EROEI Short #2: Lenin & Lohan

Picking up where we left off, where can we draw the line in EROEI calculation? Where can we say that either 1) a given energy expenditure is not a prerequisite of the energy produced, or that 2) a given energy input is too minor to be worth accounting for? This short article will address the first of those questions.

"Vladimir Lenin" "Lindsay Lohan"

Clearly, some energy inputs are prerequisites to a given process of energy production. The energy required to lift oil from its reservoir to the surface is a good example—this energy expenditure is a prerequisite to producing the resulting energy from the oil well. What about the marginal energy input used to create the earth mover that leveled the site for the drill pad? Assume, for the moment, that we can account for the percentage of its useful life expectancy that will be committed to leveling this one site. It seems clear that the marginal energy requirement, represented by [total embodied energy in earthmover] * [percent of earthmover life leveling this drill pad], must be included in the energy accounting of the oil produced from that well. After all, a level site for the drill pad is a prerequisite for production from that well, no? What about the marginal energy required to build a Ford F250 to transport the machinist from home to factory to build the earthmover?

What about Lindsay Lohan? [1]

OK, I’ll admit, that one probably came out of left field. I’m stretching for an example of the most inane, most unnecessary, most unproductive manifestation of our consumer economy. Lindsay Lohan can’t possibly be a prerequisite to oil production from a well in the Peance Basin of Colorado, right? Wherever we draw the boundary for energy inputs that are prerequisites to that oil production, we can safely exclude the “energy input” required to “create and maintain” Lindsay Lohan, right? Not so fast.

I’ll admit, this is an extreme example. In the end, we need to address what society does with its “surplus” energy. After all, we could all live in homogenized concrete apartment blocs, wear one brand of clothing, watch one news channel, and read one newspaper. That would be a vastly more efficient form of energy usage than our current consumer economy. Through a well-run command economy, we could greatly increase the level of “surplus” energy available to invest in wind or rail infrastructure. But, as countless socialist and communist command-economies have found, it doesn’t quite work like that. Lenin abandoned a classical “command economy” in 1921 after only three years, assessing it a dismal failure. [2] Much of the surplus energy that our economy so voraciously consumes in the form of “idiotic” entertainment, “redundant” brand choices, and “unnecessary” consumerism does play a very real role in the performance of that economy. The exact causation is unclear—does it motivate the workers? Unleash creative spirits? Who knows—economic philosophy has devoted small libraries to this discussion. That debate does not change the clear correlation (at least in the 20th Century) between economies that tend to waste their surplus energy on “frivolous concerns” and economies that prospered. My intent here is not to flesh out a thorough refutation of the command economy. Rather, my hope is to point the reader to this question: can we really discount any portion of our frivolous consumption as definitively NOT a prerequisite of energy production? Can we prove that at no level, no matter how marginal, the economic phenomenon that is Lindsay Lohan doesn’t somehow motivate a roughneck to work harder, perhaps under the theory that Lohan’s visibility acts as a PR campaign for the capitalist fantasy-world that said roughneck is striving for? Perhaps that’s too simplistic. But look at the example of the factory worker commuting via a Ford F250 from above. A command economy would recognize the inherent inefficiency there, and demand car-pooling in a Lada or Trabant instead—we all know how that turned out…

Surely I’ve pressed this argument too far, but only to make a point. Take a look at the illustration below, from Cutler Cleveland:


If I may, there should be a third arrow pointing back from “Rest of Economy” to “Oil Well.” There are some inputs—however fuzzy and difficult to quantify—that are neither “fuels, electricity . . . capital, [nor] materials,” yet are every bit a prerequisite to oil production. Or, at a minimum, these extras are a prerequisite to oil production at the level of efficiency currently enjoyed. This arrow could be labeled “societal support to motivation of workers,” or something similar. Perhaps it could be labeled “societal energy burden,” that energy required to support all the societal structures that in some way act as a prerequisite to oil production from Well X. It certainly isn’t all as silly as Lindsay Lohan: police, fire, orderly government regulation, healthcare, education, etc. All of these ephemera of society most certainly demand energy, and most certainly act as a prerequisite to the attraction, employment, and maintenance of highly skilled and motivated workers.

So where do we draw the boundary of included energy inputs? If you still insist on placing Lindsay Lohan outside that line, I won’t argue, but I maintain that ALMOST all of society belongs inside. If you think otherwise, that you know better than the market how best to allocate capital through some enlightened command economy, then there is probably a Lenin fan-club out there just waiting for your leadership.

What is the aggregate societal EROEI where virtually every aspect of society is a prerequisite to that society’s energy production? Well, it’s right about 1:1. Which is exactly what we will see next time in our discussion of price-estimated EROEI.


That debate does not change the clear correlation (at least in the 20th Century) between economies that tend to waste their surplus energy on “frivolous concerns” and economies that prospered.

You have the do a lot of work to convince me that the cause-effect relationship goes in this direction. IMO it is self-evident it is exactly the opposite - economies that "prosper" create enough surplus of energy and other resources made available for the people to "waste" the way they like.

I'll bring it even further - discretionary spending is one of the main reasons people are motivated to work harder, and to embrace the economic growth idea. If I earn $1000 per month, but I spend $990 on essentials and only $10 for myself I could hardly be satisfied with my life. I will try to find a way to earn more.

You mentioned the market vs command economy. The main difference between the two is that in a command economy (at least in the socialist version), the essentials - food, housing, education, healthcare etc. are either free or dirt cheap. What you earn is basically for non-essential consumption, and here is where the command economy failed. Because of its nature it did not follow and could not provide what people wanted... and the people simply wanted the freedom and conveniences of western lifestyle. The surplus energy was still there but it was routed inefficiently - to the military, to the government beurocracy or to the huge inefficient industrial complex.

The bottom line of all of this is that you are right - the surplus energy is essential on a societal level. With falling surpluses we would simply have to cut back on non-essentials and accept lower living standard... Personally I won't miss SUVs and RVs, but will hate to see things like air travel go.

LevinK, Jeff

The question is who defines frivolous play? Art's a good example-when I'm working on a piece (I sculpt a little), much of the creative process of fiddling with the materiel can only be defined as play-when does it stop being a doodle and become a drawing?

Creativity seems to require quite a bit of freeform noodling around, because the source for creativity is in the unconcious mind. If a person wishes to unleash their creativity it isn't found by sitting down and insisting that the person come up with a creative idea. Thats the surest way to a block that I know. Surely we all recall pedants who decide that something is a waste of time when its in fact a necessary part of the process. Sometimes when i get "stuck" nothing works better than taking a nap, then awakening with an idea.
Bob Ebersole

We are faced with the difficulties of the Hirsch Gap as we transition toward greater efficiency and renewables. Enormous capital investments will be needed for this conversion. We are already seeing serious inflation in commodities like steel, aluminum, and cement vital to this conversion. Banning the use of some commodities for some purposes is neccesary to make the conversion affordable. The needed upgrade in our electric power grid shouldn't have to compete with beverage can manufacturers for aluminum. High speed rail networks and windfarms should not compete with SUV manufacturers for steel. We will need to do without certain products for a while if our complex civilisation is to continue functioning. Our future energy supply is just too important to be left to the amoral free market to decide.

Lindsay Lohan may be vapid, but she's brought joy to millions. I think, that is the point about market economies, as soon as there is a big enough surplus it will go into things that are not 'productive' -- ballet and arms manufacture rather than farming, digging coal, making steel-- but which generate money. And after people can earn enough to feed, clothe and shelter thier families, then there is time for creativity. I think this 'unproductive work' is more along the lines of your societal inputs. Perhaps it would be more realistic not to talk about impermeable boundaries which rules things (Lindsay, bless her) in or out but to look at the probablity that she affects the oil industry and factor that into your calculations along with all the other potential inputs.

Good post. Had some minor involvement in public health / medical costs / insurance issues. (Switzerland has ‘all private’ health care thru personal insurance.)

One of the endlessly vexing questions is that it is impossible to understand how much health care actually costs, and where the money comes from - this is something many want to know, in order to be able to cut them or propose new schemes. (Traditionally, it is considered that CH is second only to the US in per capita health care costs.)

This problem is small and circumscribed, in comparison to 'energy' (oil wells, etc. as in the post) as, 1) the measure used is money, nothing else, and that seems appropriate, or at least sensible for a first step; 2) it is possible, if dodgy, to list what contributes to ‘health’ in a rather Victorian model, that is, seeing it as ‘curing /alleviating ill health’ plus ‘preventing ill health’ (public health campaigns, hospices for cancer terminals, etc.), all of it actions performed for or on individuals who have or will have some ‘health’ malfunction.

The medical community and the Gvmt. can actually list all that stuff, that is, within a certain society at a certain point in time.

A rap group does not contribute but the expense of medical training and the emergency ramp to the hospital might. But how far do you go? Do you include the curry shrimp scoffed by the ambulance driver? The servicing of a helicopter that picks up avalanche victims? Etc. etc.

The answer given by professionals lies in a grey zone. Society itself wants, demands, or simply can afford in Switz., what is now considered ‘good’ or ‘modern’ or whatever health care. It is part of the social fabric. Only the costs of treating the patient (plus public health, vaccines, etc.), the direct actions of health professionals (including drugs, home nurses, family planners, bone crunchers, pharmacists, etc.) should be counted.

The infrastructure (road to the hospital, helicop mechanic) are to be lodged under ‘society’ as a whole. Of course it is clumsy, hazardous divide, and naturally the health community is interested in minimizing their costs on paper. The professional attitude, opinion, is to be understood in a stable situation, where the backdrop, the stage itself, is constant, and Doctor X, Nurse Z, admin. Y, acts within it. That is understandable, for sure.

Even this far simpler topic cannot be analyzed rigorously. The docs. themselves often say, *the decisions are political* - not ours - we are not to blame - and they are right.

Systemic change takes a greater will or power, possibly against one’s own interests.

As a social scientist (anthropology and psychology) I must confess I feel like I've been watching the local butcher perform brain surgery. Not surprising really, since most lay people believe that social science is not really a science at all, so it’s fine for them to go mucking about in it with out regard to the barrels of ink that have already been spilled on these very subjects. You had me right up until you waxed wildly into territory where you clearly have no training.

Sorry folks, social phenomenon cannot be reduced to quantifiable energy inputs. They are too nebulous. Social scientists of every stripe have been trying for over a century and there is no calculus for the social or cultural. It takes a less linear mind to conceive of it so economists and engineers might as well just stay away. Or here's an idea: How about actually asking an anthropologist to weigh in on the matter rather than calling the local butcher. As an example of the social’s nebulous nature, I bet it didn’t occur to you to count the millions of joules of energy that have been spent on developing social theory, much of it empirical, that would inform the capitalist, the command economist, or the author of this original post. Apparently all that effort was wasted since it is so easily swept under the pseudo intellectual rug of history.

And has anyone thought to mention that even if you could quantify every little drop of energy input, social or not, you would never find an energy source that had a positive EROEI? I’m inclined to shoot myself after reading a post like this but the EROEI on a gun and bullets is too much to bear. But seriously folks, this is what makes Odum’s theory of emergy too hard for me to swallow. He quantifies human intellectual power at such a high price, that the only thing suitable for humans to do is sit around and think otherwise we screw up his emergy equations. Never mind the fact that humans have to expend energy if we are to survive. Human energy consumption and use is not linear. We do not get to reduce our energy use like reptiles if we can’t find food. And once we have food we have to expend it to keep going. Working, physical labor, although Odum would tell us it is beneath us, is necessary for life!

I find the EROEI concept useful but not when it is abused as Pimentel does, counting the uncountable and thereby becoming unaccountable. I hope the future posts on this issue tip us back in the other direction.

For the most part I agree with you - thanks for the post.

We are all used to thinking in terms of dollars. Peak Oil may change that and we will start thinking more in terms of energy, or capital other than financial. I don't think EROEI encapsulates everything, nor can it - but its a bit closer to the physical truths than dollars, in my opinion.

By the way, its my opinion that social science is explaining proximate reasons for things - in economics, psychology, etc. when in reality there are underlying physical causes that we won't be able to quantify for a very long time. For example, the 'Easterlin paradox' in economics is about why people care more about relative economic success than absolute. This is a social science 'theory'. It actually is describing something very real - the biological concept of relative fitness. To list one example...

counting the uncountable and thereby becoming unaccountable

Here we agree.. Beyond reasonably calculable wide boundaries, an energy analysis conclusions might be interesting, but so inaccurate as to be meaningless.

I think you missed the point of the article entirely and that you and the author mostly agree that once you start including the energy cost of societal imputs you just don't know where to draw the line so why bother. That is not to say however that societal inputs are not just as necessary as the direct energy inputs its just that their energy cost, and even what they are exactly, is undefined.

social phenomenon (sic) cannot be reduced to quantifiable energy inputs.

Seriously? For someone who claims to be a scientist it is disappointing to see such a faith-based statement. A "scientist" would say that no theory reducing social phenomenon to quantifiable energy inputs has yet been proposed and generally accepted by the scientific community. And a "scientist" would encourage an attempt to locate a theory that is able to reduce social phenomena to energy inputs, even if his hunch is that it won't happen. You sound more like a theologist with an axe to grind. And you continue to "refute" Odum's theory by stating that it is "too hard to swallow" and throw out canards such as "humans have to expend energy if we are to survive." If this is your idea of defending "social science" then it is no wonder that you don't provide your own academic credentials or affiliation to back up your self-proclaimed expertise in anthropology and psychology...

I agree 100% with VIN biodiesel. It seems too ridiculous of a purpose to measure completely subjective phenomenons, as in the social implications of such and such in the realms of energy EROEI. But while ridiculous, so many people have tried similar things, like measuring the intelligence of man, for instance, which created the most abhorrent science "facts" not many decades ago, declaring that the so-called existent "QI" was inherited by parents and predetermined at birth. These were science "facts", generated by mathematical analysis of societal and individual capacities. This had tremendous implications in politics (for instance, in Britain there was the QI test that denied 80% of students the entrance to university). Today, these "facts" are taken as bullshit by all the scientists who haven't a fascist political agenda.

The problem is that when dealing with nubelous things, "science" can only cope with it in terms of factorial analysis, and this only deals with correlation, which by the way, is way different from causation, and has the tendency to "reificate" (misrepresent a mathematical coincidence as a real concrete phenomenon/object). All the social sciences that dealt with this maths always went into grave errors, and had political implications of a too much big of a proportion.

Or, like a religious truism, all is connected with all. Likewise, financial globalism is so damn complicated that few people realise the true natures of its complex network, and it is really hard to make assumptions on a non-linear environment. If it is so damn complicated in a subject where so many people went through, what makes you think you can just go over it and make a economical theory out of energy that somehow will explain it "all" and deal with every little subject in our life? One must be insane or blind to make such assumptions.

And in the end, scientists are also humans. They aren't calculators. There's this myth that scientists are "unbiased" and somehow their findings are "objective". Well, compared to the rest of us, probably, but when they reckon "patterns" aren't they only making interpretations, assumptions, based on their previous knowledge and experience? I urge you to rest the thought that scientists are calculators who are only present to say numb things like

A "scientist" would say that no theory reducing social phenomenon to quantifiable energy inputs has yet been proposed and generally accepted by the scientific community.

Nonsense. A scientist is mostly a human being. And, like a human, he knows how to detect bullshit, given his own scientific experience and knowledge. And that's what he has done.

Sorry Jeff, I guess I missed the link that would direct me to your credentials. Did I need to register a copy of my transcript with the thought police before I made a comment here? To satisfy your venom soaked curiosity I’ll indulge you in that I am merely in possession of a MA in applied anthropology and seven subsequent years of work in community development, organizing and public health. Seems weird, though, that I should have to post my cred just because I had the audacity to contest your overly positivistic approach.

However, thanks to your vitriolic reply I think I can safely rest my case that you are inept at social science, or perhaps even science, since you seem to believe in the mid twentieth century idea that science is all about counting things. Where anthropology excels, and most other disciplines retard, is in understanding the world in a non-linear, i.e. uncountable fashion. We call it qualitative research. Ever heard of it? Anyone who has studied the history of scientific thought should agree with the statement that all science is qualitative in the beginning because only through qualitative methods can we define the units we are trying to count. But more importantly we find that to count is not the sin qua non of understanding, in direct counter valence to your reply, if I read it right. I would encourage you and readers to strive for a more sophisticated epistemology than merely running up lists of things we can count. What really cheesed me off was the overreaching, the attempt to count things that we at present cannot count, and the attendant ignorance of my discipline that has been rather under-rated by you quantitative types. Again I’m sorry you thought I meant social phenomenon will remain unquantifiable for ever and ever ahmen.

It is you Jeff who are blinded by faith in this case. A deeper understanding of science also leads to the inevitable conclusion that science, especially the positivistic branch you appear to be swinging from, is by sociologic definition, a religion. The enlightenment did many great things but it also lead us down a narrow path of understanding that has helped to extinguish many other useful epistemologies. Some of those are now being resurrected for example through the dialogue between quantum physicists and Native American spiritualists, but I digress.

A true scientist, in my book, is a devout agnostic, continually entertaining new ideas and new evidence even if it challenges the current paradigm. You, my friend, are badly in need of a paradigm adjustment.

But rather than continuing to defend myself against your ill-tempered character assassination let me see if as a social scientist I can offer something of substance to this dialogue. Part of what my training helps me do is focus on the big picture through holism. Why not start with Lindsay Lohan? Although we might be able to quantify Lindsay’s movements or even cognitions in calorific terms, we will not, at present be able to quantify her influence on “the market” any better than we can calculate the butterfly effect. We can guess, estimate, guestimate and masturbate but will it help us make a better decision about future courses of action in time to avert total catastrophe? Need I remind anyone on this list that we are not just whistling Dixie in our armchairs. None of knows exactly how much time is left before the spigot runs dry, but we would be safer to bet that we do not have time to invent methods for ascertaining the butterfly effect any more than we have time to completely rebuild our infrastructure to run on electrolysised hydrogen from windmills and solar panels. Its also a fair bet the “business as usual” will probably not get us out of this mess since it is what got us into this mess. Other epistemologies will be necessary. In other words, let’s get back to issue at hand, which is, I have always thought, to avert disaster. That’s the “applied” part of my degree. It rests on the theory that our actions as individuals do matter (I’ll spare you the Margaret Mead quote but I’ll remind you that she was an anthropologist and not a theologian) and we have an ethical responsibility to leverage our talents—whether they be in science, engineering or basket weaving—to the task at hand, which is at present the preservation of what can be qualified as good about humanity and “civilization” as it stands now. If I wax too philosophic for the data wonks, I might apologize, but by now you’ve probably stopped reading.

Let me see if I can do a little better on Odum even if I fail to see where I failed accept that I believed momentarily that brevity is the soul of wit (cause this will take a while). Humans, all mammals, have to keep moving, i.e. expend energy, in order to survive. In the U.S. our trend toward the sedentary is widely credited with our corollary trend toward the fat, heart disease… death. My reading of Odum is that he gave no points in his calculations to this fact. Among other errors, it caused him to gravely miscalculate the emergy of a photovoltaic facility in Austin, Tx. He included the ridiculous variable of the human energy required to clean and otherwise maintain the solar panels (which anybody who has solar panels knows is BS), and because he had inflated human energy through his exponential scale, (along with several other grave errors) it knocked the EROEI into the negative. It’s hard to understand why the human energy involved in maintaining and decommissioning a nuclear power plant didn’t factor in but I digress again. Because we have to keep moving anyway, rather than spend an hour at the gym why don’t we do something productive the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have done: Stay fit through the work that is necessary to prolong life. I understand that this is anathema for many westerners who have been anxiously looking forward to the star-trek future where we are relieved of all physical labor. An evolutionary as opposed to a science fiction understanding of humanity acknowledges that we evolved to consume and burn energy and we are healthiest (i.e. have best life chances) when we do both a lot, in balance. I reiterate, we are not reptiles with big heads and our contributions to life on earth should not be confined to our ability to reason, especially if we think that means think linearly and “logically” as an economist.

social phenomenon cannot be reduced to quantifiable energy inputs

Yes it can. The caloric energy required for any human socialization is above the minimum necessary to sustain human life, what is commonly referred to as the Basal Metabolic Rate.

The uncountable by definition can't be counted. So is what you're complaining about the attempt at modeling something that can't actually be modified through experimentation?

WTF? Did you even read the post first before making a giant non-sequitur like that? What does the Basal Metabolic Rate has to do with Lindsay Lohan? That the energy required for her phenomenon exist is somehow bigger than the energy inside our potatoes? That's BRILLIANT, man! I'd never figured that out by myself!! Next you're telling what, computer power usage is definitely greater than zero?

Please forgive my naiveté, but I really don’t understand the practical relevance of attempting to calculate net energy return on an absolute basis.

Here is my thinking: Humanity IS going to attempt to replace at least some of fossil fuel energy with alternatives, no matter how much the power downers may scream about it. Therefore, the only practically important question is relative EROEI among candidate alternative sources. It would seem that relative EROEI calculations are much, much easier than absolute ones. The deep levels of energy cost that you discuss are, at some point down the line, going to be essentially equivalent for all alternative sources and so can be ignored in the relative EROEI calculations, no? The “infinite regress” problem is solved. It would seem a relatively simple matter for energy accounting experts to figure out just how many types of energy input need to be considered to do this relative merit accounting.

Therefore, the only practically important question is relative EROEI among candidate alternative sources

Well, if energy alternative A has a 3:1 EROI and energy alternative B has a 5:1 EROI, one might be tempted to choose B, ceteris paribus. But if one is aware that society currently runs on an EROI of 12:1, then neither is fully acceptable and conservation, lifestyle, infrastructure have to be changed IN ADDITION to introducing the new energy source -frankly I think the absolute level of energy gain is much more important than the relative.

The deep levels of energy cost that you discuss are, at some point down the line, going to be essentially equivalent for all alternative sources and so can be ignored in the relative EROEI calculations, no

This is true. In a recent book chapter for David Pimentel, I break up net energy analysis into 3 categories - narrow boundary analysis, which is just using the direct energy inputs, intermediate boundary analysis, which uses both direct and indirect inputs, like not only the gasoline to fuel the tractor but also the energy to make the tractor, etc, and finally, wide boundary analysis which also would include the energy required to maintain the infrastructure necessary to create the energy - as well as any environmental externalities. I didn't go so far as Jeff with Lindsay Lohan though. To me the analysis has to stop at some meaningful level of comparison of physical inputs - once we get into psychic measures of societal creativity, we lose all ability to be precise.

The important point is, we need everyone involved in 'energy accounting' to speak the same language, and if they don't, at least tell people what language (e.g. what boundaries) they are using.

Well, if energy alternative A has a 3:1 EROI and energy alternative B has a 5:1 EROI, one might be tempted to choose B, ceteris paribus. But if one knows discovers that society currently runs on an EROI of 12:1, then neither is fully acceptable and conservation, lifestyle, infrastructure have to be changed IN ADDITION to introducing the new energy source -frankly I think the absolute level of energy gain is much more important than the relative.

This just seems like a hopelessly crabbed, narrow, unworthy view of life. There's more to life than just saving energy. If the 3:1 alternative is the one that serves best overall, then I'll take the 3:1 alternative. Which, I suppose, is why we have economists, and which, I suppose, is why those off-center folks who take energy as the be-all and end-all seem to hate economists.

Actually, society would not function on a much lower EROI - energy allows to do work, which includes water, food, heat, shelter, etc. Thats the whole ball of wax with net energy analysis. If a system is conditioned to high energy gain, yet the alternatives are only low energy gain, changes or consequences must follow, by definition. Sorry if its crabbed or narrow - its reality.

Well, if energy alternative A has a 3:1 EROI and energy alternative B has a 5:1 EROI, one might be tempted to choose B, ceteris paribus. But if one knows discovers that society currently runs on an EROI of 12:1, then neither is fully acceptable

Why not? Why can't a society currently run on 12:1 be adjusted to run similarly on 5:1? You could still in principle produce just as much net energy.

and conservation, lifestyle, infrastructure have to be changed IN ADDITION to introducing the new energy source

Well, infrastructure would have to be changed even if the new energy resource is 12:1. Focusing on relative EROEI in no way presupposes that conservation and lifestyle will not change. They will by economic imperative.

he important point is, we need everyone involved in 'energy accounting' to speak the same language, and if they don't, at least tell people what language (e.g. what boundaries) they are using.

Yes, good point. But wouldn't it be far easier to get them to agree if the focus is on relative EROEI? Absolute EROEI strikes me as one of those cases where there simply is not enough good information and the problem is just too complex to ever get various groups with different agenda to agree on how to measure it. So, your goal of achieving agreement is, in my opinion, facilitated by focusing on relative EROEI.

This is Jeffs post, so I don't want to hog the comment threads, but:

Why not? Why can't a society currently run on 12:1 be adjusted to run similarly on 5:1? You could still in principle produce just as much net energy.

This is incorrect, but very important. Society aggregate EROI of 5:1 is NOT the same net energy as 12:1. Not even close. Put it this way. Right now the average american uses around 60 barrel of oil equivalent of primary energy - lets use those same numbers. That means we are using 5 BOE to get the 60. If we use that same 5 in the future we will only get 25. Thats 35 BOE of efficiency and sacrifice we have to come up with. (Or alternatively, we would need an input of 12 to get the 60). We now have 20 boe available to do work for each american, as opposed to 55 before - meaning that conservation, efficiency and infrastructure changes must accompany this decline in net energy. Sure it can be done and yes we can be successful and happy, but there are constraints.

Similarly, if we discover nuclear fusion and its 100:1, it frees up an enormous amount of energy that we could use (or waste)on any manner of wild ventures. Few constraints

That means we are using 5 BOE to get the 60. If we use that same 5 in the future we will only get 25. Thats 35 BOE of efficiency and sacrifice we have to come up with. (Or alternatively, we would need an input of 12 to get the 60). In either case, there is much less energy available to do work for society, meaning that conservation, efficiency and infrastructure changes must accompany this change.

Or put in 14 to get 70, yielding more than the original 55 net. Going to lower EROEI does not, of course, logically constrain us to producing less net energy. More of the economy would be devoted to energy production and less to fast food and car servicing.

My main point was that this fact does not seem to be relevant to the merits of relative versus absolute EROEI calculations. What we really need to know is which of the various available alternatives is best under a given set of circumstances (e.g., geographical region). In the end this is the only exercise that will actually affect policy/decision making, in my opinion. Fortunately it is apparently relatively easy.

OK - take that one step further. Imagine there are only 100 people in society, so that right now the 60 boe are 6000 boe for entire society. That means at 12:1, society is using 500 boe to get the 6000. Now after the energy decline to 5:1, we have to input 1200 to get the 6000. And from that 6000, we need 1200 to get the next 6000, etc. If we 'put in 14 to get 70', where does it come from?? this is the critical point With a decline in societal net energy, this DOES logically constrain us to producing less net energy. By definition.

But you are assuming that the rate of gross energy extraction must remain constant and does not change with energy resources utilized. Let's assume that rate of oil extraction is already at its peak. Rate of solar and wind extraction is clearly not. The combined rate of extraction that is possible from these and other alternative resources in principle probably exceeds, by a wide margin, the current rate of energy extraction from oil. If so, then even at lower EROEI, there could in principle be more net energy extracted from these resources someday than is currently extracted from oil. If you want to make claims about possible rates of net energy extraction you must consider not only EROEI but also maximum possible gross extraction rate.

Please don't jump on me about being too optimistic about alternatives. I'm not claiming that this will happen, but just that it logically could, and hence in my opinion your argument is flawed, or at least incomplete.

If so, then even at lower EROEI, there could in principle be more net energy extracted from these resources someday than is currently extracted from oil

You are correct. This is why people (including me) need to be clear on their assumptions. And I wasn't jumping on you, but many people don't get precisely this important point, which is why I spelled it out So thanks for fleshing it out - yes - if the SCALE of energy is doubled, the EROI can be halved and we would be at the same societal net energy.

EROEI seems a nice objective scale we can use to compare technologies, but it misses many factors which should affect our choice. An energy technology with high EROEI may consume excessive fresh water or despoil the environment, or it may prove to be more socially beneficial to forgo some energy intensive activities instead of generating the extra energy.

Let's think about what we are trying to accomplish. We have

  • a population with needs and desires
  • biological and geographical assets providing natural services
  • a limited flow rate of solar, wind and other renewable energies
  • a limited flow rate of food and clean water
  • a limited stock of land, topsoil and biodiversity
  • finite mineral resources and fossil fuels
  • social capital (educated cohesive communities)
  • physical and technological infrastructure.

and many options (technologies, industries) for using resources to fulfill human desires and improve welfare. We need to choose options and allocate our limited resources to maximize human welfare for this and future generations. Energy is important, but only one of the limiting factors we must allocate. Happiness is not proportional to energy use, and you need a multi-factor approach to determine how much of what types of energy society needs.

What we really need to measure is HROARI - Happiness return on aggregate resources invested.


And I wasn't jumping on you

right, you weren't. I was just trying to avoid having someone throw the "you are a cornucopian" epithet at me.

Thanks for your comments.

Why not...?

This particular bit of the thread needs to be expanded Jeff.

We can't just replace all the high return energy with more of the low return. The machine (society, technology and terms of trade) doesn't *work* at the low return. Suppose we had to go back to horses. Everything would take much, much longer to accomplish. Many things we do now would not get done at all. We can't even scale our agricultural system to produce the feed.

I went to visit John Howe yesterday and drove in his solar powered MG. One could take it to town and back - on a good day and not twice. The MG is about ten horses and hills are a huge problem. We can't change to all electric cars powered by huge arrays of windmills because we can't scale up to that quantity of windmills without changing society. Just like the horse and horse feed, it takes too much time and resources to build the windmills; doing so will drag the machine down. [I don't have this 100% clear, sorry.]

I'm trying to cut my energy use to the point where I can go off grid. That means the freezer goes - everything possible has to go into the solar drier. That's time and attention. Taking a bicycle to town takes 2 to 3 times as long as driving. I'm only working half-time, so it will be harder to replace my computers with laptops, etc.... I don't have time for Lindsey; what I really need is a couple of serfs. That's a different society.

cfm in Gray, ME

I think that Lindsey Lohan et al (that is, all discretionary spending) are completely irrelevant to EROEI calculations.

You just have to do one thought experiment:
Assume our general standard of living would be so low that if we do not get hold of that energy, we would die.
Motivation and creativity to solve the problem would be sufficiently stimulated, I dare say.

Now what are the energy inputs into exploiting the one energy source against the other in such a scenario?

The rest is just some pretty heavy accounting.

Of course, there are essential aspects of our societies that developed to support highly complex industries such as the energy industry. Examples for those are legal frameworks and legal processes, a highly differentiated services and consulting industry and a powerful transport system. However, these "overheads" support other industries, too, so switching to alternative energy sources will not change them much.

I think it is fair to assume that we will not be able to actively change general societal patterns in our search for new energy sources. So these patterns can be taken as largely equal for all energy sources and their energy inputs will become irrelevant for a first-level comparison.

However, we must include into the EROEI calculation all required infrastructures that are specific to one of the energy sources. If we were to, for example, expand reprocessed nuclear by an order of magnitude, the required specific infrastructure would include the building, running and maintenance of the uranium mines, the power plants, the reprocessing plants, the nuclear waste dumps, the transportaion system (special trailer trucks and trains) and all the necessary security measures for the plants and the transport of nuclear material.



This discussion of EROEI being 3:1 or 200:1 is ridiculous from my point of view because of a single simple reason. Imagine you have a factory that produces energy from a certain source in 200:1. This means it produces to the rest of the society 199 for every 1 that it uses. Now imagine that you have a factory that has a EROEI of 3:1. For every 200 it will produce, it gives 133 to society. It seems bad, but the only thing you'll have to do is to create another one of that and you will have surpassed the first one. The energy cost of that is already accounted for in the EROEI itself. Basically, it doesn't matter if the EROEI is 20000:1 or 2:1. What matters is other questions:

1 - how much energy will I be producing (having made the EROEI discount) per day?

2 - how much impact does my production has in the environment?

3 - will my sources be permanent, or are they finite?

To these questions, it is undeniable that wind, solar and these kinds of energy sources are good responding 2 and 3. Our big problem is that they still don't respond well to the first one. Our industry is based on a source that is about to collide with the third. EROEI has nothing to do with this, as long as it is greater than one (meaning it has an output to the society).

Another picture: imagine you have this amazing factory that outputs 200:1. Right, but it has a catch. You can only build one. And then you have these PV that only give you 6:1. But if you build one of them, you can, with the power of the first, create 5 more. With those 5, you can create 25. Next, 125. 625. You get the picture. Now tell me, what's more important, EROEI or finitness of resources?

People often make this argument - that as long as it's energy-positive, it's worth doing.

I disagree. That's like a wealthy heir burning through his inheritance like there's no tomorrow, saying that when the money runs out, he'll get a job at McDonald's. As long as it's "money-positive," he can continue his lifestyle.

Of course, it's not true, or we'd all be living the life of Paris Hilton.

The more of our economy that is devoted to gathering energy, the less there will be for other things.

There's also the question of whether the EROEI actually is positive. If it's not, it won't be sustainable, and that will quickly become apparent in the post-carbon age.

Mr Leanan, your repply is so full of bullshit I don't even know where to start.

EROEI is not about of how much of the economy is devoted to make energy. EROEI is about a mechanical process. EROEI = 1 is the process that gives eternal loop, and EROEI > 1 is the enough basis for any economy GROWTH.

Your McDonald's metaphor is wrong because a worker in McDonald's always wins poorly. Renewables only win poorly as long as they are small. You can't expand infinitely your time working on McDonald's because a day is only 24h. But you CAN expand infinitely renewables without too much of a burden in the society. Not to mention the obsolescence of war, which is a cost to bear.

If you have not seen A Prairie Home Companion, Altman's last film, you should. Lohan with her suicide poetry is balanced against the angel of death (Virginia Madsen). Don't know the rest of Lohan's work but that bit was quality.


Perhaps we should view the resources expended upon Lindsay Lohan as a form of societal entropy that is analagous to waste heat going out a power plant's cooling tower or a car's radiator? The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a fact of life. Perhaps there is an equivalent to the Second Law governing the functioning of human society?

I remember a time when an actors ability in performance was sorted with a different lenses then there off screen life. In fact it was expected for them to be a bit abnormal personally.

Its has only been after the inforamtion economy that the difference between the on screen and off screen has been blurred and our never ending focus with "stars" come into play. I dont care what person x does in there own time - is the music they make or the movies thay star in worth my hard earned money? If yes then keep on keeping on.

I have seen then in person and I can tell you we should care less for the most part.

Your ultimate EROEI of 1:1 is brilliant. If it was any greater large amounts of unsold fuel would be accumulating somewhere. The producers would then cut production until the surplus is sold.
I contend that we need to stop using fossil fuels and the EROEI of alternatives be calculated on only the fossil fuel inputs. Good engineering could create a biofuel production system that replaces FF with solar thermal, PV, wind, stover, hydro, and organic farming.

I think we can approach the problem from two angles: source and end-use.

* The source EROEI simply indicates how much extra energy an activity generates. In order to make it comparable, however, we should limit ourselves to one type of energy: for example, how much energy from a nuclear plant does it take to make all the components and provide all the upkeep to build, run, and decommission a particular nuclear plant design? If you use only electricity from windmills, what does it take to make another?
Obviously we mix energy types and sources all the time, but this is necessary to make a meaningful comparison possible. Without that restriction, any EROEI number would require pages of caveats, provisions and qualification which defeats the purpose of having a metric. This also assures that we will not run into maintenance problems when future energy supplies are scarce and less diverse. Downside: it underestimates the amount of energy available. See below.

* The end-use EROEI indicates the amount and kind of energy necessary to perform a specific task. For example, how much electrical energy is needed to shave oneself? How much coal energy is needed to heat a house? How much nuclear energy is needed to blow thy enemies to tiny bits?
Here it becomes clear that the type of energy used makes a difference in the EROEI. So the EROEI can be better or worse for a certain task, depending on which kind of energy, or energy source is used. If we compare these numbers, we can make better choices between available means of generating energy depending on which tasks we need to accomplish.
For example, you want to transport yourself. Do you use muscle, electricity or coal? You have nuclear power. Is it better spent to produce fertilizer, to heat houses, to cultivate fields? Here you can compare the EROEI.

EROEI numbers change when different tasks are performed, and/or different energy sources or types are used.
So, when using the term EROEI, always define what kind of energy is invested, and what kind of energy is returned/what kind of task is performed.

Thanks, slx, for suggesting to use the proper type of energy for each task.

There is actually a concept for that which is called exergy analysis (on exergy:

A *lot* of energy can be saved by using the right type of energy for a task. One example that many people know is that space heating with electricity if very bad energetically in most cases. Not only does this type of heating have a maximum plant-to-radiator conversion efficiency of maybe 30%, but it also wastes the very high exergy (="Energy quality") of electricity to provide very low-grade heat (=very low exergy).

This is why combined heat and power with district heating is such a good idea: You use the otherwise discarded low-temperature heat from the electricity generation process to heat homes. It works: a lot of Denmark and about 30% of Berlin, Germany's capital, are heated this way very comfortably.



What is the aggregate societal EROEI where virtually every aspect of society is a prerequisite to that society’s energy production? Well, it’s right about 1:1. Which is exactly what we will see next time in our discussion of price-estimated EROEI.

This seems like pure tautology - a society on the whole pretty much consumes what it produces. I could hardly expect otherwise, as very little of what is produced stores well over long periods of time. Maybe the occasional pyramid in the desert, but no one builds that way any more. I'm having a lot of trouble seeing any way for this discussion to pass the "so what" test, as it is so over-broad that the only available conclusion seems to be "what is, is." So can it actually take us anywhere?

Here's a thought: Just because we (people) happen to be at the top of the food chain at the moment, doesn't mean we will remain there. As they say in most every annual report I've ever seen; "History is not a reliable indicator of future performance.", or words to that effect.

It's also been my observation over the past 5 decades or so, that people rarely react as they are expected to. There is a significant degree of "contrariness" built into our DNA, I do believe. Which is why polls and fancy mathematics often fail to provide useful information. People lie. Just because we can. And we will use as much energy as is available, as fast as we can, just because we can. The same is true of other life forms on this planet.

So while EROEI and other such things are an entertaining intellectual exercise, they mean little in the larger scheme of things.

I don't recall the author, but someone once noted that: The jury is still out on whether intelligence is a desirable survival trait. May have been Albert. Not sure about it.

I agree that it is a tautology, but convincing some of that is trickier than might at first be imagined. But, if you accept the 1:1 proposition, then consider its corollary: if aggregate society EROEI is declining, then society must shrink unless that EROEI decline is offset by efficiency gains. And efficiency gains are fundamentally limited. At best, it seems, we will reach a point where we EROEI decline ceases and we've stabilized at some new, but lower, level of renewable/biofuel economy. This means no growth. That causes a problem for our fundamental economic structure that must be considered.

But at the end of the day, the "so what" factor is that this is just a discussion starter. If the end game of that discussion is the consensus that EROEI should not be the subject of further discussion (a consensus that does not currently exist), then it has been successful.

I mostly agree that EROEI is of limited utility because the boundary conditions are usually ill defined. But I think you are blowing up your argument when you suggest the corrolary is that "if aggregate society EROEI is declining then socity must shrink". Whatever happened to aggregate socity EROEI = 1:1. How can it decline if it is by definition always equal to 1? You probably just broke your preferred definition of EREOEI and started talking about the more restricted version of EROEI that doesn't include all the extra societal inputs.

We have an enormous capacity for "efficiency gains" through changes to society. (eg. Taking out the Lindsay Lohans) So I would disagree that potential "efficiency gains are fundamentally limited". The are more fundamentally unknown.

This is still a puzzle. Why can't it simply be that if overall EROEI for primary energy (defined moderately narrowly) declines, primary-energy activity just increases to compensate? Unless this somehow needs to divert huge numbers of people, it might not be at insupportable expense to the larger economy. Millions of wind turbines, largely automated, might not pose an insurmountable problem even if it emerged that they only returned 3:1 - that would merely mean we needed 50% more turbines (the extras providing energy to make more turbines) than if they had an infinite EROEI - big deal, so what? Of course we would have 50% more frustration and protest from those who would prefer not to see every hilltop festooned with wind turbines, but who also don't want to endure a Mad Max future with 30-year life expectancies - but again, so what? - sometimes one can't have it both ways.

Now, if overall primary-energy EROEI declines to a value close to 1 (such as 1.3 or less for ethanol) then we can get into a really painful runaway loop where the primary energy industry is essentially only maintaining itself. But in that case, moronic entertainment - football, Lohan, or otherwise - would cease to be a major factor except amongst a tiny aristocracy. Until it gets that bad, I'm still not seeing economic fluff as a necessary inclusion in a primary-energy EROEI calculation. After all, poor people in poor countries, who have negligible access to economic fluff, often work very hard.

I think I still see moronic entertainment as one of the many things a primary energy surplus (primary EROEI substantially larger than 1.0 with the industry on a sufficient scale) pays for, not as an integral part of primary energy production. If that surplus diminishes a lot, we become poorer, but (after grousing up a storm) we will still do what we need to do, with much (not all) fluff falling away as necessary. Which, rightly or wrongly, must be why 'westexas' keeps insisting, get thee to the non-discretionary side of the economy, or something to that effect. (Probably bad advice for superstars, who after all had existed in the form of court entertainers since time immemorial, but better advice for lesser lights...)

Came-on, people. Hasn't this discussion go for too long now? We can't measure with complete precision the EROEI of any energy producing method, I guess that is a consensus. We also need that number with some degree of precision to evaluate energy producing methods, what I also think is a consensus.

So, instead of arguing about what tiny changes including the entire world on our calculations could cause, shouldn't we be arguing about what is the precision we need that number to have, and how to abtain such precision?

I have such strange feeling that obtaining usefull figures for EROEI is quite easier than what you are reporting. It seems quite likely that when you accont energy used directly, energy used on directly needed structure, energy used support structure, energy used supporting the support, and so on, the importance of those values dalways decrease as you add indirections, and very fast. Is that right? If so, it would be easy to get your EROEI on any arbitrary precision just including enought factors.

And by the way, you can define EROEI as both (Egross/(Eself + Epurchased)) or (Enet/Epurchased). You can also define energy surplus as (Egross - Eself - Epurchased) or (Enet - Epurchased), that are the same, by the way. But you can't use the definitions of the Figure 1. They simply don't measure EROEI.

I don't think you can say the energy cost decreases as you increase the indirection. It is very situationally dependent.

For example the energy return of hand digging coal versus a mountain top removal operation. If you set the boundaries in such a way that you neglect to include the energy cost of maintaining the coal miners you would be excluding an important factor in the hand dug coal but a negligible factor in the mountain top removal coal.

I think you are on the right tack here however

If estimation is the game..Certain energy inputs are neutralised by being expended in either scenario. compared to the extra energy consumed infood by hand digging those miners still exist in either scenario and would eat anyway.

EROEI from the universes POV is always <1 so is not useful.. asyou say ill defined boundry conditions

some sort of standard needs to be agreed on.

surplus energy consumption above a certain threshold of a solar flux (food)

its all about movement...

the constant is time

time is a resource


Just as there are various levels of frivolity, there are varying levels of EROEI. "Energy" must include the politics that provide for the inputs to be applied. If it costs 100 dollars a barrel to maintain 'control' in the oil producing countries through economic hit men, covert operations, military operations, etc, then we need to consider that the costs of these inputs should be placed upon the demand point: the consumers. A consumption tax gives society the opportunity to voice their opinion of the equation at every purchase. While reducing demand for overall products, it does not require creation of the monochromatic command economy.
Information about the true nature of our economy is first and foremost the limiting factor in change. As long as we believe that we aren't doing any more harm that the next person in the economy, we continue to burn and waste as much as we can to keep our comfort level where it is. Facing the truth of our wastefulness is uncomfortable, it is not debilitating. It will be debilitating if we wait too long, or allow things to get so bad that a command economy is implemented 'for our own good'.
A carbon tax is simply command economics applied selectively. A general consumption tax leaves the selectivity up to the consumer. If it drives people to the underground economy to avoid taxes, it drives them to local markets, which reduces consumption and reduces command revenue; another choice which only looks bad to those with links to illicit power.

The reference to Lindsay Lohan is a good one, but you have to look at the difference between entertainment and recreation. Recreation is a requirement for healthy living. Entertainment is what we get when we can't live with reality. One increases efficiency of workers, the other decreases it. The most productive laborers are in countries where the focus is on maximizing time off, not on maximizing money paid and spent.
If we are to try and replace energy use with proactive human behaviors (car pooling, physical activity, etc), then we also have to consider improving the quality of the people who will conduct those activities. Depressed, confused, overworked, and underslept people don't do a very good job of improving the world's efficiency (especially if they require a trip to Starbucks before getting started).

If you think ... that you know better than the market how best to allocate capital through some enlightened command economy, then there is probably a Lenin fan-club out there just waiting for your leadership.

Translation: question the market and you're a Commie? I would have expected better of Jeff.

This is a false dichotomy that freezes thought. A study of intellectual history shows that almost no one really believes in the uncontrolled market. Whether it's environmentalists or oil company executives, the question is how to intervene in markets, not whether to.

Bringing up Lenin is particularly off-the-mark, since Marxist-Leninism has virtually disappeared as a political and intellectual force.

What's happening now with the financial crises is a gradual reappraisal of neo-liberalism. We will re-discover Keynes and Marx... take a few timid steps. If things get really bad, though - when people are hungry or feel threatened - then get ready for a command economy. Command economies come in all flavors - communist, fascist, conservative nationalist, or middle-of-the-road liberal. A prime example of a command economy is the UK and the US during World War II.

This is important stuff - let's use a little more intellectual rigor and not fall into outdated dualisms.

(Also to be a stickler, it is a mistake to identify Lenin with a command economy. He was much more pragmatic, switching from War Communism to the semi-capitalist New Economic Policy (NEP) when circumstances demanded it.)

BTW - Nice exchange between Nate and the social scientist.

Energy Bulletin

Good point... I've probably taken an excessively aggressive position to spur debate. Seems I've been a bit too cranky lately...

Yeh, the quote took me by surprise, Jeff. Reading your site and posts, I had thought you were in the communitarian-anarchist camp. No matter. Almost everything you write is stimulating and unexpected.


Yes, perhaps, but that still leaves a legitimate unanswered question. If you oppose having the market decide, then who gets to be philosopher-king of the command economy? And who decides who gets to be philosopher-king? And who decides who decides who gets...

After all, we get a lot of heated denigration of "elites" around here - which indicates little more than that many folks intensely dislike, even hate, the would-be philosopher-kings we've got now. After centuries of debate, there still seem to be only two real answers on offer: (1) the market decides; or (2) I - not you - decide. Answer (2) is highly desired - but it creates a totally unworkable finger-pointing exercise. That leaves the non-egotistical and thus unwanted answer (1). Which must be why how to "intervene" will remain the subject of heated, unresolved argument until the end of time. And why, until then, it will continue to provide wonderful cover for rent-seeking, i.e. for limitless self-aggrandizement by a few at the expense of the commonweal.

In actual historical fact, Paul, "letting the market decide" has never been an option. For real-world politicians, that argument is only used for propaganda purposes.

History, in my view, is the drama of how various elites and group fight to control how the surplus product is allocated.

Policy will always be a mix of the market and government intervention. The intelligent discussion really starts when we move away from Wars of Religion and instead talk about specifics. Is this subsidy worthwhile? Who benefits from a given change in the tax code? Are these regulations beneficial or a hindrance?

There are conflicts of interest, but there are also opportunities to follow policies that benefit multiple groups.


While I routinely follow TOD, I haven't posted any comments since about February, because I found myself getting too hostile and snarky, particularly with certain individuals. Well, I'm sort of back, and I promise to play nice.

This whole subject of EROEI has been of great interest to me, from several standpoints. While EROEI can be a very useful indicator of whether one is really doing much good with a particular energy production scheme, it hardly tells the whole story, and I think we are asking it to do things that it inherently can not do. (I've also noticed that in this whole discussion, very little mention is made of what is supposed to be done with the number once you have calculated an EROEI).

I view EROEI as nothing more than one of many factors that go into an overall technical/economic evaluation of competing courses of action. I am also strongly of the opinion that if it is made to include all sorts of secondary, tertiary, and 'n-ary' energy inputs, receding into infinity, it becomes less, rather than more, useful. This is because once one starts including such increasingly indirect energy inputs, one unavoidably gets into an increasingly confusing and uncertain allocation game, the details of which one can argue about ad nauseum. Also, it becomes impossible to set these indirect inputs on an equivalent basis for different scenarios.

If I were to set down the rules for doing an EROEI, I would only include a) the direct energy inputs to the energy production process, and b) the energy content of the first tier of construction and material inputs. That's it. No mas.

Furthermore, I think that in this whole EROEI game a distinction must be made between one-time energy inputs (such as in the construction of solar power systems or wind turbines) and those energy inputs which are continuous and largely proportional to energy output (such as the fuel used to produce ethanol). To use a financial analogy, the former is like capital investment, while the latter is like direct operating costs. The distinction is necessary, because how one treats capital investment over time is determined largely by value judgements which express themselves as discount rates.

EROEI can be a useful albeit imperfect tool for comparing the relative meritsof energy alternatives, but if we load it up with all sorts of social science (an oxymoron if there ever was one) complications, it becomes a largely useless academic plaything.

Hello Joule,

Your Quote: "EROEI can be a useful albeit imperfect tool for comparing the relative merits of energy alternatives, but if we load it up with all sorts of social science (an oxymoron if there ever was one) complications, it becomes a largely useless academic plaything."

I largely agree with the above sentence, but with the additional caveat that social science could be quite useful for Asimov's Foundation concepts of predictive collapse and directed decline for Bottleneck Optimization.

Recognition and constant manipulation of cascading blowbacks will be just as important as ERoEI calculations, in fact, the 'effective' detritovore and biosolar MPP & ERoEI boundaries may be possibly determined by localized ramifications as the essential spiderwebs shrink. Thus, my long posting series on the Earthmarine vs Merc Dynamic to help leverage sequential biosolar MPP rates of change and the protection of habitats and the species within.

Consider my Asphalt Wonderland when the pipelined supply from TX and CA stops, and we are removed from the National Grid for lack of funds. The degree to which we cooperatively prepare by unavoidable and growing political bifurcation, by early Peakoil Outreach & Paradigm Shift for this localized low-energetic certainty, will directly determine the resulting violence, out-migration, death rates, and other self-reinforcing blowbacks. Refer to my earlier posts on the Battle of Kruger and keystone predation for habitat optimization of humanimal eco-habitats.

The waning days of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey resulted in a massive Armenian Desert Deathmarch. IF one can leave the horrific immorality issues aside: this was merely a simple, derived ERoEI local calculation whereby short term energy investment [trains into the scorching desert] resulted in [greater long-term detritovore and biosolar MPP/capita] for the winning political side. A very effective program for handling perceived Overshoot and increasing MPP before the days of supercomputing and eco-system analysis.

I contend the US Southwest will largely repeat this exercise unless full acknowledgement and early preparation begins ala the Hirsch & Bednek Report for transition implementation and willful social science and political plan execution.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

It seems to me this procedure would be solved by using Wikipedia.

I've followed the comments up thread and all I really see is an attempt to maintain some sort of business as usual soceity, what I call Business As Usual Lite in this post of some time ago.

I would suggest that people read Richard Duncan's spring 2007 article at:

Yes, EROEI is important and I'm all for going back as far as possible and discarding the outliers. But in the end, i rather doubt that it is going to matter.


BTW, one point that no one has raised is that it might make more sense to adopt a strategy with a lower EROEI that lasts generations rather than one with a higher EROEI that might last a decade or two.

Hello Todd,

Thxs for the latest Dr. Duncan link--I bookmarked it. As a fast-crash Thermo/Gene realist: any Olduvai Theory update is essential as a backstop for my speculative postings.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Business As Usual Lite

Yeah, that's what building three times as many plants of some sort that produce only a third as much amounts to. Our stone heads are not big enough. Build more of them and bigger ones.

What if one looked at this from the other end? Decide how much energy we get - the energy budget? Then figure out what works better. That would tell us we cannot pave the planet with solar collectors in 1 year - if ever - because we don't have the resources.

cfm in Gray, ME

Jeff, this is somewhat valuable in getting to the bottom of a nebulous term.

But the analysis (as with all EROEI discussions) is missing two key points.

The first missing point is the question of time. Any process that has an EROEI > 1 will, if repeated, have a second-level EROEI that is the square of the first. Repeat it again and you get the cube, etc. Exponential growth with time; what you are really looking at with EROEI is not a dimensionless number, but a number that is essentially a growth rate.

For example, if the full cycle for which you are determining EROEI takes 1 year, and EROEI is 2, then the associated rate is 100%/year. In reality there's both a mix of energy inputs and time-scales involved: capital investment may be 5 to 50-year time scales, while the cycle from oil in the ground to refinery to diesel fuel for the equipment is just a few months, and the cycle for energy (via Lindsey Lohans and everything else) in labor may be days to decades depending on the mix of inputs. I'm not sure the best way to get the appropriate rate out of such a mix of inputs, but I'm pretty sure just looking at energy without including the time aspect gives the wrong result.

The second thing missing is considering an economy of multiple outputs, not just energy. Of course if you have a 1-product economy then the ratio of outputs to inputs averaged over a given period is just the net growth rate. If your economy is growing at 5%/year, the EROEI corresponding to a 1-year cycle would be 1.05 precisely. But include capital investment, say, as an output (and input) and you now have separate variables for which you can quantify dependencies: what's the energy production rate dependence on capital, what's the energy production rate dependence on energy input, what's the capital growth rate dependence on capital and energy. That allows meaningful separation of dependencies beyond the growth-rate tautology.

Of course both of those are complications that can't be captured in a single number like EROEI. But they're where you need to go if you actually want to talk about meaningful numbers.

I think you've jumped over a step here completely. Namely, why do we care about calculating EROEI? My simple answer to this is "I care about it only so much as it allows me to judge quantitavely between the value of pursuing 2 different kinds of energy." So, from this perspective, the functioning of society is irrelevant, as long as I apply the same function to each energy source I examine. Example, you claim the "command economy" doesn't work, but this is irrelevant if my reason for wanting to calculate EROEI is simply for an apples to apples comparison.

So, in my head, I assume the command economy does work, and all devices will be operated by slaves at top efficiency living in marginal conditions on site with no luxuries. This may sound unrealistic to someone from the west, but my experiences in 3rd world countries have shown me it is quite possible to get equivalent performance from someone that lives on $2 per day in Cambodia vs. the same worker making $20 per hour in the west. Surely, the western worker will expend more energy on useless luxuries, and if EROEI changes based on the wealth of the participants, we can say that there are elements in the calculation not associated with energy production.

In essence, your cultural limitations are influencing your ability to distinguish between the necessary and unnecessary portions of the economy. As the industrialized world moves to 3rd world status, there will be no more "Lindsay Lohans" to worry about. EROEI needs to be independent of culture to be meaningful, and therefore requires assuming a functional "command economy" as the basis of comparison.

I will continue to discount peripheral elements of society in my EROEI calculations. I think a very clear line can be made in this way, and a very poor community will approach this limit asymptotically.

Tom In Thailand

So what if your average pretty media girl contributes to oil extraction? If she does, then she also contributes to a lot of other things - so many things, in fact, that however much energy she uses, it probably is a net gain for us.

I think this only applies in a world of cheap, abundant energy.

As others have pointed out, even the poor among us live better than kings used to. The ancient solar-powered societies simply could not afford to support very many non-productive people. That's why usury (charging interest) was a sin; it was "money for nothing," and the slow-to-no growth economies of the time couldn't support it.

I don't know about Lindsay, but Scott Adams (Dilbert's author) made a half-joking bolg entry about Paris Hilton impact on the economy:

"I was also wondering how much economic value Paris has contributed to the world. If you put a price on the advertising budgets that support the media coverage she generates, plus her TV show, her movie roles, her magazine covers, I’ll bet the dollar value of her contribution to the world is in the billions. Those billions generate taxes that go to important social services such as feeding the poor and protecting our soldiers. And don’t get me started about the tens of millions of masturbators who appreciate her. You can’t put a price on that."

Link to the full post :


EROEI on Transportation Infrastructure ?

I have wondered how to calculate the EREOI on long lived transportation infrastructure.

Some examples

1) USA Interstate Highway system - Made trucking the largest transportation mode (rail was #1 before), made today's urban sprawl possible (interstate type highways in many cases were added beyond the original system) About 50 years lifespan

2) Chunnel between England & France. So far failed to spark the transfer to rail freight expected, about 50% of pax travel mode - Multiple centuries for bore, about 75 years for rails, signals, etc.

3) TransAlp tunnels in Switzerland - Two major tunnels, the larger of the two will provide a flat, straight path between Zurich and Milan (the other one does a less straight, not as flat path between Bern & Milan with a French option). #1 goal is to move freight off trucks driving over Alps (poor fuel mileage) and #2 is to provide 240 kph pax service (replacing air travel and old rail travel over Alps). Multiple centuries for bore, 100 years for rails & signals.

All three use energy, not produce it. #1 vastly expanded energy use, #2 and #3 will reduce energy use.

Any thoughts ?

Best Hopes for Long Lived, Energy Efficient Infrastructure,


The ones that increase fuel consumption would be negative EROEI unless they add to efficiencies somewhere else in the system (i.e., making the extraction of energy somewhere more efficient). For example, much of the reason that roads and rail were built into the hills of KY, West Virginia is to aid coal extraction.

On the rail systems you mentioned, you could only compare to what type of alternative transport they would have replaced. For the purpose of calculation, one could assume X tons as an example needed to be moved, or X number of people being moved from a to b, then calculate one method of transport against the other. You would have to take as a given that X amount was going to be transported, whether it "needed" to be or not, whether it be Fredericks of Hollywood garments, or steel beams.

Right now, we are talking about 10 billion dollars investment in a new air traffic control system, which would use GPS as the guidence system. The system would allow aircraft to fly much straighter routes and allow a large savings in fuel over time. While it creates no energy per se, the system allows energy savings. BUT, we have to accept as given that the air travel/transport is needed, or at least that it is going to happen, whether it is needed or not.


I suggested in post to the first installment that boundry conditions be set over the whole period of time that an energy technology is used. Your question now, of how deep into society to look for E_self and E_purchase gets to some very technical issues surrounding EROEI calculations. In looking at nuclear power, some who claim low (5:1) EROEI attempt to use essentially a fraction of societal energy use to account for energy used in generating nuclear power while others who claim a high EROEI shuffle energy used to enrich fuel into a total fuel use which ultimately gets counted as E_net. The first approach suffers from non-linearity in that energy used by society is scaled in part to energy produced (the issue you raise) while the latter approch is just a shell game. Some people seem to get very worked up about it but maybe that is understandable since bragging rights are involved.

I'd like though to get back to the period of time issue. There is yet another James Hansen blog storm getting going, this time over a paper he a co-workers published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Newton's old journal. The storm is over a newspaper article that misreads the paper. You can read about it here. A very important result of the paper (not what the storm is about) is that climate models that have assumed that ice sheets linger are not well justified in that assumption so that warming can lay bare darker colored rock (or water) sooner than anticipated and boost warming. This leads them to conclude that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that leads to dangerous climate change is lower than previously assumed. They now think that emssions reductions are likely not sufficienct to avoid dangerous climate change (e.g. 25 meter sea level rise over a few centuries; part of the storm) and so sequestering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere will be needed. This is going to result in some cost in energy at least as an opportunity cost. Thus, part of the equation for EROEI for fossil fuels should include the energy used to sequester the carbon dioxide from the fuel we've already used. So, we can not know what the EROEI for fossil fuels is until we know how much energy that clean up is going to require. The EROEI of the oil on the Exxon Valdez was about zero, but we would generally at least think more in terms of the EROEI of the oil from the field where it came from. Expanding our time frame into the environmental clean up of the atmosphere could take a chunk out of the EROEI of that field and all others.

But if clean up energy comes from solar PV, a technology that was developed because we had a fossil fuel powered economy, and we continue to use PV after the clean up for a few thousand years, then the total system (fossil fuel use to get to quantum harvesting of sunlight) tends to the EROEI the PV technology with fossil fuels as an insignificant blip in the equation. Since PV, with an energy payback time of 2 years and likely extended use out to 100 year and with recycling requiring a third of the energy of initial fabrication, has an EROEI tending to 100, this, at a minimum, is what the whole system tends to.

But then, because this is so intergenerational, we need to consider EROEI for whom. Those folks who got Standard Oil for their model T's are not going to be paying for the clean up except that some of them learned the power of industrial scale R&D in WWII and perfected it enough so that a relatively small research program in PV systems seemed like an obvious thing to spend some GI Bill induced prosperity on. It takes centuries to realize the full EROEI of solar so we don't get to benefit fully but we do get to pay for clean up of fossil fuel use. Only those off in the future get to say they are getting the full benefit. Yet, in using EROEI to make energy decisions, we certainly want to consider future benefits and not just our own.


Errr...not sure I'm in the right place. Is it just me, or am I seeing Vlad in Lindsey or vice versa.

One it's in the eyebrows, two it's in the mouth/lips, three its in the width and spacing of the eyes, four its in the nose.

No comments on ears seems appropriate.

"I’ll admit, this is an extreme example. In the end, we need to address what society does with its “surplus” energy. After all, we could all live in homogenized concrete apartment blocs, wear one brand of clothing, watch one news channel, and read one newspaper. That would be a vastly more efficient form of energy usage than our current consumer economy. Through a well-run command economy, we could greatly increase the level of “surplus” energy available to invest in wind or rail infrastructure. "

I disagree with this premise completely. I think it reflects a certain assumption that reducing energy use involves hardship and government coercion, which sounds like the Soviet Union, or that the capitalist economy (represented by frivolous consumerist junk) requires "surplus energy."

Not so. There is no effective resource cost difference between homogenized concrete apartment blocks and some sort of architectural/designer apartment blocks. (Most capitalist apartment blocks are also rather heavily homogenized alas.) Nor is there any real resource difference between one brand of clothing and many brands of clothing, or one newspaper and many newspapers.

The difference between these is the human input of creativity and variety, ie the non-resource, non-energy input. This may cause these products to cost more money, but not necessarily more resources. People endlessly confuse monetary cost and resource cost. Manhattanites are among the lowest resource-users, with a very expensive lifestyle, while the guy in the Maine woods with a pickup and a snowmachine, who burns wood and has a drafty house and a couple of outbuildings, who is sitting on ten or twenty acres (but no farming), who has attics, closets and basements full of crap may have a monetarily cheap lifestyle but one that consumes lots of resources.

When we think of "economizing" we normally tend towards things that are monetarily cheaper. It is certainly cheaper to use generic mass-produced goods (clothing from WalMart and Target) than goods with a higher human/design/conceptual input (clothing from Marc Jacobs and Chloe). However, we can see that if we spend $10,000 on clothes at WalMart compared to $10,000 on clothes at Marc Jacobs, we consume much, much more resources at WalMart.

So, I propose that, in the interests of Saving the Earth, we all shop at Marc Jacobs and have small and relatively empty closets. And, we can live in superinsulated high-rise condos and ride the subway to our jobs in which we create goods and services with a high degree of non-resource value for each other. Instead of STUFF STUFF STUFF, we can enjoy (or provide) a good restaurant meal, a massage, some theater or live music, or even just more free time, and a small amount of creative craft/custom made products to fit in our small apartments.

As resources become more scarce, one would expect the cost of resources to rise more than the cost of non-resource inputs, thus favoring products with relatively low resource inputs and relatively high non-resource inputs. Thus, if gasoline is $8 a gallon and a music CD is $10, people would tend to buy fewer gas-guzzlers and more music.