Energy Myths and Realities
Expert Warns about the Dangers of Not Separating Fact from Fiction in the Energy Policy Debate

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 2010

MYTH: New energy sources and technical innovations will eliminate the need for fossil fuels within a few decades.
REALITY: Comprehensive energy transitions take several generations.

MYTH: Carbon sequestration (that is, capturing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere and storing it) is the solution to global climate change.
REALITY: Because of its costs, technical challenges, and problems with social acceptance, carbon sequestration will not be able to prevent further substantial rise in carbon emissions.

MYTH: Electric cars will replace conventional cars in the near future.
REALITY: Electric cars are expensive, their adoption rate will be slow, and internal combustion engines will dominate the market for decades to come.

These are just a few of the misconceptions about the future of global energy often presented as facts in everyday political discourse, explains energy scientist Vaclav Smil. In his just-published Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate (AEI Press, 2010), Smil warns that while the propagation of these incorrect facts appears harmless, it is in fact hampering the development of effective new energy policies and wasting time and money which could be better used in pursuit of a constructive, scientific approach to the global energy challenge.

Among the many popular misconceptions about energy that Smil deconstructs:

  • The world will soon run out of oil. Although the share of conventional oil in the global energy supply will gradually decrease, liquid hydrocarbons will remain a major source of energy for decades to come.

  • Large-scale nuclear energy adoption will solve our energy challenge. No rational long-range energy plan should exclude the nuclear option, but past experience with commercial nuclear generation dictates a great deal of caution: We must take into account irrational risk perceptions, dangers of nuclear proliferation, and the need for selection and maintenance of permanent disposal sites for radioactive wastes.

  • Ethanol will replace gasoline as a significant source of automotive fuel. Corn-derived ethanol can provide only a relatively small share of fuel needs. Dramatically scaling up ethanol production would cause widespread environmental degradation.

  • Wind power will soon become the world's leading source of electricity. While wind-powered electricity is a welcome option for large-scale commercial energy con-version, current short-term expectations significantly exaggerate its likely contribution. Natural wind variability, uneven distribution of windy regions, low power density of wind-driven generation, and lack of infrastructure make wind power an inefficient large-scale energy source.

In Energy Myths and Realities, Vaclav Smil cautions the public to be wary of exaggerated claims and impossible promises. He explains that any global energy transition will be prolonged and expensive and will hinge on the development of an extensive new infrastructure. Smil adds that traditional energy sources and established energy con-versions are persistent and adaptable enough to see the world through that transition.

In other words, before we can create sound energy policies for the future, the world must renounce the many popular myths that cloud our judgment and impede true progress.

The author of many books on energy and technology, Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

INTERVIEW REQUESTS: Professor Smil is available for interviews. To contact him (or for other media inquiries) please contact Véronique Rodman at vrodman@aei.org or Hampton Foushee at hampton.foushee@aei.org (202.862.5806).

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