for a long
time, outweigh a potentially superior performance, and associated
complications (for example, high particulate emissions of early diesels)
and new supply-chain requirements (be it sufficient refinery capacity to
produce low-sulfur diesel fuel or the availability of filling stations
dispensing alternative liquids) may slow down the diffusion of new

All of these are matters of fundamental importance given the energy
challenges facing the United States and the world. New promises of rapid
shifts in energy sources and new anticipations of early massive gains
from the deployment of new conversion techniques create expectations
that will not be met and distract us from pursuing real solutions.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of these unrealistic calls, such as
the popular claim that America should seek to generate 30 percent of its
electricity supply from wind power by 2030.

And now Al Gore is telling us that the United States can completely
repower its electricity generation in a single decade! Gore has
succumbed to what I call "Moore's curse." Moore's Law describes a
long-standing trend in computer processing power, observed by Intel
cofounder Gordon Moore, whereby a computer's power doubles every year
and a half. This led Gore to claim that since "the price paid for the
same performance came down by 50 percent every 18 months, year after
year," something similar can happen with energy systems.

But the doubling of microprocessor performance every 18 months is an
atypically rapid case of technical innovation. It does not represent-as
the above examples of prime mover diffusion make clear-the norm of
technical advances as far as new energy sources and new prime movers are
concerned, and it completely ignores the massive infrastructural needs
of new modes of electricity generation.

The historical verdict is unassailable: because of the requisite
technical and infrastructural imperatives and because of numerous (and
often entirely unforeseen) socio-economic adjustments, energy
transitions in large economies and on a global scale are inherently
protracted affairs. That is why, barring some extraordinary commitments
and actions, none of the promises for greatly accelerated energy
transitions will be realized, and during the next decade none of the new
energy sources and prime movers will make a major difference by
capturing 20 percent to 25 percent of its respective market. A world
without fossil fuel combustion is highly desirable and, to be
optimistic, our collective determination, commitment, and persistence
could accelerate its arrival-but getting there will demand not only high
cost but also considerable patience: coming energy transitions will
unfold across decades, not years.

Vaclav Smil is the author of "Energy at the Crossroads" and "Energy in
Nature and Society" (MIT Press). He is Distinguished Professor at the
University of Manitoba.

firefly's picture
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 16 2008
Posts: 26
Re: Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion

Interesting article. Apart from describing the enormous scale of the
problem it shows that energy conservation and efficiency are of
greatest immediate importance. A significant increase in the price of gasoline years ago could have contributed in a number of ways. Given the current and developing economic situation such an increase would probably be too disruptive, which emphasises how delaying addressing such problems only exacerbates them.

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