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Energy Transitions

History, Requirements, Prospects

by Vaclav Smil


According to author Vaclav Smil, President Barack Obama's energy policy has raised unrealistic expectations for rapid energy transitions. "The degree of disappointment will be phenomenal," Smil warned in an interview with the New York Times in November 2008. "There will be precious little rapid change, as energy systems are inherently inertial and energy transitions take decades to accomplish."

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Cover image for Energy Transitions

May 2010


Pages 178
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Technology/General

This bold and controversial argument shows why energy transitions are inherently complex and prolonged affairs, and how ignoring this fact raises unrealistic expectations that the United States and other global economies can be weaned quickly from a primary dependency on fossil fuels.

Energy transitions are fundamental processes behind the evolution of human societies: they both drive and are driven by technical, economic, and social changes. In a bold and provocative argument, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects describes the history of modern society's dependence on fossil fuels and the prospects for the transition to a nonfossil world. Vaclav Smil, who has published more on various aspects of energy than any working scientist, makes it clear that this transition will not be accomplished easily, and that it cannot be accomplished within the timetables established by the Obama administration.

The book begins with a survey of the basic properties of modern energy systems. It then offers detailed explanations of universal patterns of energy transitions, the peculiarities of changing energy use in the world's leading economies, and the coming shifts from fossil fuels to renewable conversions. Specific cases of these transitions are analyzed for eight of the world's leading energy consumers. The author closes with perspectives on the nature and pace of the coming energy transition to renewable conversions.


  • Includes case studies of energy transitions in eight nations
  • Presents graphs of energy transitions on global and national scales, showing both common features and idiosyncratic patterns
  • Features photographs of the containment vessel of America's first nuclear reactor and of a stationary gas turbine
  • Provides a thorough bibliography


  • Offers a controversial, interdisciplinary thesis that challenges the expectation that significant progress in the energy transitions favored by President Obama's energy policy can be effected during his term in office
  • Shows specifically why hopes for a rapid transition to a world dominated by renewable energy conversions rest more on a wishful thinking than on technical, economic, and social realities
  • Tackles this important subject in light of long-term historical perspectives, providing both global and national coverage in a no-nonsense analysis of the constraints on the tempo of U.S. and global energy transitions
  • Provides a foundation for more rational energy policies
Author Info

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the author of 30 interdisciplinary books on various aspects of energy, environment, food, history of technical advances, and China.



"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."

"Recommended. Students and general readers, all levels."Choice


"Energy Transitions is the place to go for science-based climate/energy policy analysis, as nations are increasingly squeezed between growing energy demand and avoiding adverse climate change by phaseout of fossil fuel carbon emissions. Where will tens of carbon-neutral terawatts come from midcentury and beyond? Doable, but hard, Vaclav Smil looks unblinkingly into this abyss, drawing from his encyclopedic grasp of ecology and energy to explicate the historically unprecedented energy technology transition ahead."
—Marty Hoffert, Professor Emeritus of Physics, New York University

"Smil's book soberly but engagingly reviews and reflects upon the great energy transitions of the past several centuries: how and why they came about, under what constraints and with what consequences realized. It thus constitutes a most excellent foundation for improvement of understanding on the parts of serious members of the public and policy-oriented types alike – as well as everyone in-between. Replete with historically-authentic facts, bias-free trend-lines and well-buttressed and cogent interim conclusions, it's a "must read" for anyone who may wish to engage credibly in the energy debate."—Lowell Wood, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

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