Vaclav Smil is a historian of technical advances — particularly in the field of energy — and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Over the years, Smil has written more than 25 books and many dozens of articles. In recent years he has been examining human uses of energy over past millennia. As Smil says [PDF], “My firm belief is that looking far ahead is done most profitably by looking far back.”
His first conclusion [PDF] is that energy systems change very slowly. The modern world today relies on machines that were invented in the 1880s — the steam turbine, the internal combustion engine, plus thermal and hydropower for making electricity. These were supplemented in the 1930s and ’40s by gas turbines and nuclear fission power. The photovoltaic solar cell for converting sunlight directly into electricity was theorized in 1839 but not actually created until 1954 — and today, 54 years later, solar photovoltaic power remains a minuscule contributor to the world’s energy needs.
From the stone age until the 1890s, humans relied mainly on biofuels. But Smil examines carefully, then dismisses, th... Read more