A reading club with a view to the future

535 Vaclav Smil: Power Density

Vaclav Smil explores the concept of power density and its implications for energy systems, technology, and sustainability.



"Power Density" by Vaclav Smil provides a comprehensive analysis of power density, the amount of power that can be produced or consumed per unit of area or volume. Smil examines power density across various energy sources, including fossil fuels, renewable energy, and nuclear power. He explores the role of power density in shaping technological advancements, energy transitions, and the sustainability of energy systems.


  1. Title: Power Density 
  2. Author: Vaclav Smil 
  3. Publishing Year: 2015 
  4. Publisher: MIT Press 
  5. Length in Hours: 12 hrs and 21 mins

5 main ideas

  1. Power density is a critical factor in determining the efficiency, scalability, and environmental impact of different energy sources.
  2. Fossil fuels have historically offered high power densities, but their finite nature and environmental consequences necessitate the transition to lower-carbon alternatives.
  3. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, have lower power densities, requiring larger land areas and infrastructure to generate significant amounts of power.
  4. Nuclear power exhibits a high power density, but its deployment is accompanied by complex social, political, and safety considerations.
  5. Understanding power density can inform energy policy, technology development, and the pursuit of sustainable energy solutions.

5 funny quotes

  1. "When it comes to power density, it's like comparing a heavyweight champion to a featherweight boxer."
  2. "If power density were a race, fossil fuels would be leading the pack with a comfortable margin."
  3. "Renewable energy sources may be like the tortoise in the race, but they have the potential to catch up with the fossil fuel hare."
  4. "Nuclear power is the 'heavyweight' of power density, but it needs a good coach to win public support."
  5. "In the world of power density, there's no room for slackers. It's a competition where the highest power wins."

5 thought-provoking quotes​

  1. "Power density is the key physical variable linking technology, energy systems, and environmental impact."
  2. "The most powerful forms of energy have low power densities, and the most powerful machines require high power densities."
  3. "Power density explains why energy transitions are slow and why substitution of one fuel or technology for another takes decades."
  4. "Energy systems with low power density require large amounts of land, materials, and infrastructure."
  5. "The sustainability of energy systems depends not only on their environmental impact but also on their power density."

5 dilemmas

  1. Balancing the need for high-power density energy sources with environmental sustainability goals.
  2. Addressing the trade-offs between land use and power density in renewable energy deployment.
  3. Navigating public perception and acceptance of different energy sources based on their power density characteristics.
  4. Assessing the feasibility and safety considerations associated with expanding nuclear power's role in the energy mix.
  5. Managing the interplay between energy efficiency and power density in optimizing energy systems.

5 examples

  1. ExxonMobil - Known for its extensive involvement in the exploration and production of high-density fossil fuels.
  2. Tesla - Innovating in the electric vehicle market, aiming to promote sustainable transportation with a focus on energy density.
  3. Three Mile Island - The nuclear power plant accident that highlighted the challenges and risks associated with nuclear power.
  4. Ivanpah Solar Power Facility - A large-scale solar thermal power plant in California that exemplifies the land requirements of low-density renewable energy.
  5. James Watt - The inventor of the steam engine, whose work contributed to the understanding of power density in early industrialization.

Referenced books

  1. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin
  2. The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail by Clayton M. Christensen
  3. The Limits to Growth by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III
  4. Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David J.C. MacKay
  5. The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein

Share a quote

"Renewable energy sources may be like the tortoise in the race, but they have the potential to catch up with the fossil fuel hare."

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