Vaclav Smil on U.S. Energy Consumption

by Reihan Salam

At Foreign Policy, Vaclav Smil offers a brief version of an argument he has made at greater length in American Scientist:

U.S. industries from steel-making to plastics synthesis are among the world’s most energy-efficient; American agriculture is highly productive, as are America’s railroads. But for decades, Americans themselves have been living beyond their means, wasting energy in their houses and cars and amassing energy-intensive throwaway products on credit. The size of the average American house has more than doubled since the 1950s, and they are more often than not poorly insulated, inefficiently heated in the winter, and cooled to near-arctic temperatures in the summer.

Automobiles are even worse. Incredibly, the overall efficiency of America’s cars, vans, and SUVs didn’t budge between 1986 and 2006, and subsequent improvements have been risible compared with the doubling of efficiency that the country’s automotive fleet managed between 1975 and 1985. If that trend had continued — which was well within the realm of technical possibility — the average American would be driving a 50 miles-per-gallon vehicle now rather than today’s 30 mpg clunker. And that’s nothing next to what could have been saved had the United States finally joined the 20th century and built rapid trains on par with France’s trains à grande vitesse to serve high-population-density regions such as the corridor between Boston and Washington. (Amtrak’s Acela? Please.)

I’m disappointed to see HSR boosterism from Smil. Rolling out performance parking prices in major U.S. cities would contribute more to curbing U.S. energy consumption than building a few HSR corridors, particularly when we factor in the energy consumption involved in manufacturing rolling stock and the difficulties involved in meeting insane FRA regulations. 

The parallels with America’s great public-health epidemic of obesity are inescapable. Even after throwing away some 40 percent of its abundant food supply, the United States still has the industrialized world’s most overweight population. America similarly produces more energy per capita than any other major rich economy — so much so that if the United States were to consume that energy at a rate comparable to Germany or France, it would be a massive energy exporter. Instead, America imports more than 25 percent of its energy, paying more than $2 trillion for the privilege over the past decade — and still ends up with little to show for it. The United States now faces the choice of curbing its energy appetite with deliberation, commitment, and foresight, or waiting for the unraveling economy to put it on a painful crash diet.

The American Scientist essay includes a number of gems:

[T]hose who insist on the necessity and desirability of further growth of America’s per capita energy use perhaps do not realize that, for a variety of reasons, a plateau has been reached already and that (again for many reasons) any upward departures are highly unlikely. In 2010 U.S. energy consumption averaged about 330 gigajoules per capita, nearly 4 percent lower than in 1970, and even the 2007 (pre-crisis) rate of 355 gigajoules (GJ) per capita was below the 1980 mean of 359 GJ. This means that the U.S. per capita consumption of primary energy has remained essentially flat for more than one generation (as has British energy use).

I am sympathetic to Smil’s view, expressed at greater length in the American Scientist essay, that moderating energy use is likely to yield better results than attempting to speed up a large transition to renewable energy, for energy transitions “are inherently prolonged affairs whose duration is measured in decades or generations, not in years.” But it is far more plausible that a transition to PRT sharing platforms, as described in MIT’s excellent Reinventing the Automobile, will deliver deep cuts in energy consumption than HSR, in part due to the polycentric nature of U.S. (and post-industrial) traffic patterns. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.