New Cabinet Position-"Energy and the Environment"?

Last night on the website, the major 'categories' for the transition administration included the usual headings: 'Commerce', 'Defense', 'Education', etc. But there was a curious entry in the list: "Energy and the Environment", (which is no longer there). My eyes expected to see "Energy" and "Environment" under separate headings. (Todays listing of cabinet positions is now identical to the current admininistrations.) But for a brief, heart pounding moment, I thought this might be a sneak preview into a sea change in the way policy leaders see the world, one unified Cabinet position, linking two critically interconnected areas, Energy and the Environment. I expect it was a snafu, or I misunderstood what I was seeing. As such, this brief post is not about advocating or predicting such a cabinet position will emerge. But as we go forward in these challenging Liebigs Law times, such a cabinet position might be the first step in recognition both of limits, and of the wide boundary impacts of our internalize profits / externalize costs social system. Of course there are risks with such a union...


Last night I caught up on what is happening with President-elect Obama and his energy policy plans. Since I haven't owned a television since 2001, I read numerous articles and watched the above and other speeches on Obama's energy website. There was a great focus in the speech (and other speeches and articles) on energy independence, and creating jobs from generating renewable fuels here at home. Obama specifically mentioned being completely free of oil from the Middle East and Venezuela by 2025, and replacing 7.5 million barrels of oil imports with renewable fuel. He also mentioned climate often, specifically in regards to leaving a planet for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

In the coming 2 weeks, is going to have detailed review/critique/feedback on the IEA WEO 2008 Report due out this week outlining the future of world's energy supplies. So I will not go into specific energy details on the gargantuan task of becoming energy independent, even oil independent, in the next 20 years, (short of a complete change in how we use energy). Instead I would like to highlight the increasing linkages between energy and the environment. Though President-elect Obama has oft mentioned global warming, there are many other important areas where energy procurement and environmental health exert opposing forces.


Let's start with climate, as Obama has made it a priority to reduce carbon emissions. Today we hear that more climate scientists are advocating phasing out of coal because we are already in the danger zone on CO2 emissions.

100,000 Years of Greenland Temperature - Source 2004 Artic Climate Impact Assessment

I am not a climate expert, but I do know that the human brain developed and our flexibility and adaptability was possibly influenced during periods of rapid climate oscillations over the past million years, and in particular over the past 100,000 years. Since the dawn of agriculture, we have not only had a 'warm' period' but also incredible lack of volatility in temperatures. A goldilocks climate subsidy.

The main arguments about energy and climate change cluster around three key questions: 1)how quickly will our high quality low cost fossil fuels deplete?, 2)how quickly, if at all, will our climate continue to warm (and what feedback mechanisms are involved), and 3)if the answer to both questions is something in the order of 'yes, quickly', what chunk of the low cost energy must be allocated towards mitigation of climate disruption. If the answer to either question 1 or 2 is 'not quickly', then we can prioritize the other. These questions most crucially center around coal, and how expensive it will be to sequester carbon using CCS. Rough estimates are that carbon capture and storage will use 20% of the original energy output. Of course, reducing consumption, or some other social paradigm other than competing for the most stuff, reduces both carbon, and oil use. So energy procurement, and reduction in GHGs are only at loggerheads in a business as usual, nominal growth-as-measured-by-GDP oriented world.


While the impact of human activities on climate is broadly publicized, the impact of human activity on other areas of the environment is less so. Energy production, in particular biofuels, uses a great deal of water.

Countries by population able to allocate water towards energy usage. Source: Burning Water: Energy Return on Water Invested Mulder, Hagens, Fisher. Pub pending 2008

In an upcoming paper, I show that using WHO population estimates and BP energy production statistics, that fully 70% of the worlds population (by country) will be severely limited by using water for ANY energy production by the year 2025 in 1 in 10 drought years. 50% in normal precipitation years. Fully 3/4 of our water goes towards energy or agriculture (which itself is increasingly going towards energy). In the United States, thermo-electric power and irrigation accounts for fully 82% of our fresh water usage. (S. Hutson et. al 2004). Our study was probably conservative. For example Australia, as a 'country' did not show up with any water restrictions for energy use, but the resolution did not focus down on the breadbasket areas, where water is needed. Already last year, Australia narrowly averted complete water/irrigation shutdowns due to drought.

Existing and planned ethanol facilities (2007) and their estimated total water use mapped with the principal bedrock aquifers of the United States and total water use in year 2000.(Source USGS) Click to enlarge.

The National Academy of Sciences has a report on The Implications of Biofuel Production for United States Water Supplies. Not only are biofuels more water intensive, but there are a great number of other negative externalities as well, including soil loss, atrazine in water reservoirs, nitrogen runoff creating hypoxia in GOM, and others. All the while we focus on biofuels for energy, we are depleting fossil sources of another kind: water in the Ogalalla and other non-renewable aquifers in the United States.

NASA ASTER image of an approx. 557 mi² area of fields (1443 km²) in Kansas which are watered from the Ogallala aquifer with center pivot irrigation systems. CLICK TWICE TO ENLARGE


In addition to our fossil fuel bank account, we have an enormous amount of energy 'interest' available to the planet's denizens.

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

But as has been written about here extensively, all energy is not equal. Not only does each energy technology have unique impacts on the environment, large or small, but it also has different properties in power density, energy density, and intermittency.

From Energy Transitions Past and Future:

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 100 or 1000 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.
Perhaps most importantly, the energy returned on the energy invested into the technology is a critical, (but not standalone) metric. Energy is what we combine with resources, ideas and labor to create economic work. We only think we pay for things in dollars, but energy is the ultimate currency. Without it, the dollars eventually become meaningless...


Society is gradually recognizing we have an energy problem. There is simply not enough low-cost, low-externality, high-quality, high-density energy available to fuel the appetite of a full planet. From here forward, there will almost always be tradeoffs between energy and 'something else', be it GHGs, water, soil, ecosystem health, biodiversity, etc. On top of that, energy needs to be cheap enough for all stakeholders, lest their be social unrest due to rising income/wealth inequalities. It is for this reason that, however unlikely, a Cabinet position "Secretary of Energy and the Environment", makes complete sense. If history is any guide, our individual (and government) penchant to put out short term fires while increasing the odds of long term napalm, will likely (after/if our financial storm passes), choose to address shortages in liquid fuels without studying the wider boundary impacts of their actions.

WHAT COST GASOLINE? (Hypothetical graphic)Click to Enlarge

Additionally, as a new administration transitions towards 'renewable systems', we will have to adapt our land area use to lower power density renewable sources (especially if coal is being phased out). According to energy scientist Vaclav Smil, if we are to power the existing residential, industrial and transportation infrastructures built from fossils, a renewable-based society will have to concentrate otherwise diffuse flows to overcome the large power density gaps. Essentially, we would require a great deal more land for primary conversions, especially while relying on inherently inefficient photosynthesis which has very low power density: "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" (Smil 2007).

Already wood is being targeted for gasification, pellets, and for heating. My essay Home Heating with Wood showed that we could replace only a small fraction of heating oil and natural gas use with the annual forest growth is being presented next week to the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) meeting in Durham NH. The threads that connect energy and the environment are being weaved, largely behind the scenes, into an interconnected tapestry. In sum, an energy transition towards 'green sources' has to account for complex inputs and outputs (costs and externalities) that were primarily assumed away during a cheap fossil fuel era.


My biggest fear that accompanies my hope of a new administration tackling some of these difficult problems is that we will replace our declining High EROI, high externality (in the case of coal) fuels, with low EROI, low externality renewable fuels. We require a minimum energy surplus to power industrial civilization and many of the renewable sources targeted are environmentally benign but also energy duds. Furthermore, the environmental benefits of many ostensibly low externality technologies like cellulosic ethanol are still open to debate. (Systems analysts, not common at high government meetings, must begin to weigh a portfolio of inputs, energy being a very important one, but by far not the only critical one. The rather complicated graphic below shows formulae (defined in paper linked) for a framework to measure both WHAT is included in the energy return of a fuel source (wide boundary vs narrow boundary analysis), and HOW it is included (non-energy inputs excluded, a single criteria, or multiple non-energy inputs included). Ultimately, we should strive for the highest (physical) return on the most limiting input(s).

EROI Framework (Source: Energy Return on Investment: Toward's a Consistent Framework, Mulder, K., Hagens, N. AMBIO Vol 37 Issue 2 Mar 2008 pp 74-79) Click to Enlarge


I think the President-elect limits his inner thoughts:spoken word ratio (don't we all?). But sifting through datapoints on speeches and articles, one might conclude that 'he get's it', more than any leader we have seen in recent times.

A few minutes later he summoned me to the plane’s first-class section, evidently choosing an economics discussion over a DVD of “Mad Men,” which was sitting on his side table. His eyes were tired, and he looked a good deal older than he had only four years ago, on the night that he became famous at the 2004 Democratic convention. But we ended up talking for an hour. After I returned to my seat, the press aide walked back to tell me that Obama had more to say.

“Two things,” he said, as we were standing outside the first-class bathroom. “One, just because I think it really captures where I was going with the whole issue of balancing market sensibilities with moral sentiment. One of my favorite quotes is — you know that famous Robert F. Kennedy quote about the measure of our G.D.P.?”

I didn’t, I said.

“Well, I’ll send it to you, because it’s one of the most beautiful of his speeches,” Obama said.

In it, Kennedy argues that a country’s health can’t be measured simply by its economic output. That output, he said, “counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them” but not “the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.”

The second point Obama wanted to make was about sustainability. The current concerns about the state of the planet, he said, required something of a paradigm shift for economics. If we don’t make serious changes soon, probably in the next 10 or 15 years, we may find that it’s too late.

Genuine Progress Indicator vs Conventional GDP Source: Redefining Progress Click to Enlarge

Fusing economics, energy and the environment is the challenge of our generation. While perfect may be the enemy of good; short-term and narrow boundary thinking are also the enemies of long term social (and environmental) sustainability. In other words, renewable energy at all costs will come with some big costs. As high quality fossil fuels deplete, more energy will have to be diverted away from other sectors of the economy, (irrespective of costs measured in fiat currencies), towards energy procurement. The mismatch between the inherently low power densities of renewable energy 'interest' and high power densities of fossil 'capital' means that Obama's focus on energy independence via renewable systems will require profound spatial and social restructuring with major environmental and socioeconomic consequences. I might suggest that equal or greater efforts be spent on reducing energy demand than on sticking our hands further in the monkey trap.

New Cabinet position? How about 'Secretary of Redefining Progress'?

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."- Albert Einstein

Nice post--thanks!

I think one of the issues with renewable energy (apart from the question of whether they are truly renewable) is what our energy gain is on a "cash" basis, rather than an "accrual" basis.

For example, when we build a new wind turbine, it takes a huge amount of energy to build the new turbine. If we measure the energy it takes to build the roads and the trucks used to transport the turbines, the energy input is even greater. The energy output from the turbines is spread over a large number of years in the future. The net energy available to society will be net negative as long as we are ramping up turbine use quickly. It is only when we flatten it out, that there is any net gain.

The same thing happens with solar voltaic, and in fact with nuclear energy. It also happens with new dams for hydroelectric. The jury is out on cellulosic ethanol, because we cannot really produce it yet. If we could, we will likely be building production plants for quite a number of years, using up any net energy that actually comes out of the plants.

With very high ERoEI projects, like oil and coal, this was less of an issue, because the investment cost was relatively lower. Also, we ramped them up over many-many years, so the rapid ramp-up was less of an issue.

With the negative cash-basis energy flow from renewables, we will need to use our excess energy from fossil fuels to fund all these additional costs. How much do we really have available? What are the trade-offs with other uses, like using oil to produce food?

Gail. Totally true - I have yet to get around finalizing my post on Maximum Power (which has been in queue for 6 months) but essentially what organisms evolved to do is maximize EROI per unit time. So we not only want high energy gain sources, we want them NOW.

Using financial terminology, there is a large difference between fixed and marginal EROI. The marginal energy return from oil wells in shallow gulf of mexico was positive -but after the hurricane went through, the remaining oil was too expensive to rebuild the entire infrastructure to begin extracting it again. How much of the world's oil falls under this scenario is anyones guess, but the bootstrapping of 10-20 year ago investment in capital and equipment means that when that wears out or depletes and we have to start over somewhere else, everything is more expensive.

Regarding wind power, let me make a bond market analogy. Owning a wind turbine is a long 'duration' investment. In the bond market, duration measures the sensitivity of a fixed income security to a simultaneous upward or downward movement in interest rates. High duration bonds are very sensitive to interest rates. Duration is measured by the 'teeter-totter' position on a time line of where the interest and principle payments balance out. e.g. a 30 year treasury has about a 12 year duration, while a 3 month t-bill has like a 2.9 month duration.

If the market were functioning properly, e.g. anticipating sharp increases in electricity prices over the next few decades, investors would want to pay for 'energy duration' and buy/finance wind turbines. But with the credit crisis making capital more dear, peoples appetite for 'duration' of any kind is diminished. Even with high energy surplus systems, the payback period may not come for many years. Interestingly, the natural gas situation is quite different. Though the Haynesville shale is very cheap per MBTU compared to natural gas prices, the wells deplete 50-60%+ in the first year, and then have a tail with little production after the first few years. Compared to wind, these are 'low duration' investments. If you know what natural gas prices will be for next few years, you can make an investment decision, and even hedge your exposure. The problem here is a)many will choose the shorter term duration instruments in times of crisis (exactly when we NEED to build long duration) and b)many natural gas companies who 'lease' cheap acreage and therefore are entitled to an economic rent, may not be viable entities in 3 years, unless they own tons of undeveloped land. So despite knocking the cover off the ball currently, some of these companies might not be around in 2012...

Matching assets, liabilities and timelines is a rarely discussed aspect of the energy picture. One thing I know as a former bond investor is, if I know that bond prices are going higher, I would want to invest in as long of duration instrument as possible. Why should energy be any different?

(interestingly, using the above logic, it's the utility companies, not the wind turbine/tower manufacturers that will capture the largest rent, as once the turbines are owned, any doubling or tripling of electricity prices only benefits the owner of the turbine. That is, unless the market expects future energy to be more dear, which at least for the past 30 years, has not been the case.

It's intriguing to consider that at a time when we are long overdue to invest in long-duration energy infrastructure assets (new solar, and new wind feeding into new transport and an improved grid) we are also reaching a critical point in our funding needs as a nation. Of course, I refer to parabolic growth in the supply of Treasuries. So what we have here is a mash-up: when Gail insightfully points out that an accelerated buildout of alt. energy might come under pressure to be accounted for on a cash, rather than on an accrual basis, the funding needs of the nation also face similar hurdles: much of the new Treasury supply is shorter in duration. Which is to say we are in the aggregate trying to support more long-term liabilities with a greater weighting towards shorter term debt. Thus, we open up ourselves to higher volatility in the global interest rate environment, and also, we will have to go to market much more often to "roll over" maturing debt (because it will all mature more quickly).

The result is that we need to ask the funders of both our debt, and our new investments, to give us time. Now, from an investment standpoint--apart from any of these current machinations--solar has long since intrigued me just as Nate suggests--as a kind of Long Bond that is preciently purchased in a high interest rate environment and then soars in value at the back end of the term, as interest rates fall. Essentially, solar is very intriguing in this regard, as it's low maintainence costs push gains heavily towards the back end of the term. Part of this return on investment curve of course comes from the initial start-up cost, which is high.

The nation now needs very high confidence investors in both new energy sources and our nation's debt who will need to have tons of faith that they will get paid on the back end. It's alot to ask, isn't it.

This is why I continue to advocate for a huge slash in defense spending, a redirection of the river of spending into the domestic economy, and, a monetization of resources--mainly oil and gas offshore--to fund investment. I know it's unpopular but I am convinced we have totally and completely lost the right to some of our ideals. That aside, I do think that 100% of all royalties from new offshore US drilling could be devoted to light rail, commuter rail and new solar and wind. California would be a great place to put it all together. We just need to get past the false dilemma choice, politically, which framed the pre-election debate. Which is to say offshore drilling would have zero intent or influence on price. No, it would be to raise capital which we truly don't have. I believe there was a poster on yesterday's Drumbeat who advocated something similar.

I don't think the nation understands how close we are to reaching structural limits to the amount of the world's savings we can borrow, to keep the USA running. We were already running up against those limits the past few years--and it looks like alot of the borrowing the past few years was run through foreign CB's. But now, those foreign CB's are being called upon to participate in their own stimulus programs. We basically have to find stuff to monetize. I don't care if it's coal, gold, offshore oil, or the State of Alaska (some have joked a sale of Alaska could get us out of debt). And then of course there is the issuance of new Treasury debt....

So, my friends, limits all around, yes? Oh, not to mention that it appears to me that we are going to be right back into some oil supply pressures by next year.


well said Gregor. I guess that is a point of this post - now is the time for the New Energy Deal. And given the constraints, we can't take baby steps. Obama, and all of us, have to be willing to take risks. I think he knows that, but the electorate doesn't understand how wide the structural problems are, and will probably cry at the first sign of pain...If one understands the Neurobiology of Dread, all we have to do to 'accept' short term pain, is make long term pain seem either higher or unavoidable (broadly speaking):

"Most people don't like waiting for an unpleasant outcome, and want to get it over with as soon as possible," explains Dr. Berns, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. "The only explanation for this is that the dread of having something hanging over your head is worse than the thing that you are dreading. It is a commonplace experience, but standard economic models of decision-making don't deal with this issue.

Nate would you mind giving the nominal value for the constants in your eroi framework. The link to the article seems to be behind a pay wall.

That paper (as opposed to the one on water limits) is theoretical. To list the constants would be impossible here -formatting etc. -best I can do is put the paper up as separate post in future. Sorry.

are we going to see TOD designed long duration incentive policy that is politically sellable?

high level measures that produce long duration investment decisions that policy makers could use

what can be done and still retain market doctrine?


the New Energy Deal

I'm thinking that one of the most powerful components of a New Energy Deal would be to nationalize the health care system. Think of all the creative talent that would be unleashed if people weren't enslaved by that insurance companies. A simple, straight up, single-payer system emphasizing public health - not private services. Put someone that thinks like Dr. Peter Montague in charge. Energy, environment, economic inequality, even the exercise of political power - those are all public health issues. That single step would be a jump-cut cultural change.

cfm in Gray, ME

I have just calculated how much it would cost to produce 24 hour a day electricity in Texas using renewables.

I recently attempted to calculate how much 24 hour a day, 365 days a year renewable electricity would cost in texas. Dr. Ben Sovacool, a renewables advocate, recently offered the figure of $1700 per nameplate KW of wind generated electricity in discussions with me. That figure is probably low. I have reason to believe that the cost of a fully installed windmill in November 2008 is perhaps closer to $2500 per name plate KW, but the lower figure will serve to illustrate my point. If we assume that our project to replace Texas fossil fuel generating plants with renewables by 2030, as the Gore and Google plan would require, how much is it going to cost in Texas? Lets assume that we decide to go with a all renewables system, with wind base power. Assume that the same rate of inflation for electrical generating facilities that we have seen during the last 5 years. That would bring our wind facilities capital costs to $3400 per nameplate KW by the middle of the next decade, and lets assume the system is built then. A stanford study found that only 21% of wind nameplate capacity can be counted as base load electricity. In order to figure the cost of building base load electricity we have to divide the cost of a KW of of wind generating capacity by 21%. That gives a figure of something over $16,000 per KW. But hay, that is not the end of our cost, since the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas says that wind generated electricity cannot be relied on during summer days. So we are going to have to build some solar facilities in West Texas to provide day time solar back up to our wind facilities. Solar thermal facilities are now costing $4000 pre name plate KW in the Southwest. Assuming inflation the same inflation that will impact the cost of wind and nuclear facilities that cost will probably go up to $8000 per KW during the next decade. That gives us a cost of $24,000 per KW of semi-reliable wind and solar generated electricity. Semi-reliable because we know that there will be after dark hours of high electrical demand when our wind system will not be able to supply all the electrical Texas Air Conditioners demand on summer nights. So we have a system that is not 24 hours a day reliable. How much will it cost to give us some assurance that we can keep those Texas air conditioners running 24 hours a day? We could use sodium-sulfur batteries @ $350 per KWh capacity. 4 hours of battery back up brings out price to $25,400 for each 24 hour a day KW provided to Texas by a renewable system. Needless to say renewables advocates have not and will not perform this exercise.

In contrast, the $6000 to $8000 per kW for conventional nuclear power plants at during the next decade looks like a positive bargain, and the possibility that advanced technology reactors can be built at a lower price, perhaps a far lower price, should be intriguing to anyone who is interested in low cost electricity.

For the nuclear fission power plants you ignore the effect of inflation on the price, the cost of carbon sequestration/tax/credits related to the concrete, the cost of disposal of radioactive waste (the cost is dumped on the tax payer) and the cost of nuclear accidents. Did you factor in all the NIMBY lawsuits? Let's say a law is passed requiring the corporation to maintain a fund of $500 trillion to compensate anyone who is adversely affected by their toxic power system. How much would it cost then? Also the death penalty should be mandatory for all executives if their toxic power system ever kills someone. With accountability for murderers, how much would it cost? If we put all the toxic radioactive waste into rockets and shot them into Sun rather than bury it placing the cost of contamination on future generations, how much would it cost then?

For the nuclear fission power plants you ignore the effect of inflation on the price, the cost of carbon sequestration/tax/credits related to the concrete, the cost of disposal of radioactive waste (the cost is dumped on the tax payer) and the cost of nuclear accidents.
Quite the contray, I apply the same inflation analysis to the cost of nuclear that I apply to the cost of renewables. The same inflationary factors are at work on all forms of new power construction.

The cost of nuclear waste storage and decommissioning are included from electrical sales. In fact there is a large surplus in the Nuclear Waste Fund at present, and if "spent nuclear fuel" is recycled in the nuclear process, the nuclear wast fund can be rebated to the utilities. With an efficient fuel cycle spent reactor fuel is no more radioactive than natural uranium 300 years after it leaves the reactor. Many valuable and rare minerals are found in spent nuclear fuel, and they can fe profitably recycled in industry. Long time radioactiv isotopes are useful in medicine, industry, agriculture, food preservation and sanitation.

Your fantasies about the lethal danger of nuclear power are just that, fantasies. New reactor designs are incredibly safe. The likelihood of a major natural disaster costing millions of human lives is far higher, than an accidental fission product release from a reactor that would cost one human life.

The reason that there is a surplus in the US nuclear fund is that no disposal has yet been undertaken.
I'm assuming that you are stateside and that Yucca Mtn, Nevada will be your friendly local nuclear repository. OK, I wouldn't expect anyone to break into Area 51 to check that its being laid out yet, but as far as I know its not been constructed yet.

According to your own Department of Energy figures this facility will take $42m per year just to deal with corrosion of its own workings. OK, that ain't a hill of beans in Texas, but start to ramp it up with a real world discount rate over the 300 year period that you quote for reactor waste to get down to 0.7% U-235 activity (equivalent to naturally occuring uranium) and it doesn't look so rosy. I doubt that you'd want your kids to sit on a couch made of 0.7% U-235 by the way. Start to add some nice warm waste with added meaty chunks of plutonium from those reactors that aren't efficient (i.e. those working now) to deal with and the figure is anybody's guess.

The UK experience with reprocessing using the ThORP plant does nothing to encourage the view that cheap and efficient reprocessing is anywhere near economically viable. If you take a look around the world at nuclear disposal options you will see that the storage/geological disposal option is preferred by those with access to the detailed costings. Even the super-efficient Japanese are going down this route.
FYI, the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Agency has just started recruiting for geological disposal techs after the experience with ThORP. Send any signals ?

Danger, schmanger ! Nuclear power is bankrupt before it even starts. A wind turbine can fall down and be replaced, a hydro dam can break drown a town and be replaced, a gas turbine can blow up and be replaced, a solar panel can revert to being simply a panel, but radioactive waste is an expensive friend for its lifetime, no replacements necessary.

I'd love to know what those useful long-lived isotopes are by the way. To the best of my knowledge most of the applications that you quote are supplied by 'research' reactors specifically jigged to produce those particular 'topes not to produce power.

The reason that there is a surplus in the US nuclear fund is that no disposal has yet been undertaken.

And it never has to be either. Dry cask storage is good for several centuries at least. Either we have a better solution by then or we reseal the casks at a fraction of the price.

Nuclear may not be that cheap either:

6000 Investment
10 years building time
3000 average invested capital
10% interest
300 interest per year prior to exploitation
3000 interest cost prior to exploitation
9000 total invested cost before exploitation
30 years depreciation
300 depreciation per year
4500 average capital over life
10% interest
450 interest cost per year
750 capex cost per year (deprec. + interest)
8760 hours per year
90% capacity factor
7884 effective hours
$0.10 capex per kwh
???? operations cost


when Gail insightfully points out that an accelerated buildout of alt. energy might come under pressure to be accounted for on a cash, rather than on an accrual basis. . .

The result is that we need to ask the funders of both our debt, and our new investments, to give us time.

I would argue that ultimately, it is nature that is giving us a call on our profligate spending ways.

We are used to using accrual accounting, but nature uses only the equivalent of cash flow accounting. There is only so much oil pulled out of the ground each year, and part of it is used for producing the oil. We only have a certain amount left, and it is divided among particular uses. No matter how much we bargain, that is all there is. If we want to spend more oil on making wind turbines, we (the US, or someone somewhere else in the world) have to use less oil on something else.

I see long term debt as less and less of a solution. We know that with peak oil (and peak resources of all kinds and climate change), we will collectively have less and less resources to pay back the debt plus interest than we have now. The probability of default is very high. I see the big crisis that we will be facing now and in the years ahead is the end of long and medium term debt. Debt has allowed us to greatly ramp up demand over what it otherwise would be. We are now seeing the unwind of both debt and demand--hence the big drop in prices.


Matching assets, liabilities and timelines is a rarely discussed aspect of the energy picture. One thing I know as a former bond investor is, if I know that bond prices are going higher, I would want to invest in as long of duration instrument as possible. Why should energy be any different?

I have some concerns here. If the bond price is going higher, it means that the interest rate is going lower, or that there is less and less chance of default. I don't think that anything analogous to this is happening with solar, wind, or nuclear. We make big front end investments on any of these electricity sources, but it is becoming less and less clear that we will actually be able to use them for their full planned duration.

For example with wind, we will have to have roads, large trucks, replacement parts, and fully repaired transmission lines in place for the entire period. With peak oil, it is not clear this will be the case.

With solar voltaic on individual housetops, we have the issue of whether water shortages or climate change will make the part of the country where these panels are located unlivable. Theoretically they can be moved, but this will be another big cost, and will depend on the availability of fuel and transportation to a new location. If solar voltaic (or other solar) is centrally located, we still have to have the transmission infrastructure maintained for a long period. If panels are located in a desert, we will have the issue of whether those keeping the panels dusted can live in a desert environment. Nuclear has similar problems, plus the need for some sort of upgraded fuel.

Electricity may well become more expensive over time, but I would agree with you that it is because of the difficulty of keeping BAU in a post peak world that is also dealing with climate change. Coal and natural gas infrastructure is of at least as long duration as wind and solar (and probably needs less maintenance). If we choose to phase these out for lower EROEI alternatives, electricity will be more expensive, but alternatives will not necessarily be a better investment.

Gail, much though I respect you, I find some of your arguments for the failure of the grid somewhat circular and ill-defined.
They run somewhat on the nature that ' the grid cannot be maintained, because we do not have the finance.'
Why will we not have the finance?
'Because the grid cannot be maintained'
This is illustrative, of course, but serves to show the difficulty I have encountered in evaluating your arguments.

You may be correct, but the argument needs breaking into smaller pieces for sensible analysis.

For instance, in this post you mention 'we' may not be able to do this and that, but it is entirely unclear and important to consider who the 'we' under discussion is.
Does it refer to the US only?

The limiting cases of your argument are unclear, for instance, if a major obstacle is held to be the US budget deficit, and the financial melt-down, does this mean that China, which has budget surpluses until now and has just announced a $300 billion infrastructure investment, will be able to cope?

If the problem is held to be the switch to new fuels, does this mean that France, which gets most of it's electricity from nuclear power and has the relatively trivial task of making use of more heat pumps, solar power etc to make their non-fossil fuel uses more important still, should be able to cope?

I don not necessarily disagree with you, but am hoping that you can use some closer definitions and so on so we have something more specific to get our teeth into!

You are right. There are different issues in different countries.

In the UK, I think natural gas may be the immediate limiting factor for electric production, since natural gas one of the major sources of production, and it may hit supply constraints as soon as this winter. Thus, the grid may not be the limiting factor in the UK--it will be plain old electricity supply.

My concern about the grid particularly relates to the US. Today, the New York TImes is saying

Report Says Wind and Sun Power Could Threaten Grid.

If you actually look at the report by NERC, it also says more than wind and sun power could threaten grid. It also says that a switch to natural gas use from coal could threaten the grid.

My concerns are even more than the issues put forth by the North American Electric Reliability Council. Besides all of the issues of trying to change from what we currently have, and not being able to make the grid match, there is the issue of maintaining the grid which we now have.

The grid has been neglected for a many years, and many of its parts exceed their planned life expectancies. The current grid "ownership" doesn't support the upgrading that needs to happen--if a new grid segment is built, benefits must somehow be determined for a large number of different users, and costs of upgrades apportioned over the group. This can be contentious and time-consuming. Each piece of new grid has to be individually permitted and approved, The result of these issues is that little is getting built, and it often takes 10 years for one new segment. With peak oil and all of our financial problems, the likelihood of the government suddenly stepping in and fixing all of the US grid problems seems about nil to me.

Other countries may not have these issues, so the timing may be somewhat different. I think the problem will still exist, however. Everywhere, maintenance depends on the availability of roads, imported transformers, delivery vehicles, and the like, so eventually peak oil will cause grid maintenance problems, if another problem doesn't disrupt electric supply earlier.

Thanks for the clarification, which makes your post more useful.
Since I am based in the UK, my primary concern is with generating capacity, and above all for the roll-out of nuclear power as quickly as can be managed, as running this crowded northern country on renewables seems to me entirely unrealistic, whatever may be the case elsewhere.
In the interim before major construction can produce much power, conservation if overwhelmingly important, and land-based wind helpful.

I suspect that what we will actually get is coal fired power stations not being retired and new ones constructed, and hang GW.

If I were in the States, my priorities would be very different, and you have convinced me that the number one concern there is the grid.
Wind power is much more economic in the States, and a lot of it would have to be built before it places too much strain on the grid.

One very powerful mitigation might be available in the use of air-source heat pumps, which can now operate down to very low temperatures and since space heating and air conditioning is such an important part of electricity use would massively decrease strain on the grid.

It also lends itself ideally to mass production on the idle production lines of Detroit.

There is the issue of maintaining the grid which we now have

Lots of things that look like Assets are already turning into Liabilities.

cfm in Gray, ME


You can move a solar panel 200 times before it ends up costing the same as moving and energy equivalent amount of coal. If areas are abandoned, the solar panels won't be unless they are super ubiquitous in other regions. You can't buy used panels these days at all. The market is really tight.


As many here agree, cellulosic ethanol will always be a fuel of the future because it never works in the present.

Land plants, with their crystalline cellulose, have evaded enzymatic attack for hundreds of millions of years. Microbes and fungi would be biting the hand that feeds them and in fact, slitting their own throats, if they evolved to hydrolyze cellulose at the rates humans desire from them in their chemical vats.

This reminds me of my stance on ethanol. Ethanol has been in continuous production for 5,000 years or more. Nearly every agricultural society has produced it on a large scale. If ethanol were an energy source, wouldn't someone have put it to that use in these 5,000 years? Instead of drinking it?

"Ethanol has evaded use as fuel for thousands of years. Fuel consumers would be biting the hand that feeds them (grain, potatoes) and in fact, slitting their own throats, if they evolved to depend on ethanol as fuel at the rates humans desire as fuel."

That is where the rubber will hit the road with respect to Obama and energy. Being from the second largest corn growing state, it will be politically difficult for him to do the right thing, (which is not scale corn ethanol and be not 'bet on the come' in a huge way on second generation biofuels.

Politics vs. reality. We'll see. (of course politics IS reality)

Gail -

I think you have inadvertently overblown the energy content of installed wind turbines. The energy payback period is not all that onerous.

Yes, producing steel takes energy, but that is true whether that steel is used for a coal-fired power plant or a wind farm.

Second, you cannot legitimately charge a wind farm for the energy content of the trucks used to construct the wind farm, as those trucks already exist, and they can just as easily transport turbine blades and machinery to a wind farm site as they can coal to a power plant.

Energy accounting can be very tricky and is loaded with all sorts of value-based assumptions, as you probably know better than I do.

However, this all misses a very important point: the wind will, for all intents and purposes, blow forever; whereas all fossil fuels will inevitably be depleted, forever. That is the crux of the matter as I see it.

And yes, I think I see what you are driving at: if we don't 'invest' our precious fossil fuels in viable renewable energy schemes, then we will at some point find ourselves trapped in a sort of 'potential well' where we don't have the wherewithal to pull ourselves out of the current situation and move on to the next level. A drowning man cannot pull himself out of the water by his own hair.

So, I think a strong argument could be made that, regardless of currently accepted criteria for return on capital invested, we are going to have to make some financially 'bad' investments if we are going to make some good investments for our very survival.


The energy required to make the trucks, and all supporting tools and equipment, must be amortized over all uses, including the use to deliver windmills to site and even raw materials to fabrication. Every joule of energy (Joule) must be accounted for in the end. Second law demands it I'm afraid. Of course it is hard to do. But we need to know.

Question Everything


George.Mobus -

When you say that the energy required to make the trucks that deliver wind turbines to the site must be accounted for, I have to ask: for what purpose?

If one is doing this sort of energy accounting for the purpose of comparing one energy scheme with a competing energy scheme, then one level of detail is called for. But if one is embarking on some sort of society-wide energy analysis, then another level of detail is appropriate.

The further upstream one goes with this energy accounting, the more one gets into an allocation game that is fraught with assumptions and value judgements. As such, I would maintain that as long as one is reasonable confident that say 85 to 90% of the total energy input has been captured, then going any further only muddies up the analysis.

Accordingly, unless the construction of a wind turbine causes more trucks to be built (which is highly doubtful), I see little need to include the energy input associated with manufacturing the truck, as the truck has a certain operating life and could just as easily spend it hauling steel to build a high-rise office building. I can see including the fuel used for getting the wind turbine to the construction site, but not the energy content of the truck itself. (I mean where do you stop with this sort of thing: with the energy that went into the bacon and eggs the truck driver ate for breakfast the day he delivered the wind turbine?)

joule the notion that the energy used in the construction of of windmills is not entirely absurd. Windmills require lots of land. Wind sits have to be connected by roads, and electrical lines. In addition wildmill construction materials have to be carried by truck. In contrast, reactor construction is far more localized, and reactors are often located close to rail road tracks. Rail roads are 8 times more energy efficient than trucks. It is easy to see that a massive wind turbine building program would easily consume the life time of tens of thousands of trucks, that would not be required to build nuclear plants.

Charles Barton -

Please reread what I wrote above. I did NOT say that the energy used in the construction of a wind farm should be excluded. I agree it should be included. And if trucks are specially built specifically for some wind farm project, then by all means include it. All fuel consumption directly associated with construction should be included.

For example, with regard to offshore wind farms, I would definitely include the energy used to construct the special service vessels used to construct and maintain the wind farm, as they are a direct part of the overall system. (See, this is already getting into value judgements, and I've only gone one step upstream of the wind farm itself.)

My only point was that one need not go too, too far upstream in the energy accounting because one soon gets into a rather pointless allocation game that detracts from rather than enhances the overall analysis.

This sort of energy accounting is "fraught with assumptions and value judgements (sic)" at every level. No matter how well spelled out these assumptions & value judgments may be, if I don't agree with the assumptions or if my values differ, then the analysis is worthless. Those of you who invest so much time & energy in these types of analysises need to realize that they may not be meaningful to anyone besides yourselves and those who share your values. People whose values differ from yours will resist policy decisions based on your arbitrary & idiosyncratic accounting methodologies.


Have you ever been involved in running a company? Have you ever been involved in a cost accounting system? Have you ever considered the cost accounting across a supply chain to a higher level manufacturing?

We actually do this full cost accounting now (difference being the profit margins at each stage). We do it with money, but the principle is exactly the same. So is the reason.

But even so, another reason for doing this kind of accounting is that what ever energy system you are talking about you have to understand the net energy gain to society from the implementation and operation of that system, not just the energy gain to the local operation. Without going into a lot of the details here (see my blog if you want to understand the details better) it is a simple fact that a local optimization (or appearance of one) does not mean you are getting a globally optimized solution. If, by failing to account for all energy inputs into an energy production system, you leave out some component that itself was very energy intensive at an earlier stage, you will end up with what looks like a favorable advantage when, in fact, it might have hidden costs that leave us less better off. Too, remember we are talking about making commitments to systems that should, in theory, be operating for 30 - 50 years. If we made a mistake, by the time we find out it will be too late to do something else.

Hint: Look up the greedy method of algorithm design and note the limitations and caveats. It turns out that the principles apply to many kinds of systems where complex networks of interrelations exist.

George. Mobus -

To answer your query: i) Yes; ii) Yes; iii) No (though I'm not sure I fully understand the question).

I think we are coming at this whole thing from two totally different directions. From your comments, I strongly suspect that you are either an accountant or someone otherwise involved in the financial end of things. I, however, am an engineer, and over the course of my career have been involved in all sorts of technical/economic feasibility analyses, which are quite a different animal as compared to formal cost accounting.

You see, engineers are generally not required to show where every nickel and dime has been spent. Rather, they are usually called upon to come up with answers to such general questions as: Is it big (or small) enough? Is it strong enough? Will it work? Will it produce what it is supposed to produce? Will the final capital and operating costs be within an acceptable range of what was initially anticipated?

The point is that this is not cost accounting; it is analysis.

So, to get back to our wind turbine example: It would not be difficult for me to show you via a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation that the energy content of the trucks used to transport all of the components and construction materials for the wind turbine could never be more than a miniscule fraction of the total life-cycle energy production from that wind turbine. I guarantee it! Thus, while the guy paying for the wind farm might want to keep track of every nickel and dime, the engineer having to decide whether or not a wind farm is viable for a specific setting has a much broader area of consideration. We must focus on the forrest and not the trees.

As I said before, for the purpose of analysis, once you get several levels removed from the primary energy inputs you start getting into highly speculative cost allocation exercises which add very little to answer the basic question: Is it worth doing?

Even quicker: consider a spherical truck which can't have much more or much less mass than the load it carries. It is made of the same material as the load. It operates for ten years and requires one day to haul its load (a wind turbine). Then the embedded energy in the truck apportioned to a turbine is 1/3650 of that in a turbine. It is not significant.



Acknowledge your business background. But your assumptions about me are quite off the mark. You can take a look at my vitae at my academic web site. I was a solar energy engineer back in the 80s. Worked on a number of HUD demo projects in the Southwest (learned programming using the then new 8080 u-processor for control systems!) Did back of the envelop calcs on what has now come to be called embedded energy for thermal solar collectors. Decided the world as a whole was not better off energy-wise if a local optimum (homeowner's savings on heating) produced a global sub-optimum (indeed a net loss).

Your assertion that it isn't accounting fly in the face of reality. The supply chain cost pyramid should have been the clue. You are right that there might be an 'engineering' cutoff (approximation sufficiency) if it truly were only just analysis. But it isn't. To find global optima you need to be able to access the entire space of possibilities. Analysis alone will never get you there. And that is the forest.

Your statement:
"For example, when we build a new wind turbine, it takes a huge amount of energy to build the new turbine"

You seem to be overlooking the post hosted by Nate in Oct 2006( by C Cleveland), showing that wind had a EROEI of 18:1. This was based on smaller turbines so would be larger for the 2-3 MW turbines used now.
Taking these figures it would take about one year to return all of the embodied energy, that's assuming the turbine and turbine tower cannot be refurbished or has no scrap value after 18 years.

"With very high ERoEI projects, like oil and coal,"
the same article gives EROEI of 5 for coal, so wind energy has a higher EROEI than coal and possibly higher than many oil fields today.

If all of the energy of a wind turbine was used to create additional turbines you could have a growth rate above 50% per year. Since wind energy world-wide is growing at 20-30% per year, it is not having any net drain on FF energy.

Several (important) points:

1) Those studies did not include the costs to connect to the grid: e.g. the new transmission lines, storage components, etc. They did not include losses for transmission distance either. So unless the turbine is right next to the utility, there is another energy loss. How big depends on several variables.

2)For some time, the scaling of wind would be a DRAIN on liquid fuels (and all energy) as short duration energy investment ('energy cash') is allocated towards longer term flows. A good investment no doubt, but still an immediate drain.

3)Electricity is not liquid fuel. If we had 10-15 years until we are off of high EROI plateau, and could urgently invest in electrical transportation, local food systems, and a resilient system based on a new type of fuel, this would be promising. As it stands, it is urgent.

4)On top of EROI, we have to look at the capacity factor for existing power plants. Since wind (and solar) are intermittent, the larger they are scaled, the more important backup generation becomes. So we don't get all this energy payback in a lump sum- more like a daily sine wave.

5)Electricty might be fine for 'energy' but there are millions (literally) of non-energy co-products like plastics, petrochemicals, paint, solvents, medicine, packaging, etc. that cannot be made from wind. There are substitutes, but those too are depletable and limited in scale...

Wind IS great and we should at a minimum have turbines and grid connections placed at all medium and high wind locations around the world.

A lot of power sources seem to be assessed according to what people wish they were, not for what they are.
Wind power in the States can be built relatively quickly, would soak up some of the capacity being laid off in Detroit, and could supplement the energy production in the States and some other areas in a low-carbon way.

It is though difficult to go above around 20% of electricity production using it, and it's distributed nature means that you have to build lots of access roads, power lines etc.

The EROI is also low enough when coupled with concerns about it's distributed nature to raise concerns that it would, if not powerfully assisted by other means, not be capable of keeping society together.

Although there is some hope that a considerable part of the 'powerful assistance' may come from solar energy, that is by no means in the bag at reasonable cost, and at any latitude greater than about 15 degrees from the equator annual variability in solar incidence means that in practise considerable natural gas has to be burnt to make up for the shorter days and less powerful sunshine.
I do not share concerns about the EROI of solar power, as thin film technologies, including importantly silicon thin-film which is not so dependent on rare earths, have very comfortable EROI.

Now in many areas hot rock geothermal provides hope that at some point in the future it may become possible.
That is not though the case currently.

The realistic options to provide most of our base load power are what they have been for years, coal (non-clean) and nuclear.

That may change in the future, but that is the state of play, and we should not delude ourselves about that.

As a last point, point 5) regarding the use of oil in plastics etc is a serious concern but not, in my view, a game changer, as it forms a relatively small part of use, and could be made from coal, oil sands, etc, albeit with more expense.


You make good points.

Grid costs in particular are a problem. A proper accounting would include both the cost of electrical storage, to smooth out the supply, and the costs of transmission wires to users. No one thinks that we can just attach more of these to the grid, without problems. See today's New York Times article.

I also think we are kidding ourselves regarding planned lifetimes for wind and any other grid connected electricity. We have lived in a world where we could put a coal or gas fired plant in place, and could expect it to operate for 40 years. In a post peak world, where climate change is likely to be a problem, the world will be a lot less stable. If we can't do routine maintenance on the wind turbines and transmission lines, life expectancy is likely to be much lower. If people have to move to a new locations because there is not enough water, the cost of building transmission to the abandoned area will be of no long-term benefit. We should perhaps be thinking ten year amortization of costs for wind turbines.

It seems to me that there are two ways we can spend our dollars:

1. Trying to protect BAU, for a little longer.
2. Trying to give ourselves a somewhat livable world for the long run.

It is easy to kid ourselves that lots of investment to protect BAU is worthwhile. I would argue that we need to be looking at what we need for the long run - perhaps nails and paper and printing presses, and building truly sustainable production for these (that is, not dependent on oil or electricity). We should be spending our efforts on researching what skills people need, and teaching these skills to them. The more we spend on trying to keep BAU going, the less we will spend on keeping up our long-term living standards.

Wow! There are some pretty bold assumptions in there. I somehow doubt that you make quite so many sweeping assumptions in the course of your actuarial work, or presumably you might be recommending much cheaper premiums to win more business in the provision of pensions, as the collapsing system means that they won't have drugs available to keep them alive!

The parts needed for wind turbines, for instance, are reasonably simple, and in a scenario a lot less severe than you draw vast capacity would be available from the laid off car industry, as would plenty of copper.

Since maintenance is often a matter of substituting labour for materials, vast numbers of engineers would also be available to keep the machinery going, so it seems at least as possible that lifetimes would be extended from current practise as drop.
In fact, that is the pretty universal experience when times are tough, that equipment is kept going long after it would have been scrapped in more affluent societies.

In detail, it has been shown here many times by people including Alan from the Big easy and some of our electrical engineers that the sums needed to keep the grid going are pretty modest, as are those to expand it.

Yep, it is always possible that every move which is made is so daft or climate change is so severe that things are hopeless, but it is pretty far from a racing certainty as yet, nor does it seem a good bet to put your money on such a savage de-industrialisation as you seem to advocate here.

In any case, most would die in the course of it, so it seems worthwhile to try for something better.

A comment on your several(important) points:
1)No EROI calculations of any energy sources are including costs to transport to specific customers because they can be next door or 10,000 km away. High EROI sources such as hydro are being transported several thousands of km( Northern Canada to US). High EROI wind resources also justify long transmission.
2)Wind power will be a very small drain on liquid fuels( most energy for steel and cement) but within one year give a positive return on ALL energy expended. Thus a growth rate of 50% will require no net energy.
3)Wind power is high EROI, so would be worth investing in EV to replace liquid fuel ICE vehicles in 10-15 years
4)With a large capacity of NG powered electricity, wind when available can displace most NG, keeping NG for peak demand or when less wind power is available. Wind power is much less compatible with coal fired electricity. Nuclear power or solar power would be better to displace coal fired electricity. At present, new capacity is NG or wind(and a small amount of solar). As NG becomes less available other uses such as heating, will have to be replaced by renewable or nuclear generated electricity.
5)Non-energy uses of oil are not relevant to "future energy". They are relevant to future chemical and mineral resources. NG is probably more relevant, "bio-chemical" crops such as rubber, soybean, linseed have all been used in the past, will probably need to be rationed after peak oil( or peak NG). We won't run out of paints, rubber, plastics.
It only makes sense to have wind located in medium and high wind locations(13% of land area). This could give 72TW( about 7 times total world energy use), and even the remotest high wind locations should be worth connecting to long distance HVDC or used locally for aluminium refining. This means that most regions are not good locations for wind power, for example most tropical and sub-tropical countries, but they often have good solar resources.

"My biggest fear is that we will replace our declining High EROI, high externality (in the case of coal) fuels, with low EROI, low externality renewable fuels."

So you would prefer coal for example over renewable fuels. Good to know.

a)coal has high negative externalities. It's dirty, and CTL generates 400% GHGs at the margin than oil.(Marano, Ciferno 2003)

b)why good to know?

"a)coal has high negative externalities. It's dirty, and CTL generates 400% GHGs at the margin than oil.(Marano, Ciferno 2003)"

Yet you fear it would be replaced by renewable fuels. So, renewable fuels must be far worse in your opinion.

"b)why good to know?" So, that I understand where you stand.

I guess I didn't make the point about energy surplus clear enough. OF COURSE I would prefer high EROI, low externality fuels, but other than old oil, wind and hydro (and possibly nuclear - I don't know enough about it), such sources can no longer be scaled!

*(and where I stand is irrelevant. One day, when I've put all my ideas to blog, I'm going to retire and make wine and grow 30:1 EROI potatoes)

OK. Then I'd suggest you change the sentence from "my biggest fear" to "my biggest wish" in this sentence: "My biggest fear is that we will replace our declining High EROI, high externality (in the case of coal) fuels, with low EROI, low externality renewable fuels."

Potatoes can produce a lot of ethanol for instance. But if you drink it, you won't get a high energy return.....

why would i wish for LOWER energy gain? Modern civilization and infrastructure requires a minimum of 5:1+ EROI to function. Not gonna happen with biofuels and GTL.

Well, you may certainly wish for a high EROI alternative that is not declining, does not have a many negative impacts, etc...... Tell us when you've found it.

And I don't know where you get the 5:1 from.

And maybe there are some biofuels that could get an 5:1. How do you know there aren't?

I'm sorry Willem.
The problem with resource depletion as well as with this website, is the information is just not easily presentable in coherent bite sized pieces. It's almost like a continuing education course that you come when you can and absorb various subjects. Most of the information in the post above is not new, but is just framed it in a different way because I was excited about possible recognition of externalities.

I'm sorry I don't have the time to give more detailed answers. The 5:1 number was suggested in some of the work by Charles Hall - I actually think our CURRENT system needs higher than that, but would need a whole new post to defend that thought.

Good luck. You are asking the right questions. (except for the first one)

There is quite a bit on resource depletion in the UN Millenium Assessment.

As to the 5:1 ratio, check out relevant chapter in Chris Mortensen's Crash Course. The EROI curve is an upside down hockey stick. It hovers just fine for quite a while at high EROI numbers, but when it gets under tenish, it starts to plummet. Rather than there being a number above which we have to stay, the rate at which we cross from tenable to untenable seems to be the take-away. That type of curve suggests we can support just about anything as long as EROI is high because there is no huge difference between 100:1 and 20:1 or even 10:1.

Maybe I don't quite grok it, but it seems we can go from 10:1 to 5:1 just as fast as we can go from 100:1 to 95:1. Maybe faster because there will be much smaller production buffers. The latter we'd not notice, but the former would be devasting. Almost overnight. Hmmmm, now I seem to recall a paper posted on TOD a few months back about just this issue - endgame for a natural resource is both unforseen and virtually overnight.

cfm in Gray, ME

A minimum 5:1 EROEI is the ultimate irony for the EROEI obsessed. All unconventional oil(and gas too) will probably never exceed an EROEI of more than 5. The fact is that most of the oil and gas to be used in North America will be 'low' EROEI(oil sands, oil shale, superheavy oil, unconventional gas) as Exportland will end the export trade in light/medium oil in a couple decades.
I think that cellulosic ethanol gets an EROEI of 4.4 about the same as Brazilian sugar cane ethanol.
So from being the ideal way to select fuel sources in the end it will be a complete non-issue.

The choice between non-renewables will be determined by the size of the available resource.

I think one could argue that instead of "energy is ultimate currency" you could also say "money is ultimate energy".
If cheap oil and gas is depleting on us, and if we can find more expensive oil, gas or alternatives, only at ever higher costs, then we could see a high inflation of EROEI as a currency.

Here's an interesting letter from Michael Wang of Argonne National Lab to our own R^2 on the subject of EROEI, which sets out the differences between EROEI as discussed here at TOD and how it is discussed by energy professionals.

Dear Mr. Rapier,

Thank you for your email. Apparently, you know that I was pretty upset with your original way of characterizing my work and my character. Working in the scientific area, I am very careful in using language for characterizing others’ work and personalities. I expect that others would do the same to me. Simply put, just like you with great intention of pursuing facts, I have been doing the same myself in my professional career. To characterize me of knowingly misleading the public in biofuel debates is simply wrong. I am gratified that you realized that I treat such mischaracterization seriously.

Getting into the technical discussion that you originated, we all agree that energy efficiency is defined as energy output divided by all energy input (including energy in the feedstock itself). That is, we will take into account Btus in gasoline, ethanol, and all process fuels consumed for producing gasoline and diesel in our accounting for energy input. The amount of process fuels is about 0.25 for each Btu of gasoline produced from 1 Btu in crude oil. Meanwhile, for each Btu of ethanol produced from corn, which is from solar energy during corn growth, about 0.75 Btu of energy are consumed. This amount includes fossil energy (namely, petroleum, natural gas, and coal) in fertilizer production, corn farming, ethanol production, among many other activities. With this definition of energy efficiency (as it is accepted by all of us), ethanol has worse energy conversion efficiency (1/(1+0.75)=58%) than gasoline (1/(1+0.25)=80%). Note that in both calculations, the one Btu in ethanol and gasoline is taken into account as energy input, since they are energy eventually from solar energy in the ethanol case and petroleum energy in the gasoline case. Now you can see that such efficiency calculations take all Btus into account (renewable or non-renewable). That is, the efficiency calculations treat all Btus the same. In reality, all Btus are not created equal. I will get back to this point later.

What has been debated about bioethanol is ENERGY BALANCE, not energy efficiency. Energy balance is defined as the energy in the fuel minus FOSSIL energy input to produce the fuel. Why only fossil energy? That is because to many, fossil is non-renewable. As long as we use it, it will be gone, and it takes millions of years to get it back, if ever. But anyway, we can debate whether energy balance is a right matrix to use for energy policy evaluations. I, together with Mr. Khosla and many others, maintain that energy balance is NOT a good matrix for energy policy debates. But energy balance for ethanol has been debated for more than 20 years and it seems that there is still no way near an ending of this debate.

Now if one thinks a little more about energy balance calculations, one realizes that the calculation excludes renewable energy in energy input accounting, which a small step to the right direction to differentiate different types of Btus. But it adds all three fossil energy types (petroleum, natural gas, and coal) together. The calculation treats all fossil Btus equal, which is still not accurate for energy policy debates. For example, the US has several hundred years of coal supply, while it may have only 10-20 years of oil supply. I do not think that both of us would disagree that the US should value petroleum Btus more than coal Btus. But energy balance calculations do not provide us results to differentiate these two different types of Btus. Mr. Khosla alluded you about the flaws of energy balance calculations in his email.

With the energy balance definition, fossil energy input for one Btu of ethanol produced is still 0.75 Btu. However, fossil energy input for one Btu of gasoline is 0.25 Btu of fossil process fuels consumed PLUS the one Btu in crude oil that is converted into gasoline. Now you may see that the difference between a fossil energy-based fuel (gasoline) and a renewable fuel (ethanol) lies in the Btu embedded in the fuel itself. If it was not this difference between fossil fuels and renewable fuels, we all would conclude without any calculations that renewable fuels could not compete with fossil fuels with respect to energy (that is, all Btus are taken in account with differentiation).

I have made arguments against energy balance comparisons among energy products because they can be less meaningful or misleading. In the past ten years, I have tried to steer the debate on energy products to meaningful issues such as petroleum reductions, fossil energy reductions, greenhouse gas emission reductions, and reductions in criteria pollutant emissions. My point has been that even though corn ethanol has a positive fossil energy balance value, such debates are not that meaningful. I elaborate this step by step in some of my conference presentations. If you read my publications, you would see the consistency in what I think is more important to debate.

I hope this clarifies my positions. By the way, you indicated that you have read some of my publications, I encourage you to take a look at of the report that I coauthored in May 2005 in which I discussed problems of energy accounting and presented well-to-pump energy efficiencies for many transportation fuels including gasoline and corn ethanol. The report is posted at .


Michael Wang

So, if I understand correctly, the ERO(e)I for corn ethanol is

1/(1+.75) whereas for gasoline it is 1/(1+.25).
To the extent then that the feedstock of corn ethanol is not depleting (sunshine renewing it) whereas it is for gasoline, ultimately corn ethanol is going to be a winner. The crossover point being something like where
"sunshine renewing crops" + (1/(1+.75)) = "crude oil flow" + (1/(1+.25))

No. The actual EROEI definition would have the energy input as what was actually produced over the energy that was consumed during the process. In the case of oil to gasoline, it is actually around 1 BTU of energy consumed to produce 6 BTUs of gasoline. EROEI is around 6/1 (but varies greatly depending on oil quality, etc.)

The EROEI of ethanol is 1 BTU of input for less than 2 BTUs of output, and that's assuming you count the DDGS as BTUs. Average EROEI for the ethanol industry - counting the DDGS - is probably 1.5 plus or minus 0.2. The EROEI of gasoline is about 4 times greater than that.

What Wang has done is charge to gasoline the contained fossil fuel BTUs as inputs, even though they are also outputs. He doesn't do this with ethanol (he doesn't count the corn BTUs as inputs). This leads to many people making misleading comparisons of what is essentially an efficiency (which will naturally be less than 1.0) to something that is an energy return.

No more responses from me. Off to Europe.

So gasoline:

oil -> add 1 BTU -> 6 BTU gasoline. How much oil BTU goes into it? Answer: 6 minus 1 = 5.


corn -> add 1 BTU -> 2 BTU ethanol. How much corn BTU goes into it? Answer: 2 minus 1 = 1.

Is this correct?

no.. in your language

oil -> add 1 BTU -> 6 BTU gasoline. How much oil BTU goes into it? Answer: 1.

the 6 btus has not been used to create itself it is the part the end user can use...


corn -> add 1 BTU -> 2 BTU ethanol. How much corn BTU goes into it? Answer: 0

how much oil goes into it Answer: 1

the btu comes from somewhere else (in theory it could be from burning corn in some form ie ethanol)

note if you did use the ethanol to make more ethanol you would be virtually standing still (think about it)

What comes out must have come in. Gasoline has a total of 6 going in in this way: 5 from oil plus 1 for processing.

For corn it would be: 1 from corn plus 1 for processing.

Why are we doing this? Because we can't put crude nor corn directly in our vehicles. But as far as BTU's are concerned if I need 10 BTUs that my car can run on, with gasoline all 10 would come from non-renewable oil, whereas with corn, half of them would come from non-renewable oil. So, if you want to use less oil, go for corn ethanol.

Does that make sense to you?

your confused its easily done thou

Why are we doing this? Because we can't put crude nor corn directly in our vehicles. But as far as BTU's are concerned if I need 10 BTUs that my car can run on, with gasoline all 10 would come from non-renewable oil, whereas with corn, half of them would come from non-renewable oil. So, if you want to use less oil, go for corn ethanol

this is correct (if we assume your figs are correct) however your confusing recycling oil and adding sunlight as measuring efficencey in the present

the part of the equation that matters from your arguments POV is the total endowment of oil..

in essence you could multiple all the oil by 2 (simplicity in reality by 1.xx or even by 0.xx!) by turning it all into ethanol..

this simplistic argument has no traction in reality as all the oil isn't available to multiply on demand and the scalability of agricultral land...etc

I am not sure I understand you. Oil supply is limited. Crops keep growing over and over again. In other words: the "scalability" of agriculture over time is enormous.

No matter how you slice it, gasoline comes all from oil. Ethanol does not. The part of ethanol BTUs that doesn't come from oil is new energy being captured from sunshine by crops every day.

you've got it but don't quite understand the problem or the ramifications of what you have just said

over all time there are many different boundary conditions for calculating EROEI

but demand isn't calculated on the basis of the total endowment.. the whole problem is rates

time time time.... its real

thats why trying to match the rate of gasoline use with biofuels is a non starter and why oil is clearly a treasure with a short lifespan

I stick a btu into a corn field or a oil field which will give me more return today assuming that btu doesn't deplete the oil reservoir... TODAY ..... which is the problem because one day it will

but not today

biofuels really means less fuels because fuels are transitory in their utility... here today gone tomorrow

our current economic models simply do not address time in a realistic manner when confronted with the reality of resource depletion

biofuels are not a solution to keep the current unsustainable paradigm running...

"biofuels really means less fuels". No, it means more as long as we get more out of it than we put in.
Immediately ("today" if you will) and forever more.

if I put 1 btu into a corn field i get 2 out

if i put 1 btu into a oil field i get 6 out

our economy is optimized around the latter... remember the oil field will not run out today in fact the economy assumes(unstated) it never runs out so the argument that you can double your money by taking the 6 extra oil you get and putting them into a corn field and getting an extra 6 doesn't hold..

because i can stick those 6 back into a oil field and get back another 36! TODAY

thats the problem... the economy is based on the latter assumption

which is not going to last

is it?

Yes, sticking 1 btu into an oilfield may get you 6. That's understood. But the ER was already there and is not going to be renewed. Actually it will get more and more difficult to get it. Biofuel keeps growing.

we understand that fossil fuels will deplete that is not contested

there is a limit to the size of biofuel production


and secondly the reinvestment of biofuel energy into making more bio fuel is what... compared with reinvesting fossil fuel energy into making more fossil fuels TODAY?

think about it for a day or so

I'm off


"we understand that fossil fuels will deplete that is not contested"

That's 1 of the reasons why you need an alternative.

"there is a limit to the size of biofuel production"

As capacity yes. As time is unlimited, no limit to amount though: "capacity x time" = total joules

"the reinvestment of biofuel energy into making more bio fuel is what"

Is "sustainable" gain of energy.

Well...hehe.... ;D ;D ;D ;D ;D

No more responses from me. Off to Europe.

Unsustainable hypermobility. Enjoy it while you can.

In the case of oil to gasoline, it is actually around 1 BTU of energy consumed to produce 6 BTUs of gasoline. EROEI is around 6/1 (but varies greatly depending on oil quality, etc.)

The EROEI of ethanol is 1 BTU of input for less than 2 BTUs of output, and that's assuming you count the DDGS as BTUs. Average EROEI for the ethanol industry - counting the DDGS - is probably 1.5 plus or minus 0.2. The EROEI of gasoline is about 4 times greater than that.

Robert, while technically correct, this is misleading saying gasoline has only 4 times the energy gain as ethanol. You should use 'energy surplus' or 'net energy' which are EROI-1. In your example gasoline is 6:1 EROI so has a 5:1 profit ratio, whereas ethanol is 1.5:1 -1 =.5 profit ratio, ergo 10 times better.

Sugarcane ethanol double counts the bagasse. Its much lower EROI than that (though much higher than corn ethanol). EROI for unconventional IS going to be low, which is why it will be scaled back and never see the numbers they are forecasting. It is already happening with tar sands, as well as much conventional oil. There is a major bootstrap situation occurring in conventional - the reserves found long ago have enormous energy returns. Using EROI is almost meaningless because as Gail notes above, we are depleting these resources at the margin, or using small amounts of capital in EOR and tertiary recovery. But NEW oil is far more expensive.

To calculate what is the minimum EROI possible for society is nearly impossible. If the government took over and shipped food and heat to our exisiting houses, etc., then we could 'survive' on a much smaller energy gain. But modern infrastructure and habits cannot possibly be supported by biofuels and wind and solar. The illusion may be for a while they can be supported by depleting coal, NG, oil AND the renewables, but when the crossover occurs would be a worthwhile modeling project. Due to bootstrapping issue, it may have already occurred.

"But modern infrastructure and habits cannot possibly be supported by biofuels and wind and solar. The illusion may be for a while they can be supported by depleting coal, NG, oil AND the renewables, but when the crossover occurs would be a worthwhile modeling project. Due to bootstrapping issue, it may have already occurred."

Well as far as I am concerned it is better to start today with any alternative that will allow us to delay depletion (and severe dependencies on other nations) as well as mitigate CO2. Time is money/energy.

By the way, what is the EROI for sugarcane?

The EROEI of Brazilian Ethanol

The case of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol deserves special mention. It is often quoted as having an EROEI of 8 to 1. I have even repeated that myself. But this is misleading. This measurement is really a cousin of EROEI. What is done to get the 8 to 1 sugarcane EROEI is that they only count the fossil fuel inputs as energy. Boilers are powered by burning bagasse, but this energy input is not counted. For a true EROEI calculation, all energy inputs should be counted. So what we may see is that the EROEI for sugarcane is 2 to 1 (hypothetically) but since most inputs are not fossil-fuel based the EROEI based only on fossil-fuel inputs is 8 to 1.

What is overlooked by touting the EROEI of 8 to 1 and skipping over the true EROEI is an evaluation of whether those other energy inputs could be better utilized. For instance, that bagasse that doesn't get counted could be used to make electricity instead. Probably in the case of sugarcane, firing boilers is the best utilization. But the lesson from this digression is to be careful when people are touting very high EROEIs. They probably aren't really talking about EROEI.

While an EROEI of 2 to 1 may sound terrible if we are talking about maintaining BAU as we know it today, compared to a future possible EROEI of 1.0 for fossil fuels post peak I think I'll still take 2 to 1 and try as hard as possible to end BAU.

BTW I'm typing this in a dark room on a laptop illuminated by a 3.5 watt LED light. I don't see the need to light up more than my immeadiate work area. At the moment I'm powered by FPL but I know I can easily power this same setup with my little 45 watt PV panel and deep cycle marine battery. Tomorrow morning I will pedal my bike 4.5 miles to the office.

A minimum 5:1 EROEI is the ultimate irony for the EROEI obsessed. All unconventional oil(and gas too) will probably never exceed an EROEI of more than 5.

What do you think the EROEI is of, say tar sands?

I've seen estimates from so-called EROEI 'experts' that it is 1.5.

Marcel Coutu Chairman of the Board of Syncrude says it takes 1500 SCF of 'natural gas equivalent' to process a ton of bitumen to make a ton of syncrude.
They must buy 800 scf of natural gas per barrel of syncrude, the rest seems to come from bitumen gasification(which reduces the output per ton). (Is this not the same as burning bagasse in figuring the EROEI of sugar cane ethanol?)

Eo=5.5 million BTUs out/Ein=1500 SCF* 1000 BTU per SCF is an EROEI of 3.7 for processing only( forget mining, infrastructure etc.) So it is certainly less than 3.7.
It's no better than sugarcane ethanol at 4 on 'energy efficiency' and environmentally far worse.

Not all BTUs are the same.

The difference is the VAST size of the tar sand resource.
Energy efficiency has little to do with it.

That find earns you an up arrow from me. That is the best reference I have ever seen for the EROEI of tar sands. I had seen previous numbers reported, and I had calculated it to be about 6/1. But as you say, if some of the gas that is used is cannibalized from the process, you have an analogous situation to sugarcane bagasse.

So, what we have is that by sugarcane accounting the EROEI of tar sands is about 5.8 (unless the tar sands oil has less energy content, this will be about what it is) million BTU/0.8 million BTUs, or 7.25. By true EROEI accounting, it would be 5.8/1.5 = 3.9.

Of course then the oil has to be refined, and that step is going to be 12/1 or better for a light oil like the output of the tar sands operations.

Putting the two steps together says that I need to spend 1.5 million BTUs to produce the oil, and another 5.8/12 = 0.5 million BTUs to refine it to gasoline and diesel. Total process is then 5.8 million BTUs/2 = 2.9/1 for the production and refining processes. Conventional oil is around 6/1.

That's a BARREL of bitumen/barrel of syncrude...not a TON

I read it as a barrel, so the calculations I did based on that should be correct.

I agree with Willem (!) that this is confusing. I mean, do we have ANY choice...well, we sort of do.

My fear is that we will use our remaining High EROI fuels to build NAFTA superhighways, study worthless CCS technologies for coal, build cheap houses at sea level and in the desert southwest, construct massive new Indian gaming establishments throughout the land, etc.

Instead, we need to use the High EROI fuels to help us transition to the inevitability of Low EROI fuels.

I am not afraid of those low externality renewables, just afraid we won't have enough of them, or done enough to be able to live with them instead of devolving into smoldering ruins.

Its like no ones ever heard of synthetic fuel production or uranium.

Hello Nate,

Recall my now long ago postings where I speculated that the long term goal of Yucca Mountain was to provide emergency shelter for the topdogs WTSHTF. It would appear that this is still on track to postPeak fruition:
The future of the Yucca Mountain project is anything but certain.

President-elect Obama has said he doesn't believe the desert site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas is suitable for keeping highly radioactive used reactor fuel up to a million years and believes other options should be explored.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has vowed to block the project.

Yucca Mountain is not projected to be opened before 2020 at the earliest.

With the Hubbert Downslope plus WT's ELM effects plus with the US going broke: how can we afford to safely guard wastes for generations? IMO, global events could be pretty dire by 2020.
Inflation Hits Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump

It will cost 38 percent more to build, operate and decommission the nation's first nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada than the federal government estimated seven years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy said today in an updated life cycle cost estimate.

The 2007 total system life cycle cost estimate includes the cost to research, construct and operate Yucca Mountain during a period of 150 years, from the beginning of the program in 1983 through closure and decommissioning in 2133.

The new cost estimate of $79.3 billion, when updated to 2007 dollars, comes to $96.2 billion, a 38 percent increase from the last published estimate in 2001 of $57.5 billion.

Approximately $13.5 billion has been spent on the Yucca Mountain repository from 1983 to the present.
Yucca Mountain is the most expensive 'dryhole' ever drilled if it never gets used as Obama now suggests. Alternatively, will it be the most expensive elite lifeboat shelter ever built, and paid for by taxpayers [Privatize the benefits, socialize the costs]?

I know I won't have an invitation to move into Yucca WTSHTF.

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


Very interesting observation. However, I do not believe Yucca Mountain is paid for (yet) by the taxpayers.

"As of March 31, 2005, the total revenue paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund amounted to $24.9 billion. Of that amount, only $8.9 billion has been spent on program costs, leaving a balance of $16.02 billion that has been collected, but not applied to the used nuclear fuel disposal program."

I hope they invested some of the billions. Anybody know?

The whole premise behind the Nuclear Waste Act was that the Federal Government did not trust the power utilities to handle the waste problem themselves. Whether or not that is a good idea doesn't matter because its already done. If I was a betting man, I'd wager that Obama puts a lot of funding into nuclear reprocessing research (even though he said he was against it) under the General Electric plan to create a pilot facility in guess where? Illinois

99.9% of the time when some technology isn't in use there are really good reasons for it so I wouldn't expect commercialization anytime soon. The spent fuel isn't going anywhere soon so it shouldn't matter. Exelon is one of Obama's big donors, he will support nuclear.

Although I'm not a supporter of Yucca Mountain, as US taxpayers we are financially liable for a repository to be built so we need to build it, right? Does anyone know if there is any precedent for Congress to back out of "contracts" like the Nuclear Waste Act?

Paradoxically, the Nuclear Waste Fund amounts to a subsidy of the Government by the nuclear industry instead of the other way around as nuclear critics have suggested. Storing nuclear waste is not its best use. "Nuclear waste" is not waste at all, and indeed still contains over 99% of the potential energy found in the original Uranium at the time of its recovery from the Earth. That energy can and should be captured. Nuclear technology exists that can make capture of that energy possible and at a cost that is lower than that of conventional reactors. So called nuclear waste can be used as fuel for those reactors, and the the energy produced from nuclear waste will far exceed that produced by conventional reactors.

Although I'm not a supporter of Yucca Mountain, as US taxpayers we are financially liable for a repository to be built so we need to build it, right? Does anyone know if there is any precedent for Congress to back out of "contracts" like the Nuclear Waste Act?

The most politically expedient thing to do is to cancel the act, issue a notice of S.O.L. to the utilities, and let them do on site dry cask storage that will get .01% of the electorate upset about when there isn't a major war or economic crisis going on. The US government isn't going to pay them back, and they aren't going to build it, and we aren't going to invest in reprocessing either because there's no way uranium will ever be expensive enough for it to make sense with solid fuel reactors. Its expensive and messy, and then you generate large volumes of low level waste that is even more difficult to get rid of and also politically charged.

Good one as usual Nate.

On Nov. 4 I posted this to the NYT blog, Dot Earth.

I have a suggestion for everyone. Try to get used to the idea that everyone will have a lot less energy in the not-too-distant future. Not because of Obama (if elected). And McCain can't deliver (if elected). The simple reality is that we are rapidly running out of net energy available to do economic work. And no politician or ideology is going to change physical reality.

More and more produced energy is actually going back into producing the next units of energy. It takes energy to make energy and it takes more energy today to make the same number of units of energy produced 20 years ago. The reason is simple, but completely missed by the mainstream media and most commentators. It takes more energy to produce off-shore platforms (as one example) or to remove a mountain top. It takes more energy to run large oil tankers across the ocean. This phenomenon is known as energy return on energy investment (EROI or ERoEI depending on writers; see: for details).

And the trend is ever downward. We are getting less net energy at an accelerating pace. The phenomena that we are witnessing today (even including the fluctuations in the price of oil) have their root in the fact that we are past effective peak oil and are at a point where even the net return on coal is tailing off.

Moreover, the quality of the fuels that we are turning to are less than we we're used to (e.g. sour, heavy crude compared to light-sweet crude). We've nearly exploited all of the high quality oil and coal. The number of BTUs out given the number of BTUs needed to extract the fuel is heading steadily downward.

It is the net energy that counts for economic activity. I've stated this here on Dot Earth before (gets little attention I think), but energy flow is the basis of ALL economic work. Reduce the energy flow and what do you get?

As an example of the relationship between the financial crisis and the peak energy crisis see:

I've discussed energy flow's relationships with a number of current problems in several other blogs as well.

It would be better to recognize this reality and start planning for it. Otherwise, like the financial crisis surprised the economists and master's of the universe Wall Streeters, the further reduction in energy flow will catch you sleeping.


I think you nearly got it in that article.

What's needed is a look at the systems of society, on a broadfront, with the intention of reengineering those systems such that they can survive.

We know that the current systems will change, since we are on a course where change is inevitable - the option is to take purposeful action rather than accepting evolutionary shifts (probably downwards). Therefore its silly to consider those systems in the same ways they have historically been considered. Rather than 'education', 'defence', 'commerce', 'energy', 'environment' the need is to shake things up in thinking now by not allowing things to settle back into the same old track.

A good starting point is to have none of the same departments that have historically been the norm. Departments of the 'young', 'externalities', 'nature', 'information', 'society' would help to change worldviews and allow for the scale of change that's going to be required.

All regulations ultimately pass through the Office of Management and Budget before they are promulgated. Start by changing that office to the Office of Sustainability and Budget, or some such indicator that will help create the necessary paradigm shift.

Hopefully, all those peeps who voted for O will get much,much more than they bargained for. I think O knows that BAU growth is done for; the only question is when will he let the American people in on the secret.

- the option is to take purposeful action rather than accepting evolutionary shifts (probably downwards).

You have more confidence in human wisdom & ingenuity than I have. To my mind, nearly every collective decision humans have made and innovation we have implemented, has fucked the biosphere up to a greater or lesser extent. I'm a strong proponent of letting nature take its course. The very mindlessness & amorality of nature, its lack of intent & of foresight - are its great strengths. Humans are burdened by selection with all sorts of issues that preclude good judgment.

The problem with the laissez-faire approach is that virtually every possible evolutionary approach results in billions of deaths.

You might welcome that or think it acceptable, I don't.

When the carrying capacity of the biosphere has been exceeded by billions, billions of deaths are inevitable. It matters not what you or I find to be "acceptable." I contend that any intervention attempted by humans to assuage this reality will only make matters "worse." For all your best intentions, you aren't nearly wise, smart or competent enuf to "improve" on nature. All your schemes or techno-fixes will only accelerate processes leading to extinction. Thinking we can engineer our way out of the mess we engineered ourselves into is irrational.

I nominate David Walker, ex-comptroller general and head of the GAO, to head the new American Accountability Council.

Here is what he is currently doing, from the mission statement;

"We are dedicated to increasing public awareness of the nature and urgency of several key challenges threatening America's future, and to accelerating action on them. To address these challenges successfully, we will work to bring Americans together to find sensible, long-term solutions that transcend age, party lines and ideological divides in order to achieve real results."

Budget, savings, and current account deficits
Entitlement benefits
Health care costs
Energy consumption
Educational competitiveness
Potential proliferation

"Land plants, with their crystalline cellulose, have evaded enzymatic attack for hundreds of millions of years. Microbes and fungi would be biting the hand that feeds them and in fact, slitting their own throats, if they evolved to hydrolyze cellulose at the rates humans desire from them in their chemical vats."

With a nod to the late Michael Crichton, we should beware the potential consequences of succeeding in bioengineering microbes that can hydrolyze cellulose at these much higher rates. All's fine perhaps if they don't accidentally leave the vats and strike out on their own. More cautionary tales for those in a hurry with their technology since the proponents procrastinated and got their backs up to the wall, or perhaps just another sci-fi movie plot with great special effects possibilities.

Hey Nate,
Thanks for the part about Obama quoting Kennedy regarding GDP, etc.

That's one of the most hopeful things I've heard in a while.

I would feel even better if you would email me in a couple of weeks with news that the GUND Institute just lost one of its professors because he joined the Obama cabinet.

I might suggest that equal or greater efforts be spent on reducing energy demand than on sticking our hands further in the monkey trap.

Totally agree, and then some. It's the only advantage to our extravagantly wasteful economy -- cutting back is far, far cheaper and easier than any other pursuit. Needless to say, as we squeeze out the waste we need to start figuring how far down we have to go and what our ultimate and sustainable sources of energy are both in kind and amount.

But, unfortunately, a lot of the waste is inherent in the very structure of our economy and society. Restructuring that is what is going to be difficult. Worse still, it's not going to be market-friendly, i.e. profitable. That's the biggest obstacle to averting the disaster that awaits us.

I Sent to ....

the following .....

1. Address the issue of declining fossil fuel production and exportation directly and openly with the American people.

2. Implement widespread energy conservation strategies.

3. Start the transition of the U.S. economy from fossil fuels - oil, coal, and natural gas - to renewable forms of energy (with a positive EROEI ) as quickly as possible.

Land is being fallowed in California for lack of water. We're following Australia down into the dusty future. Even Los Angeles is adapting, though I don't think the lawns will disappear any time soon. The dust that would be stirred up without them would push particulate levels over the limits.

The EPA administrator, as far as I know, Is not a cabinet level position as it is. Just elevating the position could go some way, if even symbolically, to giving the EPA's mandates more prominence.

I seems to me that the EPA is primarily there to develop and enforce regulations that come out of environmental law. One might say that some other cabinet positions have a similar function. The Department of Labor, for example, might be considered to be merely enforcing labor law. But, as a cabinet position, the Secretary also influences administration policy. This may show up in how the budget request goes into Congress and that sort of thing.

Another independent agency is NASA. What would be the point of making the NASA Administrator and Cabinet Secretary? It would be better than having NASA under the Department of Transportation but I'm not sure it would make cabinet meetings more fruitful. For the EPA, one might argue that it would help cabinet meetings to have environmental consequences of policy decisions as part of the immediate input. But, the EPA Administrator is already considered cabinet rank, like the VP, Chief of Staff, OMB, Trade Rep, and Drug Czar, so that role is probably partly there already. Elevating it further might still make some sense though.

I guess I'd like to see a Department of Environmental Improvement, not just Protection to start to put some guts back into superfund funding and such.


Hi Nate,

The link to Energy Trasitions Past and Future is not working. You want this:

While it is techically true to say that PV provides more than 20 W/m2 peak power, this is a pretty lowball estimate. For a 17% efficient system, what is typically sold for silicon panels, the market leader, the number would be 170 W/m2. A typical US location has 5 hours/day of peak equivalent on average so we'd get about 35/W/n2 average power rather than peak power. This could be the problem with the figure in the article.

As Nick noted in the comments to that article, the area taken up by solar panels does not really count if they are on a rooftop. For CSP that uses thermal, we might expect efficienies above 23% so that, for ready-to-roll technology we could expect a peak power value around 230 to 300 $W/m2.

It seems to me that we should count the surface area of sea lanes held open by military force against imported oil so that the energy surface density of that source seems quite low. Similarly, with coal, we should probably count the surface area of waterways that have cautions about consuming fish owing to mercury contamination. This makes the energy surface density for coal even lower. If one wanted to argue that the sea lanes or waterway has dual use, say fishing in the sea lanes or navigation in the waterways, then the energy surface area density for rooftop solar goes to infinity and for a 3 MW wind tower on a 10 meter diameter base located in a pasture to about 4x104 W/m2, much higher than for imported oil or coal as Cutler calculates them.

I think that consideration of energy surface area desity is not sufficiently mature to have it form the basis of any compelling arguments yet.


THanks Chris - I will fix the link.
Those were Vaclav Smils calculations that Cutler repeated.

The University changed the name of the dept. from "College of Agriculture and Home Economics" to "College of Plant and Environmental Sciences." Same ole unsustainable Earl Butz era agroindustrial paradigm. The "Department of War" becomes the "Dept. of Defense." Maybe Obama will go whole hog Orwellian & rename it the "Dept. of Peace." Greenwashing. Newspeak. "Here is the new boss, same as the old boss...

Nate, thanks for the piece.

Despite the fact that I think that you are a brillant thinker and writer, I can't agree with your idea (expressed in a recent drumbeat), that the elite is unaware of the peak oil problem and its implications. However, if your thesis is right and they are indeed in dark, is there any chance that you become an energy advisor to PE Obama? Do you have any connections, so that you can explain the things to the people that are supposedly unaware?

I just cannot realize how intelligent people wouldn't accept PO. While I realize many people (and many politicians) are quite dumb, there is a peak to everything. There exists even a Peak Dumbness.

BTW: If Obama is our savior, he is going to show middle finger to the ethanol lobby. I know that he cannot get reelected as a senator this way, but come on - if this stops him, he is not going to save us anyway.

Good luck.

The problem is the institutional narrative, combined with the ability of people to rationalise.
For instance, the UK Government recently asked for input about energy issues, and then rejected the replies as it did not conform with the projections they had from the IEA, which of course has heavy inputs from Governments to get the results it wants.

To be part of the Government, you have to accept this framework, so for instance airport expansion can't be questioned on energy grounds as again it conflicts with the reports that the Government relies on.

In those circumstances the human mind rapidly adapts, and comes up with ideas within the framework of the possible, and suppresses any doubts it might have.

It is remarkable how many people have a Damascene conversion after leaving the oil company or Government they work for.
I do not think they are hypocrits, that is just the way the mind works.

It is also, sadly, in my view entirely unrealistic to expect the Senator from Illinois to turn against ethanol from corn, even after he becomes President.
If he were not worldly enough to support it, he would never have risen to prominence.

Well, this rapid conversion speaks volume to me. Of course it isn't necessarily hypocritical, I believe that many drop out, because they feel like they haven't accomplished anything. It is nice to have good intentions, but somebody (the boss) makes the decisions. If the primary goal of the boss is to get reelected, the chances of any reform are quite slim.