Vaclav Smil Lecture on Energy Transitions — Notes

Sunday Newsletter
7 min readApr 6, 2020

In this lecture, energy expert Vaclav Smil gives a fantastic overview of where we get our energy from, and the rate at which our energy transition is taking place.

My notes and key takeaways are included below the video.

Vaclav Smil at Driva Climate Investment Meeting 2019

A few points to bear in mind before reading the notes below:

  • These notes do not necessarily reflect my views. I actually disagree with Smil on many issues, but I still think he is well worth listening to, and that just about every statistic that he cites is accurate.
  • Smil gave this presentation in 2019. Some of the stats may have changed slightly by now.


This is primarily a talk on energy transitions, and the difficulties we will face as we attempt to decarbonize.

Humanity initially derived the majority of its energy from biomass. It then transitioned to coal, which remained the dominant source of primary energy until midway through the 20th century, when it was replaced by oil.

At the moment, coal, oil, and natural gas account for approximately equal shares of our primary energy consumption.

Natural gas is more difficult to transport than oil, but other favorable characteristics have led to its current levels of widespread use.

In Smil’s opinion, peak oil is not coming any time soon. He states that the only reason we are attempting to decarbonize is to combat global warming. In my opinion, the public health burden associated with the combustion of fossil fuels is an equally valid reason for attempting to make the transition.

In 1991, humanity derived 91% of our primary energy from fossil fuels.

Primary energy is defined by Wikipedia as: “An energy form found in nature that has not been subjected to any human engineered conversion process. It is contained in raw fuels and other forms of input to a system (for example, solar radiation).”

Even as late as 2018, we still derived 89% of our primary energy from fossil fuels, despite huge amounts of investment in renewables. (Smil points out that some organizations have stated that this number has fallen to 80%, but that the disparity between results is due to the use of calculation methods that Smil feels are faulty.)

Key point: Either way, we are a fossil fueled civilization.

We derive a larger percentage of our electricity from fossil fuels now than we did in 1950. (Back then, hydroelectric accounted for a greater share of electricity production than it does today, and wind and solar were non-existent.)

An additional factor leading to the dominance of fossil fuels in electricity production is the extensive installation of coal and natural gas plants in China.

Since 1992 (about the time when governments started seriously discussing climate change) our annual carbon emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas have all significantly risen.

Modern society is often said to be built upon four pillars: steel, cement, ammonia (used for fertilizer), and plastics. The production of these materials is very energy intensive, and will be very difficult to decarbonize. Smil states that he will discuss the four pillars at greater length later on in the presentation. For now, he points out that the emissions from the production of the four pillars has risen consistently in the past decades and continues to rise.

Since 1992, net emissions from cars have also risen.

Key point: In the years since 1992, society has become more carbon intensive in virtually every significant sector. This intensification has taken place in spite of all the money that has been invested in decarbonization and greener technology.

In order to prevent more than 1.5 degrees of global warming, Smil states that we would have to adopt a trend that we lead to humanity going net zero by 2050. Unless a truly major breakthrough is made, this outcome is incredibly unlikely.

14:15 — Smil spends some time criticizing Germany’s Energiewende program, a large government effort to transition to renewable energy.

Despite spending around half a trillion dollars on the program, Germany’s emissions have fallen only 11% since its outset. During the same time period, America’s emissions fell by 12%, in the absence of any similar centralized decarbonization effort.

  • Smil credits much of America’s emissions reduction to the replacement of coal fired power plants with natural gas plants.
  • In Smil’s opinion, replacing coal plants with natural gas plants would be the best way for Western civilization to reduce its emissions. I don’t necessarily agree with this opinion but again, think it is worth bearing in mind.
  • Natural gas plants are better than coal plants at changing their electricity output in responses to change in load.

19:00 — Smil discusses Moore’s law, and how virtually no key metrics in the world of energy and efficiency follow the same growth trends.

For example, the rates of improvement in every metric below have never risen above 10% per year. In fact, most have never risen above 5% per year.

  • Steam turbine efficiency
  • Passenger car efficiency
  • Indoor lighting efficiency
  • The speed of intercontinental travel
  • The energy intensity of steel production (How much energy it takes to produce a unit of steel)
  • The energy intensity of ammonia production (Ammonia is a key ingredient in fertilizer)

Fossil fuels are divvied up for use in the following proportions

  • 20% are converted into electricity
  • 26% are used for transportation
  • 34% are used for household needs, such as heating, lighting, and other services
  • 9% are used for non-energy uses, such a lubrication

Decarbonizing electricity production will be far easier than decarbonizing the latter three major uses of fossil fuels

Although electric vehicles are certainly growing in numbers, they still account for a very small share of the total number of vehicles on the road

  • There are approximately 1.2 billion vehicles, 5.5 million of which are electric
  • (5,500,000 / 1,200,000,000)

At 23:54, Smil discusses market penetration of electric vehicles (These are the numbers presented in his slide)

  • Norway — 49.1% of new car sales were EVs (In 2018)
  • China — 4.2%
  • Canada — 2.2%
  • USA — 2.1%
  • Germany — 1.9%
  • Japan — 1.1%

At 25:40, Smil compares the world’s first large electric container ship (Yara Brikeland) to the world’l largest (as measured by cargo capacity) container ship (OOCL)

Yara Brikeland

  • Speed — 6 knots
  • Range — 30 nautical miles
  • Capacity 120 TEU (A measurement of storage capacity roughly approximate to the number of 22 foot shipping containers a ship can carry)


  • Speed — 25kn
  • Range — 12,000 nautical miles
  • Capacity 21,413 TEU

Key point: The energy density of batteries is still incredibly low.

  • Tesla batteries can store approximately 247 watts per kilogram
  • The best lithium ion batteries can currently store about 285 watts per kilogram (In 2018)
  • Diesel fuel on the other hand, contains approximately 13,750 watts per kilogram

In other words, to equal diesel, battery energy density must improve by a factor of 30x — 40x

28:00 — Smil presents a graph showing how battery energy density has been increasing over time

29:30 — Smil returns to discussion of the four pillars (ammonia, plastics, steel, cement)

  • The production of all four is rising significantly

Key term: Energy intensity. In this instance, it refers to the amount of energy it takes to produce something, expressed in units of energy per units of the thing being produced.

Energy intensity, in gigaojoules per ton, of the four pillars:

  • Primary steel — 20 GJ/ton
  • Cement — 4 GJ/ton
  • Ammonia — 30 GJ/ton
  • Plastics — 100 GJ/ton

Humanity’s yearly output of the four pillars, expressed in megatons per year

  • Primary steel — 20 GJ/ton
  • Cement — 4 GJ/ton
  • Ammonia — 30 GJ/ton
  • Plastics — 100 GJ/ton

The decarbonization of the four pillars is almost certainly going to be far more difficult than the decarbonization of the electricity and transportation sectors.

34:00 — Smil discusses the amount of fossil fuels / energy required for the production of wind turbines.

Shortly after, Smil discusses the efficiency of aviation.

  • There has been a 65% reduction in fuel consumption per person on commercial airliners since the 1960s
  • Unfortunately, the number of passenger kilometers has increased 20 fold in the same time period

38:00 — Smil states what he feels is the best way for humanity to decarbonize: Absolute cuts in per capita energy consumption, particularly in rich countries.

Examples of per capita energy consumption in various countries (Expressed in gigaojoules per year per capita)

  • USA — 295
  • Japan — 150
  • China — 90
  • Brazil — 60
  • India — 20
  • Nigeria — 5
  • Ethiopia — 2

Smil then discusses a frontrunner carbon capture company that promises to remove 1 million tons of CO2 per year. He then points out that we emit 37 billion tons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere.

  • 1,000,000 / 37,000,000,000
  • We would have to establish a carbon capture industry with infrastructure roughly equivalent in magnitude to the world’s current oil industry in order to remove just ten percent of our yearly carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Given that oil extraction is very profitable and carbon sequestration is not, the establishment of any such industry seems just about impossible.

Smil feels that combatting excessive consumption is the best way to decarbonize.

In the 1950s, the average American house was about 100 square meters. Today, the average American house is 2500 square meters.

Between 40 and 50 percent of the food we grow is wasted.

To reduce consumption, Smil recommends “hitting the people on the pocket” in other words, raising the prices on foods and energy, presumably through taxation.

Audience questions begin at 43:45.



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