On Energy Transitions Past and Future

This is a repost of Professor Cutler Cleveland's paper on energy transitions. It provides an excellent big picture overview of what issues need to be considered in a successful transition away from fossil fuels. Professor Cleveland previously wrote "Energy From Wind - A Discussion of the EROI Research", and "Ten Fundamental Principles of Net Energy" posted on theoildrum.com. Cutler Cleveland is a Professor at Boston University and has been researching and writing on energy issues for over 20 years. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Earth, Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Energy, the Dictionary of Energy and the Journal of Ecological Economics

Composition of U.S. energy use. (Source: Cutler Cleveland) Click to Enlarge


In Greek mythology, Prometheus defied the will of Zeus by stealing fire and giving it to the mortal race of men in their dark caves. Zeus was enraged by Prometheus' deceit, so he had Prometheus carried to Mount Caucasus, where an eagle would pick at his liver; it would grow back each day and the eagle would eat it again. Fire transformed mortal life by providing light, warmth, cooking, healing and ultimately the ability to smelt and forge metals, and to bake bricks, ceramics, and lime. Fire became the basis for the Greek culture and ultimately all Western culture. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Greeks attributed fire not to a mortal origin, but to a Titan, one of the godlike giants who were considered to be the personifications of the forces of nature.

If fire was the first Promethean energy technology, then Promethean II was the heat engine, powered first by wood and coal, and then by oil and natural gas. Like fire, heat engines achieve a qualitative conversion of energy (heat into mechanical work), and they sustain a chain reaction process by supplying surplus energy. Surplus energy or (net energy) is the gross energy extracted less the energy used in the extraction process itself. The Promethean nature of fossil fuels is due to the much larger surplus they deliver compared to animate energy converters such as draft animals and human labor.

The changes wrought by fossil fuels exceeded even those produced by the introduction of fire. The rapid expansion of the human population and its material living standard over the past 200 years could not have been produced by direct solar energy and wood being converted by plants, humans and draft animals. Advances in every human sphere — commerce, agriculture, transportation, the military, science and technology, household life, health care, public utilities—were driven directly or indirectly by the changes in society's underlying energy systems.

In the coming decades, world oil production will peak and then begin to decline, followed by natural gas and eventually coal production. There is considerable debate about when these peaks will occur because such information would greatly aid energy companies, policy makers, and the general public. But at another level, the timing of peak fossil fuel production doesn't really matter. A more fundamental issue is the magnitude and nature of the energy transition that will eventually occur. The next energy transition undoubtedly will have far reaching impacts just as fire and fossil fuels did. However, the next energy transition will occur under a very different set of conditions, which are the subject of the rest of this discussion.

The Magnitude of the Shift

Figure 2. Composition of U.S. energy use. (Source: Cutler Cleveland) Click to Enlarge

The last major transition occurred in the late 19th century when coal replaced wood as the dominant fuel. Figure 2 illustrates this transition for the United States, a period often referred to as the second Industrial Revolution (the first being the widespread replacement of manual labor by machines that began in Britain in the 18th century, and the resultant shift from a largely rural and agrarian population to a town-centered society engaged increasingly in factory manufacture). Wood and animal feed suppled more than 95% of the energy used in the United States in 1800. The population of the nation stood at just 5.3 million people, per capita GDP was about $1,200 (in real US$2000), dominant energy converters were human labor and draft animals (horses), and the population was overwhelmingly rural and concentrated near the eastern seaboard.

Figure 3. The global flux of fossil and renewable fuels. (Source: Smil, V. 2006. "21st century energy: Some sobering thoughts.'' OECD Observer 258/59: 22-23.)Click to Enlarge

The nation was completely transformed by World War I. Coal had replaced wood as the dominant fuel, meeting 70% of the nation's energy needs, with hydropower and newcomers oil and natural gas combining for an additional 15%. Steam engines and turbines had replaced people and draft animals as the dominant energy converters. The population had soared to more than 100 million, per capita GDP had increased by a factor of five to $6,000, more than half of the nation's population lived in cities, and manufacturing and services accounted for most of the nation's economic output. Thus, the transition from wood to fossil fuels, and its associated shift in the energy-using capital stock, produced as fundamental a transition in human existence as did the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

How much renewable energy is needed if it were to replace fossil fuels in the same pattern as coal replaced wood? The United States first consumed as much coal as wood in about 1885. Total energy use then was about 5.6 quadrillion BTU (1 quadrillion = 10^15), equal to about 0.19 TW (Terawatts or 10^12 watts). Consider what it would take today to replace even just one-half of U.S. fossil fuel use with renewable energy: we would need to displace coal and petroleum energy flows of 2.9 TW, or 32 times the amount of coal used in 1885. Current global fossil fuel use is about 13 TW, so we need more than 6 TW of renewable energies to replace 50% of all fossil fuels. This is a staggering shift.

Is renewable energy up to this challenge? There are physical, economic, technical, environmental, and social components to this question. Figure 3 depicts one slice of the picture: pure physical availability as measured by the global annual flow of various energies. The only renewable energy that exceeds annual global fossil fuel use is direct solar radiation, which is several orders of magnitudes larger than fossil fuel use. To date however, the delivery of electricity (photovoltaics) or heat (solar thermal) directly from solar energy represents a tiny fraction of our energy portfolio due to economic and technical constraints. Most other renewable energy flows could not meet current energy needs even if they were fully utilized. More importantly, there are important qualitative aspects to solar, wind, and biomass energy that pose unique challenges to their widespread utilization.


Most discussions of energy require the aggregation of different forms and types of energy. The notion of "total energy use" in Figures 2 and 3 indicates that various physical amounts of energy—coal, oil, gas, uranium, kilowatt-hours (kWh), radiation—are added together. The simplest and most common form form of aggregation is to add up the individual variables according to their thermal equivalents (BTUs, joules, etc.). For example, 1 kWh is equal to 3.6x106 joules, 1 barrel of oil is equal to 6.1x109 joules, and so on.

Despite its widespread use, aggregation by heat content ignores the fact that not all joules are equal. For example, a joule of electricity can perform tasks such as illumination and spinning a CD-ROM that other forms of energy cannot do, or could do in a much more cumbersome and expensive fashion (Imagine trying to power your laptop directly with coal).

These differences among types of energy are described by the concept of energy quality, which is the difference in the ability of a unit of energy to produce goods and services for people. Energy quality is determined by a complex combination of physical, chemical, technical, economic, environmental and social attributes that are unique to each form of energy. These attributes include gravimetric and volumetric energy density, power density, emissions, cost and efficiency of conversion, financial risk, amenability to storage, risk to human health, spatial distribution, intermittency, and ease of transport.

Energy Density

Figure 4. Energy densities for various fuels and forms of energy. (Source: Cutler Cleveland)
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Energy density refers to the quantity of energy contained in a form of energy per unit mass or volume. The units of energy density are megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg) or megajoules per liter (MJ/l). Figure 4 illustrates a fundamental driver behind earlier energy transitions: the substitution of coal for biomass and then petroleum for coal were shifts to more concentrated forms of energy. Solid and liquid fossil fuels have much larger mass densities than biomass fuels, and and an even greater advantage in terms of volumetric densities. The preeminent position of liquid fuels derived from crude oil in terms of its combined densities is one reason why it transformed the availability, nature and impact of personal and commercial transport in society. The lower energy density of biomass (12-15 MJ/kg) compared to crude oil (42 MJ/kg) means that replacing the latter with the former will require a significantly larger infrastructure (labor, capital, materials, energy) to produce an equivalent quantity of energy.

The concept of energy density underlies many of the challenges facing the large scale utilization of hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen has the highest energy to weight ratio of all fuels. One kg of hydrogen contains the same amount of energy as 2.1 kg of natural gas or 2.8 kg of gasoline. The high gravimetric density of hydrogen is one reason why it is used for a fuel in the space program to power the engines that lift objects against gravity. However, hydrogen has an extremely low amount of energy per unit volume (methane has nearly 4 times more energy per liter than hydrogen). Hydrogen's low volumetric energy density poses significant technical and economic challenges to the large-scale production, transport and storage for commercial amounts of the fuel.

Power Density

Figure 5. Power densities for fossil and renewable fuels. (Source: Smil, V. 2006. ''21st century energy: Some sobering thoughts.'' OECD Observer 258/59: 22-23.)
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Power density is the rate of energy production per unit of the earth’s area, and is usually expressed in watts per square meter (W/m2). The environmental scientist Vaclav Smil has documented the important differences between fossil and renewable energies, and their implications for the next energy transition. Due to the enormous amount of geologic energy invested in their formation, fossil fuel deposits are an extraordinarily concentrated source of high-quality energy, commonly extracted with power densities of 10^2 or 10^3 W/m2 of coal or hydrocarbon fields. This means that very small land areas are needed to supply enormous energy flows. In contrast, biomass energy production has densities well below 1 W/m2, while densities of electricity produced by water and wind are commonly below 10 W/m2. Only photovoltaic generation, a technique not yet ready for mass utilization, can deliver more than 20 W/m2 of peak power.

The high power densities of energy systems has enabled the increasing concentration of human activity. About 50% of the world's population occupies less than 3% of the inhabited land area; economic activity is similarly concentrated. Buildings, factories and cities currently use energy at power densities of one to three orders of magnitude lower than the power densities of the fuels and thermal electricity that support them. Smil observes that in order to energize the existing residential, industrial and transportation infrastructures inherited from the fossil-fueled era, a solar-based society would have to concentrate diffuse flows to bridge these large power density gaps. Mismatch between the inherently low power densities of renewable energy flows and relatively high power densities of modern final energy uses means that a solar-based system will require a profound spatial restructuring with major environmental and socioeconomic consequences. Most notably according to Smil, there would be vastly increased fixed land requirements for primary conversions, especially with all conversions relying on inherently inefficient photosynthesis whose power densities of are minuscule: the mean is about 450 mW/m2 of ice-free land, and even the most productive fuel crops or tree plantations have gross yields of less than 1 W/m2 and subsequent conversions to electricity and liquid fuels prorate to less than 0.5 W/m2.

Energy Surplus

Figure 6. The energy return on investment (EROI) for various fuel sources in the U.S. (Source: Cutler Cleveland)
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Energy return on investment (EROI) is the ratio of the energy extracted or delivered by a process to the energy used directly and indirectly in that process. A common related term is energy surplus, which is the gross amount of energy extracted or delivered, minus the energy used directly and indirectly in that process. The unprecedented expansion of the human population, the global economy, and per capita living standards of the last 200 years was powered by high EROI, high energy surplus fossil fuels. The penultimate position of fossil fuels in the energy hierarchy stems from the fact that they have a high EROI and a very large energy surplus. The largest oil and gas fields, which are found early in the exploration process due to their sheer physical size, delivered energy surpluses that dwarfed any previous source (and any source developed since then). That surplus, in combination with other attributes, is what makes conventional fossil fuels unique. The long-run challenge society faces is to replace the current system with a combination of alternatives with similar attributes and a much lower carbon intensity.

Most alternatives to conventional liquid fuels have very low or unknown EROIs (Figure 6). The EROI for ethanol derived from corn grown in the U.S. is about 1.5:1, well below that for conventional motor gasoline. Ethanol from sugarcane grown in Brazil apparently has a higher EROI, perhaps as high as 8:1, due to higher yields of sugarcane compared to corn, the use of bagasse as an energy input, and significant cost reductions in ethanol production technology. Shale oil and coal liquefaction have low EROIs and high carbon intensities, although little work has been done in this area in more than 20 years. The Alberta oil sands remain an enigma from a net energy perspective. Anecdotal evidence suggests an EROI of 3:1, but these reports lack veracity. Certainly oil sands will have a lower EROI than conventional crude oil due to the more diffuse nature of the resource base and associated increase in direct and indirect processing energy costs.


Figure 7. A typical 24 hour load profile for a residence in San Jose, CA. (Source: NREL)
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Intermittency refers to the fraction of time that an energy source is available to society. It is an essential feature of electricity generation systems that must combine power generated from multiple sources and locations to supply electricity "24/7." The wind does not blow all the time and the sun does not shine all the time, so a wind turbine and PV array sometimes stand idle. One aspect of intermittency is the load factor or capacity factor, which is the ratio of the output of a power plant compared to the maximum output it could produce. Due to the more or less continuous nature of fossil fuel extraction, thermal power plants have capacity factors of 75 to 90 percent. Typical annual average load factors for wind power are in the range of 20 to 35 percent, depending primarily on wind climate, but also wind turbine design.

Figure 8. The variability of wind energy over a 1y day period. The figure compares the hourly output of 500 MW wind power capacity in two situations, calculated from observed data in Denmark. The red line shows the output of a single site; the blue line shows the multiple site output. Source: European Wind Energy Association, ''Large scale integration of wind energy in the European power supply: analysis, issues and recommendations'' (December 2005)
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Load profiles show characteristic daily and seasonal patterns (Figure 7). For example, most hourly profiles for commercial and institutional facilities rise in the middle of the day and then taper off during early morning and late evening hours. Wind and solar energy availability frequently do not match typical load profiles (Figure 8).

Such intermittency means that wind and solar power are really not “dispatchable”—you can’t necessarily start them up when you most need them. Thus, when wind or solar power is first added to a region’s grid, they do not replace an equivalent amount of existing generating capacity—i.e. the thermal generators that already existed will not immediately be shut down. This is measured by capacity credit, which is the reduction of installed power capacity at thermal power stations enabled by the addition of wind or solar power in such a way that the probability of loss of load a peak times is not increased. So, for example, 1000 MW of installed wind power with a capacity credit of 30% can avoid a 300 MW investment in conventional dispatchable power. A recent survey of U.S. utilities reveals capacity credits given to wind power in the range of 3 to 40 percent of rated wind capacity, with many falling in the 20 to 30 percent range. A large geographical spread of wind or solar power is needed to reduce variability, increase predictability and decrease the occurrences of near zero or peak output.

These and other "ancillary costs" associated with wind and solar power are small at low levels of utilization, but rise as those sources further penetrate the market. In the longer run, the impacts of these additional costs on the the deployment of wind and solar power must be compared with the effective costs of other low-carbon power sources such as nuclear power, or the costs of fossil thermal generation under strong carbon constraints (i.e., carbon capture and storage).

Spatial distribution

Figure 9. The distribution of wind speeds at 80 meters, the hub height of a modern turbine. (Source: Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson, Evaluation of global wind power)
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All natural resources show distinct geographical gradients. In the case of oil and natural gas for example, the ten largest geologic provinces contain more than 60 percent of known volumes, and half of those are in the Persian Gulf. Coal and uranium deposits also are distributed in distinct, concentrated distributions. The pattern of occurrence imposes transportation and transaction costs, and in the case of oil and strategic minerals, also imposes risk associated with economic and national security.

Figure 10. The distribution of solar energy exhibits a strong geographical gradient. (Source: NREL)
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Of course, renewable energy flows exhibit their own characteristic distributions (Figures 9 and 10), producing mismatches between areas of high-quality supply and demand centers. Many large urban areas are far from a high-quality source of geothermal energy, do not have high wind power potential, or have low annual rates of solar insolation. Indeed, many of the windiest and sunny regions in the world are virtually uninhabited. The spatial distribution of renewable energy flows means that significant new infrastructures will be needed to collect, concentrate and deliver useful amounts of power and energy to demand centers.


The transition from wood to coal occurred when the human population was small, its affluence was modest, and its technologies were much less powerful than today. As a result, environmental impacts associated with energy had negligible global impact, although local impacts were at times quite significant. Any future energy transition will operate under a new set of environmental constraints. Environmental change has significantly impaired the health of people, economics and ecosystems at local, regional and global scales. Future energy systems must be designed and deployed with environmental constraints that were absent from the minds of the inventors of the steam engine and internal combustion engines.

Air Pollution and Climate Change

Figure 11. The Mauna Loa curve showing the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (Source: Keeling, C.D. and T.P. Whorf. 2005. Atmospheric CO2 records from sites in the SIO air sampling network. In Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.)
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Atmospheric releases from fossil fuel energy systems comprise 64 percent of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions from 1850-1990 (Figure 11), 89 percent of global anthropogenic sulfur emissions from 1850 to 1990, and 17 percent of global anthropogenic methane emissions from 1860-1994. Fossil energy combustion also releases significant quantities of nitrogen oxide; in the United States, 23 percent of such emissions are from energy use. Power generation using fossil fuels, especially coal, is a principal source of trace heavy metals such as mercury, selenium, and arsenic.

These emissions drive a range of global and regional environmental changes, including global climate change, acid deposition, and urban smog, and they pose a major health risk. According to the Health Effects Institute, the global annual burden of outdoor air pollution amounts to about 0.8 million premature deaths and 6.4 million years of life lost. This burden occurs predominantly in developing countries; 65% in Asia alone. According to the World Health Organization, in the year 2000, indoor air pollution from solid fuel use was responsible for more than 1.6 million annual deaths and 2.7% of the global burden of disease. This makes this risk factor the second biggest environmental contributor to ill health, behind unsafe water and sanitation.

Climate change may be the most far-reaching impact associated with fossil fuel use. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from a pre-industrial value of about 280 parts per million (ppm) to 379 ppm in 2005 (Figure 6). The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in 2005 exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm) as determined from ice cores. The primary source of the increased atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since the pre-industrial period results from fossil fuel use, with land use change providing another significant but smaller contribution. The increase in carbon dioxide concentrations are a principal driving force behind the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century.

Carbon intensity is an increasingly important attribute of fuel and power systems. Social and political forces to address climate change may produce another distinguishing feature of the next energy transition: environmental considerations may be a key important driver, rather then the inherent advantages of energy systems as measured by energy density, power density, net energy, and so on.

Appropriation of the products of the biosphere

Figure 12. Human appropriation of net primary production (NPP) as a percentage of the local NPP. (Source: Imhoff, Marc L., Lahouari Bounoua, Taylor Ricketts, Colby Loucks, Robert Harriss, and William T. Lawrence. 2004. Global patterns in human consumption of net primary production. ''Nature'', 429, 24 June 2004: 870-873. Image retrieved from NASA)
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The low energy and power density of most renewable alternatives collides with a second global environmental imperative: human use of the Earth's plant life for food, fiber, wood and fuelwood. Satellite measurements have been used to calculate the annual net primary production (NPP)—the net amount of solar energy converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis—on land, and then combined with models to estimate the annual percentage of NPP humans consume (Figure 12). Humans in sparsely populated areas, like the Amazon, consume a very small percentage of locally generated NPP. Large urban areas consume 300 times more than the local area produced. North Americans use almost 24 percent of the region's NPP. On a global scale, humans annually require 20 percent of global NPP.

Human appropriation of NPP, apart from leaving less for other species to use, alters the composition of the atmosphere, levels of biodiversity, energy flows within food webs, and the provision of important ecosystem services. There is strong evidence from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and other research that our use of NPP has seriously compromised many of the planet's basic ecosystem services. Replacing energy-dense liquid fuels from crude oil with less energy dense biomass fuels will require 1,000- to 10,000-fold increase in land area relative to the existing energy infrastructure, and thus place additional significant pressure on the planet's life support systems.

The rise of energy markets

When coal replaced wood, most energy markets were local or regional in scale, and many were informal. Energy prices were based on local economic and political forces. Most energy today is traded in formal markets, and prices often are influenced by global events. Crude oil prices drive the trends in price for most other forms of energy, and they are formed by a complex, dynamic, and often unpredictable array of economic, geologic, technological, weather, political, and strategic forces. The rise of commodity and futures markets for energy not only added volatility to energy markets, and hence energy prices, but also helped elevate energy as to a key strategic financial commodity. The sheer volume of energy bought and sold today combined with high energy prices has transformed energy corporations into powerful multinational forces. In 2006, five of the world's largest corporations were energy suppliers (Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips). The privatization of state-owned energy industries is also a development of historic dimensions that is transforming the global markets for oil, gas, coal and electric power.

Global market forces will thus be an important driving force behind the next energy transition. There is considerable debate about the extent to which markets can and should be relied upon to guide the choice of our future energy mix. Externalities and subsidies are pervasive across all energy systems in every nation. The external cost of greenhouse gas emissions from energy use looms as a critical aspect of energy markets and environmental policy. The distortion of market signals by subsidies and externalities suggests that government policy intervention is needed to produce the socially desirable mix of energy. The effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the international level is the penultimate example of government intervention in energy markets. The political and social debate about the nature and degree of government energy policy will intensify when global crude oil supply visibly declines and as pressure mounts to act on climate change.

Energy and poverty

Figure 14. Energy and basic human needs. The international relationship between energy use (kilograms of oil equivalent per capita) and the Human Development Index (2000). (Source: UNDP, 2002, WRI, 2002)
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The energy transition that powered the Industrial Revolution helped create a new economic and social class by raising the incomes and changing the occupations of a large fraction of society who were then employed in rural, agrarian economies. The next energy transition will occur under fundamentally different socioeconomic conditions. Future energy systems must supply adequate energy to support the high and still growing living standards in wealthy nations, and they must supply energy sufficient to relieve the abject poverty of the world's poorest. The scale of the world's underclass is unprecedented in human history. According to the World Bank, about 1.2 billion people still live on less than $1 per day, and almost 3 billion on less than $2 per day. Nearly 110 million primary school age children are out of school, 60 percent of them girls. 31 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS. And many more live without adequate food, shelter, safe water, and sanitation.

Energy use and economic development go hand-in-hand (Figure 14), so poverty has an important energy dimension: the lack of access to high quality forms of energy. Energy poverty has been defined as the absence of sufficient choice in accessing adequate, affordable, reliable, high quality, safe and environmentally benign energy services to support economic and human development. Nearly 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and some 2.4 billion people rely on traditional biomass—wood, agricultural residues and dung—for cooking and heating. The combustion of those traditional fuels has profound human health impacts, especially for woman and children. Access to liquid and gaseous fuels and electricity is a necessary condition for poverty reduction and improvements in human health.


The debate about "peak oil" aside, there are relatively abundant remaining supplies of fossil fuels. Their quality is declining, but not yet to the extent that increasing scarcity will help trigger a major energy transition like wood scarcity did in the 19th century. The costs of wind, solar and biomass have declined due to steady technical advances, but in key areas of energy quality—density, net energy, intermittancy, flexibility, and so on—they remain inferior to conventional fuels. Thus, alternative energy sources are not likely to supplant fossil fuels in the short term without substantial and concerted policy intervention. The need to restrain carbon emissions may provide the political and social pressure to accelerate the transition to wind, biomass and solar, as this is one area where they clearly trump fossil fuels. Electricity from wind and solar sources may face competition from nuclear power, the sole established low-carbon power source with significant potential for expansion. If concerns about climate change drive a transition to renewable sources, it will be the first time in human history that energetic imperatives, especially the the economic advantages of higher-quality fuels, were not the principal impetus.


* Dimitri, Carolyn, Anne Effland, and Neilson Conklin, The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy. Electronic Information Bulletin Number 3, June 2005, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

* European Wind Energy Association, Large scale integration of wind energy in the European power supply: analysis, issues and recommendations (December 2005).

* Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policymakers, February 2007.

* Johnston, Louis D. and Samuel H. Williamson, The Annual Real and Nominal GDP for the United States, 1790 - Present. Economic History Services, retrieved April 1, 2006.

* Milligan, M. and K. Porter, Determining the Capacity Value of Wind: A Survey of Methods and Implementation, Conference Paper NREL/CP-500-38062 May 2005.

* Reddy, A.K.N., Energy and social issues, in World Energy Assessment: the challenge of sustainability, UNDP/UNDESA/WEC, New York, 2000.

* Smil, V. 2006. "21st century energy: Some sobering thoughts". OECD Observer 258/59: 22-23.

* World Bank PovertyNet.

Cleveland, Cutler (Lead Author); Peter Saundry (Topic Editor). 2007. "Energy transitions past and future." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published April 11, 2007; Last revised May 3, 2007; Retrieved August 7, 2007]. Source here

I never cease to be amazed with the information located on this site.

Serious question: how many other excellent posts are buried in the archives? (Or at least are buried to me?) Getting this information out there is vital and easily finding it is the first step.

Tags help a little but I think something more structured would make a difference.

Because I've learned a lot from this community, it's time to give back.

I'm hereby starting a project to create a "best of" list that would aggregate posts by subject in the way Tech Talk does.

For a taxonomy, I suggest starting with the high level categories Wikipedia uses and adding others as appropriate:

(i.e. coal, petroleum, biofuels, hydropower, agriculture, transportation, storage, population, etc.)

Please reply with your favorite posts and I'll start putting together the list this weekend. Anyone who wants to join the project is welcome.

Peak Oil, Climate Change and Business
Free, Bi-Weekly Executive Briefing

Serious question: how many other excellent posts are buried in the archives?

2.5 years
5-10 posts per week
250-500 per year
around 1000 posts including many hundred drumbeats.

if 'excellent' is 2 standard deviations, that would mean 50 would be 'excellent'. But since this site is exceptional, there are probably over 100....;) Almost all are worth reading -and even as an editor Ive probably not read more than 30-40% of the posts. How to best do this is an open question.

Energy is linked to everything. We are discussing very important issues here - its difficult to 'summarize' and package the weft and warp of the Peak Oil loom, so we periodically run older posts that have fallen down the rabbit hole. Since I'm manning the queue today, I posted this one, which I think is of particular quality, written by someone I know and respect. But there are many others that deserve reposts.

Energy is a big fire hose - our mouths are only so big....;)

True, true, but I'm going to give it a go anyway :-).

Can I get other favorites of yours?

Here are a few of mine, plus a bit of digging:

COAL - The Roundup, July 12, 2007

Peak Oil Theory
"Does the Peak Oil "Myth" Just Fall Down? -- Our Response to CERA", Feb 4, 2007

Net Oil Exports and the "Iron Triangle", Jul 13, 2007

World Oil Exports: A Comprehensive Projection, Oct 10, 2006

Update on Megaproject Megaproject, Dec 10, 2007

How to Address Contrarian Arguments - Part I, Nov 23, 2006

How to address Contrarian Arguments - Part II, Dec 24, 2006

Hubbert Linearization Analysis of the Top Three Net Oil Exporters, Jan 27, 2006

Using Hubbert Method on EIA Data - The Tiger Chasing its Tail, Jun 13, 2006

Peak Oil Predictions
When Will Russia (and the World) Decline?, Nov 5, 2007

Energy Overview
On Energy Transitions Past and Future
http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2856 (Aug 8, 2007)
http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3442 (Dec 28, 2007)

Energy Grades and Historic Economic Growth, Aug 24, 2007

World Energy to 2050: A Half Century of Decline, Nov 10, 2007

"Energy Resources and Our Future" - Speech by Hyman Rickover in 1957, Jun 30, 2007

That cubic mile, Feb 28, 2007

The World according to Gave, Sep 28, 2006

International Energy Agency
Fatih Birol Presents the IEA World Energy Outlook 2007, Dec 7, 2007

Population, Agriculture and Food Supply
Does Less Energy Mean More Farmers?, Dec 21, 2007

World Energy to 2050: A Half Century of Decline, Nov 10, 2007

Peak Oil, Carrying Capacity and Overshoot: Population, the Elephant in the Room, May 7, 2007

Revisiting the Olduvai Theory, Mar 6, 2006

Electricity and the Grid
US Electricity Supply Vulnerabilities, Dec 6, 2007

Failure of Networked Systems, Dec 14, 2007

Natural Gas
LNG To The Rescue?, Nov 27, 2007

Canadian Gas - Decline Sets in, Oct 19, 2007

Is Nuclear Power a Viable Option for Our Energy Needs?, Mar 1, 2007

Will Nuclear Fusion Fill the Gap Left by Peak Oil?
http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/2806 (Jul 24, 2007)
http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/2164 (Jan 11, 2007)

Nuclear Power for the Oilsands, May 26, 2007

How Uranium Depletion Affects the Economics of Nuclear Power, Apr 18, 2007

Oil Sands
Nuclear Power for the Oilsands, May 26, 2007

$100 Oil, Nov 20, 2007

Dialoguing with Dr. Peter Jackson of CERA: Is the Future of Oil Resources Secure?, Mar 3, 2007

The forecasting record of CERA and other commentators, Dec 12, 2006

Aviation and Oil Depletion
http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/2858 (Aug 9, 2007)
http://europe.theoildrum.com/story/2006/12/11/45514/799 (Dec 19, 2006)

Electrified Rail: An Overlooked Mitigation Strategy for Peak Oil, Oct 20, 2006

More Sustainlane: U.S. Cities' Preparedness for an Oil Crisis, Apr 3, 2006

Lessons from Brazil, May 1, 2006

You included one of my articles, Electrified Rail: An Overlooked Mitigation Strategy for Peak Oil

Another one of my favorites is USA 2034, a Look Back at the 25th Anniversary Year


Best Hopes,


Thanks, Alan. I added that one to the index.

It's shaping up quite nicely, I think. It's too big now to keep posting here but check it out on my blog:


The Six-Month Carbon Diet for Business

I think it's strange that the one piece of mine you included is the one I would consider the least important, but de gustibus non disputandum est!

I'd nominate this one instead:

Hi, Engineer-Poet.

Well, in the interest of time, it seems that my Best Of Index is turning more into just an Index because I'm not stopping to read each article closely (yet).

But thank you for this other link...truly a quality piece!

What do you think of Grokking?

This is a superlative piece, and I too missed it first time around. So thanks for the repost, Nate!

Missed this excellent analysis first time around as well. Thanks for the repost.

The thoughts expressed are thought provoking.

My complaint is in the conclusion where he states, "Thus, alternative energy sources are not likely to supplant fossil fuels in the short term without substantial and concerted policy intervention."

Where in the data he presented did he produce evidence that policy (government) intervention is necessary or would work as an alternative to allowing the free market to work. This topic was not discussed at all in the body of the paper. This is just an unsupported bias, perhaps delusion, of the author. This conclusion out of thin air approach is hardly science.

that often happens in conclusions.

The costs of wind, solar and biomass have declined due to steady technical advances, but in key areas of energy quality—density, net energy, intermittancy, flexibility, and so on—they remain inferior to conventional fuels. Thus, alternative energy sources are not likely to supplant fossil fuels in the short term without substantial and concerted policy intervention.

The concept of energy density and policy, I believe are misconceived.

Here is a quote from Edison, 1910:
"Sunshine is spread out thin and so is electricity. Perhaps they are the same, Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy.”

“Do we use them? Oh, no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.

“There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen...."

Edison, in this interview explained the task he confronted was to store electricity and let it out in usable measure. Electricity in Edison's time was a low-density source, except lightning which he noted was not very useful. Sunshine is today a low-density source, the way we have engineered power use.

Policies need to allow ingenuity that allowed Edison to create his breakthroughs. Current power generation is monopolized by regulatory agencies.

Germany’s Feed-in-Tariffs removed centralized power generation monopolies. California’s Energy Commission recent recommended Feed-in-tariffs noting that Germany added 4,000 MW of renewable generation in the last year while California’s centralized policy installed 242 MW in the last 5 years.

We are losing the game by the rules we have defined. Remove the rules and allow innovation. We can change the lifeblood of our economy from oil to ingenuity.

Innovators cannot navigate policies that block innovation that Edison did not have to confront.

Power generation, transmission and distribution in the US has generally been quite dependant on government policy - establishing exclusive service territories (regulated monopolies) and rights-of-way for transmission and distribution grids, regulation of rail rates(primary fuel carrier for coal), R&D dolalrs for nuclear power, non-discriminatory access to markets (PURPA), etc.

If nanasolar can break the $1 per watt manufacturing cost the most cost-effective installs will be large, flat roofs adjcacent to loads. In Florida it would be illegal for a Wal-Mart or Target to sell power to their neighbors. The adoption of alternative technologies could be greatly accelerated with supportive local, state and federal regulatory and legislative support.

The involvement of government in the "regulated" monopolies is not a proper function of government; as you have stated, they created monopolies which they then regulate to the detriment of most power users and even some of the monopolist.

The argument should be for government to disengage itself from managing economic matters such as this foolish involvement in the Florida power business you describe. It should not be for government to do anything but protect property rights in the free market.

Politicians and bureaucrats deciding what direction investment should take will as likely result in a disaster as not, as evidenced by the failed USSR economy, or more recently by the subsidized direction of scarce resources into the corn ethanol boondoggle. The government involvement may have accelerated ethanol manufacture, but the burden on others to pay for these subsidies probably retarded development of other alternatives. If you are bearing a large tax burden to pay for the state solutions, maybe that keeps you from affording your own investment in wind or solar panels for example.

If an alternative works, then it needs no subsidy or other government direction. It is only what cannot be supported by by sound economics that requires a subsidy, and that is precisely what we should not invest in.

So if by policy you mean getting out of the way and only punishing fraud and pollution, then I agree. If you mean government management, regulation, subsidies and mandates, then I disagree.

The involvement of government in the "regulated" monopolies is not a proper function of government

That is just right wing ideology. Most oil production around the world is now run by governments and the people in those countries seem to be pretty happy with it. The US government boosted production and drove technology pretty effectively in World War II. The Chinese economy seems to work pretty well. Involvement of government in the regulated monopolies might work in some cases and not in others but we cannot just dismiss the idea as you do. There are so many market distortions in the real world that we cannot pretend that unregulated free markets are the best for every situation.

Churn is the economic equivalent to evolution; the process of try a lot of stuff and keep what works.

  • Innovation. Individuals try innovations to solve niche problems/opportunities
  • Refine. Some changes are perceived as so much better they excite a cluster of adoption which refines the innovation
  • Scale. Some changes reach a critical mass and sweep the general population to become the norm
  • Iterate. Some changes are fads and fade way, some are lasting, some only stay as niche solutions.

In my view, regulated economic monopolies, like their political equivalents (monarchies, dictatorships) can speed up churn by requiring its adoption. When the regulators are brilliant or benevolent, radical improvements can be made very quickly. This seems the exception not the rule.

My guess is monopolies fail because of a personnel problem. Most regulators are rule-followers. Most innovators are breaking the rules. Most innovators are economically and politically outsiders. The net result is that monopolies tend to become rigid and brittle.

Compare 3 large infrastructures: Power generation, transportation and communications.

Communications was de-monopolized in the US in 1984. Churn resulted in the Internet being transformed from a very small defense project to culture changing boom, bust, boom. The Internet's expansion was significantly shaped by the porn market. No regulators I know would have said "We need more band-width, let's expand the porn industry."

Adaptive churn in communications is in stark contrast to regulated monopolies of power generation and transportation. These infrastructures are the cause Climate Change and Peak Oil. These regulated monopolies have block churn for about 75 years.

Germany's Feed-In-Tariffs have broken the monopoly of power generation. In 5 short years, individual efforts have resulted in 12% of total German electrical needs being met by renewable power generation. They have created 250,000 renewable energy jobs and exported $15 billion of their solutions in 2007.

Regulated monopolies in California have installed 242 MW of renewable generation in the last 5 years. German's in a free market, installed 4,000 MW in 2006.

I believe the proper roll of governments is to assign true costs for non-market factors such as pollution (including GHG's) and defense. Had non-market costs for supply-line defense, air quality, GHG's etc... been assigned in the 1970's, solar would have been competitive enough. Individuals and clusters would have churned.

The dictatorship of regulated monopolies blocked action to assign true cost, denying that climate change and peak oil are real. The result is we are killing our planet's ability to support us. We are becoming one of nature's project that could not adapt.

The book Good to Great is a wonderful outline of how collaborative leadership encourages churn.

There is a third alternative: public ownership that is not government ownership. It could be argued that fossil fuels should be considered common-pool goods, part of the natural patrimony of a nation that should be managed to benefit all of the people, present and future. It is also clear that governments do a pretty bad job when it comes to managing anything except public goods. Corporations are best just limited to the private goods sector. Thus, what is called for in the case of both common-pool goods and toll goods is some sort of cooperative ownership and management. A national trust should be set up to hold title to and manage these resources, with the trustees elected directely by the people instead of being appointed by the government. It would be the people themselves that decide whether these resources should be developed and depleted more quickly (to provide for lower prices in the short term) vs. conserved for future generations. As this publicly-owned trust would hold any surplus revenues, there would be no need for sovereign wealth funds.

No country has tried such an approach, probably because neither politicians nor corporations would like it. Only the people would.

option 3

There are 3 distinct electric power infrastrcutures - generation, over 90% centralized; transmission and distribution. Even among vertically integrated providers these are quite distinct business units.

To encourage innovation and private investment it would make sense to disaggregate the system. Transmission should be owned by state or regional operators (in fact, over 60% of the US transmission network is owned by ISOs or RTOs). This can create a level-playing field for centralized generators and create a robust market for monetizing Demand Response. A robust Demand Response market will increase the economic value of daytime generation, particularly solar, thermal (ice) storage and CHP (which substantially icrease the yield from NG). The Distribution systems should be owned soley by the ratepayers -they are the ones who pay for the systems. And FERC should require that all distribution networks meet open standard interconnect standards and market-rate net metering for local generators utilzing renewable technologies. This would unleash a wave of innovcation in distributed technologies which would increase the reliability and resiliency of the power grid.

To encourage innovation and private investment it would make sense to disaggregate the system.

Experience is the thing that allows you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.

The electrical distribution system was historically laid out along with the generation system.  Lines have limited capacity, and it makes no sense to build a line for more capacity than the generation that will feed it.  If you disaggregate generation and transmission (which "deregulation" has done) and mandate access, you wind up with generators demanding access for more power than lines can carry and otherwise causing trouble for the system.  (It also causes trouble when independent generators aren't required to carry their fair share of costs for e.g. generating reactive power.)

We have already seen increasing frequency instability on the grid because of the faulty incentives created by deregulation.  If we pursue more of the same, we'll get more blackouts.  This is a problem which needs to be fixed before we go further.

You obviously need to build more transmission lines as the power trading grows. This makes economical sense from the power trading efficince gain in generation capacity utilization. If you do this you end up with a grid that has more redundancy wich makes sense when the electrified society gets more and more dependant on 24/365 electricity.

This seems to be an ongoing work in the Nordel electricity trading area. I could go quicker since NIMBY slows down the transmission line investments but over here the grid gets better for each year, not worse.

My complaint is in the conclusion

Does this work for you? "If left to the mechanisms that have driven previous energy transitions, alternative energy sources are not likely to supplant fossil fuels in the short term. It is not known whether substantial and concerted policy intervention might change this conclusion."

that's what I think a lot of people don't understand about peak oil. the more doom your situation the higher the price and the more that actually helps. people are riding on Amtrak more. people are buying hybrids. the average MPG is going up.

You failed to understand the article then, Henry. Did you read about how long energy transitions take normally when "the market" was allowed to work? Did you really? Look at Figure 2 carefully. Please note the time frames for prior transitions. The rise of coal from less than 10% to about 70% of energy took almost 60 years. The rise of oil took almost 60 years. The rise of natural gas took almost 60 years. Now, you can further go back and look at the rise of nuclear, which has been 60 years in the making and it is still not a major power contributor except in France, which has specific government policies to drive that.

The market, clearly based upon historical data, shows that existing capital expenditures on infrastructure cannot be recouped and reinvested in less than 50 years.

Now let's go back to that quote:

"Thus, alternative energy sources are not likely to supplant fossil fuels in the short term without substantial and concerted policy intervention."

Do you seriously argue that 50 years is short term? Short term is usually seen by most reasonable people as a few years to a decade perhaps at most, not most of a lifetime.

There is NO evidence that new energy sources are going to violate the previous growth curves unless supported by specific policies to drive that growth. Given that all of the historical data state exactly the opposite of your position, it is incumbent upon YOU to demonstrate why, in this one special instance, the market is going to do things differently than it ever did before.

Historical data strongly suggests that without special policies, this adoption will not occur in time to matter for alternatives. And please don't give me the growth rates in these early years. Go back and look at the growth rates of oil, coal, and natural gas in their early years too. They were high also but leveled off as available capital came to limit the rate of adoption.

Now I want to see other energy sources adopted. And while I have my misgivings about nuclear, I lean in the direction that we're going need nuclear, like it or not. But look at it! It has failed consistently to break out of the niche in which it has sat for decades now. Most of that, as Alan (another well known TOD poster) notes, is due to the nuclear industry's own incompetence, greed, and short sightedness, not to the technology itself. But yet it has happened anyway.

If we expect adoption of alternatives to occur in anything less than 20 years, then we will need government policies to encourage that adoption, like it or not. We don't have 50 years, Henry. We may not have 20 if we continue to sit on our hands.

The bottom line is that it is no good thinking that we'll just transition over to renewables and carry on as usual. Transition requires that we adapt ourselves to whatever level of renewables we can feasibly develop. Adaptation means first and foremost that we must get by on LESS energy - far less than we are using now in the USA. Unless we were to redirect a massive portion of our GDP to a massive program of investment in renewables, starting years ago, we simply won't be able to provide enough energy to come anywhere close to our present level - not even close. We probably wouldn't have been able to with the crash program either, but we could have come quite a bit closer. The investments simply are not happening, so we can take it as a given: we will have to live with far less energy in the future.

Not only will we have to live with less energy in an absolute sense, we will also have to adapt ourselves to the pattern of its availability. The article discusses intermittency and dispatchability at length. Let's understand right now that dispatchability has been a wonderful luxury of the fossil fuel era, but that is a luxury that is unlikely to be available to be enjoyed by many people in the future. We are simply going to have to adjust ourselves to intermittency.

What this means first and foremost is the end of the 24 hour economy. Not included in the above analysis is the energy that we utilize in the form of sunlight. That is one renewable energy resource that we are already using a lot of, and are going to have to use more of in the future. Energy for nighttime lighting is going to be hard to come by and unreliable. Thus, we are going to have to return to the old pattern of scheduling our work during daylight hours; nighttime, except for those few people staffing emergency services and keeping essential utilities running, will be spent at home eating and sleeping.

This also means that industry is going to have to re-engineer from continuous to batch processes as much as it possibly can. Going to batch processes will enable a lot of industries to configure themselves in a way that will allow them to utilize CSP for high-energy-input operations. This type of transition will not be possible for every single industrial facility, of course, and some renewables-based energy solution can be configured for those facilities that simply must be run on a continuous 24/7/365 process. Doing so will be so expensive, however, as to cause the prices of the products of such facilities to be extremely high, which in turn will force the economy to reduce its demand for such products to a low level. Either substitutes will be found, or we'll simply learn how to do without and cope as much as possible.

As far as household economies and the pattern of daily life goes, similar far-ranging adaptations will also be required. It is to be expected that solar water heating will become the standard in most homes. People will organize their day so that tasks requiring hot water -- bathing, laundry, dishwashing -- are all done at the end of the day, when the hot water supply in their tanks is at its daily maximum. Laundry loads will be spread out throughout the week rather than doing it all on one day. Many homes will have solar cookers; a meal will be prepared, placed in the cooker in the morning, and be ready to eat by early evening. For many people this may be the only hot meal of the day.

Nighttime household lighting may have to be limited to a few battery-powered lanterns that are recharged by solar PV electricity during the day or integral hand-cranks every half hour or so. Thus, there will be a rush to get household chores done as soon as possible after nightfall. This will be a challenge for households in which everyone is at work during the day. Having at least one person stay at home during the day, possibly working on some sort of handcraft or other home-based occupation, may work out better for most households. Especially in the dark, cold winter months (and homes are going to have to be a LOT cooler than 72F in the wintertime -- anything above 60F might be considered a luxury), with many households no longer able to afford electronic entertainment components or the electricity to run them, a lot of people are going to spend more time bundled up in bed. At least sleep will become less of an issue.

Obviously, another big change in the pattern of life is going to have to be in the realm of transportation. Alan Drake has already made a compelling case for electrification of rail passenger and freight transport as the way to go, so I'll not repeat his arguments here. I will say, however, that here also we'll have to adjust from the luxury of being able to move people or things around the clock. Because solar is relatively reliable for large-scale systems like rail (overcast days are less of a problem because PV panels can be distributed over a wide area, thus requiring a relatively infrequent need for backup power), we will need to adjust ourselves to a rail system that mainly runs just during the daytime. Most freight will have to be run during the day, taking advantage of maximum insolation. Perhaps enough storage capacity can be built into the system to allow passenger rail to run a little before sunrise or after sunset; this will be necessary to enable employees to commute to and from employers operating sunrise to sunset. That is not as much of a challenge as is trying to keep trains running late into the evening or overnight. Thus, the vast majority of people will be limited to a trip each day of only a few hundred miles at most. We won't need sleeping cars; instead, what we will need is a revival of "The Station Hotel" next to each town's train depot. A cross-continental trip may take a week of such daily hops, but it will still be possible in such a manner to travel clear across the country. Because of the time and expense involved, not that many people will attempt it.

I could go on, but these examples should suffice to illustrate the fact that life in the future WILL be different than it is now. We will have no choice, we must adapt to the energy that will be available.

I whole-heartedly agree. In my home, we are putting these changes in life-style in place. Already we have decreased our transportation cost by less than half, our food costs by the same amount and our nighttime energy use by 75%.

What I would like to see is some data that would show the decrease in local and global energy usage overall if everyone were to start practicing this life-style shift.

I remember, during the Carter administration, in the U.S., that people moved towards conservation so intensely that utilities all over the country started raising their rates because of profit falloffs due to decreased electrical demand. I assume that if we follow such a trend, that businesses will adjust their prices upward to compensate for the decrease in consumer consumption.

It's sad that the only incentive that would drive consumers to conserve (reduction in budget costs) are eaten up by the need of business to maintain a certain profit level.

utilities all over the country started raising their rates because of profit falloffs

I think it was more a matter of them raising their rates because of a doubling or more in oil prices due to the Iraqi attack on Iran. A lot of electrical generation was still fueled by oil in those days. Inflation rose to about 13% around that time so even if the companies raised their prices this does not necessarily mean that their real net income increased.

The change in lifestyle after the depletion of
fossil fuels which you describe seems not that
harsh and maybe even overly optimistic. The
reality could turn out to be much worse, like
perhaps a new Dark Ages. However, this situation
will be a non-issue for many people living now.
Most people who are now age thirty and over will
probably be dead by the time these changes occur.
Fortunately for many of us, energy supplies are
irrelevant to a person in a box six feet

This is the first formal mention I've seen on TOD to 'capacity credit' relating to wind and solar's ability to displace dispatchable power.

In places the article stops just short of stating an unpalatable conclusion. Examples might be; there are too many people, cities must break up, we must accept lower living standards. Letting people draw their own conclusion could be a way to break the news gently.

"The costs of wind, solar and biomass have declined due to steady technical advances, but in key areas of energy quality—density, net energy, intermittancy, flexibility, and so on—they remain inferior to conventional fuels."

Just a few responses to these conclusions:

1. Solar energy is often viewed as a fixed asset. But given the scalable and highly technological nature of the technology it is difficult to apply long term assumptions to solar energy.

2. Solar energy has both become cheaper and more flexible due to a number of innovations in core and related technology.

3. Examples of current innovations include:

a. CIGS thin film solar cells that plunge production costs per watt to around 33 cents.
b. Rapid recharge and long storage batteries like those produced by Toshiba provide serious opportunities for long term storage of electrical energy produced by solar energy.
c. Innovations in direct solar energy capture and storage of heat energy also reduce the intermittent nature of solar energy even at a local scale.

4. The diffuse aspect of solar farming becomes less of a factor when you realize the potential for coating buildings, homes, offices, and other public structures in solar generating material. Furthermore, most of the prime land for solar generation at the utility scale is in remote desert locals.

5. It is likely, that given a level of investment and political support commensurate with current oil, gas, and coal industry investment and political support, solar energy could not only compete with fossil fuels, but outperform them in many respects. The prime reason is that the product of renewables -- electricity -- is relatively easy to store, transport, covert into mechanical energy or even other energy products.

In my opinion, in the face of the rapid escalation in the costs -- economic, social, political, and environmental -- of fossil fuels, solar is not only poised to compete, it may well be poised to eat the old fuel system's lunch.

Another factor is that it is possible to amortize the costs of a renewable energy stsyem, assuming it is built to last rather than just cop a subsidy or write off, over perhaps a hundred years or more. Oil wells and mines tend towards a more rapid depletion spiral.

Referring to and rebutting Henry's comment further up, the market has a real difficulty with financing over longer terms than twenty years or so. Thus, long term financing has to be the function of the State if we are to ever countenance seriously long term paybacks. I found his attitude rather annoyingly dismissive of some of the larger commons concepts and utilities management systems that have been intrinsic to the sucess of western capitalist economies. Rather than reject any form of state intervention, he could have considered that it is possible for such intervention to be quite effective and efficient. Just because the US has had a spotty record in these areas doesn't mean that Europe or other countries haven't been sucessful. There can be an attitude that if the US can't do it it can't be done. Anyone for side by side, redundant and competing private toll freeways?

Indeed, one of our challenges will be to extend the horizon of finance beyond the get rich quick to the get clean and smart slow.

I fully agree with Bob on the rapid progress on alternate energies and the steadily drop in prices of the clean alternatives. Mega utilities projects like the "MARE Initiative" bring down the cost of "a barrel of crude" equivalent energy to approx. 20$. See


The world needs projects of this size. Since it's offshore based, there are no worries about land usage, expandability is almost infinite ...

Bacterial and mold colonies on media in a Petri dish will grow exponentially until they encounter a competing colony and then switch a significant portion of their capital to offensive weapons production (antibiotics) and defensive weapons production (penicillinase). They also usually have several sets of genes that code for tools that allow them to utilize different energy sources, aerobic and fermentative.

It seems that this is a pretty good model for human civilization. We have evolved different tools to unlock various sources of energy and are eating or have eaten the most easily acquired. We produce offensive and defensive armaments and often go to war when energy and material are in contention. We have now reached a point where we are fighting for control of energy (Iraq).

It seems that we are about to become involved in a positive feedback loop in which our militaristic strategy requires more and more of our capital as geopolitical conditions deteriorate. We will have more and more armaments factories and fewer alternative energy factories being built. The armaments are supposed to pay-off in immediate fossil fuel plunder while alternative energy must pay dividends over the long haul. Fossil fuels are very valuable for the military especially. Moving the military onto a renewable wind/solar energy footing while fossil fuels are still available would be self-defeating.

How can we make a significant transition to anything when most of the world’s energy and material will likely be siphoned away for energy wars and in the process of those wars, existing energy infrastructure and operations will be destroyed or interrupted.

To make an effective transition, if that is possible at all, we need to be at peace and fully concentrated on the task and I don’t see that happening yet. Of course, perhaps a Shanghai project will create a fusion bomb that sets the stage for a new energy century.

He didn't include nuclear? Or is he counting that as electricity?

I noticed that when he did EROI for coal, shale, ethanol, etc, that he did not include nuclear, either.
Nuclear's EROI is so high that it wouldn't fit in a simple scale. He would have had to use a log scale and that would not have been as clear as a simple scale at demonstrating the low EROI of stuff like ethanol and tar sands.
The Venezuela oil sands have a higher EROI than the Canadian tar sands. I don't know what it is. There is a lot more Venezuela oil sand than Canadian tar sand. We could run the world for at least a decade on Venezuela oil sand. You want to give Chavez a few hundred billion, though? He's still subsidizing gasoline in Venezuela for the upper income Venezuelans. They are the minority that can afford cars. Damned if I know why we think the guy is a socialist. He seems like just a nationalist to me.

there is no authorititave or recent study on EROI for nuclear or tar sands that Im aware of, though we have some posts in the queue addressing these issues.

He did include nuclear on the gravimetric scale (off the charts). One problem with EROI is it assumes all costs can be parsed into energy terms (a problem it was designed to solve re: dollars) and can't adequately account for possible negative externalities - if ALL costs of Price Anderson were included in energy terms, nuclear EROI might be pretty low. Currently I believe nuclear operators are only on the hook for 15 million per year in maximum damages, were an accident to occur - so here is a big subsidy that makes effective accounting for nuclear, in energy or dollar terms, difficult.

Price-Anderson is the name of the legislative act that immunises nuclear power plants against release of radioactives.
What is the name of the legislative act that immunises coal power plants against release of greenhouse gases?

I understand you are trolling, and I do that sometimes. I was wondering why you chose Keynes and Friedman? The two Friedmans I know are the Stratfor one and the columnist. One is wrong, but interesting, the other is just wrong.

I wasnt exactly trolling- just trying to be funny. I picked 2 neoclassical economists names that are more known - Smith-Walras didn't have the same ring to it.
My point being is that the market has been very slow, almost non-existent in fact, in addressing environmental externalities. In this sense I wasn't trolling at all.

I agree and disagree. The market, as with government rejection of peak oil and climate change, always lags. What leads is innovators.

If the market was free, innovators could exploit small niches that are within their resources base. Successful innovations can churn into ever wider adoption. As with the Internet, it take a relatively brief 30 years to churn. We have wasted much of the time necessary to adapt.

The current regulated monopolies make the economy brittle. Peak Oil is a testament to the failure to iterate. We should have learned about monolithic risk with the Potato Famines.

What if all of the health, clean up costs and environmental costs for coal and oil pollution were counted ? Since those laws are not on the books yet then it is irrelevant to the financial decisions around energy policy.

This is a consistent error where the negative externalities for other power sources are not mentioned.

Also, there are different nuclear reactors that can be built for far less cost than millenia of storage of unburned fuel.


The optimal MSR design offers a high transmutation capability—fissioning of as high as 99.8% of the TRU (transuranic actinides - the uranium and plutonium) feed. This is possible because of the choice of molten salt, a fluoride salt with sodium that allows for high concentrations of fission products in the salt. The transmutation capability of the MSR is also rated13–14 in terms of final waste radiotoxicity, decay heat, spontaneous fission neutron emission, fissile weight %, and 237Np inventory.

The transmutation properties of a critical MSR were consistently compared with those of three types of solid-fuel reactors: lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR), the sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR), and a PWR. It was found that the fast-reactor spectrum gives the best transmutation performance, followed by the MSR and PWR spectra. Assuming that 0.1% of the actinides fed into the molten-salt processing plant or discharged to the solid-fuel recycling plant are lost to the waste stream, it was found that the MSR has the highest fractional transmutation—due primarily to its high specific power. The SFR and the LFR had the second- and the third-highest fractional transmutations.

Japan, France and russia are working on making MSR reactors

fixing peak energy:
EIA analysis shows that nuclear power can be nearly tripled in the USA with a climate change bill that penalizes carbon (the kind of bills that is being considered in the US senate now and likely to pass in 2009).

50% power uprate technology can be deployed by 2020, not just the 2,5 and 20% standard uprates

Thermoelectric technology could increase the efficiency of electricity conversion and increase power from nuclear reactors by 50% (2010-2020 within the relevant timeframes)

Thermoelectric technology, new power uprate technology can increase existing nuclear power by 225%. Increased construction with a climate change bill could triple the amount of reactors. This would be a 675% increase in nuclear power. This would be enough to displace all coal power and a lot of oil and natural gas. More vehicles could be electric, hybrid or PHEV and draw clean power

The hyperion power generation (uranium hydride reactor) could be mass produced in factories and would help make in situ oilsands and oil shale cheaper. 50% of the fuel could be burned instead of current 1-2%. Could be sited on existing reactor land and in the oilsand/oilshale usage.

One of the greatest energy conundrums is accessing the estimated 500+ billion barrels of recoverable oil in U.S. oil shale fields. Hyperion would change the current almost self-defeating cost-production ratio caused by the use of natural gas to power steam engine extraction and refinery machinery. Over five years, a single Hyperion reactor can save $2 billion in operating costs in a heavy oil field.

On a different note, I found this article http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showthread.php?p=3225220 listing the greenest cities in the US. This shows that municipalities care about climate change. I guess the general population cares about the environment and global warming. My score on their calculator was 400 but at least I am trying. Here is the link to the website that published the list of cites and where the carbon calculator can be found: www.earthlab.com. The test took me like 5 minutes tops, and then maybe another 2 minutes to find the pledges I wanted. Pretty cool application.

There is a difference of opinion (or should I say informed viewpoint) between those who see energy decline as leading to:

1. Increased urban density where people can be served more efficiently.


2. Re-ruralization where people are required to rely more on biological productivity and their own labor, and thus must be embedded within their energy catchment area.

Does this article shed any fundamental light on this dichotomy?

I don't think the article sheds much light on the "dichotomy". The most relevant section is that on power density, but as I said in my own comment, I don't think this section makes much sense.

Also, the dichotomy is false. 1 and 2 can happen at the same time. Envision fuel-less suburbanites choosing which direction to go, and some of them going either direction. There's also the possibility that urban density will increase even as the percentage of people living in urban areas decreases.

(I'm going to emerge from lurkerdom and offer a medium sized critique on this post.)

Altogether, I appreciate this article for touching on a whole number of different ways of analyzing the issues facing us. I find the Conclusions particularly useful. There are however a number of details that seem to need some proof-reading or better clarification, and at least one major issue (energy storage) that isn't touched on at all.

-What is the meaning of "electricity" in figure 1? Obviously most or all of the "coal" category is used for electricity after 1960, so perhaps "electricity" should read "other" instead? (Nuclear, solar, wind, etc.?)

-The whole section on "Power Density" is lacking in clarity, and does not itself explain why it is even important.

Figure 5 is labeled "Power densities for fossil and renewable fuels", but the figure does not actually include labels for any fossil fuels. (Is this the right graph?) It also apparently includes both energy production and energy consumption; I presume supermarkets don't produce energy. Perhaps production and consumption should be denoted in different colors.

I am not sure the statement "The high power densities of energy systems has enabled the increasing concentration of human activity" is true in any clear way. For one counterexample, the high power density in automobile motors actually allows the spreading out of human activity in suburban sprawl. I'm also not convinced that the high power density of consumption in urban areas bears any clear causal relationship to the power density of production, or vice-versa.

Finally, how important is power density compared to shear power supply? Put another way, what is the cost of the electrical distribution grid compared to the (rest of the) cost of electricity production? Supposing that electricity production in a post-ff world had to be less power-dense (and does it even?), would the cost of re-building the distribution grid be a major factor compared to the cost of bringing the non-ff production online? If the answer is no, I don't know why a different power density of post-ff production would matter.

-Consideration of intermittency and the "dispatchability" of solar and wind power ought to include some discussion of possible methods of energy storage. I'm curious what people think of the proposals discussed in the latest Sci-Am. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan

-I presume that the blue marks in Figure 14 represent values for individual countries?

Thanks for reading.

I'm curious what people think of the proposals discussed in the latest Sci-Am.

The technology exist. It breaks Occam's razor to hype Big Government subsidizing Big Utility. With all the land use objections and Nimbyites magically getting out of the way. What's wrong with rooftop solar? Everyone can generate their own electricity with their own roofs without a big centralized billing establishment. Or an expensive upgrade in electricity transportation infrastructure.

I'm not in the prediction business but my money is not on a $500 billion dollar new government program. We can't even get a $2000 tax credit extension passed.

From the article:
"A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050."

Well, that's pathetic. Given that we need to totally eliminate and likely even remove greenhouse gases from the air to have any hope of preventing total catastrophe I find the "35 percent" figure hopelessly non-inspiring.

But it also begs the question of what kind of demand growth are they assuming...just about every analysis I have ever seen assumes we need more and also assume that if we want more will will find a way to get more. There are no supply limits, after all.

Could we make that "35 percent of total" be the 100% of actual and still be happy and secure? I mean, would it kill us to live with the energy consumption of the average....I dunno, citizen of Portugal?

I don't what their formula is, but in their discussion on the sci-am website, one of the authors states they're assuming three times as much US energy use in 2100. So I presume they are assuming demand growth as usual. Which means they are being conservative (as they also allow) in that the 35 percent figure could be much greater. I agree that 35% is pathetic, but I don't think the authors are putting this forward as a total solution.

I wouldn't predict it to happen either, but that's not a reason not to advocate for it. I think most here would agree we need political change for any solutions to happen, so politics is no reason to downplay a practical solution. In any case, I was asking after opinions on the practicality of their CAES solution. I can guess the politics as well as anyone.

What's wrong with rooftop solar? Nothing, and the authors of the sci-am article expect it to contribute. But I would imagine it has a much greater difficultly getting over the intermittency problem, unless someone shows me data that suggests otherwise. Also, there's arguably just as much of a need to fight Big Utility lobbying to allow homeowners freedom in this area, and to get paid for what they feed into the grid.

38 states require net metering agreements today. As the penetration of solar electricity increases, the utilities will get out of the electricity generation business and into the electricity storage business. Or the electric car people will succeed in making batteries that can be recharged 5,000 times and each homeowner will buy their own.


Somebody is going into the business of financing home solar arrays. The monthly payments are less than the electric bill homeowners would otherwise have to pay.

You know this half a trillion dollar program is going to degenerate into another porkfest and yet another example of corporate welfare. If they actually built something like SciAm envisions, it wouldn't be a bad investment. But Washington get enough of my money right now.

Hi jagged,

I'm just doing some catching up late (12/31) and I'm interested in the points you raise here.

Since Cleveland is a major voice on these issues, and since your points seem relevant, I'm wondering if you might give some thought to writing them up and perhaps even seeing if the editors would run as an article - and/or bring up again in a future DB? Perhaps you could also expand on the points you make here.

We need more discussion on this.

re: "I am not sure the statement "The high power densities of energy systems has enabled the increasing concentration of human activity" is true in any clear way. For one counterexample, the high power density in automobile motors actually allows the spreading out of human activity in suburban sprawl. I'm also not convinced that the high power density of consumption in urban areas bears any clear causal relationship to the power density of production, or vice-versa."

This seems crucial.

The point about concentration is very relevant.

What has become more concentrated, arguably, is wealth.

"Referring to and rebutting Henry's comment further up, the market has a real difficulty with financing over longer terms than twenty years or so. Thus, long term financing has to be the function of the State if we are to ever countenance seriously long term paybacks."

The Holy Market is re-active, not pro-active.

'The Holy Market' almost always fails to respond quick enough to steer large systems with enormous momentum away from danger.

The artificial human construct know as The Market is a Cobra, the Physics of Reality is the Mongoose.

The snake's little reptile processor is usually no match for the complex rhythmic anticipation the Mongoose can bring to the table, it sees into the future.

If 'The Market' can't turn a quick buck a few quarters into the future, 'The Market' can't even see it, much less react to it.

Another point is that 'Peak Oil' is now being played out to the tune of "Peak Finance". The amount of investment capital available to invest in Anything, much less Alt Energy, will be extremely limited for the foreseeable future. A Depression lasts quite a bit longer than the run of the mill 'deep recession'. With the financial rascals who hatched the latest, greatest sub-prime Ponzi scheme, the damage to long term investment is staggering. The Feds are broke and can only offer printed money (Steadily Devaluing Dollars), based on Good Faith of payback.

Any takers?

Are we getting any closer to "Peak Stupidity"?

If 'The Market' can't turn a quick buck a few quarters into the future, 'The Market' can't even see it, much less react to it.

This is precisely the point. Private finance capitalism is only ‘efficient’ when it is carrying out the task it was designed to accomplish: Increasing the total volume of economic transactions as rapidly as possible. If our goal is to create stable, long-term, community wealth, or if the constant flow of productivity improvements to which we have grown accustomed becomes physically impossible to maintain because of resource limitations, then private finance capitalism will prove to be a miserable and ineffective tool for producing the goods and services we really need. The key social and political problem which has to be solved is how to intelligently direct production resources in a world in which constant productivity improvements are no longer the economic norm. I certainly do not claim that the Soviet Union or even Cuba represent good solutions to this problem. However, societies whose thinking remains imprisoned in the straight jacket of the conventional economic forms of the last several centuries are very probably doomed to dissolution and chaos.

: The Holy Market is re-active, not pro-active.


:'The Holy Market' almost always fails to respond quick
: enough to steer large systems with enormous momentum away
: from danger.


: The artificial human construct know as The Market is
: a Cobra, the Physics of Reality is the Mongoose.


: snip :

: If 'The Market' can't turn a quick buck a few quarters
: into the future, 'The Market' can't even see it, much
: less react to it.

Wrong. It can see it fine. It just doesn't care. Please note: the "market" doesn't exist except as relations between sentient actors with more or lesser degrees of agency. So, this is a pattern of behaviour, not an "object" outside of human behaviour.

If everyone woke up tomorrow and decided to live in teepees and chase bison and sing kumbayaa by the fire every night, the "market" would become superfluous. So, we have to understand "the Market" as a product of class conflict and heirarchic social relations. conclusion: the Market doesn't exist.

: Another point is that 'Peak Oil' is now being played
: out to the tune of "Peak Finance". The amount of
: investment capital available to invest in Anything,

Speak for yourself. Russia has NO DEBT. They paid it off years ago. And they are sitting on top of A LOT of oil and gas. China has more money than God. Japan's been in a funk since the early 1990s, but they still have a lot of serious financial power. Your complaints are geographic: USA.

So, please lift your eyes beyond the American Border.

Hint: you don't have to look that far for better models.


Russia didn't pay off their debt. They ripped up their IOUs.

At first, I was quite confused by these:

(1 quadrillion = 1015)
(Terawatts or 1012 watts)

until i realized they are 10^15 (ten to the power 15)
and 10^12 ..

what is there around our homes that uses oil that can't be plugged in? you can plug-in, if you need to in a peak oil scenario, your snowblower, car, lawnmower, snowmobile and and anything else you need. you can shovel your driveway if need be. you can use one of those old push lawnmowers if need be.

This article does not make much sense to me.
He says that the only resource greater than fossil fuel consumption is direct solar, when his own graph clearly shows that wind is much grater than fossil fuel.
Also the assumptions are hidden - for instance in the same graph he specifies geothermal as being much less than fossil fuel consumption, which sounds to me dependent on what extraction technologies you are assuming - there is a lot of geothermal energy there, the problem is extracting it economically.
Electricity is then shown as a separate entity, when obviously something generated it, and nuclear drifts in and out of the analysis.
It seems to me that the data shown has been generated to suit the conclusions, without showing it's basis or assumptions.

We are a few decades already into making the transition from oil. during the 1970s, because of the rise in the price of oil, we increased our MPG substantially. there was only one real reason, price. we are probably 30 years into the swtich. Many countries tried to phase out oil from their power gird, most notably Iceland. This drive was interrupted in the 80's and 90's by the glut of oil that drove prices down to $10/barrel. now that oil prices are up suddenly people are using Amtrak and buying cars with more MPG. just wait for the wave of cheap PHEVs that get 100mpg.

if I were a power company I'd be overlaying my maps of best places for wind power, solar power and geothermal and think about building a plant to utlizie all there in the place closest to a major city.

My guess is that by late in 2008 you will see the first vast solar arrays being deployed with electric transport grids in cities. Like solar powered calculators, solar is most potent when used where it is collected.