The Renewables Gap: The Political Challenge of Affecting a Societal Transition to Renewable Sources of Energy Revisited

This post was previously run, in November 2009. - Gail

Below is a summary of my presentation, The Renewables Gap (PDF), from the ASPO-USA 2009 conference. The intent of my presentation was to highlight the political challenge of affecting a societal transition to renewable sources of energy. In particular, I focus on wind and solar, though it seems to me that the problem will be largely the same (if not worse) if we attempt to rely on other “renewables.” My initial presentation focused on attempting to illustrate the Renewables Gap as an energy problem. While I briefly addressed the political aspects of this problem in my presentation, on reflection I’ve chosen to focus more carefully on this aspect of the Renewables Gap.

Frankly, I've never been very pessimistic about our theoretical ability to adapt to peak oil. It’s what I fear we will actually do in response—or, rather, what we won’t do—that concerns me. I feel the same way about our ability to transition to alternative sources of energy—the challenge that I’ve termed the Renewables Gap. I’m quite confident that we have the theoretical ability to deal with the problem. However, if you accept that “politics” is the process of allocating scarce resources in a society, then it is the political problem posed that appears most daunting. Like many things involving peak oil, we’re sure to have all the political will that we need to deal with the problem at only some point after our window of opportunity to act has closed. The challenge is figuring out how to spread awareness of the nature of the problem and willingness to commit scarce resources to its solution before there is a crisis. Here, again, my pessimism is grounded in what I fear we will not do. I don’t pretend to offer any easy solution (the desire for which gives much insight into the nature of this very problem). My goal here is only to provide a framework for thinking about this problem:

If we seek to mitigate peak oil with renewable energy, we need to first ask what do we need to mitigate. My answer: the decline in NET energy produced from oil, not the decline in overall production. If, hypothetically, 20 years from now we’re producing 100 million barrels of oil per day, but it requires 100 million barrels of oil worth of energy input to do so, we have ZERO energy left for the operation of society at large. From the perspective of a society attempting to maintain itself, this is functionally very similar to producing no oil at all. Therefore, we must remain focused on the NET energy available to society.

What I want to quantify is the amount of net-energy that we need to replace going forward. A “classic” peak oil decline graph shows a plateau, followed by a gradually accelerating decline. Let’s consider why that’s so. What happens when we hit a plateau—as we arguably have now? The existing fields are declining at rates between 3% and 15% per year. But, because we’re scrambling to bring new production on-line, the overall level of production is buoyed for some time. We’re compensating for this underlying decline with more expensive oil—both financially and energetically. That keeps the level of OVERALL oil production steady, but the rate of NET energy production from oil is falling.

For the purpose of exploring the solution space of society’s transition to alternative energy, I’ve decided to frame the issue with two simple, exponential rates of NET energy decline: 5% and 10% per year. The graph below shows these rates of decline starting from a hypothetical year zero (because, again, my goal here is not to state that global peak net energy occurred in 2002, 2020, etc.). I’ll call these the “low” and “high” range scenarios. Certainly this simple exponential function is overly simple, and these numbers may be higher or lower than many estimates. That’s fine—my goal here is to frame the issue, not to predict the future reality of global net energy production. I’ll be discussing the potential to use renewable wind and solar power to mitigate these rates of decline.

First, I’d like to note the systemic effects of solar and wind energy’s unique energy-return profiles: the vast majority of the energy invested in these sources comes up front, before they ever begin to generate. Between 80% and 90% of the total energy ever required to build, operate, and maintain these systems must be invested UP FRONT. I won’t discuss other renewables such as tidal, geothermal, nuclear, and biofuels at this time, though I welcome discussion of how these options may impact the solution space.

Next, it’s necessary to point out what is obvious to many: these renewables produce ELECTRICITY, not oil. I’m talking here about using them to replace oil, so it’s necessary to address conversion issues. How many GWh are needed to replace 1 mbpd of oil production?
A straight BTU-to-BTU conversion: replacing 1 million barrels of oil per day production, or 365 million barrels of oil per year, equates to 70.78 Giga-Watt-Years.

Clearly, however, oil and electricity are not the same thing. Some people have suggested that you only need 1/3 this much electricity to mitigate peak oil because oil fired electricity generation can be only 33% efficient. I think that modern oil-fired electricity is actually somewhere between 50% and 66% efficient, but we need to explain the validity of using the BTU-to-BTU conversion:

First, because we need to replace oil, not electricity, and because relatively little oil is used to generate electricity, it’s incorrect to use this oil-fired electricity efficiency number.

Second, our infrastructure is currently adapted to burning oil in many applications. Therefore, to the extent we want to use renewably-generated electricity to replace this oil, we need to adapt this oil-burning infrastructure to electricity. For example, if you want to replace transportation fuel with plug-in electric cars, you need to invest in significant new infrastructure in the form of cars, batteries, charging stations, etc.

Third, any form of mitigation using renewably-generated electricity will require significant additional investment in the transmission grid to handle higher loads and to balance or store electricity due to the variable availability of renewable generation.

I don’t know if it’s possible to calculate the exact energy balance here. However, I’ll assume for the present analysis that, in order to mitigate peak oil with renewably-generated electricity, we’ll need to generate effectively the same number of BTUs of electricity as we’re losing in oil. Maybe slightly more, maybe slightly less, but I think the BTU-to-BTU figure of 70.78 Giga-Watt-Years per million barrels of oil per day lost is pretty close.

Another argument is that we don’t need to produce as much energy renewably as we lose to peak oil because conservation and improved efficiency can largely make up the difference. There’s some truth here, but it’s only ½ the equation. That’s because two factors—population growth and the desire of the world’s poor to improve their standard of living—will cancel out some or all of the gains from efficiency and conservation. For example, if population increases by 30% over the next 20 years, that alone will negate a 23% reduction in global per capital oil consumption.

Additionally, at least 5 Billion people and growing want to “improve” their level of energy consumption to Western levels. In India, car sales are up 26% over last year, to 120,000 cars per month. Admittedly, these cars tend to be more efficient than in America, but this is new demand, and it far more than cancels out the fact that the Tata Nano gets 56 miles per gallon. Similarly, on a global scale, Jeavons’ Paradox will reduce the effectiveness of energy efficiency as a tool to reduce demand. Finally, while markets or force may deny the world’s poor access to Western levels of energy consumption, the geopolitical consequences of such disparity will actually serve to accelerate energy scarcity.

Another key question is: how much up-front energy input will be required to build out enough renewables to mitigate the decline in net energy from oil production? We know how much energy must be produced to meet this target, so the answer to this question is a function of the EROI and the lifespan of our renewable options. Here, I’m only evaluating wind and solar photovoltaic. I recognize that many people hold the belief that wind and solar energy have very high EROI values on the order of 40 or 50, and energy payback times on the order of months, not years, I’ve chosen to use significantly lower EROI values for this analysis.

We could talk about this boundary and EROI calculation issue until we’re all blue in the face—my intent here is not to argue that some specific number is correct, but rather to point out the uncertainty and potential range. At the lower end of the range, I’ve proposed a proxy of price to account for ALL inputs and outputs. There are significant problems with this methodology, such as dealing with financing costs, but it has the distinct advantage of allowing us to account for all inputs—regressed infinitely—rather than drawing some sort of artificial boundary. IF you look at modern wind turbines using the price proxy, you get something like an EROI of 4. I’ll call that my “low” value.

Now let’s consider more conventional calculations. Wind seems to be most promising at the moment, and I’m looking specifically at a 2009 paper by Kubiszewski, Cutler, and Endres entitled “Meta-analysis of net energy return for wind power systems.” The authors review 50 different studies of wind EROI. In a section entitled “Difficulties in calculating EROI,” they make this statement:

“Studies using the input-output analysis [one method of calculating EROI] have an average EROI of 12 while those using process analysis [another method] an average EROI of 24. Process analysis typically involves a greater degree of subjective decisions by the analyst in regard to system boundaries, and may be prone to the exclusion of certain indirect costs compared to input-output analysis.”

What I take away from that is that there seems to be a range of 12-24, but the authors—a highly respected group—suggest that the “24” figure fails to account for many inputs. That suggests to me that an EROI of 12 is more accurate.

For our purposes, though, my intent is to explore the solution space, so I’ve selected what I think is an optimistic upper “high” EROI value of 20. I think this is unrealistically high—especially because this figure doesn’t even account for the intermittency, transmission, and storage energy costs that must be considered in such a large-scale societal transition—but for now let’s use 4 and 20. Feel free to recalculate using your own preferred numbers…

With apologies for the long introduction, here’s the reveal:

How much energy must we invest if we want to ramp up renewable generation to keep pace with declining net energy from oil? This graph answers that question using a 5% net energy decline and a renewable EROI of 20.

In this scenario, to mitigate the year-1 decline in net energy from oil, we’d need to invest 467 GWy of energy in year one without any production in return—that’s the equivalent of almost 7 million barrels per day. Then in year two it’s about 130 GWy more invested than cumulative production to that point, or about a 2 million barrel per day deficit. Not until year-three will the cumulative renewable generation be more than the investment deficit for that year—meaning that not until year 3 will we begin to have surplus energy available to mitigate the actual decline in oil production (which by this point leaves us 12 million barrels per day behind the peak oil decline curve.

That’s the “Renewables Gap.”

And here’s the pessimistic quadrant – 10% net energy decline, and a renewables EROI of 4:

In this pessimistic scenario, the up-front energy investment is more than 4,600 GWyears in year one. That’s 58 million barrels of oil per day diverted to renewable energy production. Plainly impossible. And the level of renewable energy production wouldn’t even catch up to the level of energy invested EACH YEAR until year 7.

Here you can see the boundaries of the Renewables Gap—the optimistic assumptions on top, pessimistic on the bottom. The lines represent, under each scenario, the net energy supplied by oil, minus the energy invested that year in building renewable energy production, plus the energy produced that year by the renewables brought on-line to date:

To be sure, we can slow the initial rate of investment in renewables in order to lessen this dramatic initial impact, but that option results in falling even further behind the net energy decline curve. We can also bootstrap the energy produced by renewables to provide the energy required for the next round of renewables—if the EROI is 20, this will work to some extent, but it will still have the effect of making us fall even further behind the decline curve. If the EROI is 4, it’s simply unworkable—we never catch up.

Is it theoretically possible to close this gap more quickly? Sure—by investing more energy up front, which actually serves to exacerbate the problem over the short term. We’ll be chasing our tail. It might be possible to catch up—to make a significant public sacrifice up front and kick start the program—IF the economy as a whole is healthy. The Renewables Gap puts us in a Catch-22 situation: using renewables to mitigate peak oil will make the situation worse before it makes it better. Our ability to absorb the up-front costs of transitioning across this gap is a function of our economic health, but to the extent that our economy remains healthy enough to do so we are unlikely to muster the political will to address the problem.

Just to provide some context for the size of this gap: Under the optimistic scenario, this is the equivalent of adding one new China to world oil demand immediately, and maintaining that for many years. Under the pessimistic scenario, this is the equivalent of adding more than 9 new China’s to world oil demand.

Now I recognize that there are energy conversion issues, there are calculation issues, there are timing issues—simply too many variables to make any definitive statements here. But what I hope I’ve highlighted here is this CONCEPT of the Renewables Gap problem, and the uncertainty of our ability to bridge that gap.

As a civilization, we still have a small and shrinking bank of net-energy surplus with which to build our future. We have to make tough choices about how to spend it. Perhaps our most fundamental choice will be this: do we spend it attempting to bridge the Renewables Gap—despite our uncertain ability to do so? Or do we consider whether that energy could be better spent building a fundamentally different future?

Hopefully this analysis provides a useful framework for further analysis. I recognize that some will dismiss this problem entirely with the argument that wind actually has an EROI of 75 and an energy payback time of 5 months. At the risk of being inflammatory, that reminds me of a bumper sticker that says “WARNING: In event of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” My point is that, at least here and now, my intent is not to proselytize or attack and defend issues of faith. Instead, I hope that, for some, this analysis highlights three important issues for further thought and debate:

1. The energy requirements of a massive transition to a society much like ours but powered by alternative sources of energy.

2. The political challenges of affecting such a transition.

3. If #1 or #2 make such a transition either physically or politically impracticable, what then?

Here are my Excel calculations for those who would like to plug in their own numbers...

Thanks Jeff!

As we go forward, it looks like we will have less and less oil. We are going to have to make choices as to what it is used for:

1. Running cars.

2. Running trucks and farm equipment.

3. As input for manufactured goods.

4. Maintaining infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems, electrical systems)

5. Building new infrastructure (more trains, more busses, factories for electric cars)

6. Continuing to produce and transport oil, gas, coal, and uranium.

7. Building new wind turbines and solar panels, and upgrading transmission systems to accommodate these. Making more biofuels, using fossil fuel inputs.

8. Building infrastructure and training people in a way that is truly designed for a post-fossil fuel age (small wind, water wheels, animal power, and factories powered by these sources).

We are going to have to make choices. Whatever is used for one, is not available for others. I don't think it is possible to just cut back a little on private passenger automobile uses, and have enough for other uses. Perhaps one of the big problems with wind and solar PV is that they look like they are long term solutions when they are really temporary add-ons to our fossil energy system, and remove people's focus from the bigger picture.

I don't know who said it first but I like to think this quote comes from some hip young woman , perhaps a California girl who has seen the light:

"We are so screwed".

( It just sounds to me like something such a young woman would say in the vernacular.)

I hope the level headed optimists of the sort characterized by Alan from Big Easy turn out to be right and we are able to turn the energy supply corner without crashing but my guess is that we will indeed fail to make the necessary sacrifices before the window of opportunity closes.

This does not mean I an ambivalent about efficiency, conservation, and renewables ; my position is pedal to the metal on all three.

This will at least cushion the crash considerably.

Back to work;we had excessice rains earlier, but now we are irrigating and our nieghbors are selling cows due to lack of forage.

"I don't know who said it first but I like to think this quote comes from some hip young woman"

I think it was TOD member Estamos Jodidos.

Good list.
#1 obviously has to be scaled way back. We cannot afford these toys any more.

For #2, growing food and getting it to where people live has to be a central priority for any sane society. Much of this could be done with natural gas and some bio-diesel, but that is not going to happen over night. So in the mean time, these should be a priority. Of course, we also have to reduce the average number of miles food travels from farm to plate, down from 1400 miles to a hundred or so.

#3, as far as I understand, is a fairly small portion of the pie. Some transfer to other sources is already happening, but we probably don't have to completely eliminate this use right away for the really hard to replace stuff.

#4 Maintaining infrastructure is going to be another of those crucial functions, but we will have to make hard choices about which infrastructure to maintain.

#5 Lots of new infrastructure is going to be hard to build out, probably. This connects also with #7. Factories for trains, busses, cars as well as wind turbines, solar and other renewables could largely run on electricity which could be generated increasingly by renewables. This addresses you incessant and non-sensible cant that renewables can only ever be a transitional energy source or, as you put it "temporary add-ons." I agree that they can distract people from the greater need to change lifestyles, and right now their manufacture does mostly depend on FF and nukes. But I still fail to see any reason that this is necessarily going to have to be true for ever.

#8 sounds good. But what exactly do you mean by "small wind"? I thought wind was most efficiently harnessed with larger turbines, and that actually the smallest systems rarely make sense in terms of EROEI.

#6 This is one of the most interesting ones, for the EROEI reasons discussed here ad nauseum. If we focus on reducing drastically in most of the other areas, we could get below the reduction curve and give up on what would become an increasingly frantic, fruitless and ecologically damaging pursuit of oil in more and more remote and risky places (deep water, Arctic...)

Hi Gail,

I think, much like Hannes Kuntz's recent post, we need to start with a vision for society that is truly sustainable (i.e. 100% based on renewable energy, including sufficient surplus to replace itself after each life-cycle). Once we have that vision (and, in reality, it can and must be many, many different but compatible visions), I think the best use of our dwindling energy surplus is in transitioning toward that steady state. I think this can be done by government, though I am skeptical that it actually will be done--more likely, government will squander our remaining energy surplus trying to maintain the status quo in some form or another. Therefore, I think it ultimately falls on individuals and non-governmental organizations to start to build this future society from the ground up, without, and often despite the "assistance" of the government. That's not to say we should write off government participation in this process, but what we can't afford to do (in my opinion) is assume the government option will succeed. We're well beyond others solving our problems for us, and need to take the solution into our own hands.

That's a lot of generalizations, but I think we can fairly easily begin to take concrete steps. Probably the most important thing is to start building scale-free self-sufficiency now, meaning that we should start to push self-sufficiency in all things (energy, food, water, healthcare, defense, education) to the lowest reasonable level of localization (and to many differnt levels of localization simultaneously. With respect to food, for example, we should aim to produce as much as possible individually, and at the community level, and at the bioregional level, etc. Same with energy, etc.

So, in my opinion, energy spent on the items listed above makes sense only to the extent that it is in development of the end-state, steady-state vision...

You wrote:

"I think this can be done by government, though I am skeptical that it actually will be done--more likely, government will squander our remaining energy surplus trying to maintain the status quo in some form or another. Therefore, I think it ultimately falls on individuals and non-governmental organizations to start to build this future society from the ground up, without, and often despite the "assistance" of the government."

The problem with a statement like this is that, for all its corruption by corporate interests and big money, the government's policies do very often still reflect the opinions of the people. My family and I are plugging away at changing our individual behavior and to influence others through advocacy, but the fact is, living in a Midwestern red state, I can tell you that we are a small minority, and the complete lack of interest by the government in tackling any of these energy problems, whether Peak Oil, global climate change, pollution, etc, definitely reflects the view of the majority of voters.

So while I agree with you that it is unlikely that the government will provide leadership, I, sadly, think it is also unlikely that individuals and NGOs will be able to make much of a difference. For every progressive NGO, there is an angry constituency resisting any change to BAU. Sorry to be so pessimistic, but I just don't see Americans waking up to reality in time to start turning this boat around.

I generally agree--I don't think that individuals or NGOs will make sufficient change either, for exactly the reasons you point out. However (and I don't know if we agree or disagree here), that doesn't mean that it still doesn't make more sense to focus on individual action rather than government action (especially because "government action" is usually some form of shorthand, at least for most people, that someone ELSE can take care of it and make the sacrifices). Also, I think that a partial but appropriate solution by some people is better than a large-scale but misguided, centralized government solution because the former can at least serve as a model for small-scale, low-tech solutions well into the future, whereas the entire premise of the government solution is (wrongly) that we can maintain BAU in some form or another. Governments are structurally predisposed toward this kind of solution, and to the extent that they choose a different path they will be absorbed by others in the nation-state system that do pursue growth/expansion...

Yes, I do agree with you. It's seeing people make changes on a small scale that can inspire the minority who are ready to take action, and for the government to propose anything that suggests an end to the perpetual growth paradigm, is to put themselves out of office in a hurry, whatever their understanding of the problems.

There's no doubt that when things get really ugly, even people who thought they never would, start to consider actions like changing their mode of transportation and cutting home energy consumption. And if nothing else, speaking for myself, I feel better and enjoy my life more stepping out of the rat race, riding my bike, eating fresh home-grown food, spending time with my family and friends. I just think it's not realistic to think these kinds of things are going to get us off the BAU road down which we are hurtling at top speed.

Funny, I don't really think of myself as a doomer, but when I think about the complete culture shift that needs to occur, I definitely feel shades of doomerishness coming on.

“The problem ... is that, .... the government's policies do very often still reflect the opinions of the people. ... the complete lack of interest by the government in tackling any of these energy problems, whether Peak Oil, global climate change, pollution, etc, definitely reflects the view of the majority of voters.”

IMO, the statement above captures the essence of the problem on this renewables issue, as well as most of the other topics pertaining to sustainability (e.g., population growth, localization, etc.). The people who frequent internet forums to read about this stuff and maybe even make some individual changes in their own way of living are utterly non-representative of the populace in general. Most people in the world aren’t spending their time worrying about global sustainability; they’re just trying to get by from one week to the next with the hand they’re holding right now. They will make choices about where to live, what to drive, what to eat and which politicians to vote for based on their perception of near term survival needs. Many people have some vague awareness and negative opinion of Wal-Mart’s policies toward its employees and suppliers, but they shop there anyway because WM’s bread is 2 cents cheaper than the other guys.

Let me pose a hypothetical scenario: Suppose someone developed a fantastic new kind of solar panel with an EROEI of 100, but only if deployed on a big scale that required a huge up-front investment. Suppose your state government submitted it to a vote by your fellow citizens – make a 10-year commitment to build 20 new solar generating plants that would allow all the coal-fired plants in the state to be decommissioned. During that 10-year period, monthly energy bills would be 3X the current rate, but after that they would drop to 0.5X the current rate and stay there throughout a very long service life of the new solar plant. Virtually no pollution and cheaper energy costs 10 years from now, but only after suffering the burden of increased costs in the meantime. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of voters in the majority of states would reject such a proposal, probably by a wide margin. A benefit 10 years from now is no good if you can’t afford to keep the lights turned on next month. So people will go along doing what they must to get by, and generally opposing grand ideas that inflict near-term pain. As total net energy declines, total population increases, and per capita wealth gets squeezed even harder, this pattern will become even more entrenched than it is now. It’s fun to talk about sustainability and grand schemes that would lead to better tomorrow, but at the end of the day the trajectory of society will be determined by the cumulative effect of 7 billion daily short-term decisions.

BTW – Great post, Jeff!

3X a utility bill is hardly impossible for the average family to pay.

You're ignoring how much of a consumerist lifestyle is want, not need.

The other common mistake the theorists here make is that an increase in living standard does not need to be defined in energy wastage terms.

Standard of living is a psychological concept, not an energy usage concept, although it seems no one ever gets it.

Carry on.

The average American house can double efficiency with affordable investments, cutting utility bills by half. The Europeans use half as much energy as we do.

My goal is to reduce electrical and gas demand by 75% to 80% in my house.

Best Hopes for Thinking Efficiency,


I think you missed the point of my post. I didn't say it was impossible for the average family to pay a 3X cost increase. For the bottom layer of society, such an increase really WOULD pose a hardship. But even for the next couple of layers up, there will be much negative sentiment about any siginificant near-term cost increases, even if such increases allow some future benefit. The opposition of all these layers will influence public policy to a significant degree. It doesn't matter one bit that some of the opposition is based on "wants"; if enough people oppose an idea, that opposition will be reflected in public policy - THAT's the point. The vast majority of people in this country and the world do not make decisions based on what they've read on some sustainability website; they make decisions based on much shorter-term considerations, and public policy will be influenced by that reality regardless of what the readers of TOD think.

Carry on.

#8 is a waste of time, energy and resources. It should not even be on the list of viable options (despite being Gail's favorite).

One, of several, reasons why is that will "work" only after a massive die-off. A massive die-off will be so disruptive (almost all the people trained die, social organization will collapse and reform in uncertain ways, most of the infrastructure proposed is not robust and will not survive a couple of decades of neglect (rail and large hydro will BTW).

Let me outline a viable alternative (several crucial details missing due to time ATM).

We up the current tax credit for more insulation, better windows, doors from 30% to 75% and apply it to rental property, commercial, etc. and expand it to commercial lighting. We take the City of Austin's "negawatts" program and require all utilities to do likewise (raise rates a bit to pay for it). More "Cash for Energy Star" appliances and tighten up Energy Star rating. Rental property with inadequate insulation or oil heat cannot be sold.

Extra incentives for converting from oil heat to natural gas or heat pumps. Also solar hot water or NG tankless water heaters for a net surplus of NG and much less oil burned (less NG for water heating, more for home heating of previously oil heated homes).

Federal financing for above for lower incomes, etc.

Politically doable, and it gives an immediate and growing energy surplus (vs. alternative BAU) to work with. Some feedback to oil (oil used to mine & transport coal) plus direct oil savings from home heating.

Gas guzzler tax on both new cars/SUVs (high) and tags for existing vehicles (moderate).

Use this for:

1) Seven year program to electrify 35,000 miles of mainline railroads and at same time add back double tracks, rail over rail bridges, better signals, more grade separation. Raise diesel taxes and subsidize rail sidings at factories & warehouses. Trade 20 BTUs of diesel for 1 BTU of electricity by shifting freight from truck to electrified rail. Also create an "energy immune transportation system" by coupled transmission of renewable energy with electrified rail ROWs.

2) Ten year program to build 5,000 miles of light rail, 500 miles of subway, 3,000 miles of streetcars in every US town with a population > 125,000. Latter add electric trolley buses and expand above.

3) Build out wind fast, feed-in tariffs replace tax incentives with caveat that any year that wind does not grow 30% compounded, incentives will be increased. This will assure manufacturers that a growing market will be there.

4) Promote HV DC by variety of means.

5) Tell TVA & Bonneville to start on massive pumped storage program around nation (both owned by US Gov't, with relevant expertise).

6) Tell TVA & Bonneville to each build two new nuclear reactors (option for 3rd). With Georgia Power's two new reactors and finishing Watts Bar 2, this will be enough to restart nuke building industry.

Above will pay for themselves after a few years, but initial investment comes from reduced consumption. A mix of attractive investments, taxes and perhaps "forced savings" (like tax but it is invested and given back at future date).

I offered to write something like this for TOD but no response.

Best Hopes,


Hi Alan,

No news here, but I disagree that Gail's #8 is unrealistic, or even unwise. In fact, I think it's jumping unreasonably to conclusions to think that we can't build the framework of a steady-state, non fossil fuel economy without experiencing a die off, or even a population reduction.

What we really need to address, the elephant in the room, and something that is ignored by your plan (at least in the abbreviated form above--I DO think that many of those ideas are important and can eventually get to the core issue if framed properly) is the problem of growth. Until we restructure our economy and civilization to not be predicated on perpetual growth, we are just pushing the collapse/die off to later generations, something that I think is morally unacceptable. If we want to address growth, we need to implement scale-free self-sufficiency and non-hierarchal structures, but that, too, requires more time than I have to explain in detail at the moment!

I am all for perpetual growth in music, art, software and literature !

We can also have (and should have) a couple of centuries of slowly increasing useful infrastructure.

One insight of mine; "The only way to change a culture is to learn by doing". Announcing that "This must be the way it is !" worked for Muhammad but very, very few others.

Moving towards "growth in efficient & renewable infrastructure" and away from consumption is, IMHO, a necessary step. Incrementalism as one generation passes for another, living the changes, is the most likely, and likely the only positive path forward.

Best Hopes,


We can also have (and should have) a couple of centuries of slowly increasing useful infrastructure.

Elvis has left the building. Alan (and Don), I want a number. We've trashed your local/regional resource base there by the Gulf, to the point that your local economy is probably defunct. How many more regional ecosystems (nodes) can we afford to lose before it all unravels? There are going to be mass migrations away from the GOM coastline; when that happens, please don't come up here to do it all over again after you've finished trashing yours. As things get tight, since there are too many of us, we are going to begin to view the problem of continued destruction of our local resource bases (where we get our food from) with a jaded eye, and not take kindly to repeat offenders.

I am all for perpetual growth in music, art, software and literature !

Apart from software, I think we still haven't recovered to the level of growth found in Athens 3000 years ago. My personal opinion is that these attributes of civilisation reached their recent peaks more than a century ago.

Its been downhill ever since the invention of radio.


I don't have a problem with most of those suggestions on principle, and if the US had a huge fiscal surplus perhaps it would be feasible. But as it stands the nation doesn't even have enough money to pay it's bills. Thus the growing debts and obligations.

Above will pay for themselves after a few years, but initial investment comes from reduced consumption. A mix of attractive investments, taxes and perhaps "forced savings" (like tax but it is invested and given back at future date).

Given that I personally (and i admit anecdotally) can't think of a single light rail or efficiency subsidy like program that hasn't been grossly inefficient (think multi million dollar light rail with 4 people on it, or "weatherizing" a house for slightly less that I could BUILD a brand new house for) I think that is overly optimistic.

Plus GDP IS 70% consumption. You can't just pull from the cookie jar with no consequences. Last article on the topic I read said 31 states will run out of pension money by 2025 even with an 8% return!! The Federal Budget is counting on GPD coming back to BAU levels and staying there. And thats just so we can avoid becoming MORE bankrupt.

I like the concept of the renewables gap. When I look at the economy such a concept seems to very much represent reality and I don't believe for one second that solving it is just a matter someone or other's political ideology swinging in to save the day. I think that is why nothing actually gets done no matter who is in charge despite their very excellent verbal behavior, because in my opinion filling this gap would require a totalitarian authority holding the citizenry at gunpoint and deciding for them who gets what and what must be done without.

Oh and it must be done benevolently, and with more efficiency than any government has ever been able to accomplish on any program ever in history.


If you "can't think of a single light rail or efficiency subsidy like program that hasn't been grossly inefficient" then you should go for a visit to Calgary, Alberta (Canada).

The LRT system there has 49km (30mi) of track, built since the 80's for a total cost of $580m. It does 250,000 passenger trips, about 125,000 people (in a city of 1m) per day at an average cost of 36c/passenger.
data from here

It has truly been a great investment for Calgary. They did it by being smart, instead of trying to huld a cadillac system, they built one htta was the most practical and value for dollar - a novel concept for governments!

New French LRT systems have similar costs/mile (Alan can give details on this)

Successful rail transit programs happen when they are done with efficiency and practicality in mind, not when they are treated as opportunities to extract money from governments, or to be all things to all people.

French plans for this decade. 1,500 km of new tram lines for 22 billion euros.

One key is a willingness to take sacred road space away from the automobile {Shock ! Horrors !}

Build the tram for efficient operation and let the cars work around it with whatever is left over.

Best Hopes for Proper Priorities, and working with the speed & efficiency of French bureaucrats,


Increase revenues by raising taxes. Simple. Cut roads budgets, military, police, etc.

The USA has a Urban rail building program designed by conservatives that really do not want to build them. Ration by queue. Make everyone wait *SOOO* long for the dribble of federal financing that most drop out and it raises costs for the rest.

Just work with the speed and efficiency of French bureaucrats (who WANT to build new trams).

BTW, New Orleans built 5 miles of the Canal Streetcar Line (30,000 pax/day before Katrina) for $129 million ($10 million under budget).

With "lessons learned", RTA thinks they could do it again for less than $100 million. The more that is built, the cheaper it gets.


As I read Jeff's first paragraph that he wrote today to update the post, my heart sank. He used the word focus 3 times in one very short paragraph. I almost stopped there, and indeed a scan of the article showed an emphasis on supply curves. I was relieved to find a call for reductions in energy use as the first priority in the final paragraphs of the post, and realized that he was building a case for a shift in priorities. And I was very relieved to see Gail emphasize this point in her initial post. This is the issue at hand. What is it going to take for us to shift from an emphasis on replacing current fossil fuel use to an emphasis on reducing current fossil fuel use, since that is the only way our civilization will go forward?

In order to properly frame the issue, however, I would like to add one issue that continues to be deemphasized or even studiously ignored in most discussions here. And since it is half of the equation, it is important. That issue is that of sinks. I like LTG as an example, because it clearly discusses the sinks. Below from LTG Update p. 51, is a reminder of this problem.

But we conclude from the evidence that growth in the harvest of renewable resources, depletion of non-renewable materials, and filling of the sinks are combining slowly and inexorably to raise the amount of energy and capital required to sustain the quantity and the quality of material flows required by the economy.

One cannot forget that heat sinks are a crucial part of the system. Entropy works, and we are scurrying around in our civilization furiously using up global resources and churning them out as heat. Any mental model or equation that fails to include the sinks fails to address proper equilibrium because the half of the BTUs that are going into the atmosphere and into the oceans and being disseminated across the landscape are ignored, leading us to think that we can keep growing. Life is a balanced equation, and we've left out half of it in our calculations and perceptions. Edit to add, since Ron phrased it so well:

Dopamine, you are overlooking the positive points of delaying the collapse, via renewables or whatever, for say a decade or so. In one more decade we could drive millions more species into extinction. We could clear cut millions more square miles of rain forest. We could expand the world's deserts by millions of square miles. We could pollute or dry up dozens more of our large pristine lakes. We could cause many more rivers to dry up before they reach the sea. And of course we could expand our population by about a billion so when the die-off does come, there would be one billion more souls to suffer and die in misery.

Err... wait, those are negative points, not positive points. Okay, someone else name the positive points.

Ron P.

My question to the inevitable naysayers, then, is the same question that I have asked several times, and have STILL not received an answer. Just how many Gulf of Mexicos is it going to take for us to realize that we simply cannot promote BusinessAsUsual anymore? Please give me a number and defense of that number, before you go arguing why nuclear will save us. C'mon, boys. Are you going to let a girl stump you?

"We are going to have to make choices as to what it is used for"

We have a huge issue - we are unable to make choices. Look around at the issues we have today - I don't see people really getting together to make any choices at all, never mind hard choices.

Of course "do nothing" is also a choice.

About 3 years ago, in Chicago, we had one of our "Transit Armageddon" scares - cutting personnel and schedules. It was suggested that there be an increase in the Real Estate transfer tax to support transit.

Of course, Realtors screamed blue bloody murder over it since they were concerned it would affect their businesses. Well, the increase did pass, but then real estate crashed, for the other reasons we know, and we had transit meltdown anyway because of all kinds of other revenue shortfalls.

Every issue we are trying to solve has some or other special interest screaming about how they are suffering, and so we do nothing - or rather, nothing substantial.

We'll certainly get to doing something when the majority of people really are suffering - although I doubt we'll get to agree what is important, in any large sense. Maybe only smaller aggregates of people will really get to decide what is important to them.

Addendum : what framework could be used to get people to agree? The easy answer is let people vote - majority rule - but that is no guarantee of the right answer.

I think part of the problem is that there is no "we"

There is no ONE we.. but there are lots of little we's, and that's where these things have to start.

Thanks Jeff!

As we go forward, it looks like we will have less and less oil. We are going to have to make choices as to what it is used for:

1. Running cars.

2. Running trucks and farm equipment.

3. As input for manufactured goods.

4. Maintaining infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems, electrical systems)

5. Building new infrastructure (more trains, more busses, factories for electric cars)

6. Continuing to produce and transport oil, gas, coal, and uranium.

7. Building new wind turbines and solar panels, and upgrading transmission systems to accommodate these. Making more biofuels, using fossil fuel inputs.

8. Building infrastructure and training people in a way that is truly designed for a post-fossil fuel age (small wind, water wheels, animal power, and factories powered by these sources).

We are going to have to make choices. Whatever is used for one, is not available for others. I don't think it is possible to just cut back a little on private passenger automobile uses, and have enough for other uses. Perhaps one of the big problems with wind and solar PV is that they look like they are long term solutions when they are really temporary add-ons to our fossil energy system, and remove people's focus from the bigger picture.

Perhaps one of the big problems with wind and solar PV is that they look like they are long term solutions when they are really temporary add-ons to our fossil energy system, and remove people's focus from the bigger picture.

How do you suppose wind and solar look when we no longer have any fossil energy systems?

What exactly do you see in the "bigger picture" Are you seeing total absolute collapse of all systems? I wonder if that isn't the case based on your point:

8. Building infrastructure and training people in a way that is truly designed for a post-fossil fuel age (small wind, water wheels, animal power, and factories powered by these sources).

Caveat: Personally I think ICE based personal transport is so many orders of magnitude less likely to be viable in the future than renewables that I'll not even dignify it by including it in this discussion. As far as I'm concerned it is off the table...

However, for some strange reason you seem to think it OK to use fossil fuel for these:

2. Running trucks and farm equipment.

3. As input for manufactured goods.

4. Maintaining infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems, electrical systems)

5. Building new infrastructure (more trains, more busses, factories for electric cars)

6. Continuing to produce and transport oil, gas, coal, and uranium.

But not this?:

7. Building new wind turbines and solar panels, and upgrading transmission systems to accommodate these. Making more biofuels, using fossil fuel inputs.

I won't even pick on the fact that biofuels using fossil fuel inputs aren't very likely to be viable either...and should not even be included with renewables such as wind and solar! They are a separate animal.

Anyways, your logic eludes me.

Right there with you, Fred.

There's no explanation to this, ever. Just the repeated handwave that these are 'Fossil Fuel Extenders' ..

I ask Gail to show me ANY other way of generating electricity besides PV with no moving parts that lasts for 30 or more years, and then is recyclable into more of the same? (TEG possibly, but I don't know the lifespan.. and you need a heat source, which if it's the SUN just becomes a variant on PV)

..and then to show me why Only OIL can make these things?

The claim has become obstinate.

Hydroelectric moves slowly (I have seen 62 rpm), electric arc can melt steel & copper and basic parts can last for a century+ (good practice to rewind motors every 50 years and do some maintenance on the turbine).

And, yes, Gail's positions are not defended by the logical analysis and arguments I am used to.


Since our approach to energy as a society comes down to the legislative branch of government, the nuts and bolts of a successful transition is how we change the way Congress currently functions As it turns out, the Framer's of our high law foresaw that the legislative branch would become corrupted by money/power to the point it no longer functioned as designed, so they placed a convention clause into Article V.

Over the years, politicians and media have frightened Americans away from holding a convention by saying such a thing would be dangerous as it might re-write the Constitution, or it would be taken over by special interests and we'd have even worse than the status quo. The convention clause has been characterized as if the delgates can mandate new law, but the convention can only propose amendments, and in order for those proposals to mean anything they need to be approved by 38 states for ratification.

Now look at the actual process: once the call goes out, there has to be elections for delegates. These elections would not be for legislators, but delegates--meaning the campaigns would be specific and issue oriented, as opposed to "It's time for change" rhetoric. In other words the dynamic of holding a convention opens up the political discourse (and of course that would include how to better approach energy issues).

We all lament the negatives of the human condition, but there are positives--one of them being that when people come together consenus happens; parliamentary procedure in a deliberative assembly facilitates this. Although it seems hard to believe, based on the speech of politicians and media folk, there are non-partisan issues today that an overwhelming majority of citizens can agree on.

All revolutions/reformations the world over have always come down to one thing--a tipping-point joined in a common cause. If 15 million Americans or so began advocating for the Article V Convention we might get one, and the country could come together to deliberate on what 3/4 of us can agree on--one of those things being how do we transition our approach to energy.

There are people talking about it now, and that's why I wanted to spend some time here to let some of the concerned and reasonable members know about this. This site has some information:

Professor Lawrence Lessig over at Harvard is openly advocating for it

And if this site goes viral it could become significant:

Hi John,

I'd love to see a re-write of our constitution with something that supports scale-free self-sufficiency, acts as a break to the intensification of hierarchy, builds in a stable/zero-growth basis for our economy, etc. Unfortunately, I think that with the level of political polarization in our society at present, it's simply unrealistic. I think it actually falls into the structural trap evolved into governments and other large hierarchies as an evolutionary defense mechanism: the false hope that we can change the system according to the system's rules leads to perpetuation of that system. The chance of getting 3/4 of us to agree on anything sufficiently radical to operate as a real "solution" to our various problems seems to me to be nil, at least while things havne't completely fallen apart (i.e. while we still have the surplus energy to implement any wholesale change).

Instead, and this may sound either defeatist, radical, or common sense depending on perspective, I think we need to start with the assumption that the government won't fix the problem, and that won't be changed by "fixing" government. Instead, I think we need to assume that our problems can only be changed through networked individual action. That idea, of course, gets zero political traction (political in the sense of positions of elected politians *within* government) precisely because it marginalizes the importance of government itself.

What would that actually look like? It would start with personal action, then community action, etc. to build scale-free self-sufficiency in food, water, energy, healthcare, education, defense, etc. Just assume that the Nation-State system will continue to move away from provider and toward burden, and figure out how we can best resume the role of provider. I could ramble on about this forever (and I'm gradually putting my thoughts together in more organized form in my discussion of what I call the Diagonal Economy), but I'll save that for a separate post!

Jeff, I urge you to turn the idea over for a bit. At first glance it seems a non-starter perhaps, but research shows most people are unaware of the convention clause and what it means if we stop addressing symptoms and instead re-focus on the problem itself. While the political polarization may at present be extreme, there are actually issues 3/4+ agree on. In saying it's a false hope to change the system according to the system's rules--this would be correct if the position is that we just need to vote in new politicians. My position here is that we refocus to the alternative available in the Constitution. In this sense personal action would entail raising awareness of the convention clause as our alternative to politics as usual. Radical problems require radical solutions, except now today the solution seems less radical than the problem, indeed mainstream thinkers are now openly advocating for a convention. Please do think about this, and please do consider signing up as a delegate to the virtual convention--nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd (and the way the site is set up, you don't have to spend time debating particulars if you don't want, once signed up you'll simply recieve an e-mail when a question is called, and you vote up or down). The membership dues will go to advocating for/raising awareness of the endeavor and the convention clause.

Thanks, John. I will sign up for the emails--while I'm skeptical, I'm certainly open to anything that might work (though it's always a balancing act as far as apportioning limited time to many such options!). My concern is that, much like the Renewables Gap discussed above, we won't be able to build consensus until the situation is sufficiently dire that we no longer have the surplus energy needed to make the required change...

Consensus that it's time to come together in a deliberative assembly to address the current system of government--Yes. Consensus on what ideas will emerge? Maybe. One idea that has overwhelming and broad suppport today is electoral reform, which is why we need a convention as the system will not un-corrupt itself.

P.S. The Article V Convention cannot re-write the Constitution, but only propose amendments to the one we have. If one wanted to re-write it, they'd have to propose that doing so is constitutional, get that ratified, then come back and propose the new one. Just to be sure, the Framer's did not place a self-destruct button into their work.

Just to be sure, the Framer's did not place a self-destruct button into their work.

Sure they did, by writing in flaws in a compromised document that make it certain that eventually the whole framework will come crashing down when the nation reached maturity. Separation of powers has become an impediment to getting effective legislation passed. Obstructionism is easily used by the opposition. This is augmented by small states having equal representation in the Senate. By having two senators a very sparsely populated state can hold bills hostage; a few sparsely populated states such as those out west can yield great power and bring home big pork. The framework is also very undemocratic. Look how a determined minority can buck the will of the people. Separation of powers also promotes unaccountability. Too easy for one branch to blame the other. The amendment process is all but impossible. The role of the judiciary is grossly undefined and has developed into a super legislature that rules according to the ideology of the five. The Constitution is also not compatible to the modern administrative state. Just look how many conservatives would want to have the courts throw out every federal agency, and conservative judges appear receptive to these arguments. In an ambiguous document created two hundred years ago in which no legislative history existed (Madison took his notes surreptitiously) is it any wonder there is so much fudge in its interpretation? For some the thoughts and intentions of dead men long ago rule the day, for others it is evolution of societal values, but what standard dictates a reasonable result on either side? None. Is it any wonder that the parliamentary system dominates all other western civilized countries? It was not our form of government that succeeded but our historical fortune in having a big isolated continent with plenty of resources and no powerful enemies on our borders.

I say throw the whole mess out. But that will never happen because a religion has sprung up around the Constitution - even though most people cannot tell you what’s in it or cite major cases and historical developments. Just like the Bible.

Bruce, we all have our subjective opinions about what ought to be done at this point. The point I'm trying to make is that whatever you think of the Constitution, or who wrote it, or why, what's most important for We The Living is what it says. It's got a convention clause. It's a legal mechanism which allows us to come together to deliberate about what 3/4+ agree on. We can stay here and watch it all end in a whimper, or we can advocate for the chance to leave where we find ourselves (which has a fatal conclusion). I encourage you to review the links and mull this over. If anything dawns on you please do sign up as a delegate, $10 a month for the possiblity of a peaceable resolution seems reasonable to me.

Hey, I had to vent, constitutional law is a real sore point with me (my TOD profile can give you a hint). Gore Vidal has long called for a Constitutional Convention. It should have been done a long time ago, the end of the Civil War or during the Great Depression would have been suitable times. I totally agree that it is the living that should determine how we govern ourselves and how to take control of our future. The original Constitutional Convention exceeded its’ mandate - it was only to repair the defects in the Articles of Confederation. Once the convention starts who know what will happen? All I know is that the vested interests in American society need to be restrained.. Would they willingly give up some power for a more equitable society and a polity that was more flexible in its decisions especially concerning energy policy? History is not kind to reformers on this issue (I’m presently re-studying the French Revolution anyone got any recommendations for books - the text I’m reading is like breaking rocks. How come most academic historians can’t write?) The only other alternative is civil war or a dictator arriving on her white horse.

Clearly, #1, at least, has got to go. "A society much like ours" is just not in the cards at this point.

IN nay imaginable scenario, our society would be going through extreme changes, just as it has for the last hundred years. So it's not as if stasis was going to be an option anyway.

The question is, do we even want change that takes us further in the directions we've been going--less and less time with family and friends, ever lower quality of food, ever more time spent inside looking at screens, more and more disconnection from our physical environment, fewer and fewer opportunities to fit physical activity naturally into our everyday lives...

Let's choose instead:

Arranging our lives so we can walk or bike to most locations we need to go to.
Use transit for almost all of the rest.
For the situations that require car transport, have a networked system of carpooling.
Keep all speed limits to 55mph or less.
Insulate all houses and buildings so there are minimal heating and cooling requirements.
Reduce, reuse, recycle...everything.
Source as much material, food, and fuel as locally as possible.
Greatly reduce the quantity of meat and dairy we eat, and make sure what we do eat is locally and sustainably raised.
Stop recreational shopping--place limits on it as we do on hunting and fishing.

There are many things such as this we could do immediately that would increase our quality of life while dramatically decreasing our need for oil and other resources.

It is very late in the day, but all the more reason to push these kinds of relatively easy to do things through quickly.

This may east the "gap."

Ultimately, though, we need a different economic system, one not focused on greed and growth.

But things are getting late. If you want to avoid depression, don't pay any attention to what is going on in the Arctic.

this scenario, applied to an occidental economy, requires a massive economic collapse, or will generate one. either way, this alone would dramatically lower energy usage. just look at the recent crisis and the reduction in energy prices due to falling demand

what amazes me is that nuclear energy is almost totally absent from discussions here. is either fossil fuels or wind and solar. it really doesnt make much sense.

wind and solar are a dead end. at the moment is irrelevant and mostly consumes resources (and taxpayer money), if our societies collapse to a point so low that we could live with the energy provided by wind and solar, we will be unable to build the infrastructure, and wont probably need it anyway.

i have tried living in a place without electricity, using solar and wind. and it was under optimal circumstances, tropical climate. i ended up buying a diesel generator.

It's a bit hard to follow your post. Is there something wrong with your key board? Or is there a language barrier here?

So you had a bad personal experience with alternatives. One anecdote, interesting though it may be, does not really tell us much about the viability of these technologies. Certainly, many would disagree with your claim that "wind and solar are a dead end."

Back to the list, the other thing that we have to scale way back on is air travel.

As to economy, yes, a system that assumes and requires endless growth is not a system that is going to very useful going forward.

Unfortunately, we will not replace it. So, as many have said, the proximate melt down will be a financial/economic one. Most of the population will only see this and will remain firmly in denial that any sort of resource limits are behind it.

Of course, there is increasing likelihood (increasing by the day, as we watch think unfold in the Arctic) that the global climate crisis will overwhelm everything else in short order. Again, many will continue to deny the ultimate cause. I actually think we will see a rise in denialism even as the evidence becomes more and more irrefutable. People will find it just too emotionally painful to know that they participated in destroying the viability of the only life-supporting planet we know of.

i have tried living in a place without electricity, using solar and wind. and it was under optimal circumstances, tropical climate. i ended up buying a diesel generator.

I'd venture to guess one or more of the following were probably true:

You didn't do your homework.

You're expectations were completely unrealistic.

You didn't really try hard enough.

Your system was poor quality or was defective from the get go.

Disclaimer: I'm a partner in a Solar Energy business.

Many electric power utilities around the country especially in California are increasing the price of power to curb the waste in its usage. This is very good in principle but when I get those huge power bills, I just can’t help myself; it just pisses me off; yes, the difference between principle and reality is just hard to take sometimes.

Jeff, I'm a big fan of your articles. This one, however, oversimplies the situation (blog articles cannot be research paper length, after all), and I believe leads to a serious misunderstanding of the energy investment situation.

Since the focus was only oil, you choose not to involve electricity generation, of which we have a tremendous abundance of spare capacity through most of the year. So manufacturing processes that utilize electricity are not bound by the shortfall you mention.

Additionally, you did not include natural gas resources as an input, which is heavily used in industrial processes. Nor did you examine the switchover of truck fleets to NG.

On top of that, you seem to assume that future electric vehicles would use the same amount of energy as the existing ICE fleet ("A straight BTU-to-BTU conversion"). That certainly would not be the case, as the BEVs/HEVs/PHEVs coming out are far more efficient. The ~30% of an ICE in general use can in no way compare to the >70% efficiency of a BEV drivetrain.

Hence, while you made a very narrow hypothetical case for a scenario of all renewable manufacturing processes using only oil (along with BAU vehicle energy requirements), you missed it for all the others, leaving the impression that every manufacturing process for renewables can only use oil, vehicles remain to be highly inefficient, and trucks couldn't run on NG.

I would politely recommend an update to this article that examines the other energy sources for manufacturing.

Hi Will,

I agree, the paper certainly needs updating, and hopefully that will happen as soon as I have time... that said, I think the failure of the paper is to reveal its purpose with enough clarity. My intent was not really to show the situation of specifically replacing oil with renewably-generated electricity (though that was certainly the vehicle, because as you mention there just ins't room for everying in blog posts!). Rather, my intent was to discredit the notion that we can "just shift to renewables any time we want and keep on motoring (aka BAU)"--that there are very significant and problematic energy investment timing issues. I think these hold true with respect to natural gas, as well as to nuclear (per commenter below), both of which are ultimately non-renewable sources of energy (I'll try to avoid the discussion of fast-breeder reactors, but suffice it to say that is the case as of today). We can shift among various non-renewable resources all we want (coal, too), but in the end we need to do two things: address our "problem of growth" and build a society that can function on 100% renewable energy. Shifting to natural gas or coal or nuclear will only postpone the date when that must happen (and probably increase the difficulty of the eventual transition).

Another think I hope to address in an update is to more carefully discuss efficiency, and what it can and cannot do. I mention it briefly above, but do not go into enough detail. Efficiency can certainly help with the transition because it can free up additional surplus energy to be diverted toward building the required renewable energy generation. However, that use of efficiency as a problem-solving tool will require widespread understanding and acceptance of this renewables gap concept. Otherwise what will happen, and what concerns me, is that we'll use up the low-hanging fruit of efficiency measures to make up for production declines initially. Then, when we really want to get serious about investing in renewables, that card will already have been played. Additionally, while we have massive opportunities to improve efficiency in the US, we need to consider Jeavons' Paradox on a global scale--if we get 50% more efficient, that really just makes it that much easier for the developing world to increase their energy consumption closer to our (still inefficient) levels. Instead, we need to work on building the framework for the end-state, steady-state civilization, both in the West and in the developing world, while we have the surplus energy available to do so...

Shifting to natural gas or coal or nuclear will only postpone the date

I think you misunderstood my overall thrust (though you did pick up on the Trucks => NG point)

You looked at the investment of energy to create new renewables ONLY from the perspective of oil, i.e., how much oil production will be required to install a certain amount of renewable capacity per year. I don't think anyone believes that oil is the only, or even majority, energy source for bringing renewable energy sources online.

Electricity and natural gas are energy sources that industry relies upon for manufacturing. The electrical capacity base in the US is vastly overbuilt and could increase energy production easily to provide a large portion of the extra power needed to invest in renewables production. Also, NG can be used as a power source (e.g., high temperature processes, etc) for initial 'investment' purposes.

Jevon's paradox is an issue in this case only if there is no carbon tax, oil tax, or similar conservation incentive. If that is the case, there is no hope for powerdown of any kind and we can all ignore TOD.


I oppose a "100% renewables" strategy, despite it's intellectual appeal, because it is an unrealistic, impractical and harmful policy for several reasons. Instead, I would aim towards a 95% or 97% renewable + nuke strategy which is both *MUCH* more likely to actually be implemented and leaves a better environment during the transition.

"100% renewables" is unrealistic because we are not going to exhaust fossil fuels, or U & Th, for a century plus, especially if we slow down their use soon. By the time we see the "bottom of the barrel" and are forced towards 100% renewables "EVERYTHING" will have changed. We will have a different society, with different expectations, a different climate, different technology, likely different religions, and more.

So a model of our current world on 100% renewables is meaningless and unhelpful. We ain't going there, and those that will get there will be fundamentally different in multiple dimensions.

In the mean time, shifting towards a high renewable, high efficiency economy and society is a doable goal, step by incremental step, and is technically possible, while 100% renewable is not.

Best Hopes for Seeing the Reasons Why,


You have an excellent point Alan. People always go off the deep end. I say moderation in all things including CO2 production. There has to be some fixed world wide carrying capacity for CO2, where the natural absorption rate of CO2 by the sea equals some constant world wide CO2 production level. If a post on this has not been done, it should be done sometime in the near future on the Oil Drum.

The problem is that power usage is increasing exponentially and will continue to increase exponentially over time. This will make this constant maximum carrying capacity fall to insignificance in the course of time.

So why not go balls to the wall up front since the damage is already afoot.

But Alan, a moderate and prudent man is a rare and wonderful thing.

There is something like "a carrying capacity for CO2."

It is somewhere south of 350 ppm and we have long past it.

While we do have some discussion of these issues here, a better place to look for professional views on GW issues is

I also believe that we could transition gradually to a very high percentage (80+%)renewable/nuclear energy powerdown mix over time, given that;
- We continue on toward 80% reduction in carbon emissions, which is a form of a powerdown in and of itself, as that amount of reduction would be nigh on impossible via nuclear.
- There is no economic depression or collapse (big 'if').
- Demand side management (Demand Response) becomes the norm in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings/facilities to enable flexible demand to even out many of the supply peaks and dips.
- Political/punditry operatives of fossil fuel corporations/cartels are not successful in appealing to people's worst weaknesses with regards to whims, hyper-comfort, hyper-mobility, etc.

I also, however, think that there is much to be gained by having a percentage of our energy use allocated to small wind, waterwheel, animal traction, human powered mobility, passive solar, etc. They have worked well in the past before our oil addiction, so would be proven sources, even if lifestyle changes are required. Indeed, if a depression or collapse were to occur, they would likely be our predominant sources after a critical infrastructure collapse.

"100% renewables" is unrealistic because we are not going to exhaust fossil fuels, or U & Th, for a century plus, especially if we slow down their use soon. By the time we see the "bottom of the barrel" and are forced towards 100% renewables "EVERYTHING" will have changed...


Really folks, the pursuit of purity at the beginning of a long hard transition is highly counterproductive. The first priority is to get things moving in the right direction. Once people see that their fears of what the transition means are overblown (half of our body poilitic will claim it is the imposition of a communist dictatorship to try any of this). Asking for energy purity -or even hinting that that might soon be imposed, just makes the sales job impossible.

Yair..."incremental" is the key, do the easy things first. For private use there is no justification for petrol engines larger than two litres or diesels of three...that's for starters, remember this is incremental and as populations become accustomed to smaller lighter vehicles the displacements should reduce.
There is no need for speed...speed limit 80kph.
Houses should be limited to 25amps of current from the grid. Nothing just need to turn the air-con of in the bedroom before you turn on the split system in the lounge...every body's better off and once started on the energy saving habit incremental changes could be introduced to keep it running down.

It's doable...but I don't think it's going to happen.

I just looks at the price of uranium last night and it is only about $40 a kilo and dropping. If that does not indicate a supply glut, I just don’t know what.

Have you ever considered how solar and wind power can replace the huge amount of power required by industry.

Consider methanol production program to replace oil where the CO2 comes from the air and the hydrogen comes from water; add to that cement manufacture, glass making, steel and aluminum smelting, fertilizer production not from natural gas but from the nitrogen in the air, … residential electric power requirements that most of you have in your heads are only a small percentage … an almost infinitesimal amount of the total potential industrial requirement. I am sure that solar panels and wind mills won’t do the job.

Wishing the nuclear cavalry would just turn that horse around already and ride out of town.

Those who support nuclear power so often seem to refuse to listen to other perspectives and fail to grasp the economics (not to mention the considerable remaining risks).

I am very close to sure that nuclear power won't do the job.

How does Jevons Paradox work for a supply-constrained commodity, like oil past Peak Oil?

In the case of coal in England, a more effective steam engine increased the demand for coal. But this was in a situation where coal production readily could be expanded. In fact, the more efficient steam engine was used in the coal mining industry for pumping water and for lifting coal. Lower cost coal also was used to produce lower cost iron and steel, with the result that bigger and better steam engines, rail cars, railways and iron-hulled steamships could be built to enable the lower cost movement of coal to market. So there were a variety of positive feedback loops at work.

In the case of peak oil, we have a production rate of around 85 million barrels per day, and this is expected to stay level or decrease a little. We also have a global auto and light truck fleet of around 900 million vehicles, which are burning about 20 million barrels per day.

Suppose that in 5 years the oil production rate falls to 80 million barrels per day and the auto/truck fleet rises to 1 billion vehicles. This would indicate that an average world fleet fuel efficiency needs to increase 16% in 5 years, assuming that miles driven / vehicle stays constant and that the same fraction of oil is used for vehicle fuel (18.8 Mbpd).

New vehicle owners in developing countries are unlikely to be too price sensitive to the price of crude oil, partly because taxes are a large part of the price of fuel and partly because the lack of credit means that new owners have to be wealthy enough to make large, up front payments for new cars.

Admittedly, this does not take into account cross elasticities with other applications of oil, but it seems unlikely that a fairly hefty increase in new vehicle efficiency (especially since only a fraction of the fleet is replaced in 5 years) will have any effect of reducing the price of oil or fuel, and a failure to increase efficiency will result in a large rise in prices as vehicle fuel applications compete with other uses.

Therefore, increased efficiency will result in stable prices and the ability to cope with diminishing production.

Static efficiency will result in increased prices and would probably spur production of oil that was otherwise economic, exacerbating peak oil by bringing forward the exploitation of high cost deposits.

It's an adaptation of Jeavons' Paradox, or probably more appropriately a cobweb supply/demand progression:
- Improving efficiency of use in the US reduces demand (because US demand is not perfectly elastic, and is more constrained by people's needs than their budgets, at least for the moment).
- Any factor that decreases demand without decreasing supply will reduce prices (at least to the extent it's a perfect market, big assumption). This is true even if prices are universally increasing--this becomes a break on the rate of price increase, making oil more affordable than it would be absent the US efficiency changes.
- Lower prices means that more of the developing world where elasticity *is* primarily budget constrained can afford to consume oil (or more oil) than they otherwise could.
- Probably the most pernicious effect of this progression is that increasing affordability of oil in the developing world will lead to more long-term infrastrcuture investments there that will decrease the elasticity of oil demand over the life of that infrastructure, which will have all sorts of negative economic and geopolitical effects.

So to summarize, the US should not increase the efficiency of its vehicle fleet, and instead it should run an ever increasing trade deficit to import rising quantities of higher priced crude oil in order to keep developing countries from making investments which may later become stranded due to lack of affordable oil?

And by extension, we should not invest in alternative energies which would displace the use of crude oil, since that would result in the same pernicious effects?

Not quite what I had in mind, but that would probably be effective from a mercantilistic point of view! Rather, I think it's critical that we couple regulation/taxation to spur efficiency with investment in renewable energy of a comparable output to the energy saved via efficiency. If we don't do this, and instead approach these two tasks in serial fashion (efficiency first, massive investment in renewables second), then we'll squander the low-hanging fruit of efficiency, and not have access to that surplus energy to divert into renewable production later on because the energy supply "freed up" by our initial investment in efficiency will have been negated by increasing consumption in the developing world. This doesn't need to favor the developed or developing world per se--how that shakes out is just a question of where the massive investment in renewables happens geographically (and where components are manufactured, etc.).

Of course, this is all academic because we (government) aren't going to do a damn thing about it, and by the time the price signal makes massive investment in renewable energy feasible our opportunity to bridge the renewables gap will have passed :)

I didn't think that was exactly what you had in mind.

I don't think that regulation/taxation is a very palatable way to go. Some regulation is probably needed, but neither of these approaches are a good political or business fit.

Politicians love to give handouts to their constituents. So conservation measures that involve tax deductions or credits are a popular thing. They also love to give fat contracts to major contributors. So subsidies for R&D, pilot projects and "pump priming" projects are likely to succeed. Most of all, politicians love to be associated with important initiatives that can win votes at the next election. A favorite in this area is "national security". So the more that alternative energy can be associated with national security, energy independence and safeguarding freedom and the American way of life, the more the politicians will support it.

The business challenge is how to deal with businesses' sunk costs and stranded investment in the face of technological change. An oil company would love to find a source of cheap biomass sludge that can be fed into their existing refineries to churn out their existing repertoire of products and feed their distribution systems. An electric generation company would love to find a source of cheap biobriquets to feed into an existing plant. An electric distribution company would love to find a cheap, concentrated source of electricity to feed its residential and business customers. A windmill in every backyard, a solar panel on every roof, and a biodigester in every garage is not what any of the existing energy companies would like. But an alternative that reuses their existing plant and fits their business models will get their support, organizational expertise and investment dollars.

So besides being technically attractive, alternative energy systems will have the best chance of success if they are also attractive to the existing political and business structures.

The paper seems very incomplete without introducing nuclear energy.

There were conflicting news from Germany recently. One - within short time span wind energy is supposed to displace certain amount of nuclear electricity. Two - requests to expand life span of nuclear power plants. I believe the latter will win.

In the reasonable horizon nuclear will have to come back and be considered "renewable" or "clean": One nuclear power plant is equivalent of 1000 large 2MW wind towers at wind speeds available only in a few places and needing 20 square kilometers at best, or 4 km^2 solar at 100% efficiency assuming 24/7 availability and 500W/m^2 exposure. From practical standpoint more like 80 km^2 of 10% (photocells in Arizona... Wind and solar are pipe dreams or good for low population areas like Norway, Denmark, Northern Quebec and Prince Edward Island, and off grid living in affluent West. The EROI of wind and solar is irrelevant - there is no scale. The only reasonable source of energy for planetary scale use must have higher energy densities. Coal, oil, gas and nuclear. That is our Faustian pact.

“There were conflicting news from Germany recently…”

Ah, Germany…Germany is a bit skitzoid.

The German Ministry of Finance has envisaged an additional €2.3 billion ($2.8 billion) per year 'windfall tax' on nuclear operators as part of the 2011 Federal Budget and its financial plan up to 2014.

This money goes to pay for coal production support of between €2.5 billion and €7.9 billion per year while renewables receive feed-in tarrifs amounting to €5 billion per year from consumers and government.

The government has justified the additional nuclear tax on the basis of the extra profits earned by the low cost nuclear operators, following increased electricity prices as a result of the additional costs of carbon emissions in the sector borne by fossil fuel users.

Yet, they are hell bent to shut nuclear down in the immediate future.

And yet, for various reasons construction of 12 coal fired power plants have been rejected.

Doomers wet your lips, your feast is about to be served. If you doomers want to watch a country self destruct, watch Germany.

I don't think nuclear will have a huge impact, to be honest. It isn't renewable--at least not with present technology--and the EROEI will only continue to decline as we're forced to exploit lower and lower grade ores, and if you account for the massive energy cost in the hierarchal and centralized structures required to make it work. Still, it could be around for quite a while, but that goes to one of my other arguments--not taking the opportunity to fundamentally restructure our civlization toward something truly sustainable while we have the surplus energy to do so is morally repugnant. It's just saying that we'll push that problem on to our grandchildren (if it can be pushed even close to that far into the future). Also, it's a very poor vehicle to bridge the renewables gap because it requires significant up-front investment, long lead times, and then pays that energy back over many years (much like solar/wind). The problems with counting on such an energy source to facilitate that transition IS the focus of the article above...

Let’s talk specifics. The Hyperion nuclear battery is ready for getting ready licensing. These reactors could be massed produced in factories like Toyota Corollas off an assembly line in the tens of thousands. But this reactor program is suffering interminable delays because of a lack of urgency and responsiveness in the licensing process.

For example, according to Rod Adams the noted nuclear power expert and advocate, new nuclear license applicants are reluctant to get too specific too early with the NRC - as soon as discussions move past general questions, the NRC requires the project to be docketed. That starts the billing clock and puts the applicant on the hook for paying the government $259 for every regulator hour - with no ability to control the number of hours expended. Unlike a commercial interaction, willingness and ability to pay for the government service does not necessarily result in any additional resources for a given project - the money that the NRC receives from its licensees and docketed applicants gets deposited into the US Treasury. The agency can only spend the money that has been appropriated through the normal budgeting process.

If the NRC got deluged with new applicants and started billing those applicants today, the commission would not get an increase in its appropriated budget until at least 2012 and perhaps until 2013. Few new government employees or contractors could be added to improve services until the newly budgeted money actually arrived. This system is a gift of the Reagan Administration, which implemented it for the NRC during an era when there was little expectation of a large influx of new reactor applications and when David Stockman was tasked with devising creative user fees to replace the need for new taxes. The system has another weakness - the general lack of accounting standards and practices within the US Government. Investors and businessmen have a natural reluctance to pay for services that they are not sure they are getting.

Three vendors - NuScale, B&W, and Westinghouse Electric Company - each with a variation of integral Pressurized Water Reactors (iPWR), each have reactor designs: the 45 MWe NuScale, the 125 MWe mPower, and the 300 MWe IRIS - that are closest to being ready to move through an NRC licensing process.

In the case of the mPowerTM and the IRIS, one of the target markets is replacing the boiler heat systems in existing coal fired power plants. This could result in immediate and major CO2 reductions.

But new reactor designs have a hard time at the NRC. The people there are almost completely focused on technologies that are refined light water reactors that can be characterized as Gen III or Gen III+ designs. Conservative minded people - like regulators and heads of utilities - tend to be more comfortable with technologies that they know a lot about or have used before.

The new environment in nuclear energy is one of an abundance of great new ideas against a background of urgency for clean and economical energy. The shortcomings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are becoming ever more obvious in this new environment. Something must be done. True though it may be that the current structure of the NRC is the legacy of another administration and another era, we now have a different administration that has a chance to leave a positive legacy of its own by making the NRC much more responsive, accountable, and helpful in the quest for nuclear energy, all without compromising safety. I pray this happens and soon.

Now what if a solar panel maker or a wind mill designer had to jump through all these hoops, where would renewable energy be.

Hmm, sounds like a case for a floating nuclear reactor design. Do all the development and construction work in a foreign location with realistic regulation, then when the lights start going out offer to hire the reactors to the first world country under your own terms and conditions. Maybe with a nice superconducting cable linking you from outside territorial waters.

As oil tankers can go where the highest prices are, so the reactor can tie up where the price is highest.

Maybe those Russians aren't as daft as they sound.

Meanwhile, back to liquid fuels. For those who've recently visited a USA auto showroom, here are mpg ratings on some cars available today in the UK:

Honda CR-Z hybrid, 56.4 mpg (note - I think these are Imperial gallons)
Kia Venga 1.4 CRDi 62.8 mpg
Volvo C30 1.6D DRIVe, 74.3 mpg
Toyota Auris hybrid, 74.3 mpg
Volkswagen Polo 1.2 TDi BlueMotion, 83.1 mpg
BMW 320d EfficientDynamics, 0 to 62 in 8.2 seconds (oops, wrong metric)

What would happen, I wonder, if I were to buy a VW Polo 1.2 TDi and import it into the U.S. as my own personal vehicle? Would the police arrest me and confiscate the car? I doubt it. Might be worth giving it a try on one of my trips to England. Parts might be a problem, but my guess is the car won't need many parts for the first 100,000 miles, and that's more than I need to meet my needs until I start putting miles on my final vehicle, an electric-assist adult tricycle.

People used to import Mexican made VW Beetles that didn't meet U.S. pollution standards all the time, and I never heard of any problems resulting from driving these nonconforming vehicles.

Buy it in mainland Europe instead.
1/ It will probably be cheaper (research your countries first)
2/ You will be driving on the correct side of the road for the USA.


If oil decline is exponential and renewable energy scource growth is a streight line, the initial growth and decay rates become critical.

The longer we delay the growth of renewables the more pessimistic the outcomes.

The stakes are high.

Is it not time to grasp at straws?

IMHO, the best that can be expected from Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) is its utilization in the accelerated stabilization of fission products in the sub-actinide (Z <= 89) range contained in nuclear waste.

As I posted previously, look toward Germany as a bellwether to gage the effectiveness of renewable energy to replace coal and nuclear power generation. It won’t take them long to go down the tubes and take the remainder of Europe with them except France of course.

Just like Europe lead the way with cap and trade to show us it weakness, Germany personifies the “Political Challenge of Affecting a Societal Transition”.

This discussion centres around the early years of a major transition to renewables. However the long run poses many questions as well. Will there be enough money in the kitty to keep paying generous subsidies? I'm puzzled how wind enthusiasts can claim high EROEI and at the same time insist on indefinite subsidies. Second question what happens when there is no gas backup? Some kind of hybrid EROEI calculation needs to be made that takes into account not only energy embodied in structures (wind turbines, solar panels, combined cycle gas plants) but also the declining EROEI of the gas fuel as it depletes. Third question will wind and solar be able to make the steel, concrete and silicon needed for their replacement?

Thus the renewables transition problem can be looked at both early and late. The early problem is finding the cash or embodied energy and the late problem is self-maintenance without fossil fuels.

Wind is a capital expense (unlike FF that are mainly fuel/operating expense with capital being a smaller expense).

The answer for a majority of wind back-up is also all capital expense, pumped storage and HV DC to get there if not local. Build "enough" plus some bio-mass that can be stored for use as needed.

Drop the cost of capital low enough and wind is quite competitive. And with no subsidies, some wind will be built. But we will NOT be able to get 30% to 40% compounded growth rates w/o subsidies. And we NEED rapid growth.

The old generation WTs can be melted down and used for the new generation except for the blades (current ones are fiberglass; glass fiber plus binder). Today, most steel is recycled with electric arc furnaces, so yes.

Silicon is as common as dirt (i.e. a good % of dirt is Si). No resource constraints for silicon.

Hope that answers your questions.


Will there be enough money in the kitty to keep paying generous subsidies?

You raise an interesting point here, Boof, and I would like to address it because I see the relationship between energy and money commonly misrepresented here in conversations, perhaps due to indoctrination through the field of economics. Money is a form of information that is passed around in the economy in response to transactions as a method of valuation. As such, it is misinformation, because it only circulates in the human economy and thus fails to account for the nonhuman contributions of nature. The implication of your statement is that money generates energy or sustains it. The sad truth is that subsidies do create short term incentives to produce more of a certain type of alternative energy. But increases in biofuels or other net negative renewables cannot be sustained, because the information that the money provides is inaccurate and incomplete. The system soon self-corrects through negative feedback such as difficulty in production, bankrupted producers, short term spikes in food costs, etc. So the energy drives the counter current mechanism of money in the system, not vice versa. Thinking that money drives the energy only works on the way up when energy seems endless, and that line of thinking can get us in trouble. And you may know all of this already, but others don't, so I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about it. :-}

Until the real, embodied costs of FF production increases to match the costs of renewables, renewables will probably need to be subsidized in order to get renewables on a good footing. We need to start significant projects now, because, as you say, we may not have a second chance as the energy basis of society declines, for starts or replacements. A lot of wind enthusiasts are way too enthusiastic about their EROI....

A lot of wind enthusiasts are way too enthusiastic about their EROI....
this is not an argument( see below my response to Jeff). If you think EROI of >50:1 for 3MW turbines are wrong show where for example Vestas figures are incorrect, remembering that they are reporting on CO2 emissions using a FF rich economy, not energy use. The true comparison would be KWh used in manufacturing and kWh produced.

Heres an estimate of 14 from someone with a track record, with details in the footnotes. I'm not an expert here, so perhaps you can parse out how one gets from 14 to >50, Neil?

Edit to add: And if you want the big picture answer to why there is no way wind can be >50, since oil is somewhere between 11 and 20, how come wind's not going gangbusters now, everywhere, without subsidies, since it is so much better than oil? You are finally seeing wind take off now because oil is losing its mojo.

Loaded question.

I don't think projects are greenlighted because of EROEI alone, if at all , and those who are financing energy projects are clearly in a world of turbulence WRT NatGas, Oil, Nuclear prices, Utility rates, State Grid developments, subsidy deadlines or expected new incentives..

While EROEI is a central aspect in MY priorities for energy sourcing, I don't think I suffer many illusions that the realm of installing new large-scale capacity is any nearly as clear and simple as that out there in the big world.

.. and we know how Windpower suffers in turbulence..

(Except allegedly these guys.. )

Yes, Jokuhl, absolutely. TPTB are making lots of decisions about renewables based on politics of elections rather than on EROI. That's why we are headed down a lot of wrong roads, at a time when we can't afford to. Our political decisions are becoming deadly serious for us. And while small scale personal decisions using low or negative net energy (solar) may seem right from a personal perspective in allowing someone with stored wealth to sustain a way of life a little longer, for the large scale big picture (what if everyone tried to do it) eventually it just doesn't work. The system selects against it, because the behaviors are not net positive.

And those who think we can use large scale solar...? What's with that?

Oh no, another fly in the renewable ointment.

From wind turbines to cell phones, rare earth minerals play an indispensable role in advanced renewable energy technology, and they will be a key for future clean energy production and use. Both you and Congress should be worried about the inconvenient truth (get it!) that almost all of these materials come from China, and could be subject to tight export controls by that country's government. Oh wait, Last month China clamped down on the export of this stuff. They would rather send it to the USA in the form of electric cars and windmills. Yes, China could use its position to corner the renewable energy market.

High energy permanent magnets are critical components in the new energy economy due to their widespread use in advanced motors not only in hybrids and the new electric vehicles but also in advanced wind turbine generators, and the currently dominant Nd-Fe-B magnets use materials that are not domestically available and are subject to critical supply disruptions.

Solar panels also contain lots of these rare goodies that are not found in the states. Oh no, another Saudi Arabian kind of thing, aka a cartel. But don’t worry; there is plenty of this good stuff in all that nuclear waste that you all are afraid of and is just waiting to be extracted.
And those nasty reactors can always make more.

Reprocessing waste fuel will not, and cannot be, a viable source of rare earths. You lost several credibility points with that preposterous claim.

Just open new mines. China subsidized low prices and drove out all the competition. Just reopen and open new ones.

Greenland has a major lode of rare earths. One problem, it is mixed with uranium and the Greenlanders have stated that they want NO uranium mined.



Radioactivity level always diminishes with time. But each element is different. Some elements lose their radiation very fast others take longer. The time an element takes to lose ½ of its radiation is called its “Half Life”. The general rule for safety is that after 10 half lives of time, the element is safe (at or below background radiation levels). There are about 20 elements in nuclear waste that will be safe to use in a year or less after they are extracted.

These hard to find rare earths are among the safe elements. The reason why the rare earths are mostly found with thorium and uranium is because they have been formed by the natural fission of these heavy radioactive elements. Yes, those rare earth mines are just piles of nuclear waste.

The elements that are heavier than uranium (formed when one heavy element absorbs a neutron to form an even heavier element) are called transuranics and they need to be stored for a very long time because they are very dangerous. Or what I really want to see is their elimination from this world by their use in a reactor as fuel.

Here is a neat little java simulation that shows what I am talking about.


I am not an idiot, although your positions make you appear to be one.

The oldest nuclear waste is roughly 60 years old (fairly small volume @ 1950) and any radioisotope of a rare earth with half life much over 6 years will make that element unusable.

The total volume of fission byproducts is really quite small(take some of the U-235 plus a very small fraction of the U-238 that absorbs a neutron). Not enough to equal 1% of the demand for rare earths.

And the French are the only ones doing commercial reprocessing of waste fuel (the Brits just wasted a few billion quid on their attempt, which ended in disaster) and their volume is fairly small.

A couple of years ago we went through that issue here on TOD, and other than more nuke fuel, humanity will not get any significant resources out of nuke waste.

And the only "natural reactor" ever discovered was in Gabon.

I have now discounted your expertise to almost nil with your wild, inaccurate claims. You are out of your league on TOD.


The oldest nuclear waste is roughly 60 years old (fairly small volume @ 1950) and any radioisotope of a rare earth with half life much over 6 years will make that element unusable.

The half life clock does not start until the element is isolated from the transuranics because the transuranics will continue to make the element radioactive and for a very long time.

The total volume of fission byproducts is really quite small (take some of the U-235 plus a very small fraction of the U-238 that absorbs a neutron). Not enough to equal 1% of the demand for rare earths.

You’re right here. If you want to build 100,000,000 wind mills and 1,000,000,000 electric cars you need lots of material.

And the French are the only ones doing commercial reprocessing of waste fuel (the Brits just wasted a few billion quid on their attempt, which ended in disaster) and their volume is fairly small.

Reprocessing in the US is illegal because of the fear of plutonium separation. And the US does its best to kill reprocessing were it can everywhere in the world. But the French are an independent people.

A couple of years ago we went through that issue here on TOD, and other than more nuke fuel, humanity will not get any significant resources out of nuke waste.

You are right about that right now, but when all the mines run out…maybe? And when all power around the world is based on nuclear energy, there will be a lot more material to be had.

About natural reactors.

Uranium and thorium will decay no matter what. They don’t need to be in a natural reactor. For example, that is how they tell how old minerals are. They use thorium decay based dating. They look at thorium decay products and their various proportions. That tells the investigator how old the item is.

I have now discounted your expertise to almost nil with your wild, inaccurate claims. You are out of your league on TOD.

I have obviously offended you by bringing up this nuclear waste thing in a way that is anathema. Everyone has something that they most fear. I am sorry it was too much for you to take. It won’t happen again. After all, with the way people think about nuclear waste, how could I have really been serious? ….no way…


A number of your statements are technically incorrect. You appear to be technically illiterate or self taught. Not worth my time to correct and I will discount whatever you say, and occasionally call you out.

Your psychobabble about me is offensive.

You are wrong in half of what you wrote. You do *NOT* know what you are talking about.

Quite frankly, you are on the wrong forum.


Some of your assumptions appear to be wrong ;
I don’t know if it’s possible to calculate the exact energy balance here. However, I’ll assume for the present analysis that, in order to mitigate peak oil with renewably-generated electricity, we’ll need to generate effectively the same number of BTUs of electricity as we’re losing in oil. Maybe slightly more, maybe slightly less, but I think the BTU-to-BTU figure of 70.78 Giga-Watt-Years per million barrels of oil per day lost is pretty close.

At least for cars and light trucks( a major use of oil), there is no way that an EV running at >75% efficiency is going to require the same energy as ICE vehicles running at about 15% efficiency. There are examples of essentially identical vehicles running on electric or ICE where we can directly compare, but the widespread use of EV's will also result in improved drag and rolling resistance( to increase range and decrease costs of batteries) that will give even lower energy requirements. Certainly replacing coal with electricity gives a 3 fold reduction in BTU, most coal being used for electricity production. Natural gas used for heating (80% efficiency) can be replaced by electric heat pumps ( 250-300% efficiency), while NG used for electricity (50-60% efficiency ) would require about 45% of the BTU when replaced by renewable electricity.
Overall we should only need one third the BTU's of present FF use.

If the EROI is 4, it’s simply unworkable—we never catch up.
This is an unrealistically low EROI for wind energy, even 100-300KW turbines are about 20:1 and certainly 2-3MW turbines are in the range of 50:1. You can only obtain lower EROI values if you insist on using the high FF BTU use of the economy( 7MJ/$GDP) and compare this directly with the MJ energy content of electricity production. If however, we assume a BAU society doing the same this without FF the economy will be using only about 2.5MJ/$GDP.
My point is that, at least here and now, my intent is not to proselytize or attack and defend issues of faith. This is no argument to refute valid studies of the EROI of wind power. Show where these studies are wrong.

I figure switching from trucks to electrified rail trades 20 BTUs of refined diesel for 1 BTU of (hopefully) renewable or nuclear electricity.

Much the same ratio for Urban Rail once TOD development is figured in, which takes more time. (Think of Washington DC if they had not built DC Metro).

And bicycling replacing cars is ....

These order of magnitude changes for much teh same function alter the framing of the problem significantly, which is why I so strongly support them.

Best Hopes for Game Changers,


Nuclear power is NOT renewable and increasing nuclear will only use up rare uranium even faster, so nukes are a non-starter.
Renewable energy CAN cover all our energy needs IF we decide to reduce our needs to a modest level.
Currently renewables provide ~7% of US energy, mainly hydro and ethanol.
If the average american reduced his consumption of energy by 90% they'd be using about the same amount of energy as the average Costa Rican or Uruguayian.

As we transition to 100% renewables we can use our huge amounts of fossil fuel energy to build out massive wind ~1 TW, massive solar like SES Suncatcher~1 TW which combined with batteries or even hydrogen storage.
For example,
1TW wind x 2500 hours per year = 2500 Twh
1TW solar x 1500 hours per year = 1500 Twh
existing hydroelectric = 750 Twh
Total = 4750 Twh >4100 Twh currently used

If the cost of wind is $2 per watt, this cost is
$2 trillion dollars,
Suncatcher type solar $4 per watt, cost is $4 trillion dollars.

Renewable biofuels like cellulosic ethanol could provide
2 billion boe of liquid fuels(1.3 billion ton of biomass study of ornl) which compares to 3.3 billion boe of gasoline, 1.3 billion boe of diesel and .5 billion boe of jet fuel we currently use. More efficient and fewer vehicles could be sustainable.

About ~40% of natural gas(8 quads) goes to heating homes and businesses. Superinsulated homes and solar hot water, supplimented with renewable electricity could eliminate natural gas for this purpose.

Probably the hardest thing is to replace are the plastics, steel, cement and other products that are produced from fossil fuels--maybe 15% of our current
energy consumption(15 quads?).

Renewables are big enough for the lower energy future we are heading to.

EIA total projected US Energy requirement by 2035 will be 114500000000000000 Btus


33,556,637,530 megawatt hours

Now that is a goodly amount of watts. Please show how you meet this power requirement with renewables only.

PS. I don't think it can be done.

The NREL wind study of February 4, 2010 for the "Lower 48" gives the economic wind potential (excluding unsuitable areas) as 36,919,551 GWh. Add Alaska, Hawaii and other renewables as needed.

Or just add negawatts.


114.5 quads(10^15 Btus) is not much more than 99 quads current.

It appears you can't understand what is meant by a 'lower energy' future.

No, I don't think renewables can replace fossil fuels or support our current consumption patterns.
I think we can manage on 22% of current US per capita energy consumption 7700 kgoe, 48% of current European per capita consumption 3500 kgoe as the rest of the world 1700 kgoe does.

It is hardly worth talking to somebody who thinks that this mega-splurge of waste is 'normal'.

Why would I even want to?
Because wasting energy makes me happy?

How about some PV for 98 cents/watt?

Wait till next year and it will be even cheaper.

I had an argument with someone about high efficiency light bulbs. I said subsidies to promote making them was silly since the cost savings in energy over time should make them economically more attractive to anyone who could add. My friend correctly argued that short term thinking would insure that the cheaper, less efficient incandescent bulbs were bought as long as they were available. People would rather spend 25 cents on a bulb and $2 on beer, than buy one expensive bulb and have no beer. A different kind of addition: my money, my beer, today. Screw tomorrow.

The market does not reflect the true cost of energy because the very real calculation you've laid out is not an input. We have an irrational market, sellers and buyers operating on partial information. Few people living today believe in the reality of running out of energy; shortages are thought to be failures of the government.

I would like to think an enlightened government could explain this to people and provide the alternatives in a rational, fair and palatable manner. Except when faced with annihilation governments are anything but enlightened.

I would like to think the free marketplace and rational consumers would find profit and utility in more efficient ways of getting around. Self interest so often runs to beer today, hangover and no light tomorrow.

Your friend is right.
High efficiency lighting stops the construction of new electrical power plants as utilities even with deregulation are pretty much monopolies with their board approved rates. Boards won't approve new plants if more power isn't projected to be needed.

This an aggressively skeptical point of view, but not fear mongering.

The point I wanted to make before was not about EROI of wind and solar, the numbers most probably are there. The issue is with the energy "density". There may be enough for wind and tide to supply Bergen, Stavanger and part of Oslo. There is no physical space to supply New Delhi. 1GW (peak) requires 1000 1MW wind turbines. That is a 50 km or more straight line of turbines. OK for Denmark. not OK for Toronto. No space for solar not good either.

I am not saying no to development of wind or solar..these are good niche energy sources. They can address some electricity issues, but can not satisfy energy issues.

On a side, I can get a deal from Ontario Hydro, where they will pay me EIGHTY cents a kWh for TWENTY years in a feed-in program. (Not on balance of energy, but on all I make). Somebody will bite, but imagine the subsidies...

How much is 12,000 Barrels of Oil Per Day? That is roughly 0.06% 0.06 PERCENT of US consumption.

See at the bottom of the page.

As a summary, 12,000 bbl/day is 700 V82 wind turbines,( 230ft pylon, 120ft blade. 1.30 acres of blade swept area). 2000 turbines to replace Macondo in GOM. 20,000,000 barrels per day (US consumption) is more than one million turbines, but "only" 1600 1GW nuclear power stations.

We are stuck with nuclear. If we get price of GW installed at $2B per GW, it is just 3 trillion - 4 times size of the financial bailout.
I ignore supply of nuclear fuel, disposal, security, and the fact that electricity is no oil, but these issues are within realm of possibility. There is no scale for wind and solar.

As far as environmental issues are concerned, I think "skeptical environmentalist" Lomborg is pretty much right, lets learn how to live with high CO2, because we can't really keep it low.

I am inclined to say that in 30 years we will run on coal as source of HC for petrochemistry and transportation, using nuclear electricity or coal itself to liquify coal, unless some kind of a "miracle" happens.

Please prove me wrong (plausible energy flux and density...)

Ontario could likely conserve enough to go to mainly hydro (more small hydro quite possible in ON) plus wind. QC and MB do have spare hydro BTW.

Perhaps Toronto & Banana Belt does not have enough wind locally (they do have some), but look a bit further out.

Still, nuke is better than coal.


Unfortunately water will not do it and wind can help, but only this much. We have to remember that Ontario has A LOT of space compared to "99%" of people on Earth. Wind might help in changing electricity mix in Ontario, but can't do much to overall energy use.

The total of roughly 20,000 MW is split like this.

Electricity Sources Ontario's Electricity Mix
Water Power 0.235 (this one is saturated -CC)
Alternative Power Sources (Solar, Wind, Biomass, Waste) 0.007
Nuclear Energy 0.385
Natural Gas 0.084
Coal or Oil 0.289

CC, hydro is far from saturated (nice pun though). As long as water is going over Niagara falls, there is more potential for hydro power. And if the people of Ontario are faced with conserve, or dry up the falls, or yet more overpriced nukes at Darlington Point, then maybe they will get serious about conservation. There is much that can be done to reduce energy use, though much of it is uneconomical at Ontarios's subsidised electricity rates.
There is more potential for wind too, especially with lots of hydro to back it up. Wind can't displace other capacity, but it can displace other fuel. Ontario is a long way from where the amount of wind will cause grid stability issues (about 20%).

That is capacity. Idle coal capacity does little harm (and it costs *FAR* more than nukes or even solar PV, it is just that the cost is not on the monthly bill).

The actual generation is a bit over half nuke and about a quarter hydro.

And hydro is *NOT* saturated !

First there is the 14.5m diameter tunnel at Niagara (still not finished AFAIK, and even after it is finished, 16% of the time Ontario will let water "spill" (waste) because there is too much water coming down the Niagara River to put through the generators.

And how many 10 MW and smaller hydropower plants are on-line in Ontario ? Perhaps a dozen

How many could be installed ? Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands down to 250 kW.

Best Hopes for Ontario Hydro Power,


Solar has good energy density @ 170w/meter squared. And you don't need "additional" space in New Delhi, you can intsall it on existing rooftops.

Consider a remote village in Africa. What would be the easiest way to provide an electrical supply with no transmission lines or nearby powerplants?

"Like many things involving peak oil, we’re sure to have all the political will that we need to deal with the problem at only some point after our window of opportunity to act has closed."

Amen --

Coming soon: The Renewables Global Status Report 2010.

With a bit of luck, it'll even have preliminary data for this year. I recall for instance that New Energy Finance did guesstimate investment into the industry at a couple hundred billion for 2010.

Previous versions can be retrieved from here.

Edit: Unsure whether the 200B include large hydro, where they called investment at 40-45 billion for 08.