The blog of Bill Gates
gatesnotes
The blog of Bill Gates

The Evolution of Energy Use

Sign In
 
My Profile & Settings
Log out
GO
Your search for "", with selected filters, does not match any posts. Please try again with a different search term or reset filters.

Popular searches include: Books, Malaria, and Future of Food.
RELATED ARTICLES ON
Logout:


Become a Gates Notes Insider
- or - Sign up with email
This email is already registered. Enter a new email, try signing in or retrieve your password
Send me updates from Bill Gates
Sign Up
Join the Gates Notes community to access exclusive content, comment on stories, subscribe to your favorite topics and more. We will never share or spam your email address. For more information see our Sign Up FAQ. By clicking "Sign Up" you agree to the Gates Notes Terms of Use / Privacy Policy.
Account Settings
VIEW & EDIT PROFILE
Your Information
First name
Last name
Save
Cancel
Email address
This email is already registered
Save
Cancel
Please verify email address. Click verification link sent to this email address or resend verification email.
Password
Save
Cancel
Send me updates from Bill Gates
You must provide an email
Your Interests
Saving Lives
Energy Innovation
Improving Education
Philanthropy
Book Reviews
About Bill Gates
Deactivate Account
Click the link below to begin the account deactivation process. Deactivate account If you want to permanently delete your account and remove its content, please send us a request here.
Ok
Gates Notes Insider Sign Up FAQ

Q. How do I create a Gates Notes account?

A. There are three ways you can create a Gates Notes account:

  • Sign up with Facebook. We’ll never post to your Facebook account without your permission.
  • Sign up with Twitter. We’ll never post to your Twitter account without your permission.
  • Sign up with your email. Enter your email address during sign up. We’ll email you a link for verification.

Q. Will you ever post to my Facebook or Twitter accounts without my permission?

A. No, never.

Q. How do I sign up to receive email communications from my Gates Notes account?

A. In Account Settings, click the toggle switch next to “Send me updates from Bill Gates.”

Q. How will you use the Interests I select in Account Settings?

A. We will use them to choose the Suggested Reads that appear on your profile page.

Forgot your password?
This email is already registered. Enter a new email, try signing in or retrieve your password
Reset Password
Change your header photo
your image
 
Change
your image
Uh Oh!

The image you are trying to upload is either too big or is an unacceptable format. Please upload a .jpg or .png image that is under 25MB.

Ok
First name
Last name
Enter a first and last name. For example, "Richard Feynman"
Bio
0/160 characters
Edit Profile
Account Settings
Save
Cancel
Suggested Reads
Reset your password.
Set New Password
Your password has been reset. You will now be redirected to the sign in page, or you can click here
Ok
Get emails from Bill Gates
Send me updates from Bill
You must provide an email
This email is already registered
Continue
We will never share or spam your email address. For more information see our Sign Up FAQ. By clicking "Continue" you agree to the Gates Notes Terms of Use / Privacy Policy.
 
your image
Uh Oh!
The image you are trying to upload is either too big or is an unacceptable format. Please upload a .jpg or .png image that is under 25MB.
Ok
Welcome FirstName!
You are now a Gates Notes Insider
Update Your Profile Information
First name
Last name
Save
Cancel
Email address
This email is already registered
Save
Cancel
Please verify email address. Click verification link sent to this email address or resend verification email.
Send me updates from Bill Gates
You must provide an email
Select Your Interests
Saving Lives
Energy Innovation
Improving Education
Philanthropy
Book Reviews
About Bill Gates
Continue
Confirm
Are you sure you want to
deactivate your account?
Deactivating your account will unsubscribe you from Gates Notes emails, and will remove your profile and account information from public view on the Gates Notes. Please allow for 24 hours for the deactivation to fully process. You can sign back in at any time to reactivate your account and restore its content.
Deactivate My Acccount
Go Back
Your Gates Notes account has been deactivated.
Come back anytime.
Welcome back
In order to unsubscribe you will need to sign-in to your Gates Notes Insider account
Once signed in just go to your Account Settings page and set your subscription options as desired.
Sign In
Request account deletion
We’re sorry to see you go. Your request may take a few days to process; we want to double check things before hitting the big red button. Requesting an account deletion will permanently remove all of your profile content. If you’ve changed your mind about deleting your account, you can always hit cancel and deactivate instead.
Submit
Cancel
Thank You! Your request has been sent
Become a Gates Notes Insider for access to exclusive content and personalized reading suggestions
Sign up to receive occasional updates from the Gates Notes
Sign Up
Privacy Policy
Please complete your account verification. Resend verification email.
This verification token has expired.
Your email address has been verified. Update my profile.
Your account has been deactivated. Sign up to re-activate your account.
View all newsletters in the newsletter archive
You are now unsubscribed from receiving emails.
Sorry, we were unable to unsubscribe you at this time.
The blog of Bill Gates
The Evolution of Energy Use
 
Hello, . . My Profile & Settings
Log out
FOLLOW ME
It looks like you're using an older version of Internet Explorer which may not display all the features on this site. Upgrade Now » close
From Wood to Fossil Fuels

The Evolution of Energy Use

Vaclav Smil has written another important book on energy which is quite amazing. Although there are a lot of important books about energy, as an author Smil is in a class by himself in terms of breadth and depth.

His latest book, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, is only about 175 pages and very readable, although like all of Smil books you have to be comfortable with lots of numbers, since the topic requires them. The various units that energy and power are measured in can often confuse things.

In Energy Transitions, Smil explains the third great energy transition, which occurred over the last several hundred years and included the shift from wood to coal, and the rise of oil and natural gas. As he notes, this transition from biomass to fossil fuels “has been the very essence of modernization.” The first great energy transition was the mastery of fire and the second was associated with the move from foraging to sedentary crop raising and domestication of animals. This third transition really only got going in the late 19th century and did not affect most of humanity until well into the 20th century.

Smil computes the relative energy generated by humans and animals, and early “inanimate” energy technology such as wind power and water power before steam engines came along. And he shows what a small percentage of energy was produced by these inanimate technologies until the late 1800’s, except in the UK.

For each fuel type and each big application Smil explains the key breakthroughs. For natural gas it included new steel alloys, better welding, better pipe-laying, and new compressors invented after World War II. Smil points out that the time between the invention of a new energy technology and its widespread use is usually many decades. In the case of liquefied natural gas, for example, it was almost 100 years.

One section of the book discusses how energy transitions varied in different countries. For example, the Netherlands used its peat resources and wind for early energy intensification. The U.S. was slow to switch to coal – with coal surpassing wood as a primary fuel source only in the 1890’s. Although each of these countries faced very different circumstances in the evolution of their energy technologies, globalization means that our energy challenges going forward are shared.

In the final pages of the book Smil talks about what to expect from the fourth great energy transition, which we have just started. He shows that despite the desire for change “neither its pace not its compositional and operational details are yet clear.”

Smil makes clear the challenges involved in making renewable sources anywhere near as cheap as today’s high carbon energy. He describes the much lower power density of renewable sources and the challenges associated with location, intermittency, storage, and transmission. The intermittency/storage point is one I think he could have made even stronger. Even though this section overlaps with the other energy book he published this year (Energy Myths and Realities) it is still very much worth reading.

The book ends with Smil expressing disappointment that the U.S. and other wealthy countries have not done more to reduce energy usage. This is an important point, but I wish he had ended with a more detailed discussion of the fourth transition. While some people might not agree with everything Smil says, he has certainly taught me that, even with needed improvements in energy efficiency, it will be very difficult to get adequate amounts of cheap, carbon-neutral power to the poor very quickly, critical as that goal is.

Become a Gates Notes Insider for access to exclusive content and personalized reading suggestions

Read previous versions of the Annual Letter


Discussion
comments powered by Disqus