Interview with Vaclav Smil on Energy and Prime Movers

An excerpt from a new interview with energy/environment academic & thinker Vaclav Smil:

Q: In Prime Movers of Globalization, you write about the under-appreciated impact of the diesel engine and the gas turbine on modern civiliza­tion. Can you summarize their importance?

A: Any imported manufactured products (that is, the bulk of consumer goods sold in North America today) came either on a container ship and was then loaded onto a truck for the final delivery (all powered by diesels) or as jet cargo (powered by gas turbines). All intercontinental trade in coal, oil and natural gas, ores and fertil­izer goes in large vessels powered by massive diesels. All long-distance flight is powered by GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce gas tur­bines: from moving materials and products to moving people, the modern global economy rests on those two prime movers.

Q: Why are these engines more important than, say, the steam engine or the gasoline-powered automobile engine?

A: Both steam engines and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines are not powerful enough to propel massive container or bulk cargo ships (they carry commonly 250,000 tonnes of load) and are horribly inefficient compared to massive diesels, the only prime movers that can now convert half of all fuel into useful energy.

And no prime mover is more reliable than a gas turbine powering an intercontinental jet.

Q: How much longer do you think modern economies will rely on oil, and what do you think of some of the proposed alternatives, such as bat­teries and fuel cell or even solar and wind power?

A: That depends not only on how much coal, oil and gas we will move from resource to reserve category (resources of everything are still plentiful, but the cost of their recovery and the environmental impacts are a different matter), but also how much we will eventually consider enough. Canadians and Americans consume twice as much energy per capita as the richest EU countries or Japan — without, obviously, be­ing twice as rich, smart or happy. Besides, no al­ternative is, as yet, available at a scale needed to make a difference to the global supply, that is on the order of hundreds of gigawatts for electricity generation, and hundreds of millions to billions of tonnes of oil equivalent in terms of fuel supply.

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