What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? Part 3: Calculating the minimum EROI to support the U.S. transportation system

The following multi-part series is taken from a paper we published last year in the free, on-line journal Energies. You may access the entire PDF here. All references can be found in the pdf. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.

In this final installment of the Minimum EROI series we calculate the minimum EROI required from our energy sources to support the current transportation infrastructure of the U.S.

5. Toward a more Comprehensive EROI: A first Estimate of the Downstream Costs associated with Refining, Transporting and Using Oil in the U.S.

If we extend the energy cost of obtaining a fuel from the wellhead towards the final consumer the energy delivered goes down and the energy cost of getting it to that point goes up, both reducing the EROI. This begins the analysis of what might be the minimum EROI required in society. We do this by taking the standard EROI (i.e. EROImm; about 10:1) for oil and then include in the denominator the energy requirements to get fuel to the point of use (i.e. EROIpou) and the energy required to use it, generating an EROIext, i.e. extended EROI. In this analysis we assume the energy costs are paid for in oil.

5.1. Calculating EROI at the point of use

Refinery losses and costs: Oil refineries use roughly 10 percent of the energy in fuel to refine it to the form that we use [28]. In addition about 17 percent of the material in a barrel of crude oil ends up as other petroleum products, not fuel [1]. So for every 100 barrels coming into a refinery only about 73 barrels leaves as usable fuel. Natural gas does not need such extensive refining although an unknown amount needs to be used to separate the gas into its various components and a great deal, perhaps as much as 25 percent, is lost through pipeline leaks and to maintain pipeline pressure. Coal is usually burned to make electricity at an average efficiency of 35 - 40 percent. However the product, electricity, has at least a factor of three higher quality so that we do not count as costs the inefficiency of that process. What this means, however, is that oil resources that have an EROI of 1.1 MJ returned per MJ invested at the wellhead cannot provide energy profits for a society because at least 1.27 MJ of crude oil is required to deliver that one MJ to society as a fuel.

Transportation costs: Oil weighs roughly 0.136 tons per barrel. Transportation by truck uses about 3400 BTU/ton-mile or 3.58 MJ per ton-mile [29]. Transportation by fuel pipeline requires 500 BTU/ton-mile or 0.52 MJ per ton-mile. We assume that the average distance that oil moves from port or oil field to market is about 600 miles. Thus a barrel of oil, with about 6.2 GJ of contained chemical energy, requires on average about 600 miles of travel x 0.136 tons per barrel x 3.58 MJ per ton-mile = 292 MJ per barrel spent on transport, or about 5% of the total energy content of a barrel of oil to move it to where it is used (Table 1). If the oil is moved by pipeline (the more usual case), this percentage becomes about 1%. We assume that coal moves an average of 1500 miles, mostly by train at roughly 1720 BTU per ton mile or about 1.81 MJ per ton-mile [29], so that the energy cost to move a ton of bituminous coal with about 32 GJ/Ton to its average destination is 1500 miles x 1.81 MJ per ton-mile = 2715 MJ per ton, or 2.715 GJ per ton of coal, which is about 8 percent of it’s energy content (Table 1). Line losses, if shipped as electricity, are roughly similar. So adding between 1 and 8 percent of the energy value of fuels for delivery costs does not seem unreasonable. We assume that these costs would decrease all EROIs by a conservative 5 percent (or 3 percent of crude oil in the ground) to get it to the user, in other words the fuel must have an EROI of at least 1.05: 1 to account for delivery of that fuel.

Thus we find that our EROIpou is about 40 percent (17 percent non fuel loss, plus 10 percent to run the refinery, plus 10 percent extraction, plus about 3 percent transportation loss) less than the EROImm indicating that at least for oil one needs an EROI at the mine mouth of roughly 1.4 to get that energy to the point of final use.

5.2. Extended EROI: Calculating EROI at the point of use for oil correcting for the energy required for creating and maintaining infrastructure

We must remember that usually what we want is energy services, not energy itself, which usually has little intrinsic economic utility, e.g. for most oil we want kilometers driven, not just the fuel that does that. That means that we need to count in our equation not just the “upstream” energy cost of finding and producing the fuels themselves but all of the “downstream” energy required to deliver the service (in this case transportation), i.e. 1) building and maintaining vehicles, 2) making and maintaining the roads used, 3) incorporating the depreciation of vehicles, 4) incorporating the cost of insurance, 5) etc. All of these things are as necessary to drive that mile as the gasoline itself, at least in modern society. For the same reason businesses pay some 45 or 50 cents per mile when a personal car is used for business, not just the 10 cents or so per mile that the gasoline costs. So in some sense the dollar required for delivering the service (a mile driven) is some 4 to 5 times the direct fuel costs, and this does not include the taxes used to maintain most of the roads and bridges. Now many of these costs, especially insurance, use less energy per dollar spent than fuel itself and also less than that for constructing or repairing automobiles or roads, although this is certainly not the case with the money used to deliver the fuel itself used in these operations.

On the other hand the energy intensity of one dollar’s worth of fuel is some 8 times greater than that for one dollar’s worth of infrastructural costs. Table 2 gives our estimates of the energy cost of creating and maintaining the entire infrastructure necessary to use all of the transportation fuel consumed in the US. The energy intensities are rough estimates of the energy used to undertake any economic activity derived from the national mean ratio of GDP to energy (about 8.7 MJ/dollar), the Carnegie-Mellon energy calculator web site and from Robert Herendeen (personal communication). Specifically Herendeen estimates for 2005 that heavy construction uses about 14 MJ per dollar. In the 1970s insurance and other financial services had about half (7) the energy intensities as heavy industry [29].

Our calculation, then, of adding in the energy costs of getting the oil in the ground to the consumer in a usable from (40 percent) plus the pro-rated energy cost of the infrastructure necessary to use the fuel (24 percent) is 64 percent of the initial oil in the ground (Table 3). Thus the energy necessary to provide the services of 1 unit of crude oil (i.e. at the gas station) is roughly 3 units of crude oil, and probably similar proportions for other types of fuels. This cuts our 10:1 EROImm to about 3:1 for a gallon at final use, since about two thirds of the energy extracted is necessary to do the other things required to get the service from burning that one gallon. It also means that we need a minimum EROI of 3:1 at the well head to deliver one unit from that oil to final demand.

Future research might further “extend” our “EROIext” by including the energy of all of the people and economic activity included directly and indirectly to deliver the energy. Since, as we have indicated, roughly 10 percent of the economy is associated with getting energy (this includes even those farmers who grow the grain or laborers who build the airplanes) that we as a nation might say that part of the denominator for the EROIext would be ten percent of all of the energy used in the country.

An important issue here is EROI vs. conversion efficiency. The EROI technically measures just the energy used in getting the rest of the energy to some point in society, usually the well-head. But if we then say “to the consumer” we have to include the refinery losses and energy costs, and also the costs to deliver the fuel to the final consumer. It may also include the energy costs of maintaining the infrastructure to use that fuel. These are in reality a bleeding off of the energy delivered, or a conversion efficiency of moving one barrel of oil into transportation services. So whether we should say “The minimum EROI is 3:1” or, somewhat more accurately, that to deliver one barrel of fuel to the final consumer and to use it requires about three barrels to be extracted from the ground, with two being used indirectly, is somewhat arbitrary, although the second way is technically more correct.

5.3. Extended EROI for Corn-based Ethanol

Given that our national goal is to deliver 36 billion gallons (2.9 EJ) of ethanol, then we can work backwards to calculate that something like 111 billion gallons of ethanol (or its equivalent of fossil fuels) would be required at the farm gate to generate and deliver the original 36 billion gallons of energy service to the end user with its attendant production, transportation and infrastructure costs. That number is the original 2.9 EJ delivered as fuel, plus 1.9 EJ for the infrastructure requirement (24/36 from oil x 2.9 EJ delivered), plus 0.24 EJ for the energy used in transportation (0.05 x (2.9 + 1.9)), plus 3.9 EJ for the energy to produce the required ethanol (0.76 x 5.1). Thus an additional 75 billion gallons (or 6.1 EJ) are required to deliver 36 billion gallons at the pump, so that an EROI of at least 3:1 is required for the fuel to not be subsidized by fossil fuels. EROIs above 3:1 are rarely reported for any liquid biofuels.

Thus by both economic (Figure 1) and energetic (i.e. assuming an EROImm of 10:1) measures calculated here it appears that at present roughly 10 percent of our economy is required to get the energy to run the other 90 percent, or 20 percent used to get 80 percent to the point of delivery, and even a larger percentage if the use infrastructure is included. This seems to be true if numerator and denominator are in either dollars or in energy. (Note: Our use of relatively cheap coal and hydroelectricity, both with a relatively high EROI, lifts the actual ratio “at the well-head” so that the EROImm for all energy delivered to society, but not the consumer, is roughly 20:1). By the time the oil energy is delivered to the consumer, 40 percent has been used and the EROIpou has fallen to roughly 6:1 (including the entire refining, conversion and delivery chain). But it is energy services that are desired, not energy itself, and to create these energy services requires energy investments in infrastructure that carry, at a minimum, large entropic losses. If infrastructure costs are included, the EROIext falls to about 3:1 because two-thirds of the energy has been used; implying that more energy is being spent on extraction, refining, delivering, and maintaining the transportation infrastructure than is found in the end product. Thus by the time a fuel with an EROImm of 10:1 is delivered to the consumer – that is after the energy costs of refinement and blending, transport, and infrastructure are included, the EROIext is 3:1. This means that twice as much oil is used to deliver the service than is used in the final-demand machine, and since most of our oil is used in transportation, including trucks and tractors, it is probably at present a reasonable number for the entire oil chain in our society.

6. Conclusions

Our educated guess is that the minimum EROImm for an oil-based fuel that will deliver a given service (i.e. miles driven, house heated) to the consumer will be something more than 3:1 when all of the additional energy required to deliver and use that fuel are properly accounted for. This ratio would increase substantially if the energy cost of supporting labor (generally considered a consumption by economists although definitely part of production here) or compensating for environmental destruction was included. While it is possible to imagine that one might use a great deal of fuel with an EROImm of 1.1 : 1 to pay for the use of one barrel by the consumption of many others, we believe it more appropriate to include the cost of using the fuel in the fuel itself. Thus we introduce the concept of “extended EROI” which includes not just the energy of getting the fuel, but also of transporting and using it. This process approximately triples the EROI required to use the fuel once obtained from the ground, since twice as much energy is consumed in the process of using the fuel than is in the fuel itself at its point of use. Any fuel with an EROImm less than the mean for society (about 10 to one) may in fact be subsidized by the general petroleum economy. For instance, fuels such as corn-based ethanol that have marginally positive EROIs (1.3: 1) will be subsidized by a factor of about two times more than the energy value of the fuel itself by the agricultural, transportation and infrastructure support undertaken by the main economy, which is two thirds based on oil and gas. These may be more important points than the exact math for the fuel itself, although all are important.

Of course the 3:1 minimum “extended EROI” that we calculate here is only a bare minimum for civilization. It would allow only for energy to run transportation or related systems, but would leave little discretionary surplus for all the things we value about civilization: art, medicine, education and so on; i.e. things that use energy but do not contribute directly to getting more energy or other resources. Whether we can say that such “discretionary energy” can come out of an EROImm of 3:1, or whether they require some kind of large surplus from that energy directed to more fundamental things such as transport and agriculture was something we thought we could answer in this paper but which has remained elusive for us thus far.

7. Acknowledgements

We would like to thank John Cooksey from www.howtoboilafrog.com and 4 unknown reviewers for many helpful comments.

References and Notes

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Are there any projections for when EROI is likely to reach 3:1 on the current trends? It seems from the analysis that 3:1 is the inflection point where industrial civilization will fall apart.

You might substitute "undergoes unplanned-for structural changes" for "falls apart", and note that the 3:1 figure refers only to transportation in the US. Different analyses would be needed for Europe, Africa, and so forth, though its possible that our transportation system, being very energy intensive, complex and inefficient, could be the canary in the coal mine.

As a regular reader of TOD, I am aware of the reality that maximum global oil production, PeakOil, might be around corner and that other ways have to be found to meet our energy need for cars in the not so far future.

As an occasional visitor of the Geneva motorshow, I hvave found a media information about "Lighthouse in Berlin: Shedding Light on Hydrogen Road Ahead" by Opel.It is a project for hydrogen fueled cars in daily operations-

The idea came up with me that this development work of GM\OPEL on HydrogenGen4 might be of interest for meeting the challenges created by PO and EROI. Hydrogen as a technical gas is known how to handle savely. To develop it furher to meet the chalenges for use in mass transportation is well within the engineering skills of our industrial society. Together with green produced electrical power it could be away out with minimum fossil fuel for powering our mass transportation system. It would be of interest learn what the EROI might be for such system

HydroGen4 Overview Europe:

1. Press Information (Status March 2010)
Text and photos can be downloaded from the Internet at http://media.opel.com------

2. Link to complete presskit from launch in 2008 (incl. photos)


3. Link to video from press launch in 2008


4. Press release in 2009


6. Interesting Blog article written by Dr. Lars Peter Thiesen, one of Europeans leading fuel cell/hydrogen experts)


Give me a reason to take hydrogen seriously!

In short, the use of Hydrogen is a net energy loss (at every stage), from production and storage, to transportation, distribution and eventual use in electric vehicles. It is much more efficient to generate electricity with Wind or PV power, and store it in batteries, (which are an existing and rapidly improving technology), for use in electric vehicles.


It may or may not be viable as a supplement to other fuels. If the fuel is about 5% by weight hydrogen it changes the lean burn limit and fuel usage can more closely track the load by varying the varying the fuel:air ratio. Spark advance can also be decreased in otto cycle engines making it a little more like a diesel cycle. I don't know if the gains fully compensate for the energy costs of hydrogen production.

By reading the press release of GM/Opel I have learned that the project is an Fuel cell/electric motor combination as propulsion system for ordinary cars. No ICE are involved at all, as you can read in the following link:

2. Link to complete presskit from launch in 2008 (incl. photos)



As stiv stated, Hydrogen is an energy storage system, not a new energy facility. It must be compared with batteries and other methods of storing energy.

It has a number of drawbacks, including of course that it is very difficult to store and transport it. Also, it is highly corosive, which makes storing hydrogen very risky. Think Hindenburg.


Correct!! Hydrogen is an energy storage system and its energy can be released in, under human controlled systems, to get things moving like fossil fuels do. Examples are liquid fuelled space rockets or fuel cells/electric motors. Our engineering skills, with the political will can develop hydrgen into a safe system for mass transportation, other than internal combustion engines running on fossile fuels. Technical hydrogen can be produced forever as long we have electricity.

As I read this, 3:1 is a lower bound looking at just part of the problem. The actual number is higher than this--it could be 6:1, 7:1, or 8:1. Also, EROI does not look at timing of the energy return. If the energy return occurs over a number of years (as with solar PV, wind, nuclear) this could push the needed EROI up higher, to a multiple of the otherwise required amount.

That's correct Gail. The 3:1 is an attempt at a lower bound of the minimum EROI.

Are there any projections for when EROI is likely to reach 3:1 on the current trends? It seems from the analysis that 3:1 is the inflection point where industrial civilization will fall apart.

Not really an answer to this, just a reminder that oil's primary use is as a transportation fuel. If enough fuel is supplied, no one will care what the EROI of the oil is, just like no one cares that the 10% of ethanol in their tank has crappy EROI. If society is supported by primary energy from another source that can compensate by supplying all the NET energy, we can have sinks and it doesn't matter.

Termoil, that would only be the case if declining EROEI had no economic impact before it hits 3:1, and that ain't going to happen. Instead, as EROEI drops, transportation (and all other energy uses) become more expensive in real terms, and more marginal and more energy-intensive uses get squeezed out. The end result, prolonged far enough, is the end of industrial civilization, but it's not likely to be a single inflection point that does it -- rather, a whole series of small ones, as systems break down or get discarded piecemeal. A death of a thousand cuts, if you will.

Why does a terminally reduced EROEI on transportation fuels imply the end of industrial civilization? All we can induce from this line of reasoning is that society will be required to prioritize its energy consumption and that the production of energy consumption will consume more economic energy than it has in the past. At some point, energy consumption drops down to match only what can be sustainably produced, an absolute quantity that is continually increasing a rate faster than our economic growth, albeit not fast enough to offset petroleum's assured decline.

I concede that this does mean the collapse of our current economic order, but much of our economic activity is composed of non-essential activities, anyway, that is to say, economic activity undertaken which does not contribute to improving our collective skill base, sustaining ourselves (food, water, etc.), creating and maintaining our infrastructure (housing, public goods, etc.), or creating and maintaining the tools required for all of the above. I foresee a great restructuring, but I think its a mistake to assume that economic survival of society equates to material survival of individuals, even being able to afford some comfort, though we'll likely have to abandon the affluence we've become accustomed to.

I think once you consider how far our economic activity could actually be shrunk and, properly executed, bear relatively little impact on our individual material existence, the concept of sustaining industrial civilization beyond the Peak becomes much less tenuous.

It will require dramatic, engineered economic collapse, however, and a severe reduction in working hours to prevent widespread unemployment. Clearly, this will not do in an economic order which requires future growth to pay off present debt, but I think it possible to disconnect growth from prosperity.

So while we can't change the qualitative nature of the EROEI problem, we will simply have to learn to make do with lower quality energy, I think by reducing the quantity of energy required, surmounting the EROEI conundrum becomes much more plausible, if only as a function of conservation of our remaining resources.

Thoughts? Let me know if my BS is showing...

I tend to agree, looking for large (and possibly even gradual) structural changes in the US rather than any catastrophe, such as might make it into the news.

Such as, the vehicle fleet continues to age into disrepair, vacations become more rare, people walk and bicycle more, live closer to work, etc. Goods become more expensive to transport, so stores stock less and we learn to take "shortages" for granted. Goods are more expensive, so we have less.

The clearest change that I expect is that we will soon no longer have sufficient the energy inputs into the agricultural sector such that each farmer will support 75-100 non-farmers; to maintain our food supply will require the energies of more and more people, as it did in the past when each farmer was only able to support 2-3 non-farmers, and growing food will again become a major occupation.

Ahh, but then the problem becomes the land, getting people on that land, then getting the "refined" products to "market".

400 million acres of arable land, 200 or so of that is to grains so land isn't the limiting factor at present population rates. Water and keeping the land fertile will be an issue. "we" don't do a good job of returning fertility to the soil as crop->city is a one way trip. And even if it could all be fixed via the http://www.remineralize.org/ effort - that rock need grinding and shipping.

If the population is smaller and more dispersed through food-producing regions than concentrated in non-producing cities, then transportation is less of a problem. Not that we can't do better at planning, and technology will certainly be needed, but transport is a problem that I think is capable of large and unplanned structural changes without catastrophic impact. Producing enough food, on the other hand...

C'mon now....don't be coy....ADMIT that you want farming to again become a major occupation....

Admit it....

Admit it....

Admit it....

You know you want it....

You do

You do

You do

You lust to be a farmer.....and you WANT everyone else to be one too

Admit it....

I saw a comment that China is working on reducing its farm population by 200,000,000. The interviewee said that this was the way they would bring farmers out of poverty (less than $2/day). That's a lotta people to move to the city.

For the Chinese, moving more labour from the land to the factories is probably killing two birds with one stone. Firstly they are degrading their land so fast they probably just dont need that many farmers any more and secondly, If they want to keep the economy growing at the brisk pace they have set then they need a few more people in the factories to churn out more plastic toys.

Honestly? I'm not sure I get the angle of the question, but, no, I'm a little too realistic to want to be a farmer. I enjoy gardening, but I also enjoy spending time on other things, and farming (both currently and as envisaged in a low-energy future) is a full time deal.

People have done it before, and the tech we will have now should make it a little easier, but no illusions about being a leisurely genteman-farmer, if there ever was such a thing. Regardless, I still see the transition to more labor intensive farming as one of the big changes we are in for, and the big growth industry to come. If I were young enough to be looking for a wave to ride, that would be it. As it is, my skills as a mechanic are still valued as long as cars are around, so I hope that continues to provide for some years.

In the meantime...right now I have a new apple tree to plant :)

It's not a question of want. I expect many pilots will find themselves doing a bit more 'gardening'.

Dan, it's not a matter of just losing the surplus EROEI that keeps our transportation network going. Every aspect of life in a modern industrial society depends on having access to cheap abundant energy -- which is another way of saying relatively high EROEI ratios. You're quite right that there's a lot of wiggle room, and doubtless much of it will be put to use, deliberately or not, but my sense is that the threshold at which an industrial society can function is considerably higher than the level of energy supply we can maintain for the long term on renewables.

Remember also that all of our present renewables technology receives an energy subsidy from fossil fuels -- sunlight doesn't manufacture solar cells and wind doesn't make windmills -- and this tends to make renewables appear to have a better EROEI than they do. Mind you, I'm strongly in favor of renewables; they'll be what we have left at the bottom of the curve, and the difference between a little energy and none at all is a lot larger than the difference between a little and a lot -- but the societies that take shape in the wake of energy descent are unlikely to be industrial in any sense familiar to us. (That's not to say they'll be a reversion to the past, though some elements of past societies will likely be strongly reflected in them.)

I dispute that industrial society requires as a high an EROEI as you maintain, but that could just be due to differences in our respective perceptions of how far we can realistically cut back, re-structure, and generally minimalize our energy consumption. I think we can maintain many aspects of industrial society collectively, even as individuals will have to give up a great many of the comforts we've become accustomed to, but that's another rant altogether.

I am aware of this energy subsidy issue. However, I would argue that as the world shifts away from using fossil fuels in energy generation, either by policy or by force of scarcity, then that subsidy will essentially lessen. My point is that this subsidy need not be intrinsic to renewable energy deployment as more renewables, or at least technologies that are not fossil fuel dependent, are deployed. Furthermore, the EROEI for renewables is mostly defined by operational lifespans and efficiencies of the deployed technologies, both of which are continually improving. I don't think the question is IF renewables can maintain a relatively high EROEI, just if they can do it before we get drowned in the shrinking EROEI of our fossil fuel resource base and if we can reduce our consumption to quantities that can realistically be met by available renewable resources.

I think we're also ignoring the importance of efficiency improvements to the EROEI equation: the more efficiently you use energy, the higher the effective EROEI, simply because you're investing less energy in total to produce the same amount of energy. For example, using trains to transport coal versus trucks. The same amount of coal, the same BTU content is delivered, but the amount of energy required to deliver that BTU content is lessened, thereby improving the EROEI. Likewise, if we can find cheaper, less energy intensive and more durable materials with which to manufacture solar cells, for example, and had a more efficient transportation system to get that cell to where it's needed, then the effective EROEI of that solar cell goes up, as we've lessened the input required for it to produce essentially the same amount of energy for a longer period of time. By using more efficient manufacturing and transportation methods, we can improve the EROEI of renewables and, conceivably, improve the EROEI of fossil fuels, although we would still suffer from scarcity issues.

I suppose that's more of a policy issue, but I don't think you can ignore completely potential efficiency gains when considering EROEI, particularly as the technology is improving so rapidly.

Mind you, I'm strongly in favor of renewables; they'll be what we have left at the bottom of the curve

I feel like a troll saying the same thing over and over, but: nuclear. We could have nuclear. Many of us will. If this provides a very high eroi, as it does, it can supplement every other sink, including fuels, chemicals, renewable energy infrastructure, poor quality ore extraction, water desalinization schemes, whatever.

The bigger concern is how to get there fastest, how we will weather the economic storm in the interim. We won't slide down all the fossil fuel peaks at once, so I don't see us waiting till after the last coal is gone to start building more nukes. Actually, once liquid fuel starts its steady decline, it might be easier to switch to electricity for new growth, which shouldn't have the same cycles as oil because it can come from so many different places. Right now we are at the mercy of oil prices stifling investment.

I concede that this does mean the collapse of our current economic order, but much of our economic activity is composed of non-essential activities, anyway, that is to say, economic activity undertaken which does not contribute to improving our collective skill base, sustaining ourselves (food, water, etc.),

Sorry Dan, but that is not the case. Any activity that furnishes a man with a salary to feed, clothe and house himself and his family is an essential activity. His salary also helps him buy products produced by other people, who would also be without a salary without his earnings buying their product.

Of course there are literally thousands of things we could do without and still survive. There are TVs, cell phones, eating out, toys for the kids and I could go on for hours. But tens of millions of people are engaged in producing this stuff and they would all be unemployed if no one bought this unnecessary stuff.

Well over one half most people's salary is spent on stuff they could do without. And well over one half the employment base is engaged in producing this stuff. And without this one half's salary, the other half would sell a lot less of the necessary stuff, and their layoff would only keep the downward spiral going.

We simply cannot get from here to there, from consuming a lot of stuff we could do without to consuming only what we need to survive, without more than half the population starving.

But you seem to think the problem could be "engineered" around.

It will require dramatic engineered economic collapse, however, and a severe reduction in working hours to prevent widespread unemployment. Clearly, this will not do in an economic order which requires future growth to pay off present debt, but I think it possible to disconnect growth from prosperity.

We now have about 17 percent unemployment, if the people who are so discouraged that they have stopped looking are added to the list. Why don't we just "engineer" them a job? Why don't we just pass a law that everyone's hours, and salary, should be reduced, and the unemployed be put back to work until the rate reaches 5 percent again?

Such armchair fixes that so easily roll off the tongue never seem work in actual practice. First our government doesn't have doctorial powers that could dictate who every employer must hire and dictate to them how many hours their employees could work. And even if we voted in congressmen who would pass such a law, and a president who would sign it, implementing it would be an impossible nightmare.

Ron P.

The laws of nature are not subject to democratic approval.

We're facing severe shortages in the future of energy, commodities, and fertilizer materials. Where mechanization has allowed us to move on and do other things, like make cell-phones, tvs, and tend bar on cruise ships, the lack thereof will force us to us our own physical labor to make up the difference. Therefore, some of those working on nonessential tasks will be required to work on other things.

Not every aspect of our industrial society can, or will, be able to survive as our industrial society is based on a high EROEI. As such, we must be discerning in terms of what our society can and cannot survive without. We are approaching that threshold for our society now below which we cannot maintain our previous levels of growth and consumption. Either we figure out a way to engineer a soft landing, or we allow the market to collapse on its own.

The problem is that our current market order is based on a paradigm of infinite consumption and the promise of infinite growth fueled by a high EROEI. This paradigm is false, as our world can no longer sustain such high rates of consumption, and no currently technologically viable fuel source approaches anywhere near the EROEI's we've become accustomed to, and those that do cannot be sustained indefinitely. This is a fundamental shift in paradigm. I doubt seriously the market alone is resilient enough to cope with a paradigmatic shift that essentially pulls all its current operating criteria out from under it, as is already evidenced by our inability to crawl out of financial shock caused by our own inability to properly manage financial assets which we created! That's like asking fish to swim in oil; our system is fundamentally incompatible with our reality.

The political concerns are immaterial, as the question is what's the lowest threshold we could survive on, not what's the lowest threshold with which we could maintain business-as-usual. However, I don't feel that an engineered solution must be quite so authoritarian as you propose, but we do have to figure out a way to disincentivize consumption without causing mass unemployment and one such way is to reduce our consumption and enjoy more free time. I assure you, the market solution will be far more dire as scarcity forces us into a low-consumption society.

In short, either we figure out a way to reconcile our system with our material reality, or we allow our system to simply run out of gas. Personally, I'd much rather be able to have some control over what will happen, even if only in a collective sense.

...and one such way is to reduce our consumption and enjoy more free time.

Idle hands are the devils playground. I expect that after a few days of free time, the people who have it will start to resent those who still have income and full bellies and will devise ways to "redistribute" whtever economic surplus exists. One thing leads to another and pretty soon your in Mad Max land with not enough police resources to control it.

Personally, I'd much rather be able to have some control over what will happen, even if only in a collective sense.

Karl Marx did a lot of work on control through collective authority in the 19th century. Maybe we could dust that system off and give it another go!

You state the problem well, but one way or the other, we are going to move to a less consumptive lifestyle. There are all sorts of reasons to say that it would be impossible to plan a way to get there. But in the thirties, it looked to many that it would be impossible to create a society that consumed as much as industry could produce. But, through very careful planning (yes, it was a carefully constructed strategy), they created the modern consumer society, in spite of millennia-old traditions of frugality, using only what you need, not being wasteful...

You can, in fact, create jobs getting people to do just about anything, if you structure the economy to value it. Right now, we have at least half the population engaged in building and selling junk, junk the production, transportation and disposal of causes masses harms to the world. Employing those people with digging up and filling holes would be far less destructive. And of course there are much more important things to be done, such as reclaiming the vast land that has famously been misallocated to sprawl.

Don't get me wrong. I think there is essentially no chance that we will put any effective planning into the transition. But I don't think it (or something towards it) is absolutely impossible in principle.

Ron Pee.........How DO you DO it?

You drone on and on and on....and yet say nothing......

"Any activity that furnishes a man with a salary to feed, clothe and house himself and his family is an essential activity."

How preposterous. "Essential" to WHAT? Well, in the
clueless and imagination-free brain of Ron Patterson,
anything that maintains BAU -- the existing order in
which massive waste is built-in -- is "essential"!



Allow me to say that I find your work to be some of the finest I have seen.

But I am not sure the death by a thousand cuts analogy will hold up.It seems reasonable enough to say that things might play out this way-but maybe the economy will simply and unexpectedly keel over and die from the many small cuts long before it would seem likely that this would happen.

A man can die of blood loss from enough small cuts, even though individually or even collectively they are not particularly dangerous-excepting the blood loss, of course.

As I see it, when and if things get really tough , there is a high probability of either organized (war) or unorganized mayhem, in the form of rioting and mass migration of people with little or nothing to lose.In either case,tptb might lose control and society as we know it could go into a fast death spiral.

Mac, of course there's the possibility -- or, rather, the practical certainty -- of sudden crises and discontinuities; those happen pretty reliably when a civilization overshoots its ecological support base. The point that needs to be remembered, though, is that there's always a morning after, and the most common response is to pick up the pieces and try to maintain some simulacrum of business as usual, especially in the economic sphere. Those thousand cuts are also pressures toward change on an individual and local level; each downward lurch will force more people to find ways to support themselves more appropriate for an age of contraction and decline, and so the new, impoverished, Third World economy of the US will take shape within the skeleton of the old. I grant that this won't be an easy process, or a peaceful one, but it's not the same as sudden total collapse.

"the new, impoverished, Third World economy of the US"

For more and more Americans, that new 3rd world economy is already here.


Isn't the real problem that people are trying to put PO into a classic demand/supply box where advancing price will increase supply. Instead, the reality is that when you run out of a commodity, or have an absolute inability to produce any more, and demand exceeds possible supply, the only option is triage.

And, leaving the triage to the free market play invites speculation.

So that, eventually, governments will have to step in and ration it. Not a desireable situation. Just inevitable.

And, of course, the best they can do is to make the decline easier, and perhaps more paletable.

IMO, rationing will be: Food production and transportation, Lubrication products for electrical generating stations, and pharmaceuticals.

At some point, the writing on the wall will become sufficiently clear as to panic the masses... at which time strong measures will become the order of the day, even in benevolent and supposedly wealthy nations.


Craig, good. The Second World War, to name only one example, offers a useful reminder of just how radically democratic governments can control energy and resource use in an emergency. My guess -- though it's only a guess -- is that we'll see fuel rationing in the US within a decade.

Don't forget all of the "demand destruction" WW2 created, especially there at the end.

This is the most likely direction we will take and glossing it over is highly irresponsible.

I have been thinking about that "single inflection point question". But if ONE of the inflection points is when all the cars and trucks in the world stop functioning simultaneously....then that is a PRETTY BIG deal. That amounts to one huge inflection point even though it is jsut one of many in a progression.

Pi, why on earth would they stop functioning simultaneously? As EROEI approaches critical levels, either access is rationed by price -- and you're going to drive less because you can't afford to fill your tank at, say, $35 a gallon -- or it's rationed more directly by the government -- and you're going to drive less because you've only got 10 gallons worth of coupons in your ration book this month. Either way, critical systems (say, food and fuel transport) get what they need at the expense of less necessary uses.

Exactly! And, more and more people will move closer to work. Or lose their jobs and not be working, then moving in with relatives who care and continue. Like JK, I believe the suburban way of life is in danger; all of those foreclosures are the canary in the mine, to use a suddenly poignant phrase. As has been the outsourcing of industry.

At what point will we stop burning oil, so as to maintain some supply for future uses other than transportation? Will that mean zero oil for fuel? EROEI from biofuels seems far short of adequate to continue ICE transportation. And, production of batteries for EVs is problematic as well, both from the standpoint of exotic metals supplies and energy costs/depletion of the batteries. IMO a shift to mass transit is critical to long term survival and sustainability.


Oil is used in many things other than transportation as you well know. It is the cities which will become unmanageable, what will the people do in these cities? They will be impossible to live in, not the exurban landscape.

I long ago submitted a paper to TOD that addresses just this question in a simple, straightforward manner, but editorial differences between myself and the staff led it to die a silent death. (David - it seems this would be a good time to publish that paper, if you could allow it to remain the simple, lay-accessible piece it was intended to be, rather than attempting to revise it into academese.)

Continues to be an excellent series. When thinking about this part, I hope folks will remember the !Kung from part one, who need a roughly 10:1 margin in normal times in order to make it through the tough times. This may be salient to transport systems and much else in what is shaping up to be a volatile future. How much EROEI margin is enough....?

Hi, Greenish,
I hope the readers will take your comments about the!Kung and that ten to one to heart when and if they are making survival plans.

Speaking as a technically educated farmer who comes from a long line of hands on and down in the dirt farmers,I can say with great certainty that there is one hell of a lot of extremely overoptimistic commentary here and all over the net in respect to the amount of land a person needs to support himself.

Life on the farm ain't no lab exercise folks. Mr.Murphy will be your constant companion, and once you are doing it for real, if it becomes necessary, it probably will be too late to compensate for inadequate land, water,and equipment.

It is not only the average year that you must survive-it will be the three or four bad years in a row,which will come within a couple of decades at the most.

David, thanks for this posting.
This sheds a dark light on our "huge" reserves of oil sands (and even more on the oil shales).

What I don't understand is the logics behind your statement

Coal is usually burned to make electricity at an average efficiency of 35 - 40 percent. However the product, electricity, has at least a factor of three higher quality so that we do not count as costs the inefficiency of that process.

For common logics an energy loss is an energy loss - there is no way to get it back by more efficiency downstream. Or do you use sort of a "hedonic" approach for looking at electricity?

This is because your car engine converts gasoline into motion at about 30% efficiency, whereas an electric motor has an efficiency of about 90%. 1 unit coal -> 0.35 units electricity -> 0.315 units of motion energy; 1 unit gasoline -> 0.3 units of motion energy. Okay, this is only exactly true if you have an electric trolley with overhead wire.

I know that this is a series and so you may be planning to address this issue in future posts, but you seem to stop so far at the point that the gasoline reaches the mechanism that uses it.

If, as you say repeatedly, what matters is the service provided, ultimately don't we have to look at the efficiency of the mechanisms that provide the services? If the service is moving a body through space a certain distance, surely the car (not to mention the SUV...) is about the least efficient means to obtain this service.

IIRC, it is some very small percentage of the energy put into a car (even a fairly efficient one) that actually is used to move the body through space. The rest is lost to various mechanical inefficiencies, drag of various sort, and just in moving all the metal and plastic.

And, of course, we need to look at whether society really needs to be constantly hurtling its individuals through space at over 100k/hr and across various vast distances to operate effectively.

Can I look forward to future posts that might cover these topics?


If the service is moving a body through space a certain distance, surely the car (not to mention the SUV...) is about the least efficient means to obtain this service.

The main problem, as I see it, for the workforce is commuting to work. Commuting, say, 30 miles in, say, 45 minutes does not leave commuters with many options but the automobile at this time--in most regions of the US. Motorcyles are not practical in the rain. The main problem for the economy is the transportation of goods and services by 1) truck, and 2) by rail--two very different efficiencies.

Ethanol is not as interesting to analyze (to me) as electric from existing hydro-electric sources or from wind or solar.

Electric vehicles may complicate this issue as the source of electricity varies.

An individual who was able to afford a large solar array (given a decent solar window) and an electric car might come out ahead in a few years time despite a low EROI.

Motorcyles are not practical in the rain.

They are if they are three-wheelers and are surrounded by a shell. This type of thing is very common in much of Asia, the streets are full of them.

I commute year round on a Honda 250cc (Rebel - two wheeler) which gets about 75mpg. This is in the south Puget Sound region (Tacoma). The only days I don't ride are when the temp goes below 35 or there is snow/ice already on the road. Ordinarily our form of rain is drizzle (constantly!) It keeps things wet, but not unridable. In a downpour one would want to pull over at an overpass. Nevertheless, it is feasible. And the gas savings of riding a light motorcycle are quite nice. The big bikes don't do much better than some high mpg cars.

Me, I'm in a very wet location at this time, so motorcycles are not an option for commuting.

I'm currently looking at the Nissan Leaf. The car goes on sale December 2010 for about $25k. It is an all-electric vehicle that can travel 100 miles on a charge at highway speeds. It recharges in 26.4 KWhrs. That is, 15 amps @ 220v for 8 hours to fully recharge.

In my current location, that would be about $2 for 100 miles. Unfortunately, coal is really what would fuel the car here in the Northeast.

If one were in Pasadena, on the other hand, I would estimate that this car could be charged by a 6 to 10 KW solar array. Here is an installation of that size whose purpose is to supply almost all electricity for a home: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~rcy/PV.html.

The car, then, takes more energy to power than this home, but only slightly more power (in Pasadena).

It would be nice to own 2 cars so that one was charging off the array while the other one was being driven on a commute. Otherwise, the cheaper solution would be to recharge the vehicle at the destination for about $2. The destination would need 220v charging docks.

How much would this cost? Two Nissan Leaf cars would be $50k plus $1500 for 2 charging docks.

The out-of-pocket expense for the array would vary with rebates, etc. For the house above, it was about $20k (rebates, etc.). http://www.its.caltech.edu/~rcy/PV.html
In Arizona, a 10-kw solar array would cost about $36,000--before rebates, tax credits, etc. http://store.solar-electric.com/capr.html --see 10-kw pdf. This system in Arizona after all rebates, tax credits, is less than $20k. So it is going to be possible for some people to have a (near) zero-emission, 5-passenger vehicle for under $50k. I am not including the installation cost, but that would vary.

Far less than the price of a Hummer! And people say we are short on solutions? Not really. We are short on awareness. The future for commuter transportation will be electric. We have the technology to do this. Electric scooters are about $2500.

The problem is, again, one of scale and getting off of coal. Not all regions will be equally adaptive.

Assuming it is possible to even build enough electric vehicles to replace all the ICE automobiles in the first place, how much additional electricity would be needed to power every automobile in the U.S.? How will batteries ever power large tractors and combines? How about semi-trucks?

Large trucks? I don't see that problem solved. There are, however, smaller solar tractors. This site argues articulately that solar electric is, in fact, scalable:


No one is saying the transition will be BAU.

We are on the verge of a burst of new electric vehicles that will become increasingly common. December 2010 will be the first time an all-electric car will be available that competes with gas, diesel, and hybrid vehicles, attaining a 100-mile range, highway speeds, and at $25k.

Assuming it is possible to even build enough electric vehicles to replace all the ICE automobiles in the first place, how much additional electricity would be needed to power every automobile in the U.S.?

Is that really the needed question?

Or is the question really, how much transportation do we NEED? Much discussion about the needed ROI, e it economical or energy ROI, is based on an almost BAU assumption. Rather than look at the problem of an engineering one to resolve to replace our current(and growing) power needs, why not ask the question from the other point of view, and ask really what we NEED (vs WANT) and make it a societal challenge (vs solely an engineering challenge) to reduce demands so we can meet that lower energy need first, and THEN look at what extras we can have with the excess?

Electric cars are promised as a way of perpetuating our dependence upon the automobile, so that the domination of this social and economic monster can exist indefinitely. We cannot even come close to meeting our historical needs with solar pv and wind, and yet we are embarking on a project to increase our electrical energy needs even more, making anything approaching bau impossible. And let us not forget all the energy required to manufacture the monsters, maintain the roads, the police, the hospitals,the regulatory agencies, and, finally, the burials.

You say that like it's a bad thing.......
People are not going to be giving up personal transportation. It's wishful thinking that there won't be enough power to make and use electric vehicle. As explained by a realistic estimate of EROI from a new style nuclear reactor.

As explained by a realistic estimate of EROI from a new style nuclear reactor.

The VERY FIRST commercial Gen IV nuke should be on-line about 2037 (in China or France).

A little long to wait for a solution.


People are not going to be giving up personal transportation. It's wishful thinking that there won't be enough power to make and use electric vehicle.

It's wishful thinking to assume that there will be enough power, for any length of time, to make and use electric vehicles and that societies will hold together in, more or less, the same shape as they are now, to make powered personal transport a reasonable choice, or even a choice at all.

I'm sure that people will not like any kind of forced transition to a different lifestyle but that doesn't mean they won't be forced to make it. Have you heard of limits?

Of course there's a difference between giving up personal transportation (as in - "if I can't drive my car I'm not leaving the house") and finding other ways to get places. I also think that transportation is one area with so many fairly easy choices that its not a good place to look for EROI impacts.

At the moment, I think most people would actually see an increase in their standards of living if they were forced to park their cars and walk, or bicycle, or rely on public systems; so I tend to see it as a positive change. As far as BAU with transport transitioning to electric, I don't see it working out; the conditions that would require developing electric transportation systems are the same conditions that would price those systems out of the reach of the majority, which is about what we have now.

Well, for one thing, electric cars are more efficient--so don't make the mistake of asking how much energy we are 'blowing' on gas and diesel powered vehicles and then say, "that's how much more electricity we would need." The transportation sector accounts for 22 percent of global energy use-- http://www.interacademycouncil.net/CMS/Reports/11840/11914/11924.aspx --but that is a vast waste of energy currently. If we were using electric motors, that energy use might be easily cut in half if not down to almost a third. (Approximately 10 percent efficiency loss occurs where batteries are used.)

There are about 250 million cars in the US. If 100 million of them were electric, that might be, approximately 2.6 million megawatt hours to recharge them daily.

This would not work given the current grid/electric production. But if phased in over time and if the grid and electrical generation increase, it seems possible over, say, a 10 year period.

Total electrical power stats: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/tablees1a.html. 350 million megawatt hours produced in the US in a month, approximately, or 11.67 million megawatt hours daily. To replace all cars, then with the Nissan Leaf, (2.5 x 2.64), it would take, roughly, 6.6 million megawatt hours more than the 11.67 we currently produce. I would argue that much of this electricity is WASTED and the criminal nature of this is never discussed. I have given this calculation as a matter of explanation, but believe that we don't really need any more electricity. We actually already have what we need to convert the entire fleet of US cars to electric ones! I don't think many people on this forum need that explanation?

I would argue that is a huge increase but is, apparently, scalable in the long run for automobiles--even if we assume that no energy efficiency program is implemented and we simply add the additional burden to current levels of consumption.

I am not an advocate of increased C02 emissions and that's why I was excited to explain how little it will cost to set up a solar array that can recharge the Nissan Leaf. It is something a person making $50k/year will be able to afford provided his or her mortgage has not destroyed borrowing ability. Or, looked at in terms of savings, a person could invest $50k in a car/array and be off the fossil-fuel grid.

PS--> Check out:
TRANSITION TOWNS: An Interview with Rob Hopkins
Transition Cities Part1
The Transition Movement Comes to America


I appreciate your reply and the logic you put into it, however I think you missed the point of what I was saying.

Rather than assume we need 250 or 100 million vehicles, why not work from another point of view altogether? Almost taking the 5 Why's root cause analysis methedology:

Why do we have 250 million vehicles? to commute to work
Why do I commute to work? because I live far from my job
Why do I live far from my job?....

Then maybe we can come up with a NEW 'standard of living' or set of expectations on what is "needed" in a modern society.

I'll use another question to look the same type of logic problem:

How much electricity availability do you need to make a modern home function?
I would postulate that the 1st 15amp 110v circuit is all it takes to make a modern home meet the definition of a modern home. Everything else beyond that first 15amp circuit is all convenience. And the average home COULD adjust their lives to a single 15amp circuit without REALLY loosing all that much in living (about the only 2 things that cannot run on that type of setup is a convention oven or electric dryer - both of which you can arguably do quite well without. (this could effectively limit every household to a Maximum daily usage of just shy of 40kwh if they maxed their circuit 24h/day. Most people don't use electricity in this fashion so the real benefit would be in eliminating extremes in peaking generation capacity, while people will still get to keep their lights on..

SO, apply that same logic problem to the vehicle question: How many do we really NEED to make a modern society and still allow people to "keep their lights on" with respect to transportation usage?

Because we don't live in the old Soviet Union.
People buy what they WANT and can afford. Just like you do.
I don't see the sense in pretending to engineer society. It's governments job to ensure realistic price signals. Not to decide what we need.

And because people do what they want, the optimistic assertions about people being less wasteful of electricity and recharging cars only at the "right time", so allowing a full conversion to electric cars, are likely to be proved wrong.

It's amazing the optimism of many here who see a momentum growing in favour of electric cars. There are going to be good choices of affordable electric cars. A billion plus can be manufactured to replace the world fleet over a meaningful time frame. Growth and BAU can thus continue for ever, because the only problem we have is energy for personal transport and that will soon be solved. Oh happy days.

It's governments job to ensure realistic price signals. Not to decide what we need.

The govt decides what we need all the time: rural phone and electrification, sewage systems, dams and water distribution, interstate highway systems, federally subsidized airports.

Some of this is local. Some state or group of states. Some federal.
But govts make infrastructure decisions. It's what they do.
It's their raison d'etre, along with mutual defense.

Good point. The gov also puts all sorts of constraints on what we can have, no matter what you want. Citizens can not buy and own (much less operate) anti-aircraft weapons, tanks, stealth bombers...

Once we see that much of our lifestyles are as destructive to the future as these thing can be in a more...immediate way, we should be able to regulate what how and how much we consume on a number of fronts.

Of course, there will always be the rabidly frenzied third or so of the country that will go bonkers over any suggestion of making any kinds of plans for anything, no matter how modest or benign (see the insanity over the recent health care bill).

dcmiller on April 7, 2010

Because we don't live in the old Soviet Union.
People buy what they WANT and can afford. Just like you do.
I don't see the sense in pretending to engineer society. It's governments job to ensure realistic price signals. Not to decide what we need.

End quote.

How is it that you bring up the 'old Soviet Union' all the time out of context or even out of any larger perspective?
The Old Soviet Union used a Price System almost identical to our own... except rubles instead of dollars... still the same kind of contract society based on money though http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=dfx7rfr2_70cmz88f&hl=en <--I Am The Price System... essay.
Actual energy accounting or energy economics if realistically used would not use money..., and talking about politicians making 'realistic price signals' is kind of comical. Not really though, since they are rapidly destroying the world.

Politicians are pawns for special interest groups... like McCain and Obama et al.
They are against the North American people and other peoples of the world.

Corporate fascism is the main decider of 'what we need' also.
Progressive liberals and Libertarian types are pretty useless in regard to understanding any kind of dynamic of the present high energy industrial society.

Technocracy's technate blueprint pertains specifically to North America as an operational unit. If the world is ever to install a scientific social control it must begin somewhere.
The reasons why Technocracy selects North America as the beginning place are two: (1) North America happens to be where the idea of Technocracy originated; it is the home of the Technocrats; (2) North America is the easiest place on which to install such an operation http://web.archive.org/web/20010514113821/www.technocracyinc.org/pamphle... Wilton Ivie on things ecological.

Science or phony politics/economics?
A Price System or protecting whats left of the resource base?
Libertarian/Progressive liberal/Repub./Dem. nonsense, based on Adam Smith throwback contract society, from a low energy conversion period,.. or a science based social design? http://ecen.com/eee9/ecoterme.htm <-Economy and Thermodynamics.

Enviro Tech:

I absolutely agree with you. We have to do a 'rethink' on the ridiculous electrical load of the average home. After converting light to CFL & LED, insulating the house and sealing the envelope, ditching the dryer, stove, perhaps replacing the fridge--it might be possible to, as you say, get it down to one 15 amp circuit and a Lifestyle Change. That is, the waste has to be completely curtailed. All phantom loads eliminated, etc. Basically, treating every home as if it were solar. In the long run, companies doing business should also be evaluated and laws regulating electrical consumption might be passed to save lives?

In any case, I was merely arguing that--theoretically--it is possible to convert the entire automobile fleet in the US to electric vehicles. Not that I think that should be done! But someone asked the question of how much electricity it would take to do that. It is not impossible.

But yes, it would be crazy insofar as the maintenance of the infrastructure itself, as it presently exists, will probably be impossible in the long run.

But consider that electric cars are coming and will be replacing gas & diesel cars. As this happens, it may become more obvious that we need cars to run on pothole roads and cannot maintain them except as dirt roads. It will be electric vehicles that continue to operate when gas becomes too expensive. Dirt bikes that run on a battery, electric (and redesigned for weight) ATVs, and redesigned electric cars will probably dominate an undoubtedly 'reduced' fleet in, say, 20 years, presuming there is not a rather severe collapse. We see how it is done in less developed countries and it is not hard to imagine it in the US.

I agree with others that electric rail (interurban and intraurban) would be a great investment--rather than occupying the Middle East, say. But if it doesn't happen, then I still would make the case that individuals can opt out; it is becoming affordable for ordinary people to own an electric vehicle and power it with a solar array. Am I advocating an electric vehicle instead of using a bike? No. Am I advocating acquiring an electric vehicle instead of moving closer to one's place of employment? Of course not! Some people are going to plod on as they have been and they may not want to burn massive quantities of fossil fuels to get around. Until the apocalypse, they can walk, ride a bike, move closer to where they want to go, and finally, if necessary, they can even purchase a solar array/wind turbine and power an electric vehicle that will compete with a typical car in terms of size, range, and speed. (Or just get a small array and an electric scooter!)

"an electric vehicle that will compete with a typical car in terms of size, range, and speed"

Yes, many people will want this. But why not move toward more "appropriate technology"--most urbanites stay on roads posted 35mph or less and travel less than fifty miles a day. Why not have a more modest car (if you feel you need a car) that is made to fit this profile of use, and that can therefore be much more efficient?

Most households have more than one car. If half of those that regularly have these moderate daily needs replace their next car with a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV), it could have a big impact on reducing use without inconveniencing anyone or requiring replacing the whole fleet.

But mostly we need to move as fast as possible away from car culture all together.

A warning to those planning to buy an EV who live in cold climates--performance dramatically declines in cold temperatures.

Maximum daily usage of just shy of 40kwh if they

Interesting that you come up with that number. I have recently been approached by a group, in a third world country, that will for now remain unnamed, to provide them with solar generators to provide basic needs for low income homes. That is exactly the target they wish to achieve. We think this is quite doable, though we are looking into efficient low voltage DC refrigerators to make the package work.

To be honest I care less and less about the what people in the US think they need, to have a good standard of living. I'm much more interested in working with the other 4 or 5 billion people in the world that I can actually help bring up to a much better standard of living than they now have.

Edit. Shheesh! I must have been sleep deprived when I posted this, the number we are targeting is 40 amp hours... a very different thing from 40 KW hours. My bad.

Americans have NO need to worry about Peak Oil....at all...

The world will be able to produce at least 20MBD for at least a century...

See, America will ALWAYS gets it 20MBD...other countries, well not so much...

We will

We will

Isn't it cool have a military that is bigger than the next 150 countries combined???...

We will get the oil...the rest of you....will make great Amish folk....

No???....Think you can stop us???....Bwhahahahaha

Your assumption of 40 kW·hr / day already exceeds the average consumption which according to (EIA Frequently Asked Questions: Electricity:

In 2008, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 11,040 kWh

was 30.2 kW·hr / day in 2008. One 120 VAC, 15 A socket is inadequate for residential households due to multiple loads being operated simultaneously. A 1,200 W microwave oven running while a compressor motor on a refrigerator starts would exceed the 1,800 W limit of the socket. If one is charging a PHEV battery at 1,800 W, then one could not operate anything else. The rating at the electric service entrance needs to be about 100 A at 120 VAC to power a modern U.S. residence without tripping circuit breakers. Another residential device that needs high power is a well pump which could operate at 240 VAC and 15A. To fully charge the battery of an all electric vehicle over night may also require more than 1,800 W, such as with the Tesla Roadster.


That 'assumption' was merely a theoretical daily MAX, not a realistic usage number (as I attempted to note when I stated that people really don't used electricity like that) - my intent was that LIFESTYLE needs to be assessed.

OTOH your statement that one 15A circuit as being inadequate due to multiple load starts is EXACTLY the thinking I am trying to challenge. It would take thinking and planning (similar to industrial work flow planning) for a household to avoid popping the circuit. You wouldn't be able to watch TV, blowdry your hair, AND cook food at the same time - you would, by necessity, have to do one thing at a time (Heaven Forbid!)

Do we NEED a tesla Roadster???? how much transportation is NEEDED? an E-bike would charge just fine on a 15A circuit with load to spare. Upsize that slightly to a trike with a small cover and would it still charge just fine on a 15A circuit? - Most likely.

Anyways, my question is more meant to be a 'disruptive' question that challenges the current mode of thinking, and by jumping on the minutia of my post, you demonstrate perfectly the challenge of breaking peoples mindset.

You instantly attempted to work on why that thought model WOULDN'T work, instead of trying to think of just how it MIGHT work.

"would take thinking and planning"

But haven't you heard, "The American Way of Life is Not Negotiable." And that includes our most sacred of rights--never having to think, much less plan.

Written by Enviro Tech:
Anyways, my question is more meant to be a 'disruptive' question that challenges the current mode of thinking, and by jumping on the minutia of my post, you demonstrate perfectly the challenge of breaking peoples mindset.

It is not a mindset. I speak from experience in electronics and 20 years of using an off-grid photovoltaic system with an inverter that is rated to output 1440 W continuously. Things like central heaters and refrigerators are designed to operate automatically and could potentially activate simultaneously. With multiple people in the house, the probability of simultaneous uses is increased. Underpowering the electrical system is more functional when only one person resides in the residence, but falls apart rapidly with two or more. It is not helpful to force everyone to flip the switch on a power strip to manually shut of the refrigerator before running the microwave oven (I do that). The ultimate result of your thought exercise is an increase in inconvenience and wasting people's time. It would not reduce power consumption and is a silly way of reducing load during peak times.

If 100 million of them were electric, that might be, approximately 2.6 million megawatt hours to recharge them daily.

Because you are assuming 26 kW·hr / day / car, you seem to be assuming Americans would drive 100 million Nissan Leafs 100 miles / day for a total annual millage of 3.65 trillion miles / year. This is more than twice the 1.7 trillion vehicle-miles traveled by U.S. passenger cars in 2007. With a range of 100 miles, a Nissan Leaf would not be used for long distance trips further reducing the energy demand. By eliminating a significant fraction of petroleum refining and distribution (refineries and pipelines use electricity) some electricity would be made available to charge the cars. A more careful calculation would easily get the power to recharge below 3 TW·hr, or less than 25% of current U.S. electric production.

If PHEV's (like the Chevy Volt) are used with long distance trips being powered from gasoline or diesel, the increased demand on the U.S. electric grid would be about 7% or 8%. President Obama's plans to improve electrical efficiency and produce 10% of U.S. electric power by wind by 2025 is sufficient to satisfy the increased electrical demand caused by a complete conversion to PHEV's.

If 100 million of them were electric, that might be, approximately 2.6 million megawatt hours to recharge them daily.

This seems high. From the other end... the typical suburban car is driven 30 miles per day. Electrics seem to require about 0.25 kWh per mile, so 7.5 kWh per day. Assume 80% efficiency for charging and that's 9.4 kWh per day. The typical suburban household currently consumes about 30 kWh per day, so an increase of about 30%. There are a number of ways to look at this that don't require large additions to the the grid: reduce household use correspondingly, charge during off-peak hours, etc. More generating capacity or at least more baseload generating capacity, since hour-of-day variations are reduced. But the peaks are not much higher, if at all, so not much additional transmission capacity.

And how about including solar power stations with the car in a package. Perhaps it could be financed over a term that don't cause the up front cost to overwhelm the long term gains.

Imaging buying a car that comes with guaranteed free fuel for ever, and power generation beyond the life of the car. Sounds marketable to me.

For the record, though, most people should just be adjusting their lifestyles so the don't need cars.

If hybrid cars are produced by the millions then there will be a severe shortage. Most hybrid cars use nickel-metal hydride batteries requiring massive quantities of lanthanum, a rare earth metal. A typical hybrid automobile battery for a Toyota Prius requires 10 to 15 kg (22-33 lb) of lanthanum. As engineers push the technology to increase fuel mileage, twice that amount of lanthanum could be required per vehicle.

Most electric cars (will) use lithium-ion batteries. The Volt, for example will use a 16kg battery. In the Oil Drum articles yesterday (Figure 3, 8) it is quoted that the probability of permanent global supply shortfall of lithium in 2030 is very high. There are articles elsewhere doubting that the electric car has future due to the depletion of lithium.

That will be a problem, lithium-ion batteries are currently the best available.

MIT researchers are developing a battery based on capacitors that utilize nanotubes for high surface area, enabling near instantaneous charging and no degradation. Estimating ~5 years to commercialization.


As I have said previously, the needs of a tractor lend themselves quite well to battery operation. Tractors want high torque and low speed. No need to worry about wind resistance here. Electric motors offer that in simple ways.
Tractors WANT weight. I add weights to achieve traction, even going so far as to fill the tires with water to increase the weight. I have determined that a tractor that would do what I normally do in a day would require about 150 kwh's of storage which I could achieve with two lead acid batteries weighing about 3000 pounds each. Three would make more sense and would add about $7000 to the cost. Assuming an electric motor at each wheel I would probably still have to add weight to get the traction I want. Recharging would be done by my hydro electric plant. If necessary batteries could be changed out mid day. The production cost of a machine this size would be lower than it is presently. Obviously fuel costs would disappear. We are talking about the equivalent of a 70 HP tractor that burns 20-25 gallons of diesel fuel per day. Cost new about $50- $60,000 Batteries and electric motors would run about $25,000 Batteries would last about ten years.
Present fuel cost is about $4.00 per gallon here or for that tractor would be $80-$100 per day. Fuel savings in one year- $20-$25,000.
Fuel savings over ten years, Quarter of a million. I could probably buy a couple more lead acid batteries with that.

If they are deep cycled 250 days / year, I think the lifetime of the lead acid batteries would be about 5 years. Since lead acid batteries are about 80% efficient when new, might be less than 50% efficient when old and their capacity decreases with temperature, you might need about 300 kW·hr of batteries on your tractor to get 150 kW·hr of usable power. Also a 240 VAC, 20 A electrical socket would require more than 39 hours to recharge the batteries assuming 188 kW·hr (80% efficiency). You would need an high priced industrial power line and socket (maybe you already have one).

Look at a couple of naked mammals. The fact that they belong to a species, indicates an obvious sustainability (otherwise, they would be extinct).

In order to keep themselves sustainable as species, the average couple of mammals of this given species, needs to have an offspring of at least something over 2 per couple, for a prolonged time, until new born become fully self sufficient.

If the species exists, that normally means, that an average couple of mammals of a given species, is able to sustain, simultaneously, probably three, four or sometimes more new born for a prolonged period of time, to cover eventual infertile couples of the same species, accidents and premature deaths, etc.

That already takes us, just as naked apes, to an EROEI of 3:1 minimum. But a naked ape, does not mean ‘civilization’, in the sense is enounced here.

As correctly mentioned in some post above, ‘civilization’ means for many of us, an excess of available energy over the above described minimum, just to keep species alive and sustained in Nature through sufficient time.

I do not know why using such complex analysis to calculate a minimum EROEI for a basic civilization. This is very simple. What is very complex is to calculate the EROEI of a modern source of energy, in a global society, that has a very complex mix of different energy sources making possible a modern civilization. Sources with different qualities and specificities, with assymetric interdependences among them (oil to extract coal, coal to melt iron for pilelines, wind generators made with steel to supply part of electricity to steel factories or coal mines, etc. etc. A lot of hidden and interrelatred energy costs to make feasible a given level of society.

I would guess that 5:1, which is the line drawn by Charles Hall in his Balloon Diagram, as “Minimum Required for Civilization” is a much more reasonable lower limit, which will represent a Neolithic state of the art, in energetic terms: people behaving and consuming/using/enjoying -and skilled enough to obtain them first- about 5 times more than his own metabolic individual needs and about 1.5 to 2 times more than the minimum required for the species to exist and be sustainable.

Neolithic, implying the start of the agriculture and animal domestication (and hence some more extra energy inputs available to that human culture) was the first step or stage in which some adult humans could be relieved from pure survival tasks, to undertake higher, specialized, not productive, not strictly survival duties for a minimum family or tribe (i.e. kings/organized kingdoms, military/organized armies, priests/organized religions). This does not mean that previous hunter-gatherers did not spent some energy thinking about Gods, or fighting for resources or ruling the tribe, but in a shared, simple, very economic mode. Division of labor, specialization, the existence of not productive tasks (in the sense of contributing with their own direct, personal effort in pure, simple, energy terms, more than own metabolic needs, to the society in which the individual lives) is what I understand is known as ‘civilization’

This graphic, from an earlier post by Euan Mearns stuck in my mind. It may be of interest here.

A very convenient chart. Solar and wind, good. Nuclear and tar sands, bad.
But it's in a graph. So it must be true.

how about contacting Evan Mearns, ask him about the basis of his statistics, and pointing out to us what you find wrong with his calculations, rather than just blurting knee-jerk paranoia that careful number crunchers that have been doing valuable work around here for years are out to get your favorite technologies.

And none of this is set in stone. As I've said in other posts, the EROEI of nuclear and renewables can be increased using existing technologies and is primarily a function of service life and material used. The issue is mainly one of commercial viability.

Arguably, the EROEI of biomass could be improved as well, though that's much more theoretical and based primarily on using genetically modified algae and bacteria to replace the huge energy inputs we currently rely on.

While this article provides a very useful analysis it's title is somewhat misleading.

First, while transportation by automobile and trucks and trains is a significant portion of the aggregate transportation system in the US it is by no means the full story. We would need to consider the EROI of all possible modes of transportation of passengers and cargo, such as ships, airplanes, and even bicycles and walking to name a few more.

Second, this analysis doesn't address the costs of multiple feedback loops which are part and parcel of maintaining our society and would need to include such diverse costs as service by government to maintain infrastructure of roads and bridges, true cost of our entire agricultural system, the educational system and health care to mention just a few.

It seems to me the analysis is akin to the story of the blind men who upon encountering an elephant conclude individually that it is like the trunk of a tree, a brick wall and a rope. None of them getting the full picture of the elephant in the room, let alone are they able to catch the rather malicious glint in its eye which signals that it is about to go on a rampage.

And how are we to know if the elephant is white or pink?

What was the EROI of coal that powered the Industrial revolution and was dug out by hand with an infrastructure of steam ships and locomotives?
It seems implausible that the EROI higher? Yet hundreds of 'energy slaves' were employed in even small mines.
Somehow EROI must have increased?

Jevons in the Coal Question(1865) gives the maximum price(cost) of deep mined coal at 5 to 10 shillings per ton of 2240 pounds, which by the magic of the Internet turns out to be about $30 to $60 per ton--same as today.

Our industry will certainly last and grow until our mines are commonly sunk 2,000 or 3,000, or even 4,000 feet deep. But when this time comes, the States of North America will still be working coal in the light of day, quarrying it in the banks of the Ohio, and running it down into boats alongside. The question is, how soon will our mines approach the limit of commercial possibility, and fail to secure us any longer that manufacturing supremacy on which we are learning to be wholly dependent?

Nice. This reminds me, in a way, of some of the late-90s efforts to estimate when peak conventional oil production would arrive; different people used different methodologies to come up with "no later than X," "no earlier than Y," "somewhere around Z," and the like, and the estimates pretty quickly began to narrow in on a particular set of dates -- which, as it happened, turned out to be roughly correct.

Scoping out the impact of declining EROEI benefits from the same incremental approach. This paper provides a solid data point -- at less than 3:1, our primary transport system is completely nonviable. As other studies pursue other lines of analysis, we should get some sense of how much higher the thresholds actually are.

Very thought provoking post -- thanks so much David for developing these ideas and sharing them in this forum.


What is the EROEI for:

(1) coal to liquids
(2) gas to liquids

As an alternative to (2) would it be more energy efficient to use natural gas in power plants and then use the electricity to run electric trains?

These issues would be important for Australia:

Australian crude oil production to decline 85% over the next 10 years

The Technocracy Study Course, written by Howard Scott and M. King Hubbert in 1932, established a detailed framework for Technocracy in terms of energy production, distribution and usage http://www.archive.org/details/TechnocracyStudyCourseUnabridged
According to Scott and Hubbert, the distribution of energy resources must be monitored and measured in order for the system to work -- and this is the key: monitoring and measuring.
They wrote that the system must do the following things:

1. "Register on a continuous 24 hour-per-day basis the total net conversion of energy.
2. "By means of the registration of energy converted and consumed, make possible a balanced load.
3. "Provide a continuous inventory of all production and consumption
4. "Provide a specific registration of the type, kind, etc., of all goods and services, where produced and where used [Scott, Howard et al, Technocracy Study Source, p. 232]
All this within a sustainable context in a non monetary non political science based social design http://www.technocracytechnate.org/index.php?PHPSESSID=699d9fa70fe9df419...

The Problem
Though discussions like this three part series are interesting they dead end themselves unless a more creative approach is used.
That means a non market, non Price System approach based on the original concepts of the Technical Alliance.
Monetizing energy or monetizing society at this point is pointless. Also engineering and robotics and fabricating machines have eliminated purchasing power or human 'work' as it was called in the past.
Green jobs are a joke. A green job would actually eliminate the concept of a job because 'jobs' now in our present Price System are mostly either a scam to further money making, or a waste of energy.
The 200,000 kilogram cl. of energy 'burned' for each American a day, provided from the boon of nature, no longer computes into Sumerian contract society economics... (slightly updated by Adam Smith and Keynes).
So... it is sadly pathetic to have a serious discussion on energy accounting unless it is the system proposed by TechInc many years ago... which also got rid of the current Price System approach and makes consuming a right of citizenship in a technate.

And yes the Price System destroys itself, because that which ceases to function, ceases to exist.
How is it that people persist in kicking this dead horse society... by trying to monetize energy in a throwback to the ancient past?
http://www.youtube.com/user/TBonePickensetc Some basic information about the Technocracy technate design.

Keep pounding away at it John Carter. Seriously.

The only problem is that it makes too much sense and I'm only half kidding. It scares people when something looks that engineered, that planned. They immediately see visions of grey uniforms, long lines, loss of freedoms, no passion, no inspiration, but most of all no ability to become rich and have it all, or perhaps more relevant, no way to remain rich and/or powerful.

IMO we will be forced to implement some form of a technocratic solution in the near future. The only question is will it be fair and equitable or will it be tyrannical.

IMO we will be forced to implement some form of a technocratic solution in the near future. The only question is will it be fair and equitable or will it be tyrannical.

... end e.e.

If... and that is an 'if', the original plan of the Technical Alliance were to be followed, in the large sense of their plan (Technocracy Study Course),... what you are asking would not be an issue.
Keep in mind that there are many 'bad' sources about the Technocracy technate concept and ideas connected.
A technate pulls the plug on special interest groups so special interest groups are not fond of the ideas connected.
It is secular, it is humanitarian, it is science based, and it is viable as an idea... based on fact and not opinion.
It is/was the beginning of real thermoeconomics or biophysical thinking in a non political or non monetary context.
It is unique and ridiculously creative and the flowering point of 20th. century American thought.
Survival looks iffy right now in the monetizing culture we live in.
Real alternative looks a lot different than the fake alternative we are surrounded with.

When the bottom collapses (shortly), because of attaching fake monetizing aspects to energy and other consumer goods, and because the present operating system is dysfunctional, it takes out the top also http://docs.google.com/View?docid=dfx7rfr2_211crx6c26k Money History and Energy Accounting.

The so called upper class is not served any longer by the Price System either, 'most' are ignorant of the actual dynamics of it and merely brainwashed with bad information. https://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=dfx7rfr2_109m3xbv3&hl=en The American Political Price System.
Who is a Technocrat? Wilton Ivie essay.

Some background on the History and Purpose of Technocracy http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=dfx7rfr2_10fqbv5t&hl=en

Who is a Technocrat? Wilton Ivie essay.

It sounds like a Technocrat dreams of a Star Trek matter replicator.

You should show up more often to post.

It's not easy to time travel from the old Soviet Union.

I looked to Switzerland during WW II (7 year 100% oil embargo, 11 months oil in storage at the beginning, most of that going to the military). They did trade with Germany for a very limited amount of lubricants during the war.

In 1945, (Swiss military oil use was cut dramatically after the invasion of Normandy, so 1945 is a largely civilian figure), Swiss per capita oil use was 1/400th of 2007 US per capita use.

Walking, bicycling and (hydro) electric rail (urban & inter-city) were the dominant forms of transportation with some horse & oxen and a few cars & buses adapted to wood gas.

Switzerland maintained a Western Industrial democracy, even if highly stressed, with essentially no oil.

This is what I am advocating, side stepping oil with efficient Non-Oil transportation (electrified inter-city rail, Urban rail, bicycling, walkable communities).

Extrapolating from your paper, it appears that we should be prepared to abandon (in phases) much of our existing infrastructure and invest in new, longer lasting and more efficient infrastructure rather than maintain (to the point of rebuilding) what we have.

BTW, electrical infrastructure for rail lasts about 40 years with heavy use, rails 40 to 120 years (depending on loads#) ties about 50 years, ballast and railbed only require minor upkeep every few decades, rail tunnels last longer than human experience.

# I noted that when the Summit Tunnel on the original Trans-Continental Railroad was abandoned in the 1990s in favor of a better route, the original rails were pulled up for scrap and mementos.

The Swiss have a different mentality than the US citizen. And there are no guns and there is no Fox news channel!

Are you kidding? The Swiss have more guns per capita than any other nation *except* the U.S.! And Switzerland has universal conscription, which means that all able-bodied male citizens have to keep fully-automatic firearms at home.

The last limitations on women's right to vote in Switzerland were only revoked in the 1970s.

They cannot secede from the EU since they never joined. Easily the most right wing nation in Western Europe.

OTOH, the Swiss people in 1998 voted to spend 31 billion Swiss francs (= to $1+ trillion for USA) to improve an already excellent rail system over 20 years. VERY unAmerican !

And they do have the draft whilst we have an all volunteer military.


Say, an offbeat early-morning thought as I peruse the new posts here. In thinking about the !Kung and their 10:1 steady-state EROEI, my mind is drawn to trophic levels, and to the question Why didn't the !Kung population stabilize, say, at 5:1? To some extent this may be an apples-and-doorknobs comparison with the subject of the keypost, but in trophic levels of the so-called "food chain" we often see about an order of magnitude greater biomass consumed to support the next level.

Inasmuch as this includes all considerations such as foraging, resilience, reproduction, etc and species are relatively long-lived (and thus able to weather reasonable margins of variation in conditions) if we see them at all, one might wonder if something roughly like a 10:1 margin is a general rule of thumb towards which sustainable systems might converge in the real world.

In which case, uh-oh.

As I say, just a notion before I'm awake. cheers.

An extremely useful question! How does the human economic system differ that much from the natural ecosystems (trophic levels) that have already established the 10:1 ratio (give or take a bit)? The answer might be in the fact that transportation is only one of many activities that have to be energy funded for basic maintenance, let alone growth.

Question Everything, even what you think you already know!

And maybe we only need a tiny fraction of the transportation that we now use. And maybe most of that could be much more efficient than it is now.

What is transportation for? Why do we live far from our places of work, sources of food, and places of recreation?

One of the hardest things for people to accept is that zipping around our vast country to our now-far-flung families is not a sustainable practice. We all value family, but we have to start valuing the future more.

Why do we live far from our places of work, sources of food, and places of recreation?

Because houses are too expensive where the jobs are located, because a vast amount of land is needed to provide food for 6.7 billion people and because the cost is not presently prohibitive to travel to distant lands for recreation.

Why is ethanol considered a resource at the farm gate like coal at the mine mouth or oil at the wellhead. With very few exceptions farmers do not produce ethanol. They produce the feedstock.

Hank Ford designed the Model T so farmers could produce there own fuel since moonshining was a well established rural industry. Most of that moonshine was produced without any fossil fuel input. Wood was the usual fuel used for fermentation and distillation. If this practice was promoted so farmers could sell a value added product such as 140 proof as feedstock for the large distiller might be a way to improve ethanol EROI. Of course repealing beverage alcohol taxes would eliminate a big barrier to small scale ethanol production.

Of course repealing beverage alcohol taxes

As I remember - to be legal for fuel-booze production all you need is a $35 per year permit for your fuel still.

The big issue would be the conversion of crop sugars into said booze. With solar, you only need 4-6 1000 watt hot water evacuated glass tube units to distill a 15 gal batch in a few hours. Less wattage if you are willing to take longer, up to the limits of insulation.

One minor (or perhaps not so minor) technical point:

When speaking of the energy expended in bringing natural gas to the point of use via pipeline transport, the author states that as much as 25% of the gas is lost through leakage and the need to maintain pipeline pressure.

On the face of it, I find this to be a totally unrealistic assumption or basis for computing EROI. For the life of me, I cannot picture such pipeline losses to be anywhere nearly that high, even with very long pipelines having multiple compressor stations.

So, I would very much appreciate the author informing us how this 25% number was arrived at. Or to ask it in a different way: is this an actual industry figure or just someone's WAG?

Actually, it would not be prohibitively difficult to do a rough reality check, as follows: i) take a gas pipeline of more or less typical capacity and length and determine how much gas is typically delivered daily, ii) count the number of compressor stations and note their rated power output, iii) compare the amount of gas used to power the compressor stations with the amount of gas delivered at the downstream end of the pipeline. Unless I am totally missing something, I seriously doubt that only 75% of the gas entering the pipeline makes it to the other end.

Folks, a (not so) minor quibble.

When we use the term EROI we leave it open to "economists" who only see a world in terms of that abstract entity called money.

The term should be changed to ERoEI standing for Energy Returned on Energy Invested--thereby removing the uncertainty about what is invested for what,

Good point (heh). Check out my comments on this in the first two installments; EROI seems to have "betamax'ed" the more logical terminologies.

We assume that coal moves an average of 1500 miles, mostly by train at roughly 1720 BTU per ton mile or about 1.81 MJ per ton-mile [29]

As I read the cited reference [29], which is available at http://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=5330&type=0 , the correct figure is 990 BTU per ton mile, or 1.04 MJ per ton mile (by the way, if we're converting BTUs to megajoules, why aren't we converting miles to kilometers?).

This is a significant difference. I'd also like to see the reasoning behind an average journey of 1500 miles for coal versus the average journey of 600 miles for oil.

With the corrected BTU/mile value, and equalizing the distances, the energy cost for coal is about 2%, not 8%, and the average for all the three cases about 2.7%, not 5%.

Good points. The source is also very old. (See my comment below.)

Congratulations TOD for yet another article completely misleading and spreading misinformation.

The first assumption the article makes is that we need personal automobiles for a high-tech society. The second assumption is that we need them to be as heavy as they presently are. These are both incorrect.

Tell me why a person needs to lug around a piece of metal 20x-50x (and beyond) his own weight to get from A to B. This is a major failure of western society, moreso North America than anywhere else, but also all over the world. I'm really not sure how we came about with such an awful standard but it stinks and it's absurd.

We already know how to make lean, lightweight electric vehicles that can deliver over a hundred miles of service on a charge. They might not be suitable for 120km/h driving because of their low density. How about electric bikes like they use in China? Are we too "high-class" for that?

We can design cities that ban cars and use 100% electric powered public transportation. Spaces that would normally be reserved for cars could instead be used for public spaces.

Part of the problem is that everyone wants to live in a huge house. What people don't realize is that if they live in a condo instead, they could reap the benefits of scale and get a much prettier place. The time they'd save living close to work and out of their cars could mean as much as an extra 10% length of useful time in a day. They could spend their money (society could spend its surplus) on more meaningful luxuries like wine and opera or what have you.

There are places in the world people are already reaping the benefits of this lifestyle. Amsterdam and Hong Kong are the best cities I know of. If I could establish a life in either of those places I would.

Finally, imagine if we forced people to spend every dollar they were going to on car, insurance, fuel, maintenance on a public transportation tax instead. We could have amazing systems in place. Goods could be delivered long distances by light rail, as China is quickly picking up on. Imagine moving a ton of material 1000 kilometers for a dollar. Buffet already recognizes this and he'll win again. In the next decade he'll be leading electrification of our transportation with his recent railroad purchase.

I'd throw out a rough guess that including transportation we are good on 3000 Watts per person on average after we adapt our transportation system. An entire PV system, assuming a requirement of 9000 Watts nameplate, plus storage, plus transformers, would run 30k tops nowadays, and about half that in 5 years at the rate we are going. Imagine if you weren't allowed to have a baby until you pay down the 30k$ to supply power for its entire life. Then all we need to do is get the half the population relaxing instead of working, ensuring we stay below the 3Kw/person, and we are good to go.

You think Hong Kong, one of the most densley populated places on earth, with 7 million people, is a good place to live as fossil fuels go into decline?

London, 1850, had just under 3 million people. It was supported already by a rail network, and was both the national and imperial capital of a world wide empire that had been sucking in resources for the previous couple of centuries to get that populous.

Many of those people also lived in total poverty. London at the time probably had the biggest slums in the world with professional nightsoil men and pure (dogshit) finders.

Do you really think Hong Kong, with its 7 million people, is going to be able to maintain its population, at its current standard of living, as peak oil goes into effect?

On the one hand, I think all large cities are going to be in trouble. On the other, you may not realize that Hong Kong grows 40% of the vegetables it uses within its borders. This includes veggies grown in pots on porches. Such practices could make many cities much more resilient.

But yes, few cities over 1 million population will fare well in the near future. But life in the country won't be any picnic either, or pretty much anywhere else.

Yes, I absolutely believe dense cities are the only form of living that will make sense.

Electricity doesn't need to be transmitted far, infrastructure can be heavily shared, food doesn't need to be transported far. People are packed in small apartments and condos and justify it because they live in "the big city". Everyone walks to work or rides the metro.

I'm not sure what you're comparing a big city to. ..hmm, suburbia? With the big houses. How do we move stuff out there? How much rail do we need to build when we have a distributed population?

When I mentioned a 3 kW society, I meant one that is only possible in a dense city.

Plus, the idea is that we rid ourselves of hyperindividualism and become more social, cultural creatures that love each other instead of our material goods.

We assume that coal moves an average of 1500 miles, mostly by train at roughly 1720 BTU per ton mile or about 1.81 MJ per ton-mile [29]

Your source for this is a Congressional report from 1982?

Railroad companies nowadays (nearly 30 years later) claim efficiencies above 400 gross ton miles per gallon. That comes out to less than 350 BTU per ton mile.

A few thoughts about coal.

First, rail transportation is about 440 ton-miles/gallon on average, and coal is at minimum 500 tm/gallon. Coal trains are probably even more fuel efficient, because the ratio of load to tare weight is greater than most other rail freight (particularly intermodal). 600 tm/g might be a good estimate.

2nd, Low-sulfur coal in the US travels roughly 1,000 miles before being used. High sulfur coal travels much less.


3rd, and more importantly, we have more than enough coal to last through a transition to wind, solar and nuclear. That makes considerations of minimum E-ROI moot.

Here's just one example: a recent report by the US Geological Survey looks at the recoverable reserves of the Gilette field in Wyoming, currently the largest producer in the US.

It found that at current low prices, about $10/ton, that only about 6% of the coal in the field could be economically produced.

On the other hand, if the minemouth cost of coal rose to $30/ton, the retail cost of coal-fired electricity would increase only 10%*, but economically-recoverable coal reserves would increase six times. At $60/ton, 77 billion tons would become economic, enough to singlehandedly maintain US coal consumption for about 75 years. And, that's without Montana coal (Powder River), or the Illinois basin, which I discuss here.

A spirited discusion of the report can be found here.

Aren't you just taking the USGS at face value?

Not at all - I look at the detail from the USGS, the EWG, Rutledge, industry reports, etc, etc. Ultimately, I find that there really isn't disagreement on the facts, just the interpretation. Those who see coal as peaking are looking at demand for coal, in the context of cheaper and better alternatives. See more discussion of this below.

Will Peak Oil make diesel too expensive to transport coal?


A $100/bbl increase in the cost of oil would increase the cost of transporting a ton of coal by $100/bbl x 1bbl/42 gal x 2 gal/ton** = $4.8/ton. That's a 2.5% increase in the cost of electricity, which means that railroads will be easily be able to out-bid other potential users, like trucks.

Coal transportation by rail can also be converted in a relatively straightforward manner to use electricity instead of diesel, meaning that reduced oil supplies are highly unlikely to have a significant direct impact on the ability of the US to transport coal.
We're going to have to make a conscious decision to eliminate coal - it's not going to run out, and make the decision for us.

What about this report?

"Despite significant uncertainties in existing reserve estimates, it is clear that there is sufficient coal at current rates of production to meet anticipated needs through 2030. Further into the future, there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption. However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted assertion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years. A combination of increased rates of production with more detailed reserve analyses that take into account location, quality, recoverability, and transportation issues may substantially reduce the number of years of supply." From Coal: Research and Development to Support National Energy Policy

There's no real disagreement here - what disagreement there is, comes from a different frame of reference.

1st, they say "it is clear that there is sufficient coal at current rates of production to meet anticipated needs through 2030". I would argue that's probably all we need, for the transition to renewables.

2nd, they say "there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption". I would argue that's certainly all we need, for the transition to renewables (or fusion, for that matter - in 100 years things will be very different).

Finally, they say that there are risks beyond 100 years: the coal is there, but that 1) the US might dramatically increase it's rate of consumption - I think that's highly unlikely, 2) other issues may get in the way. Well, if we really were to face a situation where our economy's collapse could be prevented by digging up our national parks...the national parks wouldn't stop us.

All in all, I'd say that report supports the perspective that in the US, there's no realistic prospect of inadequate electricity caused by real, physical limitations.

Still unsure? Read this: http://energyfaq.blogspot.com/2008/06/are-we-running-out-of-coal.html

Even then, still unsure?

Well, consider that analysis of limits to growth can be very misleading if it doesn't look at resources which are currently not economic, but will become so when current resources become more expensive. If we don't do at least some analysis of the resources which are currently uneconomic, then an LTG projection can only say "there is a possible problem - we don't know how large it is".

Coal is a very good example. There are very, very large resources which are currently not economic. For instance, Alaska has 2-5 trillion tons of coal, and very likely has 200 billion which are recoverable (a 200 year supply for the US). And, yet, it's not being used at all right now, because it's significantly more expensive than lower-48 coal.

Closer to home, the Illinois Basin has 150 billion tons which are being ignored right now because of a relatively small cost differential due to sulfur content. Analysts like the Energy Watch Group take a superficial look at production statistics, and declare that Illinois coal has peaked - that's just....silly.

Finally, don't forget all that oil-shale. It's difficult and messy to turn into oil, but it burns like coal just fine - well, it's still messy, but is there any question of whether a desire for good environmental quality in Colorado would prevent us from burning whatever was necessary to keep the lights on??