The Energy Trap

This is a guest post by Tom Murphy. Tom is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. This post originally appeared on Tom's blog Do the Math.

Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

When I first encountered the concept of peak oil, I was most distressed about the economic implications. In part, this was prompted by David Goodstein’s book Out of Gas, which highlighted the potential for global panic in reaction to peak oil—making the gas lines associated with the temporary oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 look like warm-up acts. Because I knew Professor Goodstein personally, and held him in high regard as a solid physicist, I took his message seriously. Extrapolating his vision of a global reaction to peak oil, I imagined that the prospect of a decades-long decline in available energy—while we strained to institute a replacement infrastructure—would destroy confidence in short-term economic growth, thus destroying investment and crashing markets. The market relies on investor confidence—which, in some sense, makes it a con job, since “con” is short for confidence. If that confidence is shattered on a global scale, what happens next?

I still consider economic panic to be a distinctly possible eventuality, but psychology can be hard to predict. Market optimists would see the tremendous investment potential of a new energy infrastructure as an antidote against such an outbreak. Given this uncertainty, let’s shy away from economic prognostication and look at a purely physical dimension to the problem—namely, the Energy Trap.

Energy Return on Energy Invested

Our goal will be to quantitatively assess the Energy Trap, and see if there is any substance to the idea. We will rely on a concept that has acquired a central role in evaluating our energy future. This is energy return on energy invested, or EROEI.

In order to utilize energy, we must exert some energy to secure the source and prepare it for use. In order to burn wood in our fireplace, we (or someone) must chop down a tree, cut it into logs, and split the large logs. To drive our gasoline-powered car, we must expend energy finding the oil, drilling and possibly pumping the oil, then refining and distributing the gasoline. To collect solar energy, we must invest energy to fabricate the solar panels and associated electronics. The result is expressed as a ratio of energy-out:energy-in. Anything less than the break-even ratio of 1:1 means that the source provides no net energy (a drain, in fact), and is not worth pursuing for energy purposes—unless the form/convenience of that specific energy is otherwise unavailable.

In its early days, oil frequently yielded an EROEI in excess of 100:1, meaning that 1% or less of the energy contained in a barrel of oil had to be expended to deliver that barrel of oil. Not a bad bargain. Oil production today more typically has an EROEI around 20:1, while tar sands and oil shale tend to be about 5:1 and 3:1, respectively. By contrast, it is debatable whether corn ethanol exceeds break-even: it may optimistically be as high as 1.4:1. Switching from conventional oil to corn ethanol would be like switching from a diet of bacon, eggs, and butter to a desperate survival diet of shoe leather and tree bark. Other approaches to biofuels, like sugar cane ethanol, can have EROEI as high as 8:1.

To round out the introduction, coal typically has an EROEI around 50–85:1, and natural gas tends to come in around 20–40:1, though falling below the lower end of this range as the easy fields are depleted. Meanwhile, solar photovoltaics are estimated to require 3–4 years’ worth of energy output to fabricate, including the frames and associated electronics systems. Assuming a 30–40 year lifetime, this translates into an EROEI around 10:1. Wind is estimated to have EROEI around 20:1, and new nuclear installations are expected to come in at approximately 15:1. These are all positive net-energy approaches, which is the good news.

The Inevitable Fossil Fuel Decline

Let’s explore what happens as we try to compensate for an energy decline with an alternative resource having modest EROEI. On the upslope of our fossil fuel bonanza, we saw a characteristic annual growth rate of around 3% per year. The asymmetric Seneca Effect notwithstanding, a logistic evolution of the resource would result in a symmetric rate of contraction on the downslope: 3% per year. I borrow a graphic from the post on the meaning of “sustainable” to illustrate the rationale for expecting an era of decline for a one-time finite resource.

On the long view, the fossil fuel age is a blip, with a down side mirroring the (more fun) up side.

We could use any number for the decline rate in our analysis, but I’ll actually soften the effect to a 2% annual decline to illustrate that we run into problems even at a modest rate of decline. By itself, a 2% decline year after year—while sounding mild—would send our growth-based economy into a tailspin. As detailed in a previous post, across-the-board efficiency improvements cannot tread water against a rate as high as 2% per year. As we’ll see next, the Energy Trap just makes things worse.

Arresting the Decline: Take 1

Let’s say that our nation (or world) uses 100 units of fossil fuel energy one year, and expects to get only 98 units the following year. We need to come up with 2 units of replacement energy within a year’s time to fill the gap. If, for example, the replacement:

  • has an EROEI of 10:1;
  • requires most of the energy investment up front (solar panel or wind turbine manufacture, nuclear plant construction, etc.);
  • and will last 40 years,

then we need an up-front energy investment amounting to 4 year’s worth of the new source’s output energy. Since we require an output of 2 units of energy to fill the gap, we will need 8 units of energy to bring the resource into use.

Of the 100 units of total energy resource in place in year one, only 92 are available for use—looking suddenly like an 8% decline. If we sit on our hands and do not launch a replacement infrastructure, we would have 98 units available for use next year. It’s still a decline, but a 2% decline is more palatable than an effective 8% decline. Since each subsequent year expects a similar fossil fuel decline, the game repeats. Where is the incentive to launch a new infrastructure? This is why I call it a trap. We need to exacerbate the sacrifice for a prolonged period in order to come out on top in the end.

The figure above shows what this looks like graphically, given a linear fossil fuel decline of 2 units per year. The deployment steps up immediately to plug the gap by providing an additional 2 units of replacement each year, at an annual cost of 8 units. While the combination of fossil fuels and replacement resource always adds to 100 units in this scheme, the ongoing up-front cost of new infrastructure produces a constant drain on the system. In terms of accumulated energy lost, it takes 7 years before the energy sacrifice associated with replacement starts to be less than that of just following the fossil fuel slide with no attempt at replacement. This timescale is beyond the typical horizon of elected politicians.

Another aspect of the trap is that we cannot build our way out of the problem. If we tried to outsmart the trap by building an 8-unit replacement in year one, it would require 32 units to produce and only dig a deeper hole. The essential point is that up-front infrastructure energy costs mean that one step forward results in four steps back, given EROEI around 10:1 and up-front investment for a 40 year lifetime. Nature does not provide an energy financing scheme. You can’t build a windmill on promised energy.

We can mess with the numbers to get different results. If only half the total energy invested is up-front, and the rest is distributed across the life of the resource (mining and enriching uranium, for instance), then we take a 4% hit instead of 8%. Likewise, a 40-year windmill at 20:1 EROEI and full up-front investment will require 2 years of its 2-unit gap-filling contribution to install, amounting to an energy cost of 4 units and therefore a 4% hit. It’s still bigger than the do-nothing 2%, which, remember, is already a source of pain. Anyone want to double the pain? Anyone? Elect me, and that’s what we’ll do. Any takers? No? Wimps.

Ramp It Up!

It is unrealistic to imagine that we could jump into a full-scale infrastructure replacement in one year. To set the scale, the U.S. uses about 3 TW of continuous power. A 1% drop corresponds to 30 GW of power. Our modest 2% replacement therefore would require the construction of about 60 new 1 GW power plants in a single year, or a rate of one per week! Worldwide, we quadruple this number.

What capability have we demonstrated in the past? In 2010, global production of solar photovoltaics was 15 GW, which is only about 6% of what we would need to fill a world-wide energy gap of 2% per year. Even on a tear of 50% increase per year, it would take 7 years to get to the required rate. Wind installations in 2010 totaled 37 GW, or 14% of the 2% global requirement. It would take 5 years at a breakneck 50% per year rate of increase to get there. When France decided to go big on nuclear, they built 56 reactors in 15 years. In doing so, they replaced 80% of their electricity consumption, which translates to about 30% of their total energy use. So this puts them at about 2% per year in energy replacement.

I am being cavalier about comparing the thermal energy in fossil fuels to electricity delivered (factor of 3 in heat engine), but I more-than-compensate by not incorporating the large intermittency factor for wind and solar (factor of 4–5). For nuclear, expressing the replacement in terms of displaced fossil fuel makes for fair play. But in the end, this point only addresses realistic rates of infrastructure addition, and does not bear on the general Energy Trap phenomenon.

Arresting the Decline: Take 2

Let’s imagine a more realistic trajectory for the replacement effort. In our scenario, the world faces a huge crisis, so we could perhaps outperform France’s impressive nuclear push and ultimately replace energy infrastructure at a rate of 4% per year. But it takes time to get there. If it takes 10 years to ramp up to full speed, we have the situation seen in the following graph.

The energy investment still forces us to steepen the decline, initially looking like a 3.2% rather than a 2% decline. But it’s not as jarring as a sudden 8% drop. On the other hand, we fall farther before pulling out, bottoming out at >14% total drop around years 8–9. It takes more than 10 years to make out better than the do-nothing approach in terms of net energy loss. A table corresponding to the plot appears below for those interested in poring over the numbers to figure out how this game is played.

Note that anywhere along the path, a cessation of the replacement effort will bring instant relief. For example, at the beginning of year 6, having installed 6 units of replacement energy up to that point, abandoning the effort will see 88 units of fossil fuel plus the 6 units of replacement for a total of 94 units. This would be a considerable step up from the previous year’s 88 units of available energy, and an even larger apparent gain over the 86.8 units that would be available under a continuation of the crash program. Likewise, if one stopped the program at the end of ten years, the installed 22 units of replacement would complement the eleventh-year fossil fuel amount of 78 units to bring us back to a peachy 100 units—like nothing had ever happened, and far better than the 88 units that we would otherwise endure under a continuation of the program. But stopping renews the dangerous decline. The point is that there will always be a strong temptation to end the short-term pain for immediate relief.

General Behaviors

As mentioned before, the Energy Trap is a generic consequence of modest-EROEI sources requiring substantial up-front investment in energy. We would need the EROEI to be equal to the resource lifetime in order to have a null effect during the decline years, or better than this to ease the pain or allow growth. For a 40 year lifetime (e.g., power plant, solar panels, wind turbines), this means we would need 40:1 EROEI or better to avoid the trap. Our alternatives simply don’t measure up. Curses!

For resources that do not require substantial up-front cost in the form of infrastructure, the trap does not apply. Fossil fuels tend to be of this sort. The energy required to deliver a barrel of oil or a ton of coal tends to be specific to the delivered unit, and is not dominated by up-front cost. It is similar for tar sands, which requires substantial energy to heat and process the sludge. Even at 5:1 EROEI, filling a 2-unit gap can be achieved by producing 2.5 units of output while losing 0.5 units to investment. Thus it is possible to maintain a steady energy supply. The fact that fossil fuels don’t trap us encourages us to stick with them. But being a finite resource, their attractiveness is the sound of the Siren, luring us to stay on the sinking ship. Or did the Sirens lure sailors from ships? Either way, fossil fuels are already compatible with our transportation fleet, strengthening the death-grip.

Conversely, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, and nuclear, are all ways to make electricity, but these do not help us very much as a direct replacement of the first-to-fail fossil fuel: oil. This is a very serious point. As Bob Hirsch pointed out in the 2005 report commissioned by the Department of Energy, we face a liquid fuels problem in peak oil. As such, not one of the five immediately actionable crash-program mitigation strategies outlined in the report represented a departure from finite fossil fuels. The grip is tight, indeed.

We must therefore compound the Energy Trap problem if we want to replace oil with any of the renewable sources listed above, because we need to add the energy investment associated with manufacturing a new fleet of electric vehicles of one form or another (plug-in hybrid qualifies). This can’t happen overnight, and will result in a prolonged transportation energy shortfall even greater in magnitude than depicted above.

Do We Have What it Takes?

Many of us have great hopes for our energy future that involve a transition to a gleaming renewable energy infrastructure, but we need to realize that we face a serious bottleneck in its implementation. The up-front energy investment in renewable energy infrastructures has not been visible as a hurdle thus far, as we have had surplus energy to invest (and smartly, at that; if only we had started in earnest earlier!). Against a backdrop of energy decline—which I feel will be the only motivator strong enough to make us serious about a replacement path—we may find ourselves paralyzed by the Trap.

In the parallel world of economics, an energy decline likely spells deep recession. The substantial financial investment needed to carry out an energy replacement crash program will be hard to scrape together in tough times, especially given that we are unlikely to converge on the “right” solution into which we sink our bucks.

Politically, the Energy Trap is a killer. In my lifetime, I have not witnessed in our political system the adult behavior that would be needed to buckle down for a long-term goal involving short-term sacrifice. Or at least any brief bouts of such maturity have not been politically rewarded. I’m not blaming the politicians. We all scream for ice cream. Politicians simply cater to our demands. We tend to vote for the candidate who promises a bigger, better tomorrow—even if such a path is untenable.

The only way out of the political trap is for a substantial fraction of our population to understand the dimensions of the problem: to understand that we’ve been spoiled by the surplus energy available through fossil fuels, and that we will have to make decade-level sacrifices to put ourselves on a new track. The only way to accomplish this is through sober education, which is what Do the Math is all about. It’s a trap! Spread the word!

A great piece, but hopefully now irrelivant if the below e-cat works as advertised:

The switch on is at 11am October 28th 2011 - In 1 minutes time!! Go Rossi!!!

If this reply arouses anyone's curiosity, here is the spoiler:

It's another dodgy claim of successful Cold Fusion. And no unpleasant radioactivity is produced. Apparently, hydrogen fuses with Nickel and produces Copper. I guess future copper shortage problems will be solved too!!

I always have been skeptical about ecat. However, if they succeed in producing 1 MW of power, I will change my idea.

In 24 hours or less we will know!

Come on. This has ridiculous written all over it.

And to think that this modern day alchemy is up for sale to the highest bidder!! Mr Rossi is going to give away his goose so that someone else can harvest the golden eggs. He must secretly know that they're real not real golden eggs, but fake ones.

Why not just wait a day and find out for sure? No sense worrying about something that looks like it's going to sort itself out.

I'm looking forward to it. Not that I believe this contraption will work, but if man were to find a way to produce unlimited energy at negligible cost, then this is a GUARANTEED death knell for all life on earth. Unlimited energy would unleash an unprecedented new wave of economic growth and a final obliteration of all life-forms from the surface of the earth. All trees would be cleared away and their function as oxygen producers will be replaced by machines which are more efficient than nature. The same will happen for other aspects of the environment. The oceans will be turned into a mono-cultural breeding ground for commercially profitable fish species. The Amazon forest will be one giant swathe of palm and soybean plantations.

Mountains will be leveled. Giant furrows will be carved into the earth to create artificial rivers which direct water around the industrial grid. The entire surface of the earth will be carpeted with a maze of concrete and steel. There will literally be no place where John the Savage can run and hide from this hideous cancer called civilization, for it will spread and colonize every inch of land, and blacken and deaden the souls of all whom it swallows.

It's too awful to think about. The only thing worse than living in a world of depleting finite energy sources is living in a world of infinite energy. Man is not yet ready for that kind of freedom. He must serve more time in hell and cleanse his spirit of all his terrible instincts.

Ditto. And yes, it's a con.

"if man were to find a way to produce unlimited energy at negligible cost, then this is a GUARANTEED death knell for all life on earth."

An excellent point I have tried to make a number of time on these threads. This is a fundamental issue that most don't want to face. We don't really need vast new sources of energy. We need to learn to live as part of the community of life rather than as thieves stealing from all other species and systems to feed the unlimited appetite of an 'economy' based on limitless growth.

We need to spend most of our time discussing this hard, cold fact, and less worrying about where the next barrel of oil or oil equivalent is going to come from.

Fortunately, there is neither limitless Ni nor limitless (available) H, and the whole thing smells of ridiculous sham anyway.

it's a good point to make, especially since we orbit around an unlimited energy supply (or close enough to unlimited). Sure we have to get at it somehow, and we're not close now practically speaking, but we're managing to go a good way towards burning off the nice fat bio-layer that keeps us alive just by digging up a few fermented scraps of rotting swamp leftover from that beast. What happens when we tap the source, say with space based arrays and laser transmission and etc? We're done for i tell you!

The Amazon forest will be one giant swathe of palm and soybean plantations.

? I think you should think this through a little :). Remember the paintings of airships in the mid 1800s with anchors, or future submarines with wheels so they could maneuver on the bottom of the ocean. These people had ideas that today show how clueless they were back in the 1800s. Who is going to go to the effort of building such plantations with there high labor and resource, trucks, roads, fuel, etc, costs when they could make liquid fuels from the CO2 in the air, water, and energy from these magical fusion devices all in a 5 acre plant close to the airport that needs the fuel.
This could be done today if we would build LFTR plants, however that brings up the "N" word which ends the conversation with most environmentalists.

Who is going to go to the effort of building such plantations with there high labor and resource, trucks, roads, fuel, etc, costs when they could make liquid fuels from the CO2 in the air, water, and energy from these magical fusion devices all in a 5 acre plant close to the airport that needs the fuel.

Oh, there is always someone who thinks they can outsmart nature, though nature usually ends up having the last laugh...

Here's a real life example of one such person and his spectacular failure, techno cornucopians would do well to beware of the pitfalls of such megalomaniacal projects. Especially the Chinese and the Brazilians with their massive hydroelectric projects. They are examples of modern societies that are truly clueless of the consequences...

The Ruins of Fordlândia
In the early 20th century, a cartel of Dutch and English rubber barons had a stranglehold on the vast majority of the world’s supply of rubber. At that time the sole source of rubber was the South American tree Hevea brasiliensis, whose sap is natural latex. In the 1870s a gaggle of entrepreneurial smugglers had secreted a stash of wild rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon rain forest, which they used to establish sprawling plantations in East Asia. These smothered the output of Brazil, causing their owners to eventually enjoy the majority of the world’s rubber business.

But by the late 1920s, the infamous automobile tycoon Henry Ford set out to break the back of this rubbery monopoly. His hundreds of thousands of new cars needed millions of tires, which were very expensive to produce when buying raw materials from the established rubber lords. To that end, he established Fordlândia, a tiny piece of America which was transplanted into the Amazon rain forest for a single purpose: to create the largest rubber plantation on the planet. Though enormously ambitious, the project was ultimately a fantastic failure.

"Giant furrows will be carved into the earth to create artificial rivers which direct water around the industrial grid."

Don't forget the giant furrows you would need to find enough nickel to feed this power device.

You might also consider the difference between U and Xe in the above graph along with the lack of difference between anything from Fe to As. For the hopeful, compare the Fe to As flat spot with the H to He jump at the extreme left.

Not that I believe this contraption will work, but if man were to find a way to produce unlimited energy at negligible cost, then this is a GUARANTEED death knell for all life on earth.

Agreed. Limitless cheap energy in the hands of humankind would decimate the planet. People are good at figuring things out, but apparently unable to control their urges to grow, expand, develop, clearcut, slash & burn, populate, etc.

This is what I think is at the heart of why humankind will never be able to live in equilibrium with the planet:

The more people get, the more they want.

If a person is wealthy enough to have a big mansion, they want another one, then 4 then 8 then 15. You could give a person a million dollars, and then a week later they would want 10 million, a month later a 100 million and a year later a billion. And when you said, no that's enough you have plenty they would look at you and say, "Are you kidding me?!"

In the 1948 movie Key Largo, Edward G. Robinson (Johnny Rocco) plays a Cuban gangster. At some point the character James Temple asks Rocco what makes him tick, what does he need. Rocco thinks about the question for a moment, his eyes get big and he says, "More, yeah, that's what I want, more." That sizes up humankind.

Even the guy off the grid growing his own food wants another PV panel, more seeds, more firewood, etc.

And there are 7 billion I want more's on the Earth. William Catton referred to modern man as Homo-Colossus. Living big and wanting more.

Now you can appreciate how revolutionary is the admonition:

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”

Hebrews 13:5 NIV

It's too awful to think about. The only thing worse than living in a world of depleting finite energy sources is living in a world of infinite energy. Man is not yet ready for that kind of freedom. He must serve more time in hell and cleanse his spirit of all his terrible instincts.

We'll need to find a way to alter our biology to do that, no? Which means... more Technology is needed... hmm... otherwise, perhaps, we'll


be "ready" for it... Evolution had hundreds of thousands of years and what did it do... just forge those "terrible instincts" deeper. Seems the only way out, ironically enough, would be to, yes -- once again subdue and conquer nature with our technology, only this time our own nature, so as to save the rest of nature... from us...

I disagree. All evidence so far is that wealthier people means more environmental concerns and less total fertility numbers. Why would not this trend accelerate with cheap, limitless energy?

Limitless energy means no limits to recycling, waste handling and cleanup operations, and no limits to the amount of separation we can provide between our "monocultures" (and industry in general) and common nature. For instance, turning our oceans to a monocultural feeding ground for fish simply won't happen because so little space will be needed for those cultures when you have limitless energy. Also, with limitless energy, you can easily make clean freshwater from oceans and pump it to where it is needed.

This is UNTRUE. By the time people become wealthy, NATURE HAS BEEN COMPLETELY DESTROYED. An example is China. The population is growing more affluent and environmentally concerned. BUT THEY HAVE NO ENVIRONMENT LEFT. THE U.S. HAS NO ENVIRONMENT LEFT. WESTERN EUROPE HAS SCARCELY ANY ENVIRONMENT LEFT. People in the Philippines are growing more environmentally conscious. But they HAVE NO ENVIRONMENT LEFT.

By environment I mean ecosystems which are large, undisturbed and working to provide services like absorbing CO2, producing O2, providing food, providing ideas for medicine and food, sustaining large populations of wildlife, providing a solace for people who are sick of civilization. And when I say the US and the EU have no environment left, I mean they breathe oxygen "manufactured" in Brazil. They can no longer be sustained by their few remaining trees and natural environment.

Look at the U.S. on an ecological map. The entire gulf coast is a dead zone. Western Europe too is outlined by ocean dead zones. When you view the Europe and the U.S. from a satellite at night, it becomes infinitely obvious that no large tract of ecosystem could possible survive and be an integrated part of the greater environment if the entire dryland surface is infested with lights, highways and giant megalopolitan cities. And what about the countryside? A zillion-hectare patch of monocultural agricultural land is NOT the "environment."

Given these facts, what does it mean to be environmentally conscious? I'll tell you what it means: It means we are only just feeling guilty about having destroyed everything permanently. But that's all it is: guilt. It is NOT followed by meaningful action, but merely by cosmetic feel-good half-hearted tips and tricks like cutting up a plastic bottle holder before throwing it away so that dolphins don't get strangled with it when it gets flushed out to sea. In short, environmental consciousness means NOTHING any more. It would have meant something 50-100 years ago when there was still an unspoilt environment. But now the environment has been irreparable destroyed. The destruction is not finished, because climate change will wring the remaining life out of this planet.

You say that limitless energy will enable us to carry out cleanup and recycling on a more massive scale, and that in the end we will have an environment which is cleaner and healthier. This is TRUE. But there's more to be considered. Imagine comparing river water, rich in nutrients and microorganisms, teeming with life, with distilled water, which is utterly sterile. This is the kind of cleanliness which we will have - a cleanliness devoid of life. After nature has been destroyed, I wonder if it will really matter whether we have a dirty or clean planet, because in either case, the planet will be devoid of life.

I can promise you that if we have access to limitless energy, all nature will be erased and in its place we will erect machines which do Nature's job better. For example we will have industrial scale super-trees which absorb CO2 at say 100 times the rate of an average biological tree, and produce O2 at the same rate. We will pump fish, cattle and poultry with more food so we can have larger steaks and burgers.

Liebeg's Law states that the growth of any organism is limited by the one resource which is in least supply. Currently, we have abundant open space, but limited energy and material, so our growth is not as expansive. But once we have unlimited energy and material, then in a very short time, the one resource in limited supply will be space. Then we will grow upwards with mega-skyscrapers. Then we will colonize space.

There is NO end to growth. It is an addiction which burns with unstoppable intensity if its appetite is fed.

You neglect to consider that in a world with such MASSIVE opportunities as unlimited energy would provide, people would be awash in wealth and would no longer consider children to be an economic liability. Fertility will rise again.

Whether you agree with what I've written or not, let us not dare to wish that man be given the gift of unlimited energy and unlimited material. In the hands of man, the gift is far more dangerous than it is a boon.

Post of the week.

if we have access to limitless energy ...

then in some far off future, a lone spaceship will land on this Forbidden Planet
and discover we were the Krell

I don't agree that the US and Europe has no environment left. I have a freezer full of chanterelles, raspberries and blueberries that I've picked in the wild. I try to keep the deer from eating the veggies I grow in my garden. To me, it's a bit presumptuous to think that we puny humans can destroy or "clean" the environment to such a degree that it won't be teeming with life. Sure, we may mourn some destroyed ecosystems and some cute animals with big eyes that we've made extinct, but in the grand scheme of things, if we really destroy the environment, which we haven't, we'll die and then in a hundred thousand years, visiting aliens would have to look very closely to realize this hasn't always been a green planet without tech-wielding life-forms.

Also, I don't agree environmental consciousness means nothing. Lots of rivers that were once destroyed has been rehabilitated. We've managed global action on the ozone layer. Lots and lots of environmental regulation is becoming ever-more stringent, because we're richer and can afford it. If you're poor, you just get your wage in money and buy food and some shelter. When a bit richer, you abstain from some part of your wage to get a better work environment. Even richer, you'll opt for insurances and so on as well, and that will also shrink your direct compensation. At the same time, you consumption shifts - less is for food, more is for stuff like services. It's all about where you put your money, and the emphasis shifts. Somewhere, you start abstaining from purchasing power to protect the environment.

Why would you distill a river to have it run with clean water? That sounds insane. Instead you would clean waste streams, so that the river don't get polluted. You would have the means and ability to cut-off our mono-cultures from the rest of the environment and do any growing more intensely, using less space. Also, we wouldn't need a Three Gorges, for instance.

Sure, I also think fertility stats may start rising again, since those who have genes that make them likely to multiply in a modern environment will start to dominate. However, I wouldn't expect us to swiftly become so rich that children isn't a burden just because we have cheap energy. After all, energy is very cheap as it is, and constitutes a small part of GDP. I would not count on the multiplier effect of limitless cheap energy would be that high. It still takes labour to do stuff.

I think the e-cat would be great and could very well save us from climate doom, if it were genuine. Alas, it is a fraud.

I don't have the strength and patience to keep convincing people. I gave up doing it in real life long ago.

To resolve the issue of whether the damage to the natural world is truly as grave as I have described, we must only ever have recourse to FACTS. One of the foremost facts is that when you damage large parts of complex ecosystems, the ecosystem becomes ecologically extinct. So for example, the Javan Rhinoceros, even though it still exists, is ecologically extinct. It is ecologically extinct because its presence is now so thin that it no longer interacts appreciably with the greater ecosystem. The exact same applies to the Panda bear, which has to be kept alive through artificial measures. But more importantly, the very same applies to millions of species which have not been cataloged and whose interactions with the ecosystem haven't even been studied. They are going extinct without us ever knowing that they existed.

I will attempt to challenge your claims point by point, and after this I will give up, because I know that ultimately almost everyone in the world neither knows nor cares:

I don't agree that the US and Europe has no environment left. I have a freezer full of chanterelles, raspberries and blueberries that I've picked in the wild..........Also, I don't agree environmental consciousness means nothing. Lots of rivers that were once destroyed has been rehabilitated.

The environment is not totally sterile yet. But with the climate catastrophe looming I believe your notions about the intactness of nature will become obsolete. Those chanterelles and blueberries will NOT grow in conditions which are substantially different from that under which they evolved. Their ecological extinction is near at hand. They will have to be kept artificially alive in controlled conditions which resemble the climate which they are most adapted to. But even now, if we study the ecology in which they evolved and grew, we will find that most of the species which existed around them have been thinned out or have gone extinct and only a remnant have survived. The Ganges river, once marvelled at in the time of Alexander the Great for its size and abundance of life, is now a colossal sewage. All the richness and diversity of life in it has disappeared. Some people make vain attempts to save charismatic creatures like the Ganges dolphin, but it's hopelessly in vain. The interconnection of life, the complex web of life, the greater community of life, has long since perished because of the shocking levels of pollution. If you kill off one species, there is a cascading effect in ecology, wherein other species die off too. I'll bet that in 1000 years, the Ganges river will be as clean as one could hope for it to be. But it will be substantially impoverished. There may still be fish, but nothing like what once existed in richness and diversity and in the infinitely mysterious interactions which we call an ecosystem. Just imagine a botanical garden which has been overrun with a highly resilient species of weed which kills off all the sensitive plants and makes itself the sole species in the garden. This, metaphorically speaking, is the fate of the earth. It is a grave folly to think that a river can be "rehabilitated." Rehabilitation just means what I described in my first post: after most of the greater community of life has been killed off, man feels guilty and attempts to atone for his sins by cleaning up after his mess. But he will find that the best he will be able to achieve is so impoverished in comparison to what existed before spoilation that one wonders whether the effort means anything at all. The battle must only be waged when there is something to fight for, not after almost everything has been lost and all we can do is salvage a few fragments which bear no resemblance to the greater whole.

I would not count on the multiplier effect of limitless cheap energy would be that high. It still takes labour to do stuff.

Well let's see. The multiplier effect of limited and moderately cheap energy has been that humans have increased in number by tenfold within just 2 centuries, overruns most of the earth, destabilized the climate, polluted the environment to the extent that even the human being's existence is imperiled, and raised the question of whether this planet will be habitable by life in 100 to 200 years. This was with limited and moderately cheap energy. What might happen with almost free and limitless energy? It's not as if man has learned any respect for his environment. He wants at all costs to continue his consumption pattern. I won't say more, because I'm tired and because I fail to understand how such an outcome as I've described could be incomprehensible to anyone, especially given man's recent history.

the Javan Rhinoceros, even though it still exists, is ecologically extinct. It is ecologically extinct because its presence is now so thin that it no longer interacts appreciably with the greater ecosystem. The exact same applies to the Panda bear,

What does it matter? Was any of those species really important to the greater ecosystem? I can mourn the temporary loss of species of big, cool, cute animals. but I don't think they actually matter that much.

But more importantly, the very same applies to millions of species which have not been cataloged and whose interactions with the ecosystem haven't even been studied.

Yes, that IS more important. But species have gone extinct before, without human intervention. We are quite a moderate global catastrophe, so far, like a large (but not huge) volcano eruption or comet strike.

because I know that ultimately almost everyone in the world neither knows nor cares:

I care, and know the opposite.

Those chanterelles and blueberries will NOT grow in conditions which are substantially different from that under which they evolved.

I don't see them becoming substantially different.

If you kill off one species, there is a cascading effect in ecology, wherein other species die off too.

Sometimes, but OTOH, other species adapt to take their place. Ecologies are quite robust in their complexity.

I'll bet that in 1000 years, the Ganges river will be as clean as one could hope for it to be. But it will be substantially impoverished.

Yes, but the question is how much that will matter to humans. And in 100,000 years, you may not see much difference. And that's quite a short time span, geologically speaking. If it doesn't matter much to humans, why would we care that original complexity isn't returned in human time frames.

The multiplier effect of limited and moderately cheap energy has been that humans have increased in number by tenfold within just 2 centuries,

And it has also made total fertility stats drop through the floor.

This was with limited and moderately cheap energy. What might happen with almost free and limitless energy?

As I said, it would make fertility rates drop even faster, and environmental regulation tighten quicker, stabilize the climate and save a number of ecosystems from hydro dams and more. You don't reply to the benefits I raise - you just reiterate your dystopia.

It's not as if man has learned any respect for his environment.

Oh yes it is.

He wants at all costs to continue his consumption pattern.

As I said, he wants to trade some of the potential consumption for environmental improvements.

Come on. This has ridiculous written all over it.

Either it works or it does not.

Rossi said he'd do something in Oct 2011 and at least he hit that mark. Far better than EESTOR or Blacklight Power or Dean Kamen's stirling engine (or anyone else shipping a mass produced Stirling engine) or ....

Now - lets get back to the topic on hand and leave the Rossi news to its own thread or the drumbeat eh?

If they succeed in producing 1MW of continuous power for a full 24 hours I promise to be impressed.

What exactly I'll be impressed with depends on the details, of course.

even if it is 100% scam, it would be darn impressive to put together enough of the scam props to output 1MW thermal and do that within the claimed timeframe/I'll do this by this date statement.

How many of the other "scams" have met their ship dates?
(and has he met his ship date? It's been 24 hours and he's only got a few days left)
How many NON scams meet their ship dates?

Great article. I really enjoyed it. Sacrificing now for a better future tomorrow seems like the best option. Hopefully people will come to realize that.

The situation is even worse than what the article stated. The author is talking about the effort and capital required to return back to a similar level of energy production as fossil fuels become less available at affordable energy gaps.

We must get it in our heads that our problems are not limited to just energy. Who really thinks the world can continue to draw down our other resources like fresh water, clean air, forests, ocean fisheries, minerals, metals, etc. to keep the global economy happy? Yeah, maybe for a few decades at best but is that the world we want to leave the next generation? How selfish would that be?

If we look at all the world's resources in a big-picture way, we see that the most important thing we can do is use our remaining resources to get to a population level and resulting infrastructure that is much more balanced with nature.

I don't want to use the word sustainable anymore unless it is followed by a time-frame. Nothing is sustainable forever. For example, 10 people in the world driving Hummers is very sustainable for thousands of years yet 7 billion people draining the ocean of fishes to get their main food source is only sustainable for a hundred years or less. Therefore, I think a new look at sustainability that takes into account both time-frames and goals is needed.

Our current sustainable technologies are very primitive and have a long way to go before we can achieve large, balanced communities that retain even small amounts of the complex technologies many of us take for granted. Computers, Internet, Satellite services, entertainment, etc. all require deep levels of vendor support getting resources from all over the world. These technologies require huge energy gaps to sustain. In a world of 1:1.3 ethanol or 3 billion dollar fabs that produce solar cells do we really have the excess energy to keep that level of complexity going? Not likely and definitively not for 7 billion people living like happy Europeans.

So, I think we should all start shifting our way of thinking that Peak Oil and our Energy crisis is the biggest problem that needs a solution to looking at how much resources can Earth provide balanced ecosystems. The biggest problem is not the energy source but the shear amount we need. The world's 7 billion people require massive amounts of energy and other resources just to live like the average citizen from Bangladesh.

Population control - We need to break the taboo of talking about this tender topic. We can and must figure out ways to reduce our population levels over the next 150 years or so, generation by generation, to get to levels where Earth can comfortably support us. The other animal and plant species will also breath a sigh of relief if we can solve this problem.

The future citizens of Earth will live far better lives when humans are valued for their amazing mental capabilities and not for their equally amazing ability to consume and destroy resources at unfathomable rates.

Is being politically correct going to get us to where we need to be? Should we just continue to be fruitful and multiply? That all sounded great when population levels and energy use per capital was miniscule but not anymore. We were once a mouse in a massive field but are now an elephant in a tiny china shop.

Of course, selling a massive "austerity" plan that will take 150 years to complete is impossible to implement, regardless how logical and rational it seems. However, the more we talk about it, the more natural it will sound. When economic crisis hits, people look for shovel-ready projects. Perhaps we need the world's most complex project, ready to go.

Any big ideas out there that claim to solve our economic crisis that do not consider population levels should be treated as nothing more than silly, Fred Flintstones decorated, band-aids.

I just looked, penicillin was invented in 1928. Not all of our population growth can be attributed to oil. What ever decline(s) we face will be helped by disease. It just makes sense, our ability to respond will be much less. If there is a large scale war it has the potential to be even quicker.

Most of the population gain has come because of plumbers. clean water and proper sewage systems. I have noted before so called "proper" sewage systems are going to be a major problem if power outages become the norm.

It is illogical to treat precious water to potable standard and then flush it down the crapper and turn it into jit...which has to be treated and disposed of but not really recycled. What happens when something throws the switch?

In many areas mandatory composting systems could be easily introduced.

Use gray-water to flush the pot. It's a much smaller change, which saves almost as much water.

I agree that energy is not the only dimension. It's clearly of fundamental importance to all that we do, and straightforward to quantify, but other aspects of pollution, CO2, overfishing, aquifer depletion, deforestation, soil erosion, salinification, desertification, etc. are not being approached in a way that can be carried forward at scale. You may enjoy a post of mine on this topic (though still energy-focused), called Sustainabe Means Bunkty To Me.

Thanks Tom, I did enjoy your article. That makes about three other people that I know (through reading - haven't met a person in real life like that yet) making real sense out there. How sad is that?

I would like to hear your estimation on what population levels Earth could support in relative balance (notice, I didn't use the word sustainable) as we unwind the fossil fuel era.

I can understand the fuzzy, "we have no idea what the future will bring" attitude but I wonder if you have a personal idea, perhaps an estimated curve for the next 150 years. Mine pretty much follows the fossil fuel bell curve.

One argument I use about technology saving the day, and I love technology, is that complexity requires massive energy gaps to support, from creation to decommissioning and recycling. Can one even imagine how hard it would be for say Australia to maintain an Internet or advanced medical care. I think about all resources being much harder to come by and that they would first have to be recycled, purified, shipped from other parts of the world, etc. The two things I do like most about Australia is that they have a very low population and it can be defended easily. If the energy stopped flowing tomorrow, they just might be able to come out fine, all on their own. I can't say that for most other countries or regions.

Let us not forget the military forces that will be needed to hold on to any complexity, should others not share in the wealth. Much more energy and effort, just ask the Romans.

In trying to figure out a viable path forward to save humanity from the worst of the suffering, I keep coming up with huge roadblocks that show systemic issues. I like the idea of limits - population, resources, trade, technology, etc. The concept works very much like speed limits. It doesn't really tell you how to drive or what to drive but sets a very simple-to-understand boundary.

One of the biggest obsticals I see is controlling the size of a community. Not the actual members of the community but the outsiders. Whenever a community becomes successful outsiders want in. This will be even more extreme if the outsiders are starving. You can't simply fix a small exposed country, like say Romania, and hope to be able to keep out others trying to get in. What do you do? Shoot invaders? Deport them? Put them in prisons that drain resources? It is almost impossible to solve this without having a double fenced boarder manned by a huge military force. This is just too costly. Do you invade other areas and "convert" them? Well, that is what so many conquers did in the past. Imposing your will on others is not only immoral but requires great resources and energy gaps.

To this day I still think and write about these issues but have decided to just enjoy what just may be the peak of human civilization. Riding the wave of fun, powered by Earth's solar battery - black gold. The hangover in the morning is going to be brutal but I can deal with that when it comes.

Keep up the rational and logical thinking. If it makes you feel better, It makes perfect and obvious sense to me.

Great posts Tom I haven’t laughed this much while reading on the subject in a long while! You really can illustrate how absurd our civilization is.

Tankingthinker I have adopted a similar way of responding to the situation as you mention in the end of your post. I and my friends referee to it as seeing the matrix.

I guess different scenarios in different areas are probable.
I think black swans, human behavior, climate change, pollution and the destruction of nature are the hardest things to predict.

I do my best to mentally and physically prepare for whatever might come while in the same time living my normal life in the Matrix.

However, the more we talk about it, the more natural it will sound.


You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not second. But there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual, it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing. Whole societies are another matter—they resist challenges to their paradigms harder than they resist anything else.

So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that.5 You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm. You keep speaking and acting, loudly and with assurance, from the new one. You insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather, you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.
Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

My only question is where exactly is that vast middle ground of people who are open-minded hiding because I have only been able to meet a very tiny handful...

The problem is he was talking about changing science paradigms. Science is (at least formally, even if some practitioners are stubborn) open to changing because of new data. The average Joe is far less likely to accept something contray to his worldview, hir professional reputation doesn't depend upon him accepting the new truth.

The problem is he was talking about changing science paradigms.

Yes, Thomas Kuhn was indeed talking about paradigm changing within the context of science.
However Donella Meadows used his comment as a general example of how any paradigm change can be made to happen.

Scientist or Joe average, when it comes to paradigm change, they are really not all that different!

The future citizens of Earth will live far better lives when humans are valued for their amazing mental capabilities and not for their equally amazing ability to consume and destroy resources at unfathomable rates.

Of course, without complex technologies, much of that ability won't ever see its full potential... is there any population level that would allow us to retain complex technology indefinitely? 500 million?

Who really thinks the world can continue to draw down our other resources like fresh water, clean air, forests, ocean fisheries, minerals, metals, etc. to keep the global economy happy? Yeah, maybe for a few decades at best

I think we tend to fix problems when they become pressing. Most of what you talk about could be carried on more or less forever. Minerals and metals are abundant. Fresh water and clean air we can fix when we need to. Ocean fisheries have already collapsed but we survive anyway. Forests are mostly good.

but is that the world we want to leave the next generation? How selfish would that be?

I think the next generation is very, very dependent on our keeping up economic growth and technological progress. Much of progress, actually, is expressely done since parents want to improve the situation for their kids.

Computers, Internet, Satellite services, entertainment, etc. all require deep levels of vendor support getting resources from all over the world. These technologies require huge energy gaps to sustain.

Energy gaps, perhaps, but such gaps can be had indefinitely. Complexity does not need to be fragile. The global ecosystem is extraordinarily complex, but also quite robust. If something fails, something else takes its place. The tsunami in Japan provided evidence that the market economy is quite robust as well. Lots of important production went off-line for an extended time, but the economy made the best of it and the impact was quite limited.

I don't want to use the word sustainable anymore unless it is followed by a time-frame. Nothing is sustainable forever.

Agreed! For instance, not building a nuclear plant because the fuel is not renewable would be nonsense. It suffices that fuel will be available for the life-time of the plant.

Population control - We need to break the taboo of talking about this tender topic. We can and must figure out ways to reduce our population levels over the next 150 years or so

The bulk of the population of the world is already below replacement fertility level or rapidly getting there.

It is more or less only sub-saharan Africa left, and if you don't want to wait for them to go the same route to below-replacement levels naturally, perhaps the most efficient means of limiting their populations is stopping all food and medicine aid. [edit]

I recall once some years ago posting to i think "running on empty" a question along these lines:

can we use a wind farm to build wind farms?

how about

can we use a solar panel farm to build solar panels?

how about

how big would a solar panel farm have to be to provide 100% of the energy needed to build a solar panel farm the same size?


"how big would a solar panel farm have to be to provide 100% of the energy needed to build a solar panel farm the same size?"

Already been done--quite a while ago, so these days it would presumably be quite a bit easier to do. There's just no particular incentive to do so. (Sorry, I don't have the link on the solar powered PV factory ready at hand, but this has been discussed here before, so probably someone else has it handy?)

*sigh* Fine I'll go find the link

The black dots ate supposed to show how much energy is used by Man/how big the solar farm would have to be.

The solar powered solar factory is 1970's old - one of the 1st panel makers claimed they were 100% solar powered via factory seconds. Bought out by BP at some point so my memory has it.

To make a solar panel you need poly-silicone, which is made by melting sand. You ain't gunna do that with high priced intermittent solar power.

Here is a craft article on the poly-silicone plant they are building in Pocatello. They picked this site because of the low cost hydro-power.

Silicone > Silicon

Silicon is not made by melting sand see:


You are right, most industrial processes operate 24/7, because of the high capital cost of plant and equipment. So if they did operate strictly off of solar power, they would need to store it for nighttime and rainy days. Now, it might make sense to contract for (or build/own) enough PV to produce an output equilalent to the plants annual consumption -using the grid as storage....

Good luck to them. p-Silicon is selling pretty cheapy these days. cSi (crystalline) silicon is the good stuff, pSi is for cheap lower efficiency panels. I think solar silicon in general is currently in oversupply, commanding low prices. Its possible that if the attempts at making silicon cells much thinner bear fruit, that demand might even go down.

Quite a few batch processes are done sporadically now, since capacity > demand.

Recycling steel in electric arc furnaces is largely done at night, whnje power is cheaper. The work force would likely appreciate shifting to sunny days.

Even continuous processes can slow down dramatically and use just enough power to stay hot - aluminum smelting is one example.

Industry can, and will adapt, to new realities. Perhaps a continuous process, like glass plate manufacturing, can shift to batch processing.


Um, I actually enjoyed night shifts because I could take advantage of the sunny days:) But, This is exactly the way I see things going. Current production methods have evolved to suit the supply of energy available. Given a different supply they will evolve again. For example smelting could use the power of the sun directly.


You are right, most industrial processes operate 24/7, because of the high capital cost of plant and equipment.

You have some industrial processes that are done 24/7 because of the thermal shock to the EQ used in the process. If it shuts down, it becomes scrap.

And one paper mill has a big old steel drum that has to keep turning otherwise it goes out of round (due to gravity) and would need to be machined in place back into round.

Many large rotating machines (including many large electrical generators) idle on a low speed turning gear for the same reason.

There are two reasons for 24/7 operation. One is that some processes take poorly to being cycled on/off -or fast/slow. The other is for capital intensive production, which PV is, the capital cost exceeds the energy cost, so you don't want to run it intermittently just to save on your power, when its your banker whose after you to make your loan payments.
Just an argument for why using PV-only power to build more PV doesn't make sense.

Just an argument for why using PV-only power to build more PV doesn't make sense.

And yet until the 1950's - all the energy sources used by Man were solar powered.

The post 1950's non-photon powered energy sources are showing themselves not to be all that peaceful, safe, clean or even too cheap to meter.

One can take photons and directly convert them into the service of man, or run them through other things like plants or animals.

If a PV cell has a EROEI of 5 years and a 20 year life, PV can be used to make more PV.

melting sand. You ain't gunna do that with high priced intermittent solar power.

Melt sand with photons?

Melting sand can be done with the Sun.

Peak Oil Poet

“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you."

Jesus Matthew 7:7 NIV

Behold, the solar breeder!

Derrick P. Grimmer, Solar energy breeders, Solar Energy Volume 26, Issue 1, 1981, Pages 49-53

An energy breeder can be defined as a device which creates capacity to generate useful energy without consuming energy stocks. Any solar conversion device (SCD) that delivers in its life-time more energy than needed to maintain and rebuild itself is a solar energy breeder, since some of the surplus energy can be used to build more such SCDs. A breeding SCD must necessarily produce energy of sufficiently high intrinsic quality (e.g. electricity) or high temperature to provide energy at the various temperatures needed for its fabrication and maintenance. Thus, the amount of energy produced by an SCD breeder at various temperatures must be examined, in addition to the simple energy quantity produced over a solar collector lifetime. Capacity breeding rates are calculated for both SCDs producing electricity intrinsically (e.g. photovoltaics) and for SCDs producing both electricity and a significant amount of thermal energy (e.g. total solar energy systems).

Malcolm Slesser, Can solar energy replace fossil-fissile energy sources? Solar Energy, Volume 25, Issue 5, 1980, Pages 425-428

It has been argued that solar energy devices can deliver neither the quantity nor quality of energy needed to replicate themselves . . .That viability is best expressed by calculating the replacement energy requirement, taking into account energy quality.

John Gusdorf, Energy paybacks and renewable breeders, Energy, Volume 17, Issue 12, December 1992, Pages 1137-1151

A solar breeder can be either a conceptual tool for analyzing any energy source or a physical plant to demonstrate the viability of renewable energy. The mathematics of breeders is discussed, and problems with previously used equations are demonstrated.

S.S. Penner, J. Haraden, S. Mates, Long-term global energy supplies with acceptable environmental impacts, Energy, Volume 17, Issue 10, October 1992, Pages 883-899

There is an identifiable minimum per capita energy use to assure an acceptable quality of life.

A. Boudghene Stambouli, H. Koinuma, A primary study on a long-term vision and strategy for the realisation and the development of the Sahara Solar Breeder project in Algeria, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, doi:10.1016/j.rser.2011.08.025

Energy security, economic growth and environmental protection are the national energy policy drivers of any country of the world. Scientists, governments, and industries are witnessing the long-term consequences of energy consumption and foresee catastrophic outcomes if alternative methods of energy production are not developed and utilised to meet the needs of our global economy. . . .

For size, see EROI for Solar Thermal & PV.

In the interim, we need a solar fuel breeder.


And God is able to bless you abundantly,
so that in all things
at all times,
having all that you need,
you will abound in every good work.

2 Corinthians 9:8 NIV

Great article and a concept that I've always stressed to those around me: it takes energy (not money!) to get energy.

IMO the fallacy of our current monetary system is that it is disconnected from energy.

Imagine a man living on a sparsely populated and totally isolated island. He finds oil. "I'm rich!" he shouts. When asked what he'll do with the oil he says "I'll sell it to the islanders which will have very productive uses for it: it will help increase their crop yields, help transport goods, provide an important base material for textiles, plastics, and pharmaceuticals, etc. When the oil runs out I'll have a ton of money." The man, however, fails to realize that his money is worth substantially less without the energy. It's another manifestation of the "money illusion" something even well trained economists can't get their head around.

IMO the fallacy of our current monetary system is that it is disconnected from energy.

And that is why the technocrat movement of the 1930's proposed an exchange system called eMergy based on energy.

(And yet one of the more prolific posters here called Technocracy a failure - yet never explained why when challenged.)

I wasn't the poster who declared Technocracy a failure, and I don't recall the post to which you refer, but:

Google Technocracy to get more than just a word, but some feel for what was being proposed by the Technocrats. Then look around. Do you see any evidence of it in the world today? I do not. It is extinct. In failed in the sense of becoming extinct, which is very easy to conclude after a thing or idea has become extinct.

Furthermore, I think with a bit more research, you could re-discover many of the arguments that were used to kill it. And with more research you might get some idea of which arguments were valid and which were false. But it this effort really worthwhile? Technocracy was an ECONOMIC theory. We all know that economic theories, ALL of them, are fundementally flawed, and are only only useful if they can be twisted into bamboozling the rich into letting us do what needs to be done in the technical world. (If we can just figure out what it is that needs to be done.)

Then look around. Do you see any evidence of it in the world today? I do not. It is extinct. In failed in the sense of becoming extinct, which is very easy to conclude after a thing or idea has become extinct.

For the idea to be shown a failure it would have had to been tried. As far as I know, the idea of energy as "money" hasn't been tried. Now this may be due to the non-storability of energy, and a key part of money is it has to be storable. What happens if humans get storable watts?

Great piece Tom. I'll toss in my personal insight from 36 years as a petroleum geologist. Some folks who accept your premise might want to soften the impact by anticipating the oil patch coming to the rescue to some degree once prices get high enough. We don't have to build a hypothetical...the oil boom of the late 70's serves as a good standard.

Younger folks may think we're in a big drilling boom today with a little over 2,000 rigs drilling. At the peak of the 70's boom we had over 4,600 rigs drilling. Today a $20 million bid for a offshore tract is thought huge. Back in the 70's a bid of $100 -200 million was not uncommon...and that's in 70's dollars. One lease sale off the west coast of FL brought in total winning bids of over $1 billion (70's $). BTW: not one well was ever drilled on the blocks from this lease sale.

As I've pointed out before EROEI has never been a parameter the oil patch used in making investment decisions...and never will be. All investment are made on basis economic analysis...$'s in vs. $'s out. But we can use this analysis as something of a surrogate for EROEI. There is a relationship though it's difficult to quantify. Now to your point about irrational behavior by the public when an energy price spike kicks in hard. The oil patch is subject to the same emotional knee jerk reaction except in that situation it's more of a feeding frenzy. And not in a good way with respect to increasing energy supplies. I can't supply data to back up this assertion. All I have is my impressions from being in the middle of it all. The net economic outcome of the drilling boom of the late 70's may well have been negative. Lots of new production added, especially in the offshore arena. But at what cost? It's easy to take Field X and estimate the value of its reserves vs. the total capex to bring it on. But what about the unsuccessful efforts? Again, I can't substantiate this claim but I would offer that as many as half those 4,600 rigs were drilling wells that had little to no chance of success. How bad could it be? Towards the end I worked with a company that spent $550 million and found $40 million worth of reserves. It's easy to guess that the EROEI of their effort was very low...if not negative. The hype can create great profit for some. I saw one independent oil company drill 18 dry holes in a row with the senior management retiring millionares as their investors were led like sheep to the slaughterhouse.

But that's not the whole story. Had prices stayed high the oil patch could have come out ahead of the game overall. But then the killer feedback loop kicked in. The global recession brought on by the price spike reduced demand and thus crashed prices. In many markets oil fell below $10/bbl and NG to less than $1/mcf. As a result thousands of oil companies went out of business and 100's of thousands of oil patch jobs were lost. In effect the boom of the 70's did more damage to the domestic energy industry than we've seen since the first oil well was drilled over 100 years ago.

So what does this mean to the near future with the prospect of another feeding frenzy? IMHO very little. First, there is very little conventional drilling potential today compared to the 70's. The offshore arena had just come into play. Drilling technology advances allowed reaching depths never thought possible 15 years earlier. We do have the DW GOM but collectively those fields are small compared to the tens of billions of bbls of oil developed back then.

Another reason: virtually all the senior management running the oil patch today survived the boom/bust days of the 70's. It might have happened over 30 years ago but the memories of unbridled enthusiasm and the havoc it brought about are very fresh. Even the shale gas drilling boom we see today isn't based upon such enthusiasm about the future IMHO. It based on absolute fear by public oil companies. There are profits to be made in those fractured shale reservoirs...some better than others. But that's not the driving force IMHO. Public oil are valued by Wall Street on the basis of replacing production y-o-y. The profitability of this effort (a very difficult number to estimate anyway) isn't nearly as important. The real value is not the production but the increase in stock equity. The public oils have no choice but to pursue the SG plays with a passion: there are not enough convention wells left to drill to support half the companies today IMHO. I work for a privately owned company that doesn't drill any unconventional reservoirs for a simple reason: they are not profitable enough compared to our conventional plays. And most of our conventional drilling is done for NG despite its current low price.

So to add to your "trap" of needing to utilize more energy to develop more energy at a time of diminishing energy the public should not expect the oil patch to bring much efficiency to the prcess IMHO. In fact, it might actually worsen the situation by wasting much of this additional energy consumption not only on projects with relatively low EROEI but generating an overall very low to negative EROEI industrywide.

All investment are made on basis economic analysis...$'s in vs. $'s out.

If the REST of the environment the oil interacts with is $'s, of course $'s is how things will be judged.

Who cares about 'social good' - unless it can be monitized - in such an environment?

One of your main points is that decisions in a time of crisis can be chaotic and reflect poor choices. Gee, I can't imagine that in our political and social environment that this will apply :-). So yes, I agree that this phenomenon will make things worse. We will have knee-jerk reactions to initiate projects that are not very helpful, acting as only additional drains on our system. Largely, this will be aided by disagreement about the fundamental nature of the problem. Is the decline (price run-up) caused by instability in the Middle East? Environmentalists? Deregulation? Speculation? China? Resource depletion? Wait—what was that last one? There will be ample room for confusion and competing narratives, which will make room for actions in the wrong direction.

"As I've pointed out before EROEI has never been a parameter the oil patch used in making investment decisions...and never will be."

And this:
"Public oil are valued by Wall Street on the basis of replacing production y-o-y."

So it's all about price on the one hand, and flow on the other, but their relationship to real cost or real production are purely speculative. Sounds like a recipe for the perfect bubble to blow us all sky-high.

Chrome - I wouldn't say efforts to quantify EROEI are as much speculative as just dang near impossible. We beat on the subject at TOD a good while back with no real resolution. And even if we did come up with a realistic value what interest would there be other than academic?

Even in the oil patch sometimes ROR isn't even important. I once drilled a horizontal well program for a company even though they knew it would lose money...negative ROR...very low if not negative EROEI. So why did they do it? Easy: caused the stock to jump over 200%. That's just how Wall Street works sometimes. In a similar light the current shale gas drilling boom is driven more by a desire to maintain/increase stock value than the profitability of the wells. I can assure you that if a public company was 100% certain drilling a particular SG well that would be a break even effort (or even have a slightly negative ROR) and a negative EROEI they would drill the well because it would add to their effort to replace production y-o-y. And that contributes to Wall Street supporting their stock valuation. I've done it more than once myself.

"Sounds like a recipe for the perfect bubble to blow us all sky-high". And it was back in '08 when NG prices plunged and all those public companies buried hip deep in the shale gas plays at the time were slaughtered. Collectively lost hundreds of $billions (if not $trillions)of stock equity. The CEO of one of those companies personaly had a $23 BILLION margin call he couldn't cover. I suspect "blowing up sky-high" would be a tad of an understatement in his opinion.

...what interest would there be other than academic?

Even in the oil patch sometimes ROR isn't even important. I once drilled a horizontal well program for a company even though they knew it would lose money...negative ROR...very low if not negative EROEI. So why did they do it? Easy: caused the stock to jump over 200%.

Rock, the 'interest' would be much more than academic. The point is that the sort of action you describe, and have described before, makes sense within the economic paradigm under which you and the rest of the oil industry operates. But it makes no sense societally to extract energy at a negative EROEI. Save perhaps for the instances in which stranded resources can be captured & converted into a higher form like electricity, society ends up a net loser. The company may make a profit under the current - obviously horribly awry - paradigm, but society as a whole experiences a loss. This is the case for every joule of energy that is extracted with a negative EROEI.

Not attacking you or your practices. Quite to the contrary - your insider's perspective is invaluable here. Just pointing out the big picture, which is so often lost or hidden. It's kind of like the tragedy of the commons - each acting in their own interest under the rules as written will ultimately lead to the ruin of all.

Cliffy – Check my long post down below for more detail. You’ll see that oil patch economics won’t allow FF extraction at any low EROEI level let alone negative. That’s one of the reasons I consider EROEI only of academic interest. The other reason, referring to your “societal” activity: society doesn’t drill for oil/NG. Energy companies do and they’ll go forward on the same basis they always have. But as you see in that post the oil patch will never concern itself with EROEI because it doesn’t affect drilling decisions.

EROEI because it doesn’t affect drilling decisions.

It does, indirectly. The cost of oil affects the cost of operations. If oil (or energy in general) became so costly that it completely dominated the costs, EROEI would effectively be the driver of industry decision makers. It may not be a dominate cost, but it does affect the economics of each well.
BTW, you are of course correct, that business works in dollars in and dollars out. Personally I'm not big of EROEI -except as it might be useful for back or the envelope style thinking about energy. I claim someday we may produce oil at EROEI of less than one, using some cheaper form of energy, to produce limited quantities of a fluid that sells at a premium to its energy content.

I'd not be surprised at all if we would one day produce oil at an EROEI of less than one. Heck, I'd not be too surprised if we are doing it in some isolated cases today. And that's just my point - if we don't utilize EROEI, which of course we don't, then we will make bad decisions. And yes, Rock, society does drill for oil. You and your compatriots and competitors are all part of society, like it or not. It's our inability to see the big picture - be it long-range planning or broad peripheral vision that encompasses all impacts of our actions and threats to our existence (well articulated by Richard Manning in What a Way to Go) - that will be our downfall. EROEI matters to society in the long run, dollars and cents do not.

Producing small amounts of oil at EROEI less than one, isn't necessarily dumb. It is really dumb is oil supplies the energy to produce itself. But, if say it was using stranded wind/solar (or throwaway PNW hydro during spring runoff), then it could make perfect sense. It depends upon the relatiev societal value of the inputs versus the outputs. Strict EROEI accounting doesn't make sense, except as an illustrative example of how one era is coming to an end.

cliffy - Let me try it very simply: I offer you a chance to drill a well. It will take 50,000 bo in energy to drill the well. It will produce 75,000 bo net to your interest. So the EROEI is positive: 1.5. Would you drill it? Before you answer you need to know the well will cost $7 million. So you get a return of $6.75 million. Trust me: no company would drill this well if it were projected to return $9 million. Between risk and the discount factor typically used in the oil patch.

That's the point I've been trying to make: economic analysis will kill a project long before the predicted EROEI approaches 1 let alone negative.

Hi Tom
Good thinking.
The only exception I can think of was perhaps S Korea after the war - Dictator Park, I think he was.
The place had the economy and per capita GDP of somewhere in West Africa. But he was going with the grain at the time. "You will work your socks off and accept every deprivation for the sake of the children", if my memory is correct. Everybody will be well-educated - no exceptions except severely disabled - you will all stand up and just do it! I can remember the video. Nice things lost along the way? Yes, especially nice little thatched home-villages. You will live among concrete.
Well; next vision?

Cuba is another example of dealing with a sudden loss of supply (oil and other commodities). They transitioned reasonably well by having an authoritarian regime, forcing people back to the farm to work. Even a perfectly functioning democracy will be considerably more handicapped when it comes to dealing with decline. As long as the electorate wants more, politicians will be only too happy to promise more in return for votes.

The USA during WWII was a command-control society and economy that produced an unbelievable transition in industrial output and energy efficiency. This can happen again given enough sense of urgency and political leadership. The USA could reduce its energy consumption by 25% in less than two years by simply parking our global military operations and implementing a set of easy no-regrets forced conservaton measures. I am sure you smart TODsters can supply plenty examples of these. The energy savings windfall would then go to producing PV panels etc. QED

D - You make some valid points. But you should know that much of our industrial output during WWII would not have happened if the great East Texas Oil Field had not been developed in the late 30's. Some historians feel that had this huge reserve of very cheap oil not been discovered we might not have won the war. And the great post war expansion here was fueled by the additional discovery of tens of billions of bbls of oil in the immediate post-war years. Also, I'm not sure I've ever seen any evidence of an energy efficiency boom during the war years. IMHO waging war is typically not an efficient use of anything...commodities or human life.

The waging of war fits neatly into my enclosure theme for today.

Also, what does the US (which, some have suggested, may Un-unite, even descend into civil war or at least ever more serious social unrest) do about all the able-bodied 99% folks at the Occupy movement who are increasing in numbers? Mobilize them at gunpoint? Or have the 1% "give it up"?


"I'm on the outside,
Looking inside...
What do I see?
Much confusion,
All around me..."

~ King Crimson

The first uranium enrichment plant at OAk Ridge consumed one seventh of all electricity produced in the USA in 1944-1945. This produced the first A bomb and material for the first nuclear reactors. It was made possible by the TVA and its hydroelectric power, and the forced conservation of electricity by civil society.

And that project was a major consumer of Silver 35 million troy ounces or so if my memory of one of the few not classified photos and its caption is correct.

I wonder what the ERORI was on the 1st few Atom bombs and where the "break even" point happened?

Where is all that silver now?

Maybe I can buy up a radioactive dump someplace and get rich flipping it!

Also, I'm not sure I've ever seen any evidence of an energy efficiency boom during the war years. IMHO waging war is typically not an efficient use of anything...commodities or human life.

What you would need to see is the relative change between domestic consumption and total output during the war years.

(Of course war product only can make a profit if you win and get a slice of the rest of the world's production after the victory--this is even more profitable if the war produced catalysts for man hour productivity increases thus making the pie the victor is getting a steady slice of grow and grow and grow. Oh that describes the heyday of the USA, the wave you and I surfed on all of our youths and beyond but it departs from where I was really headed.)

If total output rapidly outpaced a flat or more likely declining and then slowly rising domestic non-military consumption (products like tires and meat just were not available to buy in great quantities at home from what I heard from those who were there) during WWII days, and the new 'war economy' substituted new long term energy generation for the disposable weaponry/weapon delivery infrastructure (that includes the GI with the M1) that was produced last time...well that may well be the only real hope for escaping the energy trap once in it.

Your point about the great East Texas Oil Field, though valid, is handled by decarbonizer's new 'war economy' in this way:
The USA could reduce its energy consumption by 25% in less than two years by simply parking our global military operations and implementing a set of easy no-regrets forced conservaton measures.
Assuming his numbers are close--finding a set of easy no-regrets forced conservaton measures could be tougher than simply parking our global military operations--that is betweem 4 & 5 MBD for just the oil sector alone, assuming proportional conservation across the energy board, or two to three Prudhoe Bay's producing at or near its highest output. I'll let you come back with numbers to see if that comes close to the relative contribution the WWII effort got from the East Texas Oil Fields ?- )

I happen to agree with Decarbonizer, Tom is too pessimistic. We really do waste much more energy in this country then the renewables buildout would require. So if we could get our act together, it wouldn't much os a problem. The problem is the combination of bad politics, and bad cultural expectations. I don't think all countries are the same, we are probably one of the worst. Most likely because we grew up (as a nation) with the ability to develop resource rich (i.e. not previously inhabitted by an industrial culture) lands, and thought we were somehow different than the rest of the world. So we've developed an attitude that god had choosen us for easy riches (because we are intrinsically better -and thus favored -or whatever).

If you look at the Nordic countries, who don't have the same attitudinal chips on their shoulders, they seem to be making decent progress towards the energy transition. So I predict the ability to transition (and the pain involved) will vary dramatically from place to place, with the cultural attitudes of the people being the major determinate of the result.

Thanks for reply.
I suppose my point was that it is possible to persuade people to accept sacrifice by making an acceptable 'social settlement'. They need to see the point. But S Korea took off while global resources were available for the foreseeable future and the model they were following was relevant to their own modernization and expansion, and they could fairly soon relax the dictatorial bit. The Soviets on the other hand never really cracked it by diktat and engineering and resources, despite universal health care and no formal unemployment, and it could look even harder for our advanced countries in the face of contraction.

The case of Cuba has been gone over in some detail on TOD during the last 5 years, and facts do not seem to bear out much of the Permaculture documentary. Cuba seems more to have dealt with an emergency by prioritizing the fossil fuel and imported resources (including food, and more than we might think) that they had access to. Cuba could relax the situation after a few years. Britain did something quite similar in WWII and needed to extend emergency procedures for another 5 or 6 years after the war, and 'got by' by putting on a convincing show of a comprehensive social settlement. This was reasonably successful, but in the context of some reasonable hope at the end of the tunnel. So much for the predicament, but 'Renewables' (or better still, Alan Drake type planning - Alan from Big Easy) might just be that kind of hope?

Hi Phil,

Just a note to say thank you for bringing up the Cuba discussion. I have a personal and credible (at least, I think so!) source for the facts and analysis, and haven't had time/priority all these years to do the topic justice.

Hi Tom,

I love your blog and this was a great post. Two things immediately come to mind. First,the EROEI of liquid fossil fuels is likely lower than 20:1 especially when one considers the marginal barrels which need to be brought online to offset the declining mature fields in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait, and Mexico (these are where we find some of the largest fields.) Many of these marginal barrels come from tar sands and ultra deep water where the EROEI is close to 3:1 rather than 20:1. In addition, the EROEI of nuclear, wind, and solar may rise over time as the technology matures (or not because they are influenced by declining EROEI in the fossil fuel sector as well). My second point is that society is unlikely to view the process of energy decline through the lens of net energy analysis. People will see rising prices of fossil fuels and may look for alternatives in renewable energy to some degree. Hopefully as the price of wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and nuclear become more competitive with fossil fuels and people start to take the threat of global warming seriously the better alternative will be chosen when the total social costs and benefits are weighed carefully.

D Coyne

You are right, that EROEI will only happen behind the scenes, and price will be the signal on which action is taken. In this case, skyrocketing prices for oil, for example, will make prices of alternatives more expensive (requiring oil to mine, transport, etc.)—though presumably by a lesser ratio. The result will be that alternatives are comparatively cheaper and demand will increase. Because of the energy investment requirements, scaling up the demand puts a tighter pinch on oil as a medium of energy investment, forcing its price still higher.

So there is a sort of parallel trap that I think will function on the financial side, stemming from the fact that prices reflect energy scarcity, and in a fairly inelastic way. Ceasing a giant infrastructure project would ease the energy strain and bring the prices of conventional resources back down, making this a tempting political path. If politics has nothing to do with it, and it is up to the market alone, prices may drive us very hard into the scarcity regime so that oil (as an example) becomes prohibitively expensive in short order and economies crumble under the strain.

Conversely, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, and nuclear, are all ways to make electricity, but these do not help us very much as a direct replacement of the first-to-fail fossil fuel: oil. This is a very serious point.

True. It's also true that feeding gasoline to horses wasn't successful in improving transport 100 years ago. It's time to consider alternatives to direct substitution.

"Fuel" for routine transport is obsolete. It was already ludicrous, with our transport scheme successful in fighting population growth by eliminating 1 million earth-passengers a year. It's time to get personal high speed transportation off the ground and stop running over people's toes. It's getting started in Sweden, UK, Netherlands, Sourh Korea, Mexico, UAE.

Remember, the fueled automobile Is only 1% efficient (13% fuel to wheel * 100 kg people/1.5 tonnes metal). We can do better.

Join the solarevolution. Yes it will take fossil energy to build ... At least in the beginning. It's really not a question of whether, it's a question of who... Who will get the jump on this and meet the emerging market demand?

Thanks for that brilliant post.

When confronted with a challenge of such vast scale and complexity, it is easy to be overwhelmed. Tom, you do an amazing job at explaining this using clear English and simple numbers.

My only plea for future posts would be greater emphasis on the possibilities available. In Western economies that still have unprecedented access to natural, financial, and intellectual resources the number of ways to reduce wasteful consumption are almost limitless at individual to national scales. In industrialising countries the closer links to the energy efficient crafts of the past, combined with modern science, also lead to a number of possible escapes from the energy trap.

I hear alarm bells going off every time material like this is made widely available, and this can easily lead straight to despair. There is no need for this as the range of positive options is wide, many of them are worth doing anyway, and some of them are quite fun. For example:

1) The energy return on investment of bicycle paths.

2) The health benefits of consuming less industrially produced meat.

3) A tax ensuring a lower limit for energy prices, saving money and resources for reconstruction.

4) Simple bicycle generators or trailers made from reclaimed materials.

With these things in mind the psychological step from opulence to depletion can be much more agreeable. You never know, maybe such thoughts could one day have an effect on physical reality too! Can anyone come up with a number 5?

5) Energy return on installing a $30 vacancy sensor.

This came up recently when I came home to find two things:

1) My wife, knowing my interests, had opened up and placed on my desk a letter from Seattle City Light inviting us to sign up for a Community Solar Project -- for only $600 we could purchase one PV panel to be installed with others at a city owned park. Until 2020 we would get the very generous credits associated with our panel. Estimated production is 50KWh/year = 137 Watt-hours/day.

2) My wife and kids had also left plenty of lights on in the house since they left six hours earlier. Even with all fluorescents, that amounted to ~600 Watts * 6 hours = 3600 Watt-hours or 26 days of output from one solar panel.

Now I may still join the Community Solar project because I understand, as do the Chinese, that developing a new industry requires making investments that don't necessarily have direct payback. But I'm also going to put in some vacancy sensors as that has an immediate and direct payback.


The #1 priority for now and the near future is to deploy existing technology to consume much less.

Best Hopes for paying attention to your energy usage.


Estimated production is 50KWh/year = 137 Watt-hours/day.

That sounds low. I'm getting roughly 275KWh/year per panel, and these are low efficiency 175watt panels. Although Seattle is much cloudier, I wouldn't expect it to be more than five times as bad.

Not an answer to this discrepancy, necessarily, and off topic. But, a fascinating statistic is that the NREL 30-year database on insolation shows the best and worst locations in the continental U.S. (Barstow, CA; Quillayute, WA) are only a factor of two different for a flat-panel collector oriented south and tilted to latitude. This is, of course, an annual average. But still, I was amazed by how close the Mojave Desert is to the Olympic Peninsula in terms of annual insolation.

Okay; apologies for deviating from the topic of the OP. Don't let me distract you.

If your power is charged at .10 per kwh then 137 wh is worth .0137 per day. pay back time? 43795.62 days

no thanks

60M American households with thermostats don't have a programmable. About 5% of U.S. energy consumption is residential climate control. $10B/yr in energy savings with a simple payback in a few months if we replaced all existing residential thermostats with programmables. ESoEI is over 100. Of course this technically easy solution is 'only' about 1 quad in savings.

Unfortunately "technically easy" doesn't equal "practically easy". So far, on the average, homes with programmable thermostats use more energy because it's "too hard" for the average user to program. Think the iPod creator can "fix" that?

Brave New Thermostat: How the iPod’s Creator Is Making Home Heating Sexy

More recent, upscale programmable thermostats were not only hideous — displays were straight out the DOS era — but programming them was reminiscent of getting a 1970s VCR to tape a football game. In 2008, after a study that concluded that homes with programmable thermostats used more energy that similar ones without them, the Energy Star label was stripped from the entire category. A recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study found that “as many as 50 percent of residential programmable thermostats are in permanent ‘hold’ status.”

According to Alan Meier, the scientist who performed the study, “A large fraction of people didn’t know how to use them and didn’t have patience the learn.” The government estimates that the average home has a $2,200 energy bill, half of which is under the control of the thermostat. That means every household was losing hundreds of dollars because of that oblique gizmo on the wall.

Yair...Umm...a bit OT but I had less trouble with with 1970's VCR's than I do with my fifteen hundred dollar disk recorder and its bloody play lists and menus an Lord alone knows what...this is progress?

Agreed. And if someone can't deal with programming their thermostat, what makes anybody think they'll program their interface to the "smart grid" to buy intermittent power at the desired price? More technology ≠ Unquestioned progress

Wow. Thanks for the link.

Here's a link to the Energy Star website projecting $180/yr average savings from installing a programmable thermostat, which is what I based my numbers on.

I can readily imagine that folks might need help with this. Sounds like an 800 number and PSA campaign might be useful expenditures of public funds in this economy. I imagine a future world where they sign up for a given electric/gas rate which fits their lifestyle and we utilities program their thermostat remotely per their answers to a few basic questions.

I agree. My dumb programmable is a rather ridiculous beast. A couple of times it accidentally was put into auto mode, and I would be trying to find out who it was that turned the heat way up. I get along fine with manual adjustments. Most of the time, I have it in OFF mode, but it only takes a few seconds to bump the temp up or down.

Now, maybe the i-thermo (or whatever they call it), the coolness factor might make it catch on with the younger crowd. So maybe, if Mr cool, realizes he's gonna have dinner out, he can use his phone to delay the AC for a few hours.

I'd been reading TOD from the very beginning, so when I was contacted by Nest Labs, and co-founder Matt Rodgers told me in the interview "We're building the most boring thing in the world - a thermostat" my instant response was: "I'm in".

I can't say any more about it than is already available on the website, but this white paper adds some data to the discussion.

I can tell you it's much more rewarding than building yet another disposable chunk of consumer electronics.

It seems pretty obvious that a thermostat should learn its environment. Thermal and system inertia is a good starting point, it needs to figure out when to stop and start the heating/cooling to remain closest to the required temperature without using excess energy or causing large swings of temperature.


benamery21 (and all),

Where can one find a credible information source on the Internet describing the amounts/percentages of energy used in the U.S. for various uses?

The local Base fishwrapper published an article from some airman advocating reducing use of electricity by using more window/natural lighting, turning lights off when not in use, etc.

So far so good.

The article said that 43% of energy in the U.S. was used for lighting...oops.

First of all, the writer did not differentiate between liquid fuel energy and electrical energy, which I think is what he was referring. I an not sure that his figure was correct for the amount of energy consumed by lighting was true even if one considers just electricity from the grid.

It is difficult to have a meaningful discussion of energy when most of us are ignorant of the facts of how much we use, what we use it for, etc.

Ideally, I would love to have a real-time 'dashboard' on my computer (through some kind of Internet portal) which graphically depicted energy use by energy type, and by end-use category (residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, etc). is the Energy Information Administration, which exists to provide such data.

The Annual Energy Review is the high level presentation of such statistics for 2010.

Sub-categories of consumption get a little trickier, as the consumption surveys you need to look at to get precise numbers are far less frequent. However, lighting consumption is a lot less than 43% even of the ~40% of total energy that goes into electricity production.

Last I looked, I recall lighting was roughly 20% (of electricty). Its probably going down as more efficient technologies are starting to be deployed. So lighting while obvious, isn't going to be a major contributor to "deep" conservation. Although it will probably provide some decent savings during the next decade.

It surprises me that this article does not focus at all on energy efficiency and conservation, since this is the obvious way out of the "energy trap".

Given that the vast majority of energy used today is wasted, a massive ramping effort to replace all that wasted energy is terribly misguided. Energy efficiency measures like additional insulation have EROI values of over 100 (depends on initial and final insulation values, of course), dwarfing PV or even wind.

Many EE actions have no fossil fuel investment required to implement. I see houses every day with south-facing curtains closed and rejecting free passive solar gain. Passive cooling in my house in Colorado simply involves opening windows at night and closing them in the day time, and my house stays comfortable with no AC, while my neighbor's compressor runs all day long, and they never open their windows to let in the cool night air. At some price point, people will stop mindless air-conditioning in climates with adequate diurnal temperature swings, or they will automate natural cooling with whole house fans and louvers.

Similarly in transportation, car-pooling, walking, bicycling and increased use of existing transit can deliver mobility at a much lower personal and societal cost than replacing declining oil with new liquid fuels, whether biofuels or renewable-powered synthetics. Electric cars will have their place, but in the US we have such massive transportation inefficiencies that completely predictable increases in gas cost will quickly transform the current " US oil bubble transportation system". Continuing our obviously unsustainable and impractical US transportation system by simply replacing oil with massive additions of nuclear or renewable energy seems like a very unlikely scenario to me.

I personally agree that conservation can go a very long way. It is possible to make dramatic cuts in energy usage. I think this will actually happen. But it is also a type of energy recession to be paralleled by economic recession—potentially long term. I'm personally fine with this, but this will be agonizing to countries, businesses, etc. I say this because part of scaling back energy use is traveling less, consuming less, etc.

As for efficiency improvements, our track record is only 2% per year even for the shining examples like refrigerators and cars. Power plants, jet planes, etc. tend to be more like 1% per year, and many things don't improve very quickly if at all (will always take 1 kcal of energy to heat 1 liter of water 1 deg C). So the net effect is something like 1% per year, which will certainly help ease the decline, but will unlikely be big enough to fill the gap (or allow continued energy growth).

So I think of these two, conservation/reduction will have a bigger effect, and is perhaps a more likely path than a massive build-out of a new energy infrastructure.

I'm personally fine with this, but this will be agonizing to countries, businesses, etc. I say this because part of scaling back energy use is traveling less, consuming less, etc.

It might be agonizing to those who want to live/travel in all manner of 'enclosures' on planet Earth, and want others to do the same.

There will be slower travel with maybe less mileage, but not necessarily less travel in terms of time.

In the process of energy-descent, having many artificial enclosures, borders, boxes, prisons, nation-states, dams, space-stations-on-Earth collapse would also be welcome.

Collapsing assorted enclosures would appear to bring a whole host of benefits, things the rivers, birds and the wind understand.

A lot of energy waste is pure foolishness, with no systematic economic value -but pursuing zero-sum economic games. Consider, open freezers in grocery stores. Maybe if we had to open glass doors, we wouldn't just buy ice-cream on a whim, but if we actually wanted it, we would simply open the case and take it out. Similarly with department stores and movie theaters letting AC cooled air flow out into the street to attract hot customers. We spend huge amounts of energy playing silly zero-sum games.

How about where I live....Montana there is no recyling of glass...How much energy does it take to make glass? And people are complaining how much energy it takes to make solar panels? I don't get it...

The U.S. as a whole recycles only about 1/2 of aluminum (probably the biggest component of energy going into landfills). That's about 0.5 a quad a year wasted (literally).

The lack of recycling of glass in Montana probably reflects the cost of transporting the material to a plant that can recycle it. That's why we typically don't see places that take glass for recycling in Northern Ontario because of the long distance to plants in Southern Ontario.

well i didn't mean recycling...I meant re-use...can't you just sterilize a bottle and reuse it again? that is what they have been doing in Europe for a long time...Coke mixes their products here from dry ingredients they could just re-use the bottles...I am sure it takes a lot of energy to keep making new glass...

It also costs money to store the bottles, process out the chipped and ones with cig butts at the bottom, energy to clean/make sterile enough for the liquid, then energy for moving the heavy glass about.

Not to mention the "hassle" for the consumer to return the bottles and the 'hassle' for the store to store them for pickup.

Its why plastic + plastic coated Al cans exist.

" transportation, car-pooling, walking, bicycling and increased use of existing transit can deliver mobility at a much lower personal and societal cost than replacing declining oil with new liquid fuels, whether biofuels or renewable-powered synthetics."

The single most effective method I've found in reducing my transportation costs is to stay home. I no longer look for excuses (or make excuses) for unnecessary travel. The mobility enabled by the fossil fuel age is an aberration, considering our history. I once met a guy in Brookland who had never travelled more than 50 miles from home; ("I went to Jersey once"), and thought that was gastly. While driving back to GA it occured to me that his situation was far more normal for most societies, over time.

Your comment reminded me of the article I read in the NYT this morning "Americans Migration Patterns Changing" and there was a quote "millions of people are frozen in place". Sounds like an energy crisis. What is so amazing is that they cited the recession but not any type of lack of energy availability as a cause.

I considered and rejected this issue as a significant problem.

For one, all forms of energy are not going to become short at the same time and evenly.

For two, the durability and ESOEI and EROEI (ESOEI = energy saved on energy invested) is high enough to work around the problem.

Natural gas is used to create fiberglass insulation. Depending on the marginal addition of insulation, the natural gas saved (winter heating and electricity for summer cooling) will usually pay back in months to a couple of years. Said insulation will function for many decades - basically the life of the building.

Wind turbines pay back their energy investment in less than two years and last for 20+ years. Electric arc furnaces are an ideal scheduled power use and are used to recycle steel.

Making bicycling safer and easier has ESOEI of thousands to one.

The ESoEI of electrifying and expanding railroads is in the many hundreds to one.

Likewise Urban rail and TOD. DC Metro cost @ $12 billion (old $) and saves about 200,000 b/day of oil. A figure that grows with time.

Arlington County buys 288 gallons/capita/yr, Fairfax 388 gallons/capita/yr and the rest of Virginia 645 gallons/capita/yr.

Arlington can adapt to a 2/3rds reduction in oil (96 gallons/yr) better than the rest of Virginia can (215 gallons/yr).

Best Hopes for Planning for a Panic so we can Panic with a Plan,


When I was a kid, I occasionally used a trap just like the one pictured to catch a chicken for the table to save a 22 rim fire round that cost about 1 cent in US currency.I expect this had more to do with having me catching the chicken and less to do with the penny than otherwise, as at that time I was too young to be trusted with a firearm without supervision.

But it does illustrate the point about conservation!The box and rope were frequently used for other purposes and lasted for a very long time.

While I believe a crash is inevitable due to the inability of our monkey brain architecture to deal with long term problems, I also believe that people such as Alan are capable of making huge contributions to our planning data base which if utilized will soften the crash to a considerable extent.I might even go so far as to say that if he were the President, and we has a congress full of people like the membership here, there might not even be a crash but rather only a long tough economic slow spell.

Now speaking as an individual, I don't know how to solve the problems associated with energy returned on energy invested on a large scale.

But I can say this:

Remember what Rockman keeps saying about investments being made in the ff industry being based on MONETARY terms.As individuals, we need to be thinking, planning, and acting to a considerable extent on the same basis.

If you install a solar hot water system or pv system or extra insulation or buy a high efficiency car ( assuming you must drive in order to earn your living) it seems to me that the odds of earning a very good monetary return on the investment are excellent, as the prices of energy of various forms of energy are likely to spike sharply within the next few years.Under currently existing circumstances, no one should be concerned about EROEI, or any other such measure, so far as his personal plans are concerned..

If the energy involved is not invested in your conservation, efficiency, and self generation plans it WILL BE WASTED flying tourists and road warriors around, or keeping empty high rise office buildings lit all night, or by some redneck riding around in a four by four truck.( full disclosure- I do own a heavy duty 4x4 pickup truck, but I drive it only when I need to move a heavy load over rough ground, and on days the roads have not been plowed after a snowstorm.The rest of the time I mostly drive an elderly Escort that consistently gets over thirty mpg.The truck insurance premium generally exceeds the fuel costs on a monthly basis.)

I might even go so far as to say that if he were the President, and we has a congress full of people like the membership here, there might not even be a crash but rather only a long tough economic slow spell.
~ oldfarmermac

That's the scary thing:

We internalize and express the status-quo and make it difficult to see anything else beyond it, and yes trap everyone into it...

The king, the royal family, corporate feudalism, fiat/fractional/"private" currency, debt-/wage-/slavery, the nation-state, undemocratic hierarchical decision-making, self-appointed leadership, Brand Obama, Lady Gaga, industrial/GM agro, and on and on...

(insert choice of expletives here)

...Apparently, oldfarmermac, we've been doing "farming" "recklessly" for the past 10 000 years or so... and then...

Enclosure or inclosure is the process which ends traditional rights such as mowing meadows for hay, or grazing livestock on common land. Once enclosed, these uses of the land become restricted to the owner, and it ceases to be common land. In England and Wales the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons had become largely restricted to rough pasture in mountainous areas and to relatively small parts of the lowlands...

The process of enclosure has sometimes been accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed, and remains among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England. Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit. This created a landless working class that provided the labour required in the new industries developing in the north of England. For example: 'In agriculture the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost'. 'Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery'...
~ Wikipedia

If some of us really want to approach 'energy solutions' as if they're somehow required, we need to look at the picture holistically and comprehensively, but we don't seem very inclined to...

We appear trapped in and like that box with the rope and the stick of our own devices.

We get in the box and then pull the string and then talk about it from inside with the same enclosed mindset.

well said Sir!

I will take issue with our farming recklessly for the past ten thousand years , however.

It is certainly true that once we got to the point that we could set aside enough food from actual production above and beyond the ends of the farmers themselves, we started down the road to potential ruin, as we would never have achieved an industrial /commercial civilization without that surplus.

But there is a huge difference in a few thousands or tens of thousands of primitive farmers working a given area to ruin, in terms of depleting the soil and forests, etc, and eventually moving on, allowing the area to regenerate itself over decades or centuries compared to the same tens of thousands , hundreds of thousands, or millions settling down and staying put for the long haul.

Farming changed the world somewhat when there were only a relatively few people around, but farming did not do it any real harm until much later.Three or four thousand years would be a much more reasonable time frame considering the numbers of people in most parts of the world up until that time. The process of environmental degradation has been accelerating ever since.

Change is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, it is a part of nature; for example the bison kept a good portion of the open midwest open by grazing any sapling trees colonizing the edge of prairie areas, etc. If some disease had wiped out the bison, the forests would have been larger.

When farmers using primitive methods enter an area, they change it, but some species flourish as a result, and a new stable local ecology can emerge.

We are just a different kind of ant, with bigger cows and gardens.

The problem is not so much farming as technological civilization itself.However, I do readily admit that farming is a necessary cornerstone of that civilization.

For what it is worth, I have some reason to believe that a number of my ancestors were on the warpath in respect to rich Englishmen closing off the lands they depended on for their livelihood.One result of that losing fight is that I am proud Scots Irish Appalachian American hillbilly rather than an a modern day Irish peasant.

We are locally as well prepared for the day tshtf as just about anybody, for we are , as modern people go, still highly clannish and highly self sufficient-and very well armed too, having learned that lesson all to well centuries back.

But even for us it isn't going to be any fun doing without all the modern conveniences that make life so easy these days.we will however have more than enough food, plenty of water,adequate shelter, and plenty of wood for heat , barring the worst sort of bad luck.

The real question is whether can we hang onto what we have when the going gets tough.

Personally I am on campus at the local community college at this minute, researching public health issues so as to know how to deal with problems not much seen around here for the last century or so, such as outbreaks of contagious insect and water borne diseases..

Thanks oldfarmermac,

What I was referring to is how agriculture is and was done in certain contexts, and vis-a-vis permaculture and perhaps old native land management in mind.
In effect, or IOW, as it is understood; the seeds (of questionable farming practices) were sown... (i.e., tilling the soil; monoculture; razing forests, unnecessarily-hard work and drudgery for rapidly-diminishing returns, soil erosion/runoff/degradation, and then on to fossil-fuel inputs [green revolution, pesticides] and genetically modified crops, etc..).

The Eden that Europeans described when they reached North America was not a wilderness, but a well-managed resource, a complex combination of nature and culture, ecology and economy, a system so subtle and effective that it eluded the settlers who saw only natural wealth free for the taking. The result of this land grab in North America is that only 2% of the land is now wild, its major rivers are polluted, its lakes have caught fire, and its forests are dying from the top down. The tragedy of this commons was that it never really was a commons after colonization, but was surrendered to plunder, privatization, and exploitation in the name of Manifest Destiny and progress."

...if we lose the forests, we lose our only instructors. And people must see these forests and wilderness as the greatest educational system that we have on the planet. If we lose all the universities, then we would lose nothing, but if we lose the forest, we lose everything.
~ Bill Mollison

A Farm For The Future
A Food Forest Garden

"I considered and rejected this issue as a significant problem."

Well that's a relief, I was starting to worry! BTW, who are you again? ;)

It's not bad to hear some optimism tho. This here struck me the other day:

The gist: most energy used both domestically and commercially is thermal, which is mostly produced by burning stuff. Enter the sun, a massive burning ball. Exciting uses of concentrated sun power solve all problems. Personally I worship the thought of using the sun for all our industrial and home heating.

Glad someone is posting a cautionary note. Again, I think this is an example where the maths is supporting the argument, not illuminating it. There is a real issue, but you have to get practical to address it.

First, we are concerned about a LIQUID FUEL decline, not straight energy as such. What we are looking at is replacing energy used for transportation (about 32% of global energy use). As such we are looking, at present, at three potentially practical technologies:

  • LPG & CNG dual fuel
  • Mains recharged batteries
  • Hydrogen powered

It's pretty obvious that the first of these is a FF replacement (so has less of the upfront energy investment cost) and is a well understood technology. We are also not looking at a coincident peak in these gasses with oil.

The second and third items put calls on the electrical energy infrastructure, but even if we are looking at a 2% decline in oil, that doesn't read across to a 2% decline in all energy. Actually, using the figures, it's probably a 0.64% decline in overall energy IF everything remained flat. Multiplying that by 4 and we get 2.56%, well within the scope for capacity development in normal times.

Of course, the main issues in the electricity based alternatives is battery/storage tech and available rare earth resources, but that's a different class of constriction.

And then we ladle on top the potential efficiency savings. Frankly, even in Europe, there is scope for some easy wins in liquid fuel use. Price rises, compulsory ride sharing, rationing of fuel - we could knock 10% off the consumption figures without much issue - that's 5 years of 2% decline, an age in politics.

While I'll agree that the energy and monetary cost of transition is an issue to be managed in a post peak world, I don't think its quite the trap it's being sold as. There are MUCH bigger problems, post peak.

We are also not looking at a coincident peak in these gasses with oil.

Is that really correct?
Serious substitution for oil would mean a steeply rising demand that would need huge (?) increase in capital invested in not just mining the gases but transporting them? And they are not so easy to move around, (OK, some will happen, that is what is going on between Russia and Japan et al just now, but in order to supply transport fuel?) Big substitution for transport raises prospect of another big bottleneck?
The rapid approach to a peak in sustainable delivery, same as oil? Could be worse than for oil because sources of NG tend to very rapid depletion rates - as we see in British N Sea just now?

EROEI is one of the topics that I will be covering at this year's ASPO Conference next week. I am going to work through some examples of how it should be used with caution. For example, I will show a case where a 1.2 EROEI is superior to a 10:1 EROEI. I have 4 examples like that that may be counter-intuitive.

Despite what he says, Tom's post is more about the discount rate than EROEI per se. His post is too elaborate, really.

Paraphrasing the trap, given the context of declining energy consumption, detractors of an energy investment will point to the trend and say, "see! We don't need this white elephant!" (Neatly reversing cause and effect.)

Investors will see uncertain and declining demand and look for investments with the earliest possible return, for which there is more certainty. The effect is to increase the hurdle discount rate.

This is the trap: the faster the decline, the harder it will be to justify investment to reverse it.

Tom says almost in passing that fossil fuel investments have low up-front investment and short time to payback, and so offer escape from the trap, but everything else (except maybe biofuels) does not. I'm not so sure.

So how long does it take from planning to production for deep water oil. More appropriately to Tom's analysis, how long between the time the energy is spent (creating the steel for the DW platform etc. and refined oil hitting the market? Thats also an issue with wind and solar. I don't spend a terajoule on a windmill, and the next day start pumping electrons onto the grid. Rather, there are variable delays, mining the ore, smelting it to iron, converting to steel. Steel to WT parts, sitting in a storage yard, being shipped, being erected, working on all the internal parts, finally you start pumping electrons. I bet that whole process takes a long time. Similar to PV, from the refining to raw solicon and glass, to actually producing power, there is a substantial lag bewteen energy expenditure and production, and that adds to the amount of time you gotta wait before becoming net positive.

Looking forward to seeing it on TOD, I hope.

This documentary looks at... developments in mathematics over the past 40 years have completely changed our understanding of the fundamental nature of the world we live in.

As we approach tipping points in both the economy and the climate, the film examines the mathematics we have been reluctant to face up to and asks if, even now, we would rather bury our heads in the sand rather than face harsh truths.

I think we need to be mature and holistic about this and take some of our heads out of some of our myopic views of reality, of what is and what could be, such as with a life of meaning with regard to pleasure, happiness, time with the kids, etc.-- real needs, not artificial ones manufactured by the so-called "1%".

In that regard, there seem no real sacrifices to make, save for the ones that appear rather sadomasochistic to life, love and Mother Earth.

All that is required is to "turn off the lights and go home early".

I your analysis, you did not consider that there are different countries in the world. However, your Take 1 figure gives a clear prediction of what happens with two countries, let's call them Country A and Country C, that pursue different strategies.

- Country A does business as usual. Black line in the figure.
- Country C's government declares a "National Struggle" at time point zero and starts implementing alternative energies - blue line.

What happens? There are two alternatives.

Alternative 1: population of Country C successfully tries a revolution and changes strategy. Then, they are worse off than A for all future, because energy declines further and they therefore cannot catch up.

Alternative 2: C's government manages to realize the plan. Then C's population suffers more than A's for 4 years (e.g. they freeze in winter and are hot in summer, as non-essential energy use is rationed). Then, they break even and are better than A from year 5. Approximately year 25, C rules the world and A is an underdeveloped backwater.

Approximately year 25, C rules the world and A is an underdeveloped backwater.

And yet they are both on the same planet.

Is the revolution global?

...Is the thinking unboxed?

Alternative 3: Country A keeps military funding at full level as energy declines just in case, Country C cuts military first to realize energy plan. Seven years out Country A sees how both countries' futures are trending, attempts to hijack Country C's production and both go down in flames...

Box and All

Host: 'What state does function according to what you call the minimal levels of honesty? Is there a state?'
Noam Chomsky: 'None. States are power-centers. The only thing that imposes constraints on them is either outside force or their own populations.'
Host: 'What will the state look like at the end?'
Chomsky: 'At the end I think states ought to dissolve, because I think they're illegitimate structures ...As long as people... are able to free themselves from the doctrinal controls imposed on them by their self-appointed betters and mentors... they'll continue to be able to struggle for peace and justice and freedom and limitations on violence and constraints on power, as they've been doing for hundreds of years... The immediate problem is to free ourselves from the shackles imposed very consciously by the kind of people... who don't want the facts to be known-- and for very good reasons-- because if people know the facts, they're not going to tolerate them...
~ From show, Hot Type (CBC) (YouTube)

...As long as people... are able to free themselves from the doctrinal controls imposed on them by their self-appointed betters and mentors... they'll continue to be able to struggle for peace and justice and freedom and limitations on violence and constraints on power, as they've been doing for hundreds of years...

as spoken from the ivory tower by a man who drew a professor's salary almost all his days. Sorry, states fail and we don't get happy little kibbutz communities, we get competing warlords. No doubt the pursuit of linguistics will give a man a unique outlook--once in deep you are trying to unravel the very nature of human thought but...we have long and deep past and language has only been around for the last little bit of it--here are a couple incidents that showed me a bit about my own nature I related in TOD just last week. (They are in the bottom half of the fairly long reply to Nick) I'm betting Noam never really saw that part of himself revealed back when he was 25 living in a kibbutz, it certainly would never rear its head on a college campus, and you probably have to be fairly young to experience it--kind of like the warlord led bands that have raised their heads wherever central authority has failed.

It seems that people can have an interesting time sidelining some discussions' issues with a "critique" of Chomsky when he's discussing the Palestine/Israel issue too. ;)

I've already mentioned on here the contradictory backgrounds of some of the more well-known 'peak-oilers'... Ya gotta love Matt Simmons' ostensible background, especially given today's context, for example.

But at any rate...

Although I admit that the outcome in a stateless society will be bad, because not only are people not angels, but many of them are irredeemably vicious in the extreme, I conjecture that the outcome in a society under a state will be worse, indeed much worse, because, first, the most vicious people in society will tend to gain control of the state (Hayek 1944, 134-52; Bailey 1988; Higgs 2004, 33-56) and, second, by virtue of this control over the state’s powerful engines of death and destruction, they will wreak vastly more harm than they ever could have caused outside the state (Higgs 2004, 101-05). It is unfortunate that some individuals commit crimes, but it is stunningly worse when such criminally inclined individuals wield state powers.
~ Robert Higgs, 'If Men Were Angels: The Basic Analytics of the State versus Self-government'

I will add these to consider:

- Competing warlords may be relatively small potatoes; a (temporary) result of the collapse of/reason behind a centralized authority (states selling [high-tech/taxpayer-wage-slave-funded arms/WMD's to "just about anyone"); and corporate-media-"jacked" (pumped) as more dangerous and in need of a central authority to maintain control; "You see what happens? That's why you need us. Anarchy bad, centralized authority good.". (Chomsky has some words about stuff like "media-jacking" in Manufacturing Consent, BTW.)
- A state central authority may have failure baked-in; IOW, it may be fundamentally-flawed.

- "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."

...we have long and deep past and language has only been around for the last little bit of it...
~ Luke H

'Communications', has been around far longer. And then there's DNA. The universe "communicates" with its "components" through the forces-- strong, weak, gravity, etc..
Freedom seems indeed slippery, but given similar results, some forces I'd rather be subjected to than others. How about you?

There are a number of steps that need to be taken to successfully reapply the wisdom of the tribe:

1 ) Individuals must re-establish a sense of deep connection and bondedness to the whole (in this case the planet). This is a process that is both practical and mythic, left brain and right brain - and it is fortunately already occurring. It is especially important that people build direct human connections around the globe. Since the nation-states are today's bullies, we can not rebuild the peace of the tribe unless we build a global community that stands independent of these nations, as William Ellis argues so well in the Summer 1983 issue of IN CONTEXT. It is also essential that these connections be "real," based on meaningful ties of economics and common personal interest, and not just a technique for peace.

2) Our societies need to decentralize to remove crucial pressure points. We need to replace brittle systems of hierarchical power with resilient systems of 'network semi-dependence...'
~ Robert Gilman,

Nation-states appear to involve the scaling-up of the errs of our ways, nurtured by cheap energy, like the population...

7 Billion people this week, and counting...

(How far do our electric fences and/or wealth go and/or are shared? How many planet Earths are needed these days for the sustainability of the sum total of some lifestyles?)

The paradox in our success and ultimate failure as a species may very well prove to be in how our minds work.

In our capacity to make and incapacities to wisely and maturely use technology, such as for war and for food.

- A state central authority may have failure baked-in; IOW, it may be fundamentally-flawed
no doubt, likely all complex organizations in nature have failure baked in, likely right down to the subatomic level. But on a less uselessly overgeneralized level here is a thought, very likely every idea you discuss here was able to bubble to the surface only in environments (ones that allow extended complex idea exchange) which exist/ed because central authority is/was in place. Nice little paradox there.

'Communications', has been around far longer. And then there's DNA. The universe "communicates" with its "components" through the forces-- strong, weak, gravity, etc.. Well gravity may be the ultimate central authority and it is quite the long distance communicator. Believe me, I can remember very distinctly a few times I would much rather have not been subjected to its forces?- )

Freedom seems indeed slippery, but given similar results, some forces I'd rather be subjected to than others. How about you?

The conflict between freedom to and freedom from does make that very subjective and quite dependent on context ?- ) Socrates' arguments near the end of Plato's Crito make much more sense to me, now after I have lived better than threescore years, than they did when I first read them forty years ago.

The paradox in our success and ultimate failure as a species may very well prove to be in how our minds work

And so much of that is in the telling of the story or so it seems. The link is to today's fine Benedict Carey NYT piece about Michael Gazzaniga's work.

I think there is a math error in your last table.

If there is a 2% per annum decline in fossil fuels (FF) column, the first year the decline is 2 units, the next year, it's a 2% decline of 98 units. By my math that is equal to 98 * 0.02 = 1.96 unit decline to 96.04 units of FF in year 2, not 96 units. This same calculation is made all the way down the table in the FF column.

This throws off all your numbers slightly, but your point remains intact.

If I'm wrong (quite posssible as math was my worst subject), I apologize in advance.

Before I put this article together, I used a genuine exponential 2%/yr decline. Then I decided that the exactness was not warranted, and potentially clouded the overall point. So I opted for a simpler-to-understand linear model. Just a toy.

Hi Tom, I don't understand why in your calculations fossil fuels do not require energy investment. What reasoning led you to this? Or am I missing something?

Another thing: over a 15 year period the EROEI of a fossil energy source will go through some substantive decline (e.g. Shale Gas substituting Conv Gas). Depending on the assumed EROEI decline rate, those graphs can become quite different.


In my toy-model framework, I considered FF as not requiring substantial up front investment, even though there will be time-of-extraction, time-of-refinement types of investment. I know this is not strictly true, but FF stands apart from solar, wind, and to a large extent nuclear in its up-front vs. real-time investment requirements. I have not seen good data on this, however, so if someone wants to point us all to some good sources...

Tom – I can offer some details on the energy input for FF extraction. I work these numbers every day. Again, can’t put it in EROEI terms but easily done in capex. For a typical onshore well the fuel expense is around 6 – 8%. Offshore, especially DW, it’s closer to 5% because of the high rental costs of the equipment.

But more relevant is the fuel used vs. fuel generated. Just to give a sense of scale I’ll use some simple models. A $4 million onshore completed oil well used around $300,000 of fuel. Thus this well would have to produce around 5,000 of oil to replace this amount. Of course, there is the embedded energy used in the process. An over estimate for sure but let’s double to 10,000 bbls. And there is the energy used to refine this oil so let’s add another 5,000 bbls (again, an over estimate). And let’s not forget not all drilling efforts succeed so we’ll assume half the wells never produce a single bbl of oil. So we’ll add another 5,000 bbls. So now we’re at 20,000 bbls. Or about $1.8 million. The well costs $4 million. So even with all the heavy handed estimates the profitability of drilling does not hinge on the energy used to drill but the total cost to drill. In essence the EROEI of drilling ventures will generally be positive because an insufficient ROR on investment will kill a project long before the EROEI will. The one scenario that plays against that proposition is happening now in the fractured shale plays. The public companies involved are accepting ROR lower than industry standards in return for satisfying Wall Street’s demand for y-o-y increases in reserve base. Thus the companies are recovering much of their investments via increased stock equity as opposed to cash flow. I’ll skip the DW model. Though the drilling/development costs are much higher, the production volumes are even that much greater.

Bottom line: the energy consumed in FF extraction is relatively low compared to energy produced. My model probably over states the relationship by 50%. And this is the point I’ve tried to make about the futility of estimating EROEI of FF extraction. In addition to being a very complex calculation, EROEI has never been, nor every will, control oil patch investments IMHO.

Rockman: thanks for the insight and details. Most estimates of EROEI for conventional oil fall between 10:1 and 30:1. I have not dug into these estimates myself, so I don't know how much is up front investment vs. operational/processing cost. One way to frame it is: how much energy is sunk into the enterprise (including exploration, physical build-up, drilling, etc.) before the oil flow begins in earnest?

Tom – In general the upfront costs (prospect generation, drilling and completion) are much greater than LOE (lease operating expense). Especially true during the first 80% or so of ultimate recovery. In essence LOE has no impact on drilling decisions.

Back to the generalization that about 7% of the cost of an onshore well is fuel consumption. So: a $6 million completed well uses about $400,000 worth of diesel or around 100,000 gallons or 2,400 bbls. Assume a diesel yield of 25% per barrel of oil so 10,000 bbls of oil to replace the fuel used. Of course, that 10,000 bbls yields some other valuable products but we’ll ignore that.

The next largest big chunk of energy consumption is the steel casing used in the well. I don’t have a good handle on that energy input especially if you include the initial mining and transport of the ore, the smelting to steel and the cumulative energy to transport from mill to well site. Again, this is the complication with calculating EROEI. And then there’s the steel and energy costs to build the drilling rig. But that has to be amortized across the number of wells it drills during its lifetime. And then there’s the tens of $millions of other equipment used to drill a well.

Just for grins let’s say it’s another 10,000 bbls of oil. So now let’s use a total of 20,000 bbls equivalent to drill a well. In order to just recover the initial $6 million investment the well has to produce around 100,000 bo. A good well will produce about 4 or 5 times its cost. So let’s use 400,000 bo. Thus the EROEI of this model would be 400,000/20,000 = 20.

Of course there’s a wide range of outcomes for every drilling investment. A dry hole has a big negative EROEI. And we drill dry holes. So industry-wide EROEI will be less than the EROEI of the successful wells. You can fudge the numbers around as you like and still be in the ball park in many cases.

I hope this gives some sense of scale. It might make it easier for the other TODsters to understand why I consider EROEI not to be a very relevant metric. Long before the EROEI of an individual drilling prospect gets very low standard oil patch economics will kill the deal. But the trap still exists to some degree industry-wide. As I mentioned in another post the 70’s drilling boom brought on by the oil price spike led to a very inefficient drilling effort. Just my WAG but the industry-wide EROEI was probably less than half the EROEI of the successful wells. Should we see another overly aggressive boom in the future it would likely tighten that foot snare of your energy trap significantly.

This brings me to an old parable. The wolf is caught in a trap and chews his foot off to escape. Was the wolf brave or a coward? Neither. The wolf was just following its nature as a wolf. But a human being doesn’t have to follow their nature. We can make a choice. He could choose to stay in the trap and await the hunter. Then attempt to destroy the hunter hoping to remove this danger from the rest of humanity even if he has to sacrifice. That would be the compassionate human thing to do.

Which seems to be the point you lay out: will we accept sacrifice in the effort to mitigate the circumstances for the whole. Or will we opt for individual self preservation?

Interesting insight. EROEI will remain illusive as long as the economic unit of account is purely abstract. Any money flow eventually translates into an energy flow in the opposite direction. The problem is that this relationship between money and energy is not constant, calculations made on this basis are only valid for a specific point in time.

In any case, the figures you present make it even more clear that the assumption of infinite EROEI for FF is an ill option. Tom's exercise cannot be applied to a comparison between, say, Oil and Wind.

Any [(every?)] money flow eventually translates into an energy flow in the opposite direction

Not true.

And there lies the rub.

Money flow is merely a promise made from one person to another, and sometimes it is an empty promise.

If the energy flow is not there to back up the promise, the promise goes unfulfilled.

Economists call the event a "default".
And they never mention the underlying energy problem that led to the default.
They blame it all on the party who failed to live up to its "promise" (a.k.a. its financial obligation)

As an example, think about Greece.
If Greece had a puddle of energy reserve sitting under their lands just as KSA has under its, Greece would not be having a "default" problem at this moment.
Then again, if USA had not dumped off its reserves at low price (under $20/bbl) up until the 1970's, it too would not be having this "crisis" of debt.

So basically you assumed FF EROEI to be infinite. Though they require little upfront investment they require operational inputs that can't be overlooked if you want to compare them to other energy sources. FF require constant operational energy inputs that must be compared with the upfront investment on energy sources like wind or solar.

If you assume FF EROEI to be constant, then a decrease in energy output shall result in a surplus that can be used to invest in other energies. If on the other hand you assume a decrease in FF EROEI, then a point will come were alternatives become more energy profitable.

The high upfront investment requirements mean above all that the growth of energies like wind or solar will be much slower than it happened with oil, requiring proper policies for a swift transition. But it doesn't mean that by default the investment on such energies isn't energetically profitable, as you seem to suggest.

Luis, if I may be so informal, if I understand you correctly, you seem to have a very incorrect view of oil/NG development. In reality costs are very heavy on the front end compared to “operational inputs”. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your terminology.

Real life example: two months ago I began producing a well that costs $8.5 million. It’s producing about $1 million/month in NG and condensate. My monthly “operational input” is $1,500 so, in essence, obviously irrelevant.

Deep Water operations are very expensive compared to my onshore well. Can easily run several 100 thousand $’s per month. OTOH I spent $500 million drilling the wells and another $400 million on the production facilities. And at 50,000 bopd it’s generating about $90 million/month. So again, the upfront costs totally dominate the process.

But I suspect the industrial sized alt systems share a similar profile. And individual home owner projects, like PV panels on the roof, would also seem to be completely dominated by upfront costs.

Yes, I wrote that before reading your comments and giving a thought to drilling, by far the most energy intensive activity in an oil project. My point is: even if an energy source doesn't require upfront energy investment (is this possible?) you have to account operational energy inputs to correctly distribute your energy budget in a model like Tom's.

What your information on oil exploration tells us is that Tom's assumption of infinite EROEI for FF is completely off, regardless of the upfront/operational energy inputs discussion. Thus his conclusions can never apply to an Oil to Renewables transition.

Luis – I think I did misread you. It’s difficult for me to think in terms of energy consumption in what I do….it’s always $’s. I think you read that the energy requirements to develop oil/NG are relatively small compared to the produced energy. Even more so if you ignore the sunk energy already expended on the infrastructure. With that assumption the energy budget to bring on new reserves is truly insignificant. Even less significant during the production phase.

But that may also highlight a big distinction between current oil/NG development and any of the alts: the need for massive infrastructure/production facilities and the energy needed to buid them. The oil patch has $trillions in existing infrastructure: drilling rigs, pipelines, refineries, etc. OTOH the alts have virtually nothing by comparison. Similar to the oil patch the energy cost per unit produced may be relatively small. But the energy outlay to expand production to a meaningful level might be the real core to the energy trap.

Also I didn’t catch where Tom referenced an “infinite EROEI” for FF. Not even sure what that implies. But as you may have already seen the EROEI is of no interest to me. As I showed the monetary cost to develop future oil/NG reserves will determine what gets drilled or not. The economics will stop drilling long before EROEI becomes too low to justify the effort. In fact, let’s use my example: a $6 million well that uses $400,000 worth of diesel to drill. We can ignore the infrastructure energy cost…it’s sunk. But we’ll add the materials (steel casing, drilling mud, etc) since the still to be produced so add another $200,000. So who is going to spend $6 million for a well that produce $600,000 worth of energy? At a minimum you might expect to produce $6 million of energy to justify drilling this well. Just a ball park guess but in this model an EROEI of 10 would seem to be the minimum that would be acceptable.

This thread is going very interesting. Tom didn't referenced he assumed FF EROEI to be infinite, but that's what he did, since there's no energy investment needed to tap FF sources in his model. The implication is that even if alternatives exist FF will be remain a better investment and thus creating what Tom called the energy trap.

I understand that someone working in your field can't possibly think much of EROEI, you have to stick to good old $ to make it work. This is so because the relationship between $ and kWh is not fixed in time and thus investment becomes more uncertain the farther the $ returns are into the future. Beyond that it is important to understand that oil is very close to be a perfect concurrency market, hence if the demand isn't there you may not have positive financial returns for a well that has positive EROEI (e.g. shale gas in the Us today). But in any case your insight is very important and helps bringing the theoretical thinking down to earth.

I did not assume infinite EROEI for fossil fuels: just that their up-front investment is minimal (but energy is invested to extract, deliver, and refine the product). So I had a time-of-production investment instead of up-front. Following Rockman's comments, this is probably a poor assumption. Mainly, I was trying to illustrate the difference between solar, wind, etc. (having almost all the energy investment up front) with fossil fuels. If I'm wrong about FF having much lower up-front investment, then FFs could exhibit trap behavior as well.

It just takes a quick check of the definition of EROEI to understand that indeed you assumed infinite EROEI, the energy investment for FF in your model is null. The realization that FF also require large up-front energy inputs simply trows to the ground your concept of energy trap as it was presented, there's no way around this.

The only factor considered in my analysis is up-front energy investment. The FF component could have 10:1 EROEI at time of production, meaning you only get to keep 90% of what you pull from the ground. This is irrelevant to the energy trap analysis. So it is inaccurate to say infinite EROEI was assumed. More accurate is to say that the EROEI of FF was assumed to have zero up-front cost, and arbitrary EROEI (anything from 1:1 to ∞:1). In other words, it did not figure in. But your conclusion is correct. Any up-front component to FF gives it some trappiness.

I think you are both wrong, if we are presently investing say 10% of our energy use in extracting FF, and shift to investing 10% energy use in building wind and solar for harvesting renewables there is no energy trap.

You would be right if we stopped FF cold-turkey, which would be catastrophic. In truth, we will continue aggressive pursuit of FF, likely investing ever more energy as the EROEI declines. We don't escape the trap by ceasing investment in fossil fuels: this would cause immensely more pain than the scenarios I explore.

Hi Neil and Tom,

re: "if we stopped FF cold-turkey, which would be catastrophic."

The "catastrophic" aspect of stopping - (or zero oil available, as I formulated it for myself a long time ago, as in the following: "If zero oil tomorrow, then collapse. So the Q becomes: What % and what time frame can prevent collapse?") - in any case:

For the purposes of Neil's comment, it seems to me the relevant questions are:

1) Would the "catastrophic" result of stopping cold-turkey mean that Neil's scenario *cannot* take place?

2) In other words, Tom says "You would be right if..." But the part after "if" negates Neil being right - Yes? or No?

3) Is there any set of conditions that can give rise to Neil's scenario?

We dont have to stop producing all oil at day one, it can be a transition, with a shift of resources from developing new oil fields to using that energy to develop nuclear and renewables. The critcal thing is that a lot less(25%) electrical energy(MJ or KWh) is needed to propel EV and PHEVs than the energy in gasoline.
With wind power the invested energy is returned in less than a year, and these considerable savings in energy use will enable continued rapid expansion of solar and wind( as we see happening now)

tom - I'm sure many won't be able to appreciate how "trapped" much of the oil patch, especially public companies, feels right now. Thanks to high oil prices it looks like we have nothing to worry about. But there are big worries all across the industry. Again, not so much from EROEI, but the "money sink trap" for lack of a better term. For many of the players in the unconventional shale plays they are really in a huge wealth transfer treadmill they cannot escape. Many $billion are being transferred from these companies to royalty owners, service companies and the tax man. I was very serious before when I stated that a public company could spend $5 billion drilling a fractured shale play, recover only the $5 billion back in revenue and still be deemed "successful". Successful because Wall Street rewarded the shareholders by bumping the stock up year after year because the company kept replacing/add to its reserve base.

But you see the trap: to increase reserves they have to drill more wells to replace the ones rapidly depleting. But there will always be an eventual limit on capex. And they can run into that brick wall even sooner if the price of oil drops significantly. Which is exactly what happened back in '08 when NG prices crashed and took down all the public shale gas players like Chesapeake and Devon. At some point the low profitability will control the situation. At that time it will become apparent to most that the oil path is grossly over supplied with companies. And when that trap springs a great many of the current public companies will disappear.

While in the discussion you give various values for current EROEI, in your model you assume a starting point with no energy being invested i.e. that the current EROEI is infinite. Not surprisingly when you model what happens in a switch from infinite to finite EROEI, you see a nasty transition.

Actually our current energy consumption depends on past investments, and investments are continuing to be made at the moment.

The trap is an artefact of your model. Discontinuity in discontinuity out.

Agreed that the discontinuity has some artificial quality to it. But if we really tried to put in 2 Quads of renewable energy in place in one year, this would be for all intents and purposes a discontinuity. In any case, the artificial nature of the Take 1 case is what prompted the more realistic ramp-up case in Take 2, which removes the discontinuity.

What capability have we demonstrated in the past?

Why do you jump from the world to France?

If anything you need to jump from country to country. Besides, please don't say 'we' when you are not even French.

China installed 37 GW of renewable power capacity, 29 GWth of solar hot water and 9 GWth of geothermal heat in one year.
37 GW of renewable power at 33% capacity factor and give your electricity bonus of 3 you are at 324 TWh for electricity.
+ 79 TWh geothermal (100% capacity factor and no bonus)
+ 51 TWh solar hot water (20% capacity factor and no bonus)
= 454 TWh in total.
Which is about 2% of the Chinese energy consumption in one year. So, China already did 2% per year with renewables alone.

If energy was considered important and the US would reduce its military budget from over 50% to 25% of the world's entire military spending (please note: this doesn't even include all the costly classified intelligence programs):

The US could add about 230 GW of wind power per year not even counting for the saved non-renewable energy costs. With your electricity bonus, this is about 6% per year or more than 10% per year (if you decided to use energy as efficiently as the (still quite inefficient) Swiss, for instance, who have a higher average living standard than you).

Needless to say, that we don't really need cheap energy to waste. If anything, we need cheaper rent, cheaper health-care and lower income taxes. Now, if somebody invented cheap rent, this would give us an actual break - who cares about any cheap-energy-machine...

Anyone, that is my favorite post on TOD for at least the last couple of months.

Hi anyone,


re: The military spending number has some weird things about it (not that your numbers are weird, or your point is weird). For one thing, the US "waste" factor (bang for buck, so to speak) is quite large, as I understand it. (i.e., US money results in less actual weaponry per dollar than those in the comparison columns, etc.) Meaning: Some portion of military budget is welfare for corporatists, Blackwater, and many middle-class "others," etc. This does not, of course, make it at all ethical. Just sayin'...

re: "if somebody invented cheap rent",

This, to me, is one of the best ideas I've heard. It sounds similar to the practical point I took away from Orlov's discussions. Having people "stay put" is good. Orlov says this kept the suffering less than it would have been otherwise. i.e., State-owned housing was a big advantage in the Soviet collapse. I don't even know if this is true, strictly speaking - haven't done research myself. But it sounds quite plausible.

What we need are new arrangements and ways to organize to meet basic needs. Given the goal. So, for example, 1) if there's any analysis - and BTW does it exist? - that shows it's possible to do a "transition" that would result in an industrial global society powered by renewables (therefore, electricity based) at a much lower total energy level. (Or, if the goal is just to keep the US together?)...2) to get there? i.e, how to make such a change and still allow people to survive, given their unemployment. 3) And, even if the goal is unachievable and we are talking collapse outright, then there's still the question of less suffering.

It seems as though the notion of re-localization is logical. This means, people pick a spot and stay there. Given them some security to then make physical improvements in their little spots seems like a good organizing principle. A good place to start.

(BTW, I agree no more war. Most are not even wars - just invasions.)

Tom Murphy
Good thought provoking argument. Re:

For a 40 year lifetime (e.g., power plant, solar panels, wind turbines), this means we would need 40:1 EROEI or better to avoid the trap.

There may be some hope with solar thermal or concentrating solar power (CSP). The major challenge is still the liquid fuels transition.

Robert Rapier - look forward to your EROI presentation.

Following are some EROI items I found:

EROI Reviews

A New Long Term Assessment of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for U.S. Oil and Gas Discovery and Production, Megan C. Guilford, Charles A.S. Hall, Pete O’ Connor and Cutler J. Cleveland. Sustainability 2011, 3, 1866-1887; doi:10.3390/su3101866 Published: 14 October 2011. e.g. For the USA:

We found two general patterns in the relation of energy gains compared to energy costs: a gradual secular decrease in EROI and an inverse relation to drilling effort. EROI for finding oil and gas decreased exponentially from 1200:1 in 1919 to 5:1 in 2007. The EROI for production of the oil and gas industry was about 20:1 from 1919 to 1972, declined to about 8:1 in 1982 when peak drilling occurred, recovered to about 17:1 from 1986–2002 and declined sharply to about 11:1 in the mid to late 2000s.

A Preliminary Investigation of Energy Return on Energy Investment for Global Oil and Gas Production, Nathan Gagnon, Charles A.S. Hall, and Lysle Brinker. Energies 2009, 2, 490-503; doi:10.3390/en20300490

We provide a preliminary assessment of EROI for the world’s most important fuels, oil and gas, based on time series of global production and estimates of energy inputs derived from monetary expenditures for all publicly traded oil and gas companies and estimates of energy intensities of those expenditures. We estimate that EROI at the wellhead was roughly 26:1 in 1992, increased to 35:1 in 1999, and then decreased to 18:1 in 2006. These trends imply that global supplies of petroleum available to do economic work are considerably less than estimates of gross reserves and that EROI is declining over time and with increased annual drilling levels. Our global estimates of EROI have a pattern similar to, but somewhat higher than, the United States, which has better data on energy costs but a more depleted resource base.

The major difference is that the global light oil production is near peak production, while the USA’s 48 state oil production peaked in 1970 and total oil is much farther past the peak and on the downward slope. i.e. most of the “easy” oil is gone. What is left requires more effort to recover.

EROI reviews:
Year in review—EROI or energy return on (energy) invested David J. Murphy and Charles A. S. Hall, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. ISSN 0077-8923

A Review of the Past and Current State of EROI Data, Ajay K. Gupta and Charles A.S. Hall, Sustainability 2011, 3, 1796-1809; doi:10.3390/su3101796 Oct 11, 2011.

Solar Thermal EROI

Principles of Sustainable Energy, Frank Kreith, D. Yogi Goswami 2011 CRC Press
page 61

Detailed EROI estimates for solar central receiver power plants have been made by Lorrin Vant-Hull in a series of peer revieweed articles [37,45-47]. The EROI estimates . . .10 MW electric Solar One … 6 h of oil thermocline storage . . . and Solar Two – 2 tank molten salt . . . In both cases the EROI was about 20 for electric power output to thermal (fossil) energy input assuming a 30 year life and 6 h of storage.

Fig. 1.1 p 18 shows Solar tower EROI from 8 to 19. On reference page 628:
46) Vant-Hull, Lorrin L. (1992-1993) Solar thermal electricity: An environmentally benign and viable alternative. Perspectives in Energy 2, 156-166.
47) Vant-Hull Lorrin L. (1992) Solar thermal receivers: Current status and future promise. American Solar Energy Society 7, 13-16.

Kreith, F. R.E. West, and C.J. Cleveland, 1987, ”Energy Analysis for Renewable Energy Technologies”, ASHRAE Trans. 91:999-1010

At EROI on the Web part 2 of 6, TOD Hall lists concentrating solar thermal EROI = 1.6 citing: Hall, C.A.S., C.J. Cleveland and R. Kaufmann. 1986. Energy and Resource Quality: The ecology of the economic process. Wiley Interscience, NY. 577 pp. (Second Edition. University Press of Colorado).
However, a number of readers differ:

Robert Marston TOD

"The energy balance is outstanding: the payback period for the energy expended in production of the components is 5 months. The materials used (concrete, steel, glass) can be recycled. . . ." Schott Memorandum on Solar Thermal Power Plant Technology

“I found a study by Lorin Vant-Hunt, professor of physics at the University of Houston, that referenced the EROEI for a concentrated solar power system to be 27:1 over 30 years for the system:” . . .

Here's another EROEI list I found that seems to scale with the ASPO data and supports a CSP (solar tower) EROEI estimate of approx 4:1.
. . .
Lorin Vant-Hunt noted 40+ EROEIs when materials used in the heliostats were recycled.”

( is currently unavailable. For from the Wayback Machine:
Net Energy List from Cutler J. Cleveland; Robert Costanza; Charles A. S. Hall; Robert Kaufmann, Science, New Series, Vol. 225, No. 4665 (Aug. 31, 1984), 890-897

Solar Power TOwer EROI = 4.2 (12.6)
Table Notes: Estimates of energy return on investment (EROI) ratios for some existing and proposed fuel supply technologies. Numbers in parentheses for electricity generation include a quality factor based on a heat rate of 2646 kcal/kWh.

Energy and the biophysical perspective.

mdsolar TOD notes:

here is a report on an LCA for a parabolic system that comes out to EROEI~25:

Will Stewart TOD

Another reference for CSP EROI can be The Promise of Solar Energy: A Low-Carbon Energy Strategy for the 21st Century by Rhone Resch and Noah Kaye, UN Chronicle.
“The energy payback time of CSP systems is approximately five months, which compares very favourably with their lifespan of 25 to 30 years.”

(PS with a 5 month payback for 30 year life, EROI = 72)

For mirrors see: ReflecTech® White Paper - Embodied Energy

ReflecTech®- mirrors have a cradle-to-grave embodied energy that is four times lower than curved glass mirrors. . . .
“The embodied energy of the ReflecTech®-based mirrors is attributed to the aluminum support substrate (62 MJ/m2), the ReflecTech® polymer substrate (22 MJ/m2), and the Reflec - Tech® silver layer (1 MJ/m2). The total is 85 MJ/m2.
The embodied energy of the curved glass mirrors is attributed to the curved glass (345 MJ/m2, including the silver layer and the back-coated layers) and transportation of the mirrors to the project site (20 MJ/m2). The total is 365 MJ/m2.”

G. Heath, Summary of Analysis of Embodied Energy per Square Meter Aperture Area for Trough Collectors, Accounting for End-of-Life Disposal Options, Internal NREL Correspondence, Strategic Energy Analysis Center, March 11, 2009.

(EROI could be backed out of CO2 emissions analysis. e.g. See:
F. Kreith, P.Norton, D. Brown, CO2 Emissions from Coal-Fired and Solar Electric Power Plants, May 1990 SERI/TP-260-3772 UC Category: 233 DE90000337

P. Viebahn, S. Kronshage, F. Trieb, and Y. Lechon, Final Report on Technical Data, Costs, and Life Cycle Inventories of Solar Thermal Power Plants, Co-funded by the European Commission within the Sixth Framework Programme under the New Energy Externalities Developments for Sustainability (NEEDS) RS 1a – WP12 Solar Thermal Power Technologies, Deliverable no. 12.2.

Garvin A. Heath, John J. Burkhardt III, Meta-Analysis of Estimates of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Concentrating Solar Power, SolarPACES 2011, Grenada Spain, NREL/CP-6A20-52191, September 2011

The median estimate of life cycle GHG emissions from parabolic trough CSP after harmonization is 69 g CO2eq/kWh and for power tower CSP is 25 g CO2eq/kWh.

I look forward to what others have found, especially on solar thermal/CSP EROI.
(PS Could someone please look up p 627 and find Ref 37 & Ref 45 by Vant-Hull, Lorrin L.)

Garvin Heath kindly recommended two more references on solar thermal EROI:

Life Cycle Assessment of a Parabolic Trough Concentrating Solar Power Plant and the Impacts of Key Design Alternatives
John J. Burkhardt, III, Garvin A. Heath,* and Craig S. Turchi, Environmental Science & Technology,2011, 45, 2457–2464

EPBT (Energy Pay Back Time) is defined as the length of time required to generate as much energy as is embodied in its (life cycle) LC. . . .
This (trough CSP) plant has a net capacity of 103 MW, incorporates 6.3 h of storage (using a two-tank indirect configuration and mined salts), and is wetcooled. . . .
Over its 30-year lifetime, the reference plant
generates an estimated 12.8 * 10^9 kWh, which, multiplied by the CED of 0.40 MJeq/kWh, yields a CEDtot = 5.12 = 109 MJeq. The resulting EPBT of the reference plant is 1.0 year. . . .
EPBT totaling 13 months for this dry-cooled variant to the reference plant design. . . .
Lechon et al.15 reports a LC CED of 2.45 MJ/kWh and 0.19 MJ/kWh to “build and dismantle” the plant. Using a different method than that outlined in this study, Lechon reports an EPBT of 12.5 months. If calculated using Lechon’s methods, the EPBT of the reference plant for this study is 6.7 months.

Lechon, Y.; De La Rua, C.; Saez, R. Life Cycle Environmental Impacts of Electricity Production by Solar Thermal Power Plants in Spain. J. Sol. Energy Eng. 2008, 130 (2), 0210121–0210127.

Table 5 Expected Payback Time months
Central tower 17 MW 12.2 months
Parabolic trough 50 MW 12.5 months
Solar thermal SEGS plant 4.5 months
Solar thermal Fresnel-type plant 6.7 months
Solar thermal DSG-type plant 2.7 months
Wind power 3-7 months
Photovoltaics 0.21 - 8 years

Lechon’s References: 3, 10-12
Viebahn P, 2004 “INDITEP, Integration of DSG Technology for Electricity Production, WP 4.3, Impact Assessment, Life Cycle Assessment of Construction Materials, Energy Demand and emissions of DSG,” Final Report.

Alsema, E.A., Frankl, P., and Kato, K. K., 1998 “Energy Pay-Back Time of PV Energy Systems: Present Status and Future Prospects,” Second World Conference on PV Solar Energy Conversion, Vienna.

Mason, J. M., Fthenakis, V.M., Hansen, T., and Kim, H.C. 2006 “Energy-Pay Back and Life Cycle CO2 Emissions of the BOS in an Optimized 3.5 MW PV Installation,” Prog. Photovoltaics, 14, PP. 179-190.

Garvin Heath further referred to:
IPCC SRREN: Home see CH 9 and Annex II. Annex II.5 Lifecycle assessment and risk analysis. Pp 10-16.

Garvin noted he and Manfred Lenzen summarized in Ch 9 a review of EROI estimates for renewables and that Appendix II included a bibliography of all LCA’s that passed their screens. Extracts:

Table 9.8 Energy Payback Times and Energy Ratios of Electricity Generating Technologies.
Concentrating solar Energy payback time 0.7 years to 7.5 years
Most common stated lifetime 25 years.
Energy ratio 1.0 to 10.3 kWhe/kWhprim


Lenzen, M. (1999). Greenhouse gas analysis of solar-thermal electricity generation. Solar Energy, 65(6), pp. 353-368.

Gagnon, L. (2008). Civilisation and energy payback. Energy Policy, 36(9), pp. 3317-3322.

8 years at point of production.
Externalities, like mining, rare earths, aluminum production, installation and transportation, we really don't know if they will break even on EROEI.

Read the full cite:
Photovoltaic from 0.21 years (= 2.5 months) to 8 years

Note especially:

Solar thermal Fresnel-type plant 6.7 months
Solar thermal DSG-type plant 2.7 months

Yes they will break even on EROEI over 25 years, let alone 30 - 40 years.
6 months payback at 25 years gives 50:1 EROEI.

The issue now is getting into mass production and bringing the cost down.
Solar thermal can also be used to make fuel.
See Alan Weimer. High Temperature Solar in a Low Carbon Hydrogen

Rare earths are not required for solar. Why do people keep repeating this false meme?


Rare earths are not required for solar.

I think they are currently used to make transparent conductors. You don't need transparent conductors to make PV, but it does enhance the efficiency. Some thin film techologies do use rare elements (Gallium, Indium, Tellurium). But that doesn't mean we can't scale other PV tech if hit hit a supply wall for one of these.

You hear the same thing for windturbines. Generators based on rare-earth permanent magnets are more compact and more efficient (especially at low wind speeds). But most turbines can mount more than one type of generator, the decision is made based on the economics, if the rare earths get too expensive, then other generator types would be favored.

"Rare earths are not required for solar.

I think they are currently used to make transparent conductors."

"Inorganic films typically are made up of a layer of TCO (transparent conducting oxide), generally in the form of indium tin oxide (ITO), fluorine doped tin oxide (FTO), and doped zinc oxide."

No rare earths there. Gallium, Indium, and Tellurium are relatively rare, but not rare earths.

"rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium."

Yes I'm being a stickler, and yes, it's because my other degree is in chemistry.

"Not required"


"Can be used"

Also humble silicon seems to be more efficient than many of the technologies using rarer elements. Note, rarer elements not rare earths.


One can make solar THERMAL without 'rare earths'.

If EROEI is ‘central concept’ in understanding the economics of energy production I have yet to see anybody demonstrate this ‘centrality’ with some clearly thought out examples. The effect you describe is real, but is a result of long energy payback time not of low EROEI. I wrote about this issue in an earlier post which I reproduce here:

You are mistaking the effects of energy payback time for the effect of energy balance. This assertion can be clearly demonstrated by considering an extreme case of a very long energy payback time. Suppose that a renewable energy source has an energy payback time of 25 years and a lifetime of 1000 years. If a culture existed which had sufficient patience, longevity, and a huge energy subsidy from some other source, this technology could eventually provide economically useful energy. Assuming uniform installation the long term equilibrium requirement would be to replace 1/1000 of total generation capacity each year at an energy cost of 2.5% (EROEI=40) of the total output. The problem is that this equilbrium would take a hell of a long time to establish. If one wanted to rapidly transition from a 'dirty' source of energy this technology would be useless. However, the reason for its uselessness is its long energy payback time, not its low EROEOI.

Of course it is true that if a number of different renewable technologies have approximate the same life time and their energy costs are primarily in the form of up front expenditures rather than in O&M expenditures, then energy payback time is inversely proportional to EROEI. This is apparently the effect you are thinking about. However, I think greater clarity is achieved if the one uses correct physical parameter which is driving the need for large energy subsidies.

Another frequently claimed reason for the ‘conceptual centrality’ of EROEI in the economic analysis of energy production is that the limit in which EROEI==>1 gives an important economic limit to the viability of energy production. This statement is equivalent to saying that important information about the economic limits of copper mining is given by the case of a copper mine which produces no copper. Now it is undoubtedly true that spending all morning digging a hole in the ground and then spending all afternoon filling the hole in again without having taken anything useful out of the hole in the mean time is a waste of labor, but the idea that this observation teaches you anything interesting about the economic limits of copper production in the next few decades is absurd.

The important limit of copper mining is the limit in which the opportunity cost of the production resources spent in the process of extracting a given amount of copper just balances the benefit of the copper so produced. Similarly the interesting limit of energy production is not a process which produces no net energy, but a process in which the opportunity cost of the resources spent extracting a given amount of net energy just balances the benefit of the net energy so produced. Of course this limit cannot be described in terms of dimensionless energy ratios, but I claim that there is no limit in which economic analysis can be reduced to calculating such ratios.

The problem with a purely economic analysis is that money can be generated by printing. Energy cannot be generated except by equipment capable of doing so. Energy is fungible only when there is equipment in place to generate it.

It looks like the US has already chosen the path of country A, and China has chosen the path of country C. In 25 years Chinese males will be buying American females as substitutes for the Chinese females the One Child Policy caused to be aborted.

Right. There is no such thing as energy financing in nature: you can't build a windmill on promised energy, to be paid back over the next several decades.

Okay, the physicist in me will point out the utterly useless (in this context) fact that you can borrow energy for a short time, in accordance with the Heisenberg principle. For fun, we could borrow the energy needed to make a 100 W solar panel for only 10−43 seconds before we would be forced to return it.

[We] can't build a windmill on promised energy

+10 Well put.

EROEI is [NOT a] ‘central concept’ in understanding the economics of energy production

I'm not sure about how RogerK (upthread here) is using the term "economics".

Does he mean money-type economics or the physical-quantity economics that Mother Nature does her calculations in?

"Money" is a man-made fiction.
It doesn't actually exist except in our heads.

Yes, it "feels" real.
That is so because everyone around us behaves as if it is real.

But it is not, at the end of the day, a real physical quantity recognized by Mother Nature.
We can make all the money noises we want as naked apes. But Mother is not listening.
EROEI > 1.0 is what counts for sustainability.

I assure you that when I talk about the economics of energy production I am talking about physcal inputs and outputs. I have never been able to make progress in understanding the basis of human welfare based on monetary analysis.

In my mind I have gone through many examples of comparing energy source A with with specific physical inputs and outputs to energy source B with a different set of physical inputs and outputs in an effort to to understand the relative advantages and disadvantages of each source under the specified conditions. I have not come accross a single example of this type in which EROEI emerges as a natural parameter for comparing the relative advantages/disadvatanges of two energy sources.

Under certain specific assumptions (which are clearly not universally valid) NEROEI (=EROEI-1) can be shown to be proportional to a parameter which I call the resource efficiency of energy production. Under such assumptions NEROEI can be be used as a figure of merit to rank the relative productivity of different energy production processes. However, the resource efficiency itself contain information about the availablity of resources in the overall economy that NEROEI by does not, so that resource effciency is, in my view at least, a more fundmental concept even in these simples cases. Mind you, I am not denying that the energy used to extract energy has economic signifigance, but that significance is much better developed in thinking about the synergistic use of various resources to produce use value than it is by magical invocation of dimensionless energy ratios.

By the way in my previous post I already debunked the "central importance" of the EROEI=1 limit. This limit corresponds to being stone cold dead. Without a doubt people who are stone cold dead do not produce any ecconomic output, but there are many levels of scarcity between our current level of resource consumption and this grim (but admittedly possible) fate.

NEROEI (=EROEI-1) can be shown to be proportional to ... efficiency of energy production

Roger K,

No insult intended.
That's the way I read you, as talking about the calculations that Mother Nature makes; not about the magical numbers manipulations that economists engage in.

However, the word "economics" is a very ambiguous term (as are the many other framings of concepts under that paradigm). I suspect some other readers mistook you to mean the man-fabricated variety of "economics".

As for NEROEI (=EROEI-1), that's the way I too prefer to think about it.

EROEI (Energy Returned Over Energy Invested) was never meant to be a sophisticated analysis of the pro's and con's of different energy forms (i.e. coal versus nuke versus wind).

It merely tells us whether we are heading to energy bankruptcy or not and how fast.

As EROEI approaches 1.0 (from above), probability of near term bankruptcy P(B,t) approaches 1.0 (from below).

Without a doubt people who are stone cold dead do not produce any economic output

Not so fast!

Once we are stone cold dead the laws of entropy dictate that we must decompose back into our basic constituent components and the information we once contained becomes dispersed. Nature then very efficiently recycles those components as nutrient substrates for other organisms.

So if we accept your initial statement at face value:

I assure you that when I talk about the economics of energy production I am talking about physical inputs and outputs.

Then we must accept that there are indeed physical outputs even from decaying corpses, granted the average person may consider it a bit of a stretch to define them in an economic context.

For the record, I currently work in a recycling business...and consider recycling to be a vital part of the economy >;^)

And I'm not even going to get into talking about organ recycling as a lucrative economic activity!

Bring out your dead!
Monty Python

I already debunked ... the EROEI=1 limit. This limit corresponds to being stone cold dead.

RK & FM,

I didn't want to nit pick on minor misunderstandings.

1.0 is not a limit for ERoEI.
Zero is.
And you are neither dead nor necessarily stupid for carrying out in the short term a process that has an ERoEI of 1.0 or less.

By way of simple example, let's say you use wood very inefficiently to stay warm and alive through the winter. Let's say the amount of sweat equity you "invest" in the summer to get one BTU of body warmth in the winter has an ERoEI of 1.0. That does not lead to you being dead or necessarily stupid. Maybe that is the only short term option you had for staying alive.

(Click on the link above to see a chart of relative ERoEI numbers)
((See also this link: Prof. Charles Hall))

I learned something new from this post:

For resources that do not require substantial up-front cost in the form of infrastructure, the trap does not apply. Fossil fuels tend to be of this sort. The energy required to deliver a barrel of oil or a ton of coal tends to be specific to the delivered unit, and is not dominated by up-front cost. It is similar for tar sands, which requires substantial energy to heat and process the sludge... Thus it is possible to maintain a steady energy supply. The fact that fossil fuels don’t trap us encourages us to stick with them. But being a finite resource, their attractiveness is the sound of the Siren, luring us to stay on the sinking ship. Or did the Sirens lure sailors from ships? Either way, fossil fuels are already compatible with our transportation fleet, strengthening the death-grip.

So, in other words, those who deny that fossil fuels will peak anytime soon will be able to show that when we implement their "drill, baby, drill" policies, the economy soon gets better (or gets worse at a much slower pace). This will make their point of view look correct to the voting public.

This will be deadly in the long run, of course, but I suspect the relief from short term economic pain will be irresistble.

This will be deadly in the long run, of course, but I suspect the relief from short term economic pain will be irresistble.

This is the story of the cat in a tree. Its scared of falling, but looking/climbing down is scary so it keeps climbing higher. For an economic system, that means you can't get off the exponential growth treadmill, because falling off will hurt. Only if you can take a broader view so that the fallacy of continuing can to overcome to you have a chance of getting off.

Here is a simple attempt to explain the phenomenon of diminishing returns that I wrote some years ago:

It's weird how politicians and economists just don't seem to get it....

Cheers.... Chris, Australia

2 questions

1/ How much energy would it take to produce all the renewable energy production equipment to replace the existing energy sources.

2/ How much easy energy is left available from fossil fuel?



Let's ask Congress/POTUS/any State legislature to direct the National Academy of Sciences to look into it.

Well, if it takes 1% of the energy left to build all the alternative that is needed then it may well be doable. If it takes 10% then we may have a problem. If it takes 100% then we may be...


As if the "Energy Trap" weren't enough, there is also the issue of "Energy Cannibalism", defined as follows (Wikipedia):

"Energy cannibalism refers to an effect where rapid growth of an entire energy producing industry creates a need for energy that uses (or cannibalizes) the energy of existing power plants. Thus during rapid growth the industry as a whole produces no energy because new energy is used to fuel the embodied energy of future power plants."


Embodied energy is defined as the sum of energy inputs (fuels/power, materials, human resources etc) that was used in the work to make any product, from the point of extraction and refining materials, bringing it to market, and disposal / re-purposing of it.

I think thats precisely Tom's energy trap, with better (and more intellectual) terminology. Actually we should learn these terms so we can more easily discuss the subject. I think it relates to the energy bootstrap rate. If you had only (name your favorite renewable, mine is PV) PV (some seed amount to get the ball rolling, then used ALL the output to create more, you would end up (after some messy transients die away), with an exponentially increasing amount of the stuff. What is the characteristic time (time to go from 1 unit to e (2.718...) units of PV? Note that any lags/delays between energy expenditure and production lengthen this time. Something like Tchar=payback_time +time_lag...

I think thats precisely Tom's energy trap, with better (and more intellectual) terminology.

Agreed. Same effect - different terminology.

Thanks Tom for your very clear presentation of this issue. It seems to me that the technical conclusion should be quite optimistic. Overcoming the energy trap requires (in this simple model) less than 20% efficiency improvements to take a purely fossil fuel economy in 2% decline and turn it into a purely renewable economy at 10:1 EROEI. After 17 years, total energy availability is larger than the starting point. In practice there are a variety of other energy sources (coal, nuclear, etc) that could be increased in the short term and you would not even have to have a drop in total energy available. But you rightly point out that the big problem is not technical. It is political. And the energy trap will likely be an important factor in leading society to delay implementing the necessary renewable energy systems until it becomes a crisis...which could make the many technically workable options irrelevant because of the well documented human tendency toward violence when resources feel constrained.

Overcoming the energy trap requires (in this simple model) less than 20% efficiency improvements to take a purely fossil fuel economy in 2% decline and turn it into a purely renewable economy at 10:1 EROEI. After 17 years, total energy availability is larger than the starting point.

I'm a bit confused here, 20% efficiency improvements in what? The use of fossil fuel. If so over what time frame must the 20% efficiency improvement take place. Or rather is the 20% efficiency increase required in the harnessing of the sun and wind so the pay back times for the renewable energy generartion facilities shorten up? If so how fast must those improvements be made to have more available energy after 17 years? I could probably go to the models and work it out but since you already did it will take less energy for you to reply than for me to try and reproduce your results
?- )

The model in the original post shows roughly 80% to 85% of initial energy supply that is the total energy available after about 8 years. He is doing a simple case that starts with 100% fossil fuel in 2% decline and starts building renewables and calculates the total energy available. Because of the up-front costs of building renewables, you initially lose energy supply, but never more than 20% in this model. If you can obtain 20% efficiency gains in use of energy (from all sources), then you can maintain the current energy services during the period of constrained energy availability. In this model, you would have to make the changes over 8 years. I was using 'efficiency' broadly to include all kinds of ways of getting important things done with less energy, so I would include driving/flying less or insulating buildings, etc as 'efficiency' gains. The model assumes EROEI of renewables as 10:1, so I wasn't implying changing renewable collection efficiency. You could also just survive with 20% less energy services. The point is that if you only consider EROEI, then we face a short term period of scarce energy followed by large amounts of energy from renewable sources, and in the short term you only lose 20% of initial supply. But when you consider human stupidity as represented by typical political decisions about energy in the US, then you come up with a much less optimistic viewpoint.

Thank you, Tom,

I plan to read this carefully.

Meanwhile, given the short time we usually have for attention to articles, I'd like to put up a comment on a couple of things you say:

re: "Against a backdrop of energy decline—which I feel will be the only motivator strong enough to make us serious about a replacement path.."

The motivator has to *be seen* as an energy decline phenomenon, according to your argument here - yes?

That seems questionable, just generally speaking. Not that it could not be made explicit by people who understand how it might be manifest.

re: "The only way out of the political trap is for a substantial fraction of our population to understand the dimensions of the problem:"

Just as a thought to share: how about this - it may be not that a "substantial fraction" is required, but that the "right" people - the "right fraction" be required.

In other words, I agree that understanding is valuable, invaluable, really. At the same time, it may be that people with understanding can 1) make information available to others. 2) implement change that is positive.

And, just to say: did I ever ask you what you thought of this: Speaking of making information available.

We must exploit our energy resources quickly so that we can make the technology progress necessary to be able to discover new ways of exploiting the energy resources. Fischbacher stated the energy trap this way: "we are the better at solving problems the stronger our economy—so we need to use up resources fast to get rich fast so that we can afford to address the problems caused by us using up resources fast".

Wimbi’s wedges (apologies to friend Robert Socolow)

Now, class, please note the current article in the NYT “planet earth” to the effect that -We can’t get there from here -to a low carbon world with what we know how to do, even if we do our very best, not just the nibbly little efforts we are doing now.

This is not true, for the simple reason I am about to show you- (draws big circle on the blackboard). Here is our gross national effort on everything, It shows what energy, materials, brain-power, and so on, that we use for this and that,

I start with the straight up line noon, and go around clockwise to about 1:20, that’s the wedge, or the slice of the pie, or whatever you like to label it, that represents what we REALLY HAVE TO DO. You know what I mean, like, eat, breath, drink, not freeze, and that sort of thing, If we don’t, we die. This one we gotta have, no matter what, But you see it’s a pretty small piece of the pie.

Then, from 1:20 to about 3:40, we have the stuff that’s very nice to have but we could get along without much of, like education, communication, trade, and all that. This wedge is bigger than the first one, but not absolutely necessary to stay alive.

You get where I am going- next one, we mark off as “great to have but could get along without”, just gripe about it a little. Things like bananas, cars, haircuts, trips to Paris, things like that. This one is big. Goes from 3:40 to about 7:10. Notice how really big this one is compared to the first, and you will start thinking the obvious before I tell you.

Then, the next wedge, or slice, is the really big one, uses up most of everything, and is labeled frivolous, wrong, evil or just plain stupid” This one goes from 7:10 right around to straight up noon again. I don’t need to tell you what’s in it My personal favorites are soda pop and nuclear submarines.

Well, so when the NYT says we can’t get (you put in your favorite, like eliminating CO2), from here to there, it is saying - we are refusing to slide the bounds of the wedges around even a little bit.

Why not? all we have to do in order to get one wedge bigger than it is, and not change the more important one behind it, is to slide the less important wedge boundary farther around clockwise.

Like, we slide the boundary of the wrong, evil, stupid wedge around from 7:10 to 9:30, and we get a big addition of a slice to put wherever we want among the previous wedges, like the first one, which includes a continuation of life on the planet, that is to say, no CO2 runaway to Venus. When we do that, we have got there from here. QED.

Now, your assignment, class, is to go home and write down all the specious, tricky, irrational, diversionary counter-arguments to the effect “all this is well and good, but (pat on the head ) you, wimbi, don’t seem to understand how the real world works, and why we really, truly can’t get there from here”


Best Hopes !


Hi wimbi

So, do you support :)
The idea that is.

just thought I'd ask.

re: Given w's ws: What's your favorite idea on the newly unemployed? Like, how do they squeeze themselves into the receiving end of the noon to 1:20?

Just askin'...

re: What does your friend Robert Socolow think about the NAS doing a study on specifically the avoided topic of global oil supplies and the projected shortfall/economic etc., presuming BAU?

They (NAS) did one on GCC, though - yes?

Aniya- You might have noticed I go for the big picture, leave details to people who go for them. Id est, lazy is my first name. My simple theme, here endlessly repeated in various variations. is that most of what we do ain't worth doing at all- and what really needs doing just sits there in the dark like the too-smart girl at the mixer.

Unemployed? How can anybody be unemployed? Just this morning I barely got thru half the jobs on the
job list- clean the hair out of the sink drain, fix the stuck chicken door, get the ventilator running on the cave to reach a meat-right temp asap for the deer we expect any time, Insulate the shop cistern, -- what else? Forgot, but she will remind me as soon as she gets back from meeting and before I get my lunch.

Every town needs a job list. Anybody not otherwise busy should go down and pick one and get to it. Biggest one I see at the moment is superinsulating all the houses. Whey your'e done with that, let me know and I will point you to a ton of others.

Good Robert is more than capable of speaking for himself.

HI wimbi


What I mean is this: Not "jobs that need doing" but...something that works the way money currently works to flow through the "jobs" system so that people then can get the goodies available in that first little wedge.

That's what I mean.

How do you distribute that first wedge?

This seems to me to be a "big picture" question. Have you given it any thought?

Aniya. We gotta little problem here, what you say suggests that "the way money works" ain't connected to "jobs that need doing"! Now, whatthehell, what IS money connected to then-hein?


Aniya is correct. Money does not send a "signal" as to what jobs need to be done.
Money sends a signal as to what marginal whims and desires are at the top of the bucket list of the top 1%.

You need a second $70 million yacht for the 2nd summer home? No problem. Poof! Here it is.

Teachers need a couple of more bucks for educational supplies for underprivileged kids?
No f__ing way. Poof! Be gone and don't bother me again. It ain't at the top of the bucket list.

Aniya and step. Sure, that's the whole point of my little fable. What we do and what we need to do aren't connected. How to fix it? details, details-- first we gotta say right out loud, we have a problem we have to fix. And keep saying it, and then go do it,.

Now that we have got that straight, you good young folks go do it, I am goin' to bed.

PS. for me, that job list may not be connected to money, but it sure is connected to lunch.

... keep saying it, and then go do it

... keep saying it, and then go do it

... keep saying it, and then go do it

The noise making approach doesn't seem to be working wimbi

Any other ideas?

Money does not send a "signal" as to what jobs need to be done.
Money sends a signal as to what marginal whims and desires are at the top of the bucket list of the top 1%.

It does not. The top 1% may get a fairly large percentage of the income, but their percentage of consumption is much lower.

... but their percentage of consumption is much lower

A number of lobbyists on K Street (if they were truthful) would probably beg to differ with you.

They aren't selling their services to many people in the lower 99%.
It's more like Koch Brothers and above rather than to your "attention WalMart shoppers" crowd.

So, you're saying that lobbying services is a large part of GDP, and should be seen as luxury consumption? If not, I'd be grateful if you could explain the relevance of your statement.

It is not the top 1%. It is the top 0.01%. The top 1% may have a comfortable life, but a vast majority of them are nowhere close to buying a yacht. A household income of just $350,000 puts you in the top 1%. If both husband and wife have good education and are moderately successful in their careers they will easily exceed $350,000.

In this case the yacht owner is a billionaire NFL team owner. Don't like his extravagant lifestyle? Stop buying football tickets and stop watching football on TV. Problem solved. If no one cared about super bowl, rose bowl, etc this guy will not have the money to buy a yacht. So I guess a more relevant question is: why do millions of people spend their hard earned money on football instead of helping underprivileged kids?

A household income of just $350,000 puts you in the top 1%.

What bracket do you get put into if you have an "I lost count of how many mansions I own" income (taxable) of $0 and a lot of clever accountants and lawyers to make sure your stated taxable income hovers around that $0 figure year after year?

Maybe that happens but not in a vast majority of cases. If you are earning millions and your taxable income is 0, you are probably committing tax fraud. My original point still stands: a vast majority of people in the top 1% do not own yachts and jets. You are confusing the life style of the top 0.01% with the top 1%.

step back - All kinds of folks in this world. I know someone in the top 0.001%. And he has two big yachts. And he owns about 40 companies that employ thousands of folks making good salaries...he is a generous guy if you do a good job for him. Companies he doesn't need because he has all the money to cover his lifestyle 1000X over...he's in his 70's. Just a guess but he's probably given over $100 million to mostly medical charities. Generous but he also hates paying taxes. But he has still paid 100's of millions in taxes. Trust me: he has the smartest people around working to keep his tax bill down. But when you're very successful at just about everything you do and make big profits there's a limit to how much you can keep away from the tax man. He doesn't have one overseas operation keeping money offshore. He feels he has a patriotic duty to keep it all here. He truly has that "Midas touch". I only know of one company he put together that wasn't successful. BTW: he started out his profession career as a teacher. A teacher born into a poor family. I figure that may be one reason he's generous...he hasn't forgotten.

In my line of work I've rubbed elbows with many very rich folks over the last 35 years. And like most of the low income folks I've known they tend to be generous. And like the fellow I mention above, I recall very few of them were born into wealth. I can't explain but some of the stingiest least compassionate folks I've ever met were in the middle ground...say the $120k to $300k per year.

some of the stingiest least compassionate folks I've ever met were in the middle ground

From the people I have met I would agree 100%.


I can't explain but some of the stingiest least compassionate folks I've ever met were in the middle ground...say the $120k to $300k per year.

ROCK that seems pretty easy to explain at least to me. That is the level where just the slightest slip sends you right down the tubes. Often personal assets are highly leveraged by people in that income range as they try and move past the bottleneck on the ladder just above them. Even if their assets are not encumbered people know that the quarter to half to three-quarter million they have managed to stash one way or the other only amounts to a couple/few years of the income they have grown accustomed to. That 'the good life' exists on a fragile bubble becomes very obvious at that level.

It's commonly known as 'going on a war footing'.

You focus your efforts on the prize, and cut down or out the activities which don't support it.

It's a fundamental change to how the economy/society operates, and that's why it's called 'war footing' - you need a major and unavoidable threat to draw people together than make them work to a common good.

Take an example; lipstick.

You'd say that should be labelled 'frivolous'. So you think it should be cut. All the money, effort, resources that go into that can be redeployed to transition. Job done.

Problem is, that's a bunch of companies you just killed, a bunch of workers you just sacked. The investors lost everything, the shops have knock on effect on their highly profitable lines. Most women feel their lives have got worse due to 'government interference' - and are less likely to work with you for any particular goal. In short millions of people are against you, for something as simple as banning lipstick.

Yes there is waste, but rather than focus on that, focus on getting the common purpose of society. If you can get that, you can deal with where the resources are freed up from to transition. If you don't have that, then you don't have ANYTHING.

Focus on getting the common purpose. Sure, I sorta thought that's what I was saying with that pie chart.

BTW i was born when Hoover was pres, grew up in poverty of money and wealth of everything else, and saw what we could do when we had a common purpose in the waw. I never heard anybody complain that they couldn't buy a new car for the duration, we just assumed that was the right thing under the circumstance.

Might have had something to do with leadership, too.

"If the trumpet make an uncertain sound, who shall prepare for the battle?"

"Ladeez 'n gennlemen, I got awful news for you, unless we get it all together real fast, we are DOOOMED. So , starting today, I am asking you to give up (gasp) lipstick!"

Hi wimbi

Thanks for the conversation.

I'd like to clarify that my Q is sincere. You've obviously thought about it - our "collective problematique" - and come up with a way to formulate it.

I ask you to continue with your thinking. That's my main point.

The next step requires and/or can benefit from your attention and experience in order to come into existence. (IMVHO.) Let's assume this.

There's the first wedge. OK.

How to match it with the - pick your subset of 7 B or just take the entire 7...

Aniya. As my beloved grandmother used to admonish-"flattery will get you anywhere, be careful!".

So- having to do with unemployed and the first wedge- First we all get together and agree that nobody starves or freezes under a bridge- or on my front steps. Way to messy and not nice to look at.

Good. Next we all say, we put so much potatoes and road kill in the kitty for meals and a roof to all who come down and take a job off the job bulletin and do it if they can. The resulting chit gets their meal, their roof if they want, and a lot of comradery, which they quickly find is fun, educational and far preferable to just sitting around moping about being unemployed,

Yes of course it would take some clever management. Yet more employment!

And so on. Look up Count Rumford and the Duke of Bavaria, or some such. Rumford was a scoundrel , one of the known indicators for skill at getting things done.

Once, I managed a sort of volunteer job/boarding house in Cleveland. My job was to parcel out the jobs. Turned out, to my youthful surprise, that all I had to do to be a great success at the jobs job was- ask the guy what he liked to do, Surprise, some liked to do what others hated. all the jobs got done, and everybody could then get down to to the main business of whatever that was.

Conversely, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, and nuclear, are all ways to make electricity, but these do not help us very much as a direct replacement of the first-to-fail fossil fuel: oil. This is a very serious point. As Bob Hirsch pointed out in the 2005 report commissioned by the Department of Energy, we face a liquid fuels problem in peak oil.

Actually, both Caterpillar Inc and Deere & Co. make electric-drive-train equipment essential for infrastructure maintenance and agriculture. Even though they use onboard diesel-powered generators at present, the latter could in principle be replaced by hydrogen-powered fuel cells to generate the required electric power, assuming that mobile hydrogen storage is solved. With recent game-changing breakthroughs in catalytic hydrogen production from sunlight, this opens up a whole new range of possibilities.

BTW, BMW has a production-ready 7-series hydrogen-powered model. Most other auto manufacturers (Toyota, Honda, GM, etc. have hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles in the pipeline whereas the BMW car burns hydrogen directly. Pricing is still in the stratosphere, but it's a start.

Converting all freight rail in the U.S. from diesel to dual-fuel LNG-diesel with 85% LNG use would save ~0.25mbpd of diesel, freeing it up for liquid fuel use at minimal infrastructure cost (same loco engines, with LNG tender cars). Hydrogen is a subject for development, not implementation.

Hydrogen is a subject for development, not implementation.

The problem with a categorical statement like yours is that you need to have sources to back it up.

My source in the hydrogen business said nearly 1 year ago that they plan to launch a low-cost solar-to-hydrogen power system within 18 months:

Hilarious. Looks like development is ongoing. Contact me when they sell a thousand.

This is why I have consistently advocated electrifying and double tracking 66,000 miles of mainline rail in the US to High Speed ( 175 mph pass, 120 mph freight) standards,


Electrifying and double tracking 55,000 miles of secondary rail in the US to Medium Speed ( 120 mph pass, 80 mph freight ) standards.

The ROW can be used for the GRID, enabling it to be strengthened.

The Rail Network can be powered by renewables.

The Pass Network should offer $100 / month go anywhere passes.
The Pass Rail Network should be integrated into an electrified Bus/Tram network.
The goal should be a trans network similar to that of France.

A Federal Energy Company should be established and made the monopoly buyer of fossil hydrocarbons (gas, coal, oil). It should offer to purchase these under long term contracts, currently ~ $100/ BOE. It should be the monopoly buyer of foreign energies, offering pricing under long term contract. It should sell this energy to refiners and users at ~ $200/ BOE to begin with and likely higher as necessary to shift 90% of all freight onto rail/water and reduce transportation demand for oil from 14 MBbl/day to 2MBbl/ day, that is reducing total US oil consumption to ~ 5 MBbl/ day.

The difference should be used to fund the shift in infrastructure necessary for a renewable energy economy.


Electric appliances using a fifth of current power to refrigerate, heat, grind, mash, etc.
LED lighting products everywhere
Super efficient low power computing systems based on the AMD Athlon Chip. I have one here that has the power of the Intel I5 and uses 60 watts including memory, drives, peripherals, and screen.
Electric transport based on rail and mass transit including trams, busses, and bicycles.
Solar heated housing
Agriculture fueled with plant oils converted in Elsbett Engines to traction and other essential farm uses.

All this would put people to work.



Isn't this the exact opposite of how market economies work?

I.e. when energy prices go up energy related companies (oil, mining renewable electric car) go up in value as investment flows into them. In 2008 there was an energy investment bubble (before the economic crash). In the 1970s goverment investment in energy reached an all time high.

So the result of a gentle decline (2% or so) will like be the opposite of what you describe:

1) Energy scarcity will cause energy prices to increase.
2) Energy price increases will cause investors to invest more capital (and ultimately energy) in renewable, nuclear and fossil fuel production.
3) This investment will initially produce more energy scarcity,
4) This scarcity will cause further price increases,
5) These further price increases will inturn lead to investors putting yet more money into energy production and once this new energy producing capacity is available it will result in an energy glut.

Furthermore the people always look to politicians to provide solutions. Thus when there is a problem involving energy the politician must be seen to be doing something about it and investing in renewables is a very visible way of solving an energy scarcity problem, even if in reality it initially may exacerbate it.

I think that provided our energy supply only falls by a few percent a year, the increase in the percentage of our total energy we invest in energy infrastructure will more that offset the reduction in the total energy at our disposal to build this infrastructure.

This is how free markets governments and pricing systems work. I think government and private policies in the 1970s (i.e. greater energy investment in response to scarcity) would vindicate my point.

Tom Murphy,
The EROEI study of wind turbines is seriously out of date, looking at 100KW to 750KW turbines while 1.5MW-3MW turbines now being generally used with better designs. Vestas gives detailed information on life-cycle CO2 emissions for 3MW turbines, converting FF used for generating electricity to kWh it looks like an EROEI of 50:1. This seems reasonable just extrapolating from the trend of increasing EROEI as turbines size increases from 750KW to 3MW gives a similar figure.

The 2005 Hirsch report dismissed EV and PHEV vehicles but 6 years later every car company is building or planning to build them so we should re-evaluate the problems of liquid fuel replacement.
I think the key issue is not the energy needed but the speed that FF can be replaced by nuclear and renewable AND the time it will take to replace existing vehicles by EV, PHEV and much more efficient ICE vehicles. The low EROEI of ethanol is not an issue if its only used in applications where battery power cannot work or occasionally in PHEV. The much higher efficiency of EV transport will allow a small use of low EROEI ethanol( or other synthetic liquid fuel). The other problem is air transportation, a lot of short overland air routes will have to be replaced by rail, with intercontinental air transport rationed.

The much higher efficiency of EV transport

Not by my calcs - Leaf vs, Versa for an apple to apple comparison. No major gains.


I was comparing the operation of a Chevy Volt in Electric (0.2kWh/mile= 0.72MJ/mile) or ICE (46mpg= 3MJ/mile). Add in grid transmission and charging losses of 10% gives 0.2/mile Electric mode and add in refinery and transport losses of 20% to produce gasoline so would be 3.6MJ/mile. An older comparison would be the RAV4 electric or ICE version. What are your comparisons and assumptions for the leaf and versa?

Do you have those calcs online anywhere--I'd like to see how it's supposed to be done.

This is what I posted on a Sierra Club Transportation List

I am packing to leave for DC for two weeks (APSO ++ :-)
As per request:

Nissan Versa SL – 28/34 mpg, Combined 31 mpg

2,441 gm Carbon /gallon (from EPA, quoted earlier) /31 = 78.74 gm Carbon/mile > 7874
gm Carbon/100 mile

Nissan Leaf - Combined 34 kWh/100 miles (EPA rating)

2,249 lbs CO2/MWh of carbon dioxide from coal fired electricity (US average per EPA)

Because the atomic weight of carbon is 12 and that of oxygen is 16, the atomic weight of
carbon dioxide is 44 so 2,249 lbs CO2/MWh is 613 lb Carbon/MWh > 0.613 lb Carbon/kWh

0.613 lb Carbon/kWh x 34 kWh/100 miles = 20.842 lb Carbon/100 miles = 9454 gm Carbon/100

With 100% coal fired electricity (and no allowance for transmission and transforming
losses), a Nissan Leaf will emit 20 % more carbon than a Nissan Versa SL.

I just did these calculations, and have not reviewed them.


That seems correct IF electricity is 100% generated from coal fired. This is not the case in most countries(50% in US) and it is likely that solar,nuclear, wind and NG will replace most coal fired.

Alan: Check out Appendix F of the EIA 2010 AER. It'll make you happy. It's an explanation of a change in how energy accounting is shown for non-combustible renewable electricity sources.

thanks Alan, but a question

How close is the relationship between carbon emissions and the miles per unit energy of 'fuel' input? Specifically how much energy is required to get the oil/gasoline (the gallon averaged from all US oil sources) from the ground to the ICE wheel that travels 100 miles and how much energy to get the coal from the ground to the EV wheel that travels 100 miles and how does that change with a different mix going into the electrical generation than 100% coal (that is for the EV)? I hope I stated that clearly enough--to my mind that would seem the relevant calculation when talking potential energy trap.

I'm guessing you'll be way to busy to come back on this, have a great trip.

The people (Kubiszewski, et al) who did the meta-study he referenced from 2006 (which used studies thru 2001) have updated their study recently (using studies thru 2007). It still suffers from not covering the bulk of the modern market in 1.5MW+ turbines (none of the few U.S. inputs to their study are more recent than 2002). They do note, usefully, that ERoEI increases with turbine size. I'd guess it's in the range of 40 for a modern large wind farm using multi-MW turbines on a site with many turbines. Useful life assumptions are almost as critical as system boundaries to the results, of course.

Here's a link to a working copy of their more recent study:

These are all wonderful technical explanations, but they all seem to rest on the presumptions, never acknowledged, that 1) humans are always greedy, 2) never educable, and that 3) there can be no large population reductions or 4) changes in attitude among Westerners about the actual uses of goods for happiness.

At the same time, we're here, typing cheerfully along, using almost no resources on jet skiing or four-wheeling, happy to enjoy thinking and conversation, and maybe having fewer children.

I think we'll be surprised soon by how things turn out.

Hey ormon- I like your thinking. Being surprised in the right direction would be great! I could die in peace. Deep in my soul, I think so too, for the simple reason that we can't be THAT stupid, can we? My remains of a rational brain, and my experience, tells me, sure we can, and that's why I make all those cynical remarks, but, then,--- I still believe you're right.

PS. I used to be able to do things like figgure out what your monicker means, but now, I'll just stay curious.

Hi wimbi

The power of google. One step meaning...

At the same time, we're here, typing cheerfully along, using almost no resources...

I wish! That is a patently false statement.

Granted, I still think that I'd much rather allocate those resources to 'typing cheerfully along' as opposed to driving to the mall to participate in an orgy of senseless Holiday shopping.

There's an abundance of oil and natural gas. Due to new technologies, peak oil is postponed by at least 60 years.
It's possible to replace part of the fossil fuel consumption for ecological reasons.

99 - None of the technologies being used today are any younger than 15 years. Many are much older. We are increasing our production thanks to all these techs but the driving force is price. Consider the hot Eagle Ford play. I completed my first EF well over 25 years ago. I drilled and frac'd my first horizontal shale well over 20 years ago. IMHO these new reserves are coming to market not in spite of PO but because of it. And the high prices brought on by demand/supply dynamics.

The development of these old plays may have abated the US decline. The Deep Water has also contributed significantly. But I'm one of those who doesn't subscribe to PO per se but Peak Plateau. I see us on the plateau today with the help of these new arenas. How long we stay on the PP is anyone's guess IMHO. But PP is a very precarious condition. The above ground factors can have dramatic impact during this time.

But opinions vary.

The EROEI for photovoltaics is variable depending on the technology and location. To my knowledge, CdTe photovoltaics in a region with good solar resource have an energy payback time under 1 year. The system service life isn't definitively known, but 30-50 years is considered to be a good estimate. They also have a very low power degradation rate, less than 0.5% per year. This gives a well-sited system an EROEI of 30-50, rather than 10. There are also some PV manufacturers that think that, with proper attention to durability, they can make panels with a 75 year service life. Long service life doesn't get as much attention as it should right now because a lot of the market is driven by 20 year power purchase agreements. As utility companies start owning their own PV power plants, it is expected that system life will be much more important because they are used to dealing with generation assets that last 50-100 years with proper maintenance.

A new and big supplier for China: Turkmenistan