Fueling efficiency, not finding new fuels.

Are we wasting our time and resources researching and developing unfeasible solutions? Will anything come out of our investments in biofuels and other alternatives? Would simply cutting down on our energy wastage and becoming more energy-efficient be a better solution?

Justin Gill
New York Times

One of the world’s great minds on issues of energy use, food production and the connection between them is a fellow named Vaclav Smil, of the University of Manitoba. Bill Gates reads him. He is No. 49 on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the top 100 global thinkers.  Dr. Smil is just out with a fresh essay on energy, this time criticizing what he calls “the latest infatuations” in the field, like biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, electric cars, and so on.

He is by no means a coal-and-oil-forever kind of guy; Dr. Smil believes the world must, and eventually will, convert to solar power, since it is the only renewable energy flux big enough to sustain human civilization. His main point in the new piece is not so much that researching energy alternatives is bad, but that rich countries, especially the United States and Canada, are guilty of focusing on these shiny, high-technology solutions, which he believes are not ready for prime time, while displaying an “astonishing unwillingness to adopt many readily available and highly effective existing fixes.”

He means greater efficiency in the use of the energy supplies we already have, of course. His argument to some degree echoes the work of other thinkers who have long argued that we waste enormous amounts of energy simply because we will not invest enough capital up front in more efficient ways of doing things, investments that would save us money in the long run by cutting energy bills.

Dr. Smil brings the point home by noting that the United States and Canada use about twice as much energy, per person, as the citizens of European countries and Japan — “but, obviously, Pittsburghers or Angelenos are not twice as rich, twice as healthy, twice as educated, twice as secure or twice as happy as inhabitants of Bordeaux or Berlin.”

His main example of waste is the North American automotive fleet, which gets not much more than half the mileage per gallon as the European fleet.Indeed, Dr. Smil has been mocking the American penchant for sport-utility vehicles for years. One could make similar points about energy efficiency in buildings and factories, as the Obama administration has been trying to do with mixed success.

After making his case about waste, Dr. Smil then walks through the various ideas that have captured attention lately, and argues that most of them will make little contribution to our energy problems, at least in the next few decades. But he also finds some cause for hope: North American energy use per person is not rising. It has essentially been flat for decades, since the oil crises of the 1970s.

How hard could it be, Dr. Smil asks, to turn that flat line into a downward-sloping line, without anybody in the United States or Canada really feeling any pain?

In fact, with past support from Congress, the Bush and Obama administrations have already adopted efficiency standards for new cars, ending decades of inaction on that issue. With gasoline prices rising again, the market is pulling even as the government is pushing. If that automotive policy survives political attack in the new Congress, and if corporations continue to pursue their stated goals of reducing energy consumption, it is not out of the question that total North American energy use could start edging downward even as the population continues to grow.

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