Two Energy Books of Interest

Today, I’d like to write about two fairly different books related to limited energy supply. Both are excellent, but intended for fairly different audiences, and focusing on different aspects of our dilemma.

1. “Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil” by Robert Rapier.

This book is written at a fairly introductory level, giving information about the many energy options we have, and the trade-offs we make as the result of our choices of energy options. The book is not about peak oil per se, but includes a chapter on peak oil as well as a chapter on climate change. The book ends with the chapter, “The Road Ahead." The book is inexpensive–$16.15 from Amazon.

2. “Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy” by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard

This book is focused on energy and economics. This book seems to be aimed as a text book, or at an audience who is already familiar with some of the issues, and wants to dig deeper. This book is in two column format with questions at the end of each chapter to facilitate classroom discussion. It covers in depth a wide range of topics, from energy’s role throughout history, to the relationship of energy to wealth production, to energy return on investment, to how to do biophysical economics, to peak oil. It ends with the chapter, “Living a Good Life in a Lower EROI Future.”

Below the fold, I will talk a little more about each.

Before discussing the books individually, one thing I should probably mention: in such a new and changing field, there probably aren’t any recent books that I would agree with 100%. These books are no exception, but the purpose of this post is not to highlight differences in my views.

Robert Rapier’s Power Plays

Rapier’s chapters pretty much outline his book:

  1. All about energy
  2. Fossil fuels and nuclear power
  3. Renewable energy
  4. Energy production
  5. Global warming
  6. Peak oil
  7. Nuclear power
  8. Risk and uncertainty
  9. Reducing the risk
  10. Investing in Cleantech – a guide to due diligence
  11. The race to replace oil – alternative transportation fuels
  12. Oil-free transportation
  13. Corn ethanol
  14. U. S. Energy Politics
  15. The Road Ahead

With 15 to 20 page chapters on each of these subjects, it isn’t possible to go into much depth. What the book aims to do is give a good introductory overview, with easy-to-read charts and graphs illustrating main points. Rapier’s writing style is easy to follow–fairly short sentences and short paragraphs–so that the whole book is quite easy to read, despite the technical material.

Rapier makes a point to talk about the tradeoffs for each alternative, making it clear that we don’t have perfect solutions waiting for us. In his words, “When it comes to energy, there is no free lunch.” As a person who has written about alternatives, I could often think of a much longer list of both advantages and disadvantages, but after I thought about it, his “hit the high-points” approach works better for an easy-to-understand overview. Someone who wants to know more can dig more deeply into blog posts or research books.

As an example of Rapier’s writing, when he talks about assessing risk, he talks from the point of view of someone who has undertaken such assessments. He writes

Risk assessments are done by people, and people have blind spots. People make mistakes. People cut corners. People sometimes underestimate consequences. . .

But if we accept that there are no risk-free energy options, we must then observe a very important rule of risk assessment: never accept a risk for which you cannot afford the consequences. Whether drilling for oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico, operating a nuclear power plant, or deciding not to carry homeowner’s insurance, one has to be prepared to live with the worst-case scenario.

I thought Rapier’s chapter on Peak Oil was very good, even though it does not exactly follow the traditional peak oil narrative. Rapier says, “‘Peak oil,’” effectively, is the inability of oil supply growth to stay ahead of oil demand growth.” He talks about “Peak Lite,” and about peak oil being about flow rates and net energy. He makes the connection between high oil prices and recession.

In planning for the future, he emphasizes that we don’t know what the future will bring, so we have to plan for various possibilities. In his view, we need to plan for contingencies, not for calamity or business as usual. He says,

On various occasions, I have been asked for my opinion on whether someone should forego college or having children because of energy-related calamities that surely await us. I always respond to these queries in the same way: “We don’t know for sure what the future holds, so don’t put your life on hold waiting for a calamity. Go live your life, and if adversity lies ahead, we will work hard to deal with it.”

I think many individuals, even those who have been reading about oil-related problems for some time, will find Rapier’s book helpful. His background is chemistry, the oil industry and alternative fuels, and his chapters that relate to these issues are especially good.

Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard’s Energy and the Wealth of Nations

In this book, Hall and Klitgaard have set out to document many of the energy and economics issues that they teach about, explaining in detail how energy plays an important role in the wealth of nations. As result, the book covers a lot of ground. There are five major parts to the book:

1. Energy and the Origins of Wealth This section gives much interesting historical and prehistorical information about the influence of energy on the economy and on history. It also provides an introduction as to why oil is important, and to the concepts of peak oil and net energy.

2. Energy Economics and the Structure of Society This section explains how economics can be viewed from an energy perspective, and compares it to economics from a neoclassical point of view. It also discusses the rise in oil usage in the US after 1850, and how this affected markets and the economy in general, eventually leading to freer trade practices and globalization. The last chapter in this section examines the evidence on limits to growth.

3. Energy and Economics: The Basics This section gives an introduction to the math, chemistry, physics, and ecology needed to understand biophysical economics. It finishes with a short chapter on why economics, as it is usually taught, is more of a social science than a real science.

4. The Science Behind How Real Economies Work This section explains Energy Return on Investment, the expected impact of peak oil on our financial future, and the role of models. The last chapter in this section explains how to set up a biophysical economics model for a country or region.

5. Understanding How Real Economies Work This section goes more into the expected economic and environmental consequences of declining oil supply and declining energy return on investment. It finishes with a chapter on the future.

With respect to the future, Hall and Klitgaard see a range of possibilities. According to them:

We think we have to go into the future with the following model, and something like the following probabilities (you can choose your own percentages): we will go off the cliff, energetically, economically, or environmentally (25%), we can make a transition to a new energy source that will benevolently replace oil (25%), or we will muddle along, gradually getting materially poorer, but adjusting to that (50%). The point is that we do not think that anyone knows those percentages, so we must go into the future with a huge amount of uncertainty. That in itself might be pretty difficult. Some would trust the market to adjust, others might not, or might have other mechanisms. Many people who think about these things retreat to a bunker mentality and are stocking their country houses with food and ammunition. We, on the other hand, think that is a little foolish; we will probably weather the storm all together or not at all.

There is a whole chapter of discussion following this paragraph, talking about the issues involved, and alternative ways of measuring happiness, and Howard Odum’s view of the prosperous way down. The authors conclude

Thus a good future and even, if needed, a prosperous way down is, we believe, quite possible for economic and political reasons, but very unlikely due to psychological and conditioning issues relating to the attitude of American people relating to advertisement, growth, and wealth as status. We conclude that what we need most is to create a biophysically based approach and model for economics, one that would serve on at least an equal footing with the present firm-household-market based model. The actual implementation of any such project mostly remains for the future and a very different book.

Readers will find that the Energy and the Wealth of Nations contains a wealth of information and a lot of useful references. There is also an extensive index. The chapters are discrete enough that many of them can be read without reference to other chapters, if a person is looking for, say, more explanation of Energy Return on Energy Investment.

When reading the book, it is helpful to come with some prior background on the subject. A lot of material is presented at once in some sections, making the uptake a little difficult for a totally new reader. The book is well written and edited though, so that even this is not too much of an obstacle. Many sections are more historical in nature, or more narrative, and are easy for anyone to understand.

A Couple of Thoughts on Both Books

I thought it was interesting that both books, in the end, came up with a probabilistic approach to looking at what the future will bring. We don’t know what is ahead, so we have to look at a range of possibilities.

I also thought it was interesting that neither book makes an argument for limiting population growth as a way of bringing energy demand better back in to line with resources. One reason may be that we seem to be so close to reaching oil limits that any reduction in population at this time will be tiny at best. Another reason may be that this is an unpopular issue with potential readers, so bringing it up is likely to alienate readers. A third reason may be that discussion of population levels is fairly far afield of the intended purpose of each of these books.

This article was originally posted at Our Finite World.

Saw Charles at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, entertaining... his analysis on return was pretty damming for solar. I was somewhat uneasy about the lack of detail on solar's EROI, perhaps it is better explained in the book?

I also thought it was interesting that neither book makes an argument for limiting population growth as a way of bringing energy demand better back in to line with resources.

He more or less admitted to deliberate omission because the issue was a political tarbaby that just short circuits debate.

One problem with discussing "solar's EROI" is that solar is not a single technology, so does not have a single EROI value.

For example, the most basic passive solar has essentially an infinite EROI for new construction. It costs no more energy to put a window on the south side of a building than to put a window on the north side of a building, yet the south facing window (in northern hemisphere) harvests solar thermal gain which a north facing window will never see. So passive solar design offers the potential for additional energy return, with no additional energy investment, a classic divide by zero => infinity.

Similarly, building integrated photovoltaics can perform the functions of windows, roofs, and walls while also generating electricity. So for BIP the "energy investment" is the delta between embedded energy of traditional roof/window/wall coverings and the BIP embedded energy.

Meanwhile dedicated PV and concentrating solar thermal generation out in the desert has a whole different set of EROI inputs and outputs. Obviously a PV panel with a given energy investment will have a higher energy return in the Sahara than in Seattle.

However, every recent life cycle analysis that I have seen for PV in a sunny location shows more than a 10X return on energy investment over PV's assumed lifetime. But every real-life 25 year_ PV installation I am familiar with continues to generate 90+% of rated output even after "product life" is complete, so PV EROI's are low-balling by using 25 year lifetimes.

in praise of north windows
In cooling dominated climates like Florida north windows are great for providing daylighting with no solar heat gain. So the EROI for north windows is quite impressive.

Yet down here in Mexico they would collect sun in the summer and be worse still in Oz. It is important to remember that these solutions vary a great deal on location and latitude.


Passive solar design is inherently location dependent, and south facing glass only makes sense in heating-dominated climate zones. But passive solar design can produce low-energy consumption buildings anywhere, including Mexico and Oz. In cloudy Germany the optimum balance shifts towards super-insulated envelopes from the solar gain more appropriate in Colorado or New Mexico.

In Mexico, passive cooling is very important, and traditional adobe building with arcades to protect windows from direct sun and massive walls to store night coolth use much less energy than stick frame with air conditioning.

The point is that there building modifications that have very high to infinite EROI available at any location. And before we invest even in wind with ~18 EROI, we should be investing in insulation with ~200 EROI, and window location with infinite EROI. And the loss of ~10 EROI oil is much less difficult to adapt to in a walkable bikeable city, than in auto-dependent sprawl.

Oil is simply too cheap still for most US people to care much about conserving it, but that will change and drive the development of renewables and efficiency.

"Passive solar design is inherently location dependent, and south facing glass only makes sense in heating-dominated climate zones."

With proper design, well calculated overhangs or seasonal shade, passive can be very effective in locations with fewer heating-degree days. A location that only needs a couple of months of heating may be able to eliminate large, central heating using thermal mass and/or zone heaters. We're in North Carolina and couldn't be more happy with our passive heating/cooling. It won't work everywhere, but it's the one-design-fits-all thinking that gets us in trouble. Most locations in the US could benefit from more passive, IMO.

it's the one-design-fits-all thinking that gets us in trouble

Exactly, this is where it is important to focus on the theme of the message rather than a strict take-up of a system. Shade falling on one building from the next may be bad in a cold clime but useful in a hot one so following the 'no shade' principle can lead one astray down here. The focus should not be on the shade but how it is used in THAT PARTICULAR environment.


That's the same problem I have with Odum. In these discussions, the phrase "alternate ways to measure happiness" almost always turns out to be a euphemism for "give up modern tech." Once you get to that, then the question of which five or six billion people have to die and not be replaced, and how soon, becomes fundamental.

Are there regions that have the necessary attributes to preserve modern tech? A combination of relatively low population, relatively rich resources (energy in particular), and sufficient isolation? There's a minimum on the population as well; I assert that it takes a population base of 30-50 million to support modern tech given the minimum capital and breadth of knowledge that are required. Such regions may need to ignore traditional political borders.

The Doomers may be right and we'll all go down together. OTOH, I like to think that I live in one of the outer parts of a region where it is possible, with care and effort, to maintain a considerable portion of modern tech, and work towards saving that region.

Despite its small size, I bet Norway could do it if it hoarded all its oil.

I am not so sure. Norway's population is too high to feed with local production, so it needs to import some food from abroad. The exporters still need to keep up their production as well, so need oil from somewhere. So they only function, as part of a larger, oil-sufficient web.

The Scandinavian Group of countries Denmark Sweden and Norway could easily support a high tech high energy lifestyle well into the foreseeable future. They are so complimentary, Danish agriculture Swedish industry and Norwegian oil and Hydro, with a total highly educated population of just over 20 million There was talk about it shortly after the second World war I suspect Russia put pressure on Sweden over Finland and it died the death.

Eh? Norway's population is a little under five million. Fertility rate is under replacement. It has excellent access to North, Norwegian, and Baltic Sea fisheries. Land area is 3-400K sq km. On what basis is the claim made that the population is too high to feed with local production?

Edit: Norway's annual fish catch is 2.5 million tons. That's more than enough calories to feed all 5 million on fish alone.

Norway's population is a little under five million.

According to Statistisk Sentralbyrå ("Statistics Norway", our national beancounting service) it's a little above five million, since March 19th.

See counter at SSB/Population

Fertility rate is under replacement.

This seems to be the latest on the subject, and reports that

After three years with a total fertility rate between 1.95 and 1.98 – the highest since 1975 – the total fertility rate decreased to 1.88 in 2011.

However, this report from last year has these projections:

Population growth will be mainly due to immigration. They comment that

We assume that the overall migration will increase until 2014 both in the middle and high alternatives, and then decline significantly. In the low alternative, we assume that immigration will begin to decline immediately, see Figure 5, the overview table, and table 4 below.

The assumption about increasing immigration in the coming years (alt. M and H) is strengthened by the fact that immigration has continued to increase in 2011. Immigration in the 12-month period ending on 31 March was 77 000, which is the highest figure ever.

The future immigration is estimated using an economic model where immigration is determined by immigration in previous years, the income level in Norway compared to OECD countries, and changes in the unemployment rate in Norway.1 Estimates of future unemployment are taken from Statistics Norway's latest economic report (Økonomiske analyser 3/2011). The relative income is expected to decline from 170 in 2010 to 140 in 2040 and thereafter.2 The estimates are made separately for the three country groups included in the projections.

The uncertainty is taken into account by assuming some fairly extreme scenarios for the evolution of the relative income level in Norway soon: in the high alternative, we keep it constant at the 2010 level, while in the low alternative we let it drop to 112 in 2040. The migration estimates derived from these income profiles are in addition adjusted with the parameter uncertainty in the model, in that we added one standard error in the highest alternative and subtracted one standard error for each year and country group in the lowest alternative.

Of course, I think these assumptions are nuts: As the Age of Limits starts to bite, relative income in Norway will increase. The Aldous find will extend our petroleum era significantly. (An aquaintance, who is a geologist in charge of exploration for a small independent pet. co., seems to think this is an entirely new type of petroleum bearing formation, and that more, perhaps many more, finds like Aldous will be made, now that they know what to look for. And incidentally the find was made by Lundin, not Statoil, which is commonly but erroneously reported). Also, barring a complete collapse of the world economy, Norway will enjoy food security far above the world norm: We produce fertilizer for export, and did so before the Haber-Bosch process was invented (by the all-norwegian Birkeland-Eyde process), i.e., we can produce ammonia without nat. gas (today most likely by hydrolysis of water to produce hydrogen for Haber-Bosch and not by the Birkeland-Eyde electric arc process, but still). And we will not have water shortages. And yes, there's fish, though the ocean seems in danger of ecological collapse so we shouldn't bank on that... well, we'll learn to like jellyfish, I guess.

But all in all I expect Norway to be a very desirable destination for migrants throughout the next century.

That's quite a bit of immigration in Norway's future. I remain unclear about the sovereign control of immigration under EU rules. Does Norway have control of its borders with other EU nations, that is, can Norway refuse entry to anyone it chooses (under its own laws)?

Norway's population (just at 5M) can't possibly sustain a contemporary technology base on its own. The foundation for contemporary tech is the ultra-large-scale integrated circuit -- 100M+ transistors on a chip. Fabs for those devices sit on top of several technology pyramids -- mechanical engineering, chemical processing, etc. The most sophisticated modern tech applications for the ICs sit at the top of comparable pyramids, with some overlap. Consider how much other technology goes into an MRI unit (eg, super-cooled magnets). 5M people just isn't enough, especially after you subtract out doctors, farmers, construction workers, accountants, day care providers, and all the other kinds of functions that support the tech people.

One of the fundamental revolutions that has happened particularly in the last 20 years is that almost everything of any complexity includes at least one microprocessor, some sensors, and some actuators rather than electro-mechanical control mechanisms. Dropping back to previous levels of tech will be hard. The contemporary phone network is entirely dependent on IC technology; to go back to a 1960s landline network requires that you reinvent much of that tech, along with the production capability (and deploy it -- a lot of the copper wires are simply gone, pulled out and replaced with IC-dependent fiber optics). Contemporary TV is entirely dependent on IC technology; to go back requires you to reinvent and deploy analog television. Photography is digital and IC-based. We bought a new washing machine recently -- the basic design is unworkable without a processor to provide sophisticated real-time control of the moving parts.

Good point. It is the fact that we have globalization that allows any of us to sustain contemporary technology. Once globalization ceases, it will be impossible for any of us to keep up technology.

Good point. It is the fact that we have globalization that allows any of us to sustain contemporary technology. Once globalization ceases, it will be impossible for any of us to keep up technology.

I don't think this is true. Just because this is how the economy under the current status quo arrangement works (laissez faire neo-liberal economic models, rampant globalization, no restrictions on population growth or consumption, rents/profits going to the top .1%) does not mean it *can't* work any other way.

Why couldn't you have a fairly "high-tech" yet eco-friendly economy that assumes steady state or declining population and measures overall citizen health and well being (of the bottom 99%) vs. GDP growth, debt growth, shareholder profits and consumption as metrics? I see no reaon at all why you cannot have "high tech" with a much smaller world (or local) population. In fact, a lower population makes it *easier* --not harder-- to provide *everyone* a better standard of living, as there would be MORE resources per capita, not fewer. Not to mention all the other problems currently caused by overpopulation would be greatly mitigated: post-peak decline, soil erosion, pollution, deforestation, overfishing, die-offs, climate change, wars over dwindling resources, famine, etc.

Zero or negative population growth does NOT create problems, it SOLVES (or at least mitigates) many problems.

I also agree that the assumption that IC fab will fail is wishful thinking. While IC fabrication is near the top of the technological chain, we have a vast store of knowledge in the form of textbooks that detail the progression from vacuum tubes to simple silicon circuits to modern fabrication techniques.

At its core, modern fabrication requires silicon and some chemical feedstocks, a mask that is generally made nowadays with ion beam or electron beam lithography, and a UV light source. Even if all modern fabs are destroyed, going back to a micron-sized process would be within reach of a motivated city-state in a post-collapse world. It's one thing to say that humanity might lose the capability to fabricate chips with 30 nm resolution (the current commercial standard), but it's quite another to say that we'll be incapable of generating integrated circuits.

Perhaps Gail's comment meant that we would lose our iPads and sleek laptops. This could very well be true. On the other side, there is bound to be far less time given to trivial entertainment in a post-collapse society, and our core capabilities may not drop as much as some pessimistic outlooks predict.

I think that the emerging combination of
3D printers and printable electronics is going to greatly alter the landscape for consumer electronics in the next 10 years. There will still be a place for high performance IC's from large chip fabs, but probably 99% of tasks can be handled by cheap slow simple circuitry. So in the near future it probably won't take a $5 billion factory to make electronics and small consumer items.

How large amount of trade is "globalization"? I'd say if Norway went down even as low as 1950 levels of trade, it still could keep up the technological infrastructure.

Regarding solar PV, on pages 88-89, the book says:

Renewable energies present a mixed bag of opportunities. Some argue that they have clear advantages in terms of economic viability, reliability, equitable access, and especially environmental benefits. But nearly all suffer from very low energy return on investment compared to conventional fuels. In favorable locations, wind power has a high EROI (perhaps 18:1). The cost of photovoltaic (solar electric) power has come down sharply, making it a viable alternative in areas without access to electricity grids, but the EROI remains relatively low, perhaps 4:0 or less, when considered on a systems level. But both of these solar energies require very expensive backups or transmission systems to compensate for intermittent production, as they are available only 20% to 30% of the time. . . .

A disquieting aspect of all of these alternatives, however, is that as energy delivery systems (including backups, transmission, etc.), they all have a much lower EROI than the fossil fuels we would like them to replace, and this is a major reason for their relatively low economic feasibility in most applications. This may be a tough nut to crack. Subsidies and externalities, social as well as environmental, add difficulties to this evaluation but are poorly understood or summarized. This presents a clear case for public policy intervention that would encourage a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of renewable forms of energy.

Later, on page 317 it says (as part of the section "EROI for U. S. and North American Domestic Resources and its Implications for the 'Minimum EROI'")

But the problem with substitutes to fossil fuels is that, of the alternatives available, none appear to have the desirable traits of fossil fuels. These include: (1) sufficient energy density, transportability, (3) relatively low environmental impact per net unit delivered to society, (4) relatively high EROI, and (5) are obtainable on the scale and timing that society presently demands. Thus it would seem that society, both in the United States and the world, is likely to be facing a decline in both the quantity and EROI of its principle fuels. The principle benefit of alternative fuels is that they emit less carbon to the atmosphere. ([My emphasis, not in the book.])

There is also a table on page 313 that shows the EROI of solar as 6.8, based on study by Cleveland.

None of this sounds like a ringing endorsement for using solar on a large scale.

In the book, they talk about the deficiencies of EROI, and the need to extend the boundaries to a larger system. It seems to me that this is especially the case for the alternatives. It seems to me that the EROI estimates for alternatives, as they are usually calculated, are misleadingly high relative to fossil fuels, because they do not capture enough of the full system, and this is what Charlie and Kent are getting at in the paragraphs I quoted.

Claiming that the EROI for solar is "perhaps 4:0 or less" with no source or citation does not inspire confidence in the authors, since 10 seconds of googling shows a large range of estimates, all higher than 4:0. People opposed to solar tend to use the same old out-dated studies, and ignore more recent results. But of course improved technology will tend to improve EROI over time, just as it also reduces system prices.

And the link I post below gives EROI for tar sands of between 3:1 to 9:1, globalconventional oil production around 20:1, US oil production around 10:1, etc. So it is simply incorrect to claim as the authors do above "A disquieting aspect of all of these alternatives, however, is that as energy delivery systems (including backups, transmission, etc.), they all have a much lower EROI than the fossil fuels we would like them to replace, and this is a major reason for their relatively low economic feasibility in most applications."

If wind has "low economic feasibility", why does wind energy generation have the highest percentage growth rate?? Claiming that the fastest growing generation options have "low economic feasibility" is more of an un-supported opinion, than a factual statement.

The SUNY ESF study looked at a number of life cycle analyses from 2000 to 2008 on a range of PV systems to determine system lifetimes and EPBT, and subsequently calculated EROI [28]. The system lifetimes and EPBT are typically modeled as opposed to empirically measured. As a result, EROI is usually presented as a range. Typically the author found most operational systems to have an EROI of approximately 3–10:1. The thin-film modules considered had an EROI of approximately 6:1 whereas some theoretical modules, including a 100MW very large scale PV installation reached or exceeded 20:1. A subsequent study by Kubiszewski et al. [29] reviewed 51 systems from 13 analyses and calculated similarly an average EROI of 6.56:1. Much promotional literature gives higher estimates but we are unable to validate their claims. A book in preparation (Prieto and Hall [30]) examines actual energy costs and gains from a series of collectors in Spain and suggests that actual operating EROIs might be considerably less than promoters suggest.
Factors contributing to the increase of EROI include increasing efficiency in production, increasing efficiency of the module, and using materials that are less energy intensive than those available today. Factors contributing to lower EROI include lower ore grades of rare metals used in production (from either depletion in the ground or competition from other industries) and lower than projected lifetimes and efficiencies, problems with energy storage, and intermittence.
The SUNY ESF study also examined passive solar heating and cooling for buildings [31]. A passive solar building is one which captures and optimizes the heat and light available from the sun without the use of any collectors, pumps or mechanical parts, but by design. Unfortunately, passive solar is incredibly site specific and thus calculating an EROI can be very difficult. However, the author does explain how a calculation could be achieved by performing the same operations as those for other renewable forms of energy—lifetime of structure divided by the EPBT. The EROI for a well designed building certainly has the potential to be quite favorable.

hina’s wind installed capacity is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 80% annually up to 2020.

The good news: renewable energy -- in the form of solar power, wind, hydroelectric and other types -- is the world's fastest-growing energy resource. That's according to the U.S. Energy Department's International Energy Outlook 2011, released this week.

The not-so-good news: World dependence on fossil fuels will remain, largely because of tremendous leaps in demand from China, India and other emerging economies. That increase in demand will be so great, Energy Department analysts say, that renewable energy will see only a slight increase in its share of the world's energy sources, rising from the current 10% to 14% in 2035.

The point is that the EROI of wind and solar PV are not comparable to those of fossil fuels. A comparison of the EROEIs gives a misleading result, because the boundaries are relatively wider on fossil fuels than on wind and solar PV.

Part of the issue is the EROI only looks at fossil fuel and electricity inputs. Something like wind has a lot of other inputs, like financing costs and lease costs and consultant's costs, plus insurance costs and people's wages. Each of these are closely linked to fossil fuel usage. The person getting the interest check uses the interest to buy vacations and fuel for his automobile and heat for his home. The person collecting the lease amount and the consultant uses his fees for similar purposes. The people who benefit from the insurance payments and wages also use the amounts they are paid for fossil fuels. Since there are more of these hard-to-categorize costs with wind and solar PV, they simply get omitted from the EROI calculation. This is one way boundaries are too narrow.

Another way boundaries are too narrow is that installing wind (and to a lesser extent solar PV) requires paved roads. In the case of wind, with the huge equipment being transported, the bridges and other sensitive parts of the roads may need to be reinforced. The roads are likely to wear out sooner. More transmission lines transporting wind long distance will need to be built (not just tying the turbines to the grid), and the energy costs of those are not considered. Also, more employees and more equipment and perhaps even "smart grid" technology is required to support the system.

Solar also has a lot of boundary issues. I understand Charlie Hall (with Pedro Prieto) is writing another book, talking about the real life experiences with solar PV in Spain. I believe that is where the less than 4:1 EROI came from.

Another issue that EROI does not consider is the back-up systems that are needed, including fossil fuel plants or pumped storage or batteries and the energy cost associated with creating them and operating them in a non-optimal way. If they are frequently ramped up and down, they are likely to wear out more quickly.

When EROI is calculated, it assumes that the wind or solar PV equipment will last for the full life of the system. If the whole electrical system goes down (perhaps because of financial problems), this will not be the case. There are other contingencies as well--hurricanes taking out wind turbines, for example.

Apart from the EROI issues, there are also issues with substituting high valued fuels for low valued fuels. Electricity is usually make with natural gas or coal or nuclear. If wind and solar PV are built in ways that use more petroleum (directly or indirectly), what happens is that we end up substituting petroleum for natural gas or coal or uranium. The economics of this do not work.

In comparing EROI for renewables to fossil fuels, I doubt that the boundary conditions for analysis make much difference, as long as the same boundaries are used for all technologies. Wider boundary conditions would likely reduce EROI for both renewables and fossil fuels a similar amount, since both have wide societal support systems. But studies I have read show minimal impact for wider EROI analysis boundaries, because of diminishing impacts as boundaries get farther from core technologies. What percentage of railroad embedded energy should be assigned to a wind turbine blade that makes one trip on a railroad with a 200 year life?? (not much). And the results with consistent boundary conditions already show some renewables with better EROI than many fossil fuel systems, like tar sands versus wind. Fossil fuel depletion and renewable technology development can only serve to make renewables more competitive.

Including financial ramifications of leases and insurance in wind EROI does not make sense, because those costs are not an inherent part of wind generation's energy balance. Indeed, in many countries power generation is a public utility, rather than a for-profit business, so land is not leased or insured by an investor, but simply allocated as a public good.

Wind generation absolutely does not require paved roads (not sure where you got that one?). I see wind turbines with dirt/gravel access roads all over Colorado, have never seen a wind farm that paved the access roads. And turbines and towers are frequently sectionized now, so they travel by rail until they get close to installation locations, and then they go the last few miles on trucks that travel fine without pavement (or they could never get to the actual turbine site on a gravel/dirt road).

Storage does make sense as part of complete system EROI, but it has to be allocated on a system basis, so each turbine or PV panel should fairly only be allocated a miniscule fraction. Also distributed PV, like I have on my house, actually reduces the need for grid infrastructure, so there should be a system EROI increase for distributed generation and efficiency, since they reduce the need for big grid investments of energy and dollars. PV generation profile matchs Colorado afternoon air-conditioning peak electric load well, so it reduces rather than increased peak generation requirements (cloudy days have lower AC loads too).

PV in Spain sounds like a text-book case for "what not to do", so while we should learn from Spain's boom and bust experience, generalizing from Spain to the rest of the world is fallacious.

Again real-life experience is that PV in particular has actual operating life much longer than the 25 year guarantees. Not sure what kind of system wide event could make all PV systems stop working, even if the grid goes down PV keeps generating.

The increasing economic competitiveness of renewable generation is the best "back of the napkin" indication that renewable EROI is not as bad as doom-sayers claim. Of course other costs beside energy impact financial ROI, but an unsustainable EROI would eventually result in an unsustainable financial ROI, which is clearly not happening world-wide.

The problems with PV in Spain have nothing to do with technology or low EROI, they are politic in nature.

I'm not sure that is entirely correct.

PV in Spain was not economically feasible, so they implemented massive unsustainable tariffs to build a heavily subsidized solar power industry, creating a massive boom and bust cycle.

Grid connected solar is not economically feasible anywhere and so requires subsidies in every market where it exists. So, you could argue, I suppose, that the solar industry has nothing to do with technology or EROI, but instead is a political industry.

Much the reason it is a political industry is that the technology is not competitive. So while while technology is not the direct cause of Spain's boom and bust cycle, it is not true that it "has nothing to do with" it.

Nucelar energy done right is not economically feasible, that's why requirements for proper safety measures and proper insurance had been waived in earlier decades. Now that safety regulations are tighter, nuclear power plants are no longer economically feasible and in Europe several groups are already lobbying for feed-in-tariffs comparable to those for renewable power for new nuclear plants!

Same for coal fired power plants which spew out enormous amounts of mercury, uranium, thorium, ... globally. And no! These emissions are neither regulated nor do plant owners have to pay for the damage those emission cause (additional deaths/illnesses,...).

Your view of economic feasibility is a very narrow one.

I would love to see all costs internalized and an equal playing field established for all generation technologies. This would create a higher power cost that would make some technologies feasible that are not under the current paradigm.

But the solar bubble was created by technology specific tariffs that are multiples of base rates. Spain's tariff's can not be justified by trying to create an equal playing field, it was a give away to solar promoters at the expense of rate payers and was doomed to failure.

The rays in Spain fall mainly in the plain.

Responding to only a few of your comments, the boundary conditions for each analysis vary with the person doing the analysis, but the a frequent version is "energy at the well-head" or point of extraction. There is a huge difference in what needs to be done to make this energy useful, because all of these are part of larger systems. I see the value of EROI being greatest at looking at EROI of a particular fuel over time, or comparing, for example, two different wind turbine models.

Furthermore, a high EROI is a necessary, but not sufficient, reason for a fuel to be suitable for expansion. Charlie Hall and Kent Klitgaard gave a list of reasons why this is the case.

"The point is that the EROI of wind and solar PV are not comparable to those of fossil fuels. A comparison of the EROEIs gives a misleading result, because the boundaries are relatively wider on fossil fuels than on wind and solar PV."

I haven't taken a look at the methodology used to calculate the various EROIs, but I would surprised if they are as disparate in their data inputs as you suggest. If they are, one has to wonder what the point of the effort was.

In any case, according to the data available, the EROI of Wind is 18. In the 1970s, US Oil and Natural Gas extraction was 30 but by 2000 had decreased to 10 (according to once source, but that seems too low to me). Again, real world experience conflicts with repeated assertions regarding Wind Power. My own rate for Wind Power has dropped for a second time to 9 cents per KWh.

I also would like to note that many of the participants in the Oil Drum are employed/invested in the fossil fuel industries, so there are a lot of slanted opinions on Wind which misrepresent Wind's potential.

Graph of EROIs of different energy sources:

I find these low EROEI numbers HIGHLY suspect.

Thin film solar has the same EROEI as old silicon EROEI, which also equal to some of the more exotic chemistries ? It seems quite unlikely.

I read a review, based on GE wind turbines, which shows advances in engineering have increased generation by +10% for the same materials in just three years.

Same materials, +10% more MWh = higher EROEI

Another well known "trick" is to increase generation by buying a tower 10 meters higher. Towers are expected to last 60 or so years (two generations of WTs on top) and then steel is recycled at fairly low energy costs.

Due to financial ROI, taller towers are rarely speced. But they will significantly increase EROEI.

If EROEI ever becomes a significant issue, use more melted SUVS and taller wind turbine towers.

Best Hopes for Renewables,


I'd love to read this graph, but don't have an app for .svg file format. Is this available in another format?

I made a png out of it.

Thanks! Looks like Chrome, Mozilla, Opera, etc. are with the program, but IE8 lacks ability to render .svg files.

Yes but what about efficiencies? When I look around in the U.S, I see about 60% waste; think about ww2; we can and will become extremely efficient. There are even efficiencies that you did not know existed. I understand sounding the alarm but sounding it too early and throwing up your hands saying we are all going to die! Does a disservice to the cause, what if that extends peak oil another 30 years? You will have a lot of disappointed people who gave up everything and ran to the hills to survive.

Funny you're criticizing Hall by quoting the SUNY ESF study - that's his own!

Hall is not saying that current and future fossil fuels have high EROEIs, they're falling too. What he's saying, and has been saying since the 1980's when he practically invented the EROEI concept, is that overall EROEI is falling, and under a certain threshold (something like 5:1) we will not be able to sustain industrial civilization. The that renewables with similarly low EROEIs won't save us from that fate.

Regarding the EROEI of PV, most calculations only look at the manufacturing of the PV cells. Or, perhaps, the PV panels as a whole. If you try and actually install some PV panels on your roof you will find out that transportation of the panels, installation hardware and wiring, electronics for connecting them to batteries and/or the grid, labor, etc, easily cost more in total than the base cost of the panels themselves at the current $1/watt prices. And some of the electronics will not last as long as the panels. Moreover, Hall is talking about the bigger picture. Electricity coming out of the panels' electronics is not all that useful per se. What we're really after is either adding it to the grid (requiring transmission upgrades, smart meters, etc), or storage (batteries that are very expensive in money and embedded energy).

It is even more ironic that Hall's own numbers contradict his own claim that renewables have lower EROI than fossil fuels.

Actually almost all PV EROI estimate do include balance of system, not that it affects EROI that much.

A high energy return on energy investment (EROI) of an energy production process is crucial to its long-term viability. The EROI of conventional thermal electricity from fossil fuels has been viewed as being much higher than those of renewable energy life-cycles, and specifically of photovoltaics (PVs). We show that this is largely a misconception fostered by the use of outdated data and, often, a lack of consistency among calculation methods. We hereby present a thorough review of the methodology, discuss methodological variations and present updated EROI values for a range of modern PV systems, in comparison to conventional fossil-fuel based electricity life-cycles.

► We perform a review of the EROI methodology. ► We provide new calculations for PV compared to oil- and coal-based energy systems. ► If compared consistently, PV sits squarely in the same range of EROI as conventional fossil fuel life cycles.

In all cases, the complete PV system was addressed, including all balance of system (BOS) components,

Here is another modern study, again explicitly including all balance of system components for building integrated PV. Results show EROI between 7 and 34, with improvement expected as wafer thickness decreases. And the explicitly included balance of system embedded energy is likely to be usable even after the PV system life. Building integrated PV replaces wall and roof systems that have an EROI of 0.000, since they have embedded energy and produce nothing.

The measured EPBT for the Solaire array ‘as
is’ is 0.81 years; while in the ‘realistic’ scenario the EPBT
increases to 3.81 years. These correspond, respectively, to
an Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of 34.6 and 7.2 assuming a 30-year system lifetime. EROI is used here to
reflect the net energy generated by the system throughout its
lifetime divided by its net embodied energy—referred to as
a second-order EROI in the framework proposed by Mulder
and Hagens.[34] Since the wafer processing steps included
in the realistic scenario are tied to the wafers’ thicknesses, it
follows that as thicknesses continue to drop, so will the

I don't understand why people keep referring back to obsolete studies about antiquated technologies, rather than looking at current data, unless it is because they have a pre-defined point of viewpoint, that they wish to protect against any new information that might threaten it.

Yes, net energy is good news, because it does not include the emergy basis of labor. The originator of the concept of net energy updated the science with these calculations below from 1996 (Odum & Odum, 2001, p. 153). These are old calculations, so the news is even less optimistic than this. If solar PV were net positive, we'd be seeing them now springing up on houses all over the lower latitudes and solar PV companies going gangbusters.

Net energy also doesn't include any adjustment for time differences in investment. If up front capital is in short supply, this is extremely important. Even if plenty is available, it still makes a difference.

Nate Hagens was one of the authors of an article related to this. It can be accessed at this link.

I wrote a post on Our Finite World about the lack of investment capital now available. It is called Can we invest our way out of an energy shortfall?

So we can "afford" 100 million SUVs in the US, and yet we cannot "afford" to insulate our attics and put PV on our roofs?

I think "afford" is the wrong word here and "choose not to" is a better phrasing.

We installed a PV array on our house that produces more electricity than we use annually for ~$25K, less than the purchase price of one of the 100 million SUVs somebody could afford.

Here is an excellent in-depth interview with Professor Hall about his new book....

I thought about linking to it, but I found the music sound track offensive.

Professor Hall, in the interview, says he is not very optimistic about the future, even though the book seems to say something else.

Hi Gail,

sorry to hear you found the sound track offensive. Was it the film scene edit? It does contain some cursing, but it was supposed to juxtapose the unseen violence of our economic system, with the obvious violence of the gangster being upset about the lack of understanding of the rules of the road.

The next episode of the pod-cast is an interview with David Korowicz on his new report: Trade off, and has no such content that might offend.
Feel free to link to it on the website if you wish.


As Gail pointed out, the violence sound track detracted from an otherwise excellent discussion.

In this interesting podcast interview, Charlie talked about the challenges of dealing with the intermittency of renewable energy. Here is an excellent peer reviewed scientific report from the UK Energy Research Centre on "The Costs and Impacts of Intermittency" which will add a lot more depth on this topic. The scientific realities are considerably different than what first meets the eye. (see box 2.4 of the main report)

Nice excerpt below from the abstract of your link (which is from 2006, so it cannot cover advances in flow batteries and other technologies since then).

UKERC's report represents a definitive picture of the costs and impacts of intermittent energy supplied by renewable sources, such as wind. Some commentators have suggested that renewable energy is made much more costly, or is drastically limited by intermittency. The report finds that these views are out of step with the vast majority of international expert analysis and that intermittency need not present a significant obstacle to the development of renewable sources.

Read beyond the abstract. This report was not meant to take into account any special storage technologies. It is about some myth busting on computing the costs and impacts of intermittency. Take a look at the Executive Summary to better understand what the report is actually about...also, check out some popular misconceptions about renewable generation as outlined in Box 2.4.

The report finds that:
•Renewable energy, such as wind power, leads to a direct reduction in CO2 emissions
•The output of fossil fuel plant will need to be adjusted more often to cope with fluctuations in wind output, but any losses this causes are small compared to overall savings in emissions
•100% ‘back up’ for individual renewable sources is unnecessary; extra capacity will be needed to keep supplies secure, but will be modest and a small part of the total cost of renewables. It is possible to work out what is needed and plan accordingly
•None of the 200+ studies UKERC reviewed suggested that the introduction of significant levels of intermittent renewable energy would lead to reduced reliability
•If wind power were to supply 20% of Britain’s electricity, intermittency costs would be 0.5 - 0.8p per kilowatt an hour (p/kWh) of wind output. This would be added to wind generating costs of 3 - 5p p/kWh. By comparison, costs of gas fired power stations are around 3p p/kWh
•The impact on electricity consumers would be around 0.1p p/kWh. Domestic electricity tariffs are typically 10 - 16p p/kWh. Intermittency therefore would account for around 1% of electricity costs
•Costs of intermittency at current levels is much smaller, but will rise if use of renewables expands
•Wide geographical dispersion and a diversity of renewable sources will keep costs down


A study for New Zealand (two isolated grids - North & South Island, connected by a HV DC link of limited capacity) concluded that "further study will be needed" for levels above 40% of total MWh, but the New Zealand grid(s) can accept 40% wind without further modification except limited transmission feeder lines to wind farms *IF* wind is geographically dispersed.

They could see problems developing if most wind was installed at a few of the "best" sites, or if there was a significant North-South Island disparity.

Even within the limited geography of New Zealand, "spreading them around" averaged out many of the short term variations of wind generation.

Best Hopes for Increased Wind and Solar generation,


yes! Good example Alan. Most people don't think this through. Also, the current cost to back up wind in MISO territory is 0.4 cents per kwh according to a recent submittal by DTE Energy in rate case U - 16357.

Charles A S Hall presentation

part 1 of APPGOPO

part 2 of APPGOPO

mididoctor's APPGOPO links are to presentations on:
Energy Return on Energy Investment with Professor Charles Hall

People who are interested in the videos may also be interested in this link:

ESF Professor Advises U.K. Leaders on Energy Issues

Charles Hall visits Parliament, Oxford for week of meetings

ESF Professor Charles Hall spent a week in the United Kingdom in late March, giving presentations on and discussing energy and economic issues with British business, education and governmental leaders, including members of Parliament.

Hall, a systems ecologist with an interest in energy, biophysical economics and the links between energy and society, said he was invited to the United Kingdom to share his knowledge of the connection between global economic problems and the end of cheap energy.

FYI: you can order a softcover edition of Energy and the Wealth of Nations for $25 (free shipping) from Springer, provided you have access to a library that subscribes to Springer's "MyCopy" service. Sure beats paying $75+ for the hardcover.

I too went to the APPGOPO presentation which I thought was excellent.

Charles Hall was heavily criticised by Dr.Mayer Hillman for not mentioning climate change. It seems to me that the EROI analysis should properly include not only all the energy used to deliver a particular energy service to its end user, but also the energy used to clean up afterwards.

For nuclear this should include the energy implications of building and maintaining waste storage dumps for thousands of years. As our one time past Energy Minister Tony Benn allegedly said 'what is the net present value of the cost of a security guard for 10,000 years?'. I'd add 'what is the energy cost?' For fossil fuels it should include carbon capture and storage or some other way of 'cleaning up' the CO2 emitted.

I think this might level the playing field between fossil fuels and renewables a bit.

Good reviews of two good books. I was once criticized by Charles Hall on an old TOD EROI string for suggesting that there should be an accounting for the initial energy (nuclear/gravitational collapse?) which produced the geologic concentration of minerals. Granted that might not be easy. The Hall/Klitgaard book does discuss such concepts as the declining grades of copper ores (p 260). I also recall references to Nicholos Georgescu-Roegen.
--Copies of the book were available at the 2011 ASPO meeting. I bought one and later a second which I gave to Jean Laherrere. He was stuck with an unusable credit card as the book exhibit was closing. I had been privileged to sit with Jean at a front row table during much of the meeting. Besides being a leading expert, he was an unusually pleasant table companion.

I don't want to take the thread off topic, Robert, but you are absolutely correct. Earth's basic geothermal processes need to be included. It has been done and then refined (Brown & Ulgiati, 2010).

Crucial to the method of emergy synthesis are the main driving emergy flows of the geobiosphere to which all other flows are referenced. They form the baseline for the construction of tables of Unit Emergy Values (UEVs) to be used in emergy evaluations. We provide here an updated calculation of the geobiosphere emergy baseline and UEVs for tidal and geothermal flows. First, we recalculate the flows using more recent values that have resulted from satellite measurements and generally better measurement techniques. Second, we have recalculated these global flows according to their available energy content (exergy) in order to be consistent with Odum's (1996) definition of emergy. Finally, we have reinterpreted the interaction of geothermal energy with biosphere processes thus changing the relationship between geothermal energy and the emergy baseline. In this analysis we also acknowledge the significant uncertainties related to most estimates of global data. In all, these modifications to the methodology have resulted in changes in the transformities for tidal momentum and geothermal energy and a minor change in the emergy baseline from 15.8E24 seJ/J to 15.2E24 seJ/J. As in all fields of science basic constants and standards are not really constant but change according to new knowledge. This is especially true of earth and ecological sciences where a large uncertainty is also to be found. As a consequence, while these are the most updated values today, they may change as better understanding is gained and uncertainties are reduced.

Then, how that relates to our overall R vs NR processes on the earth are linked below. Anyone who thinks we're not cooking the earth in many different ways is not paying attention?

I've read sections of Dr. Hall's book, Wealth of Nations, and it is a good read.

The NPV for a nuclear waste site security guard from 10,000 years in the future would be about the same as a truck driver who delivers windmill blades 10,000 years in the future. Or, similar to a solar panel production worker/installer 10,000 years from now.

We all get that nuclear is evil. However, nuclear security guards are not going to be the only people working 10,000 years from now (or maybe they will). So if you are going to include them in any energy analysis you must also include the workers who will be working in all the other energy technologies. It all washes out.

Its a fun easy statement to make and you can have fun making some big numbers when you compound things 10,000 times. However its not a very good practical argument.

I do agree that the closer to a full life cycle cost we can get the better comparisons can be made.

The NPV for a nuclear waste site security guard from 10,000 years in the future would be about the same as a truck driver who delivers windmill blades 10,000 years in the future. Or, similar to a solar panel production worker/installer 10,000 years from no.... if you are going to include [nuclear security guards] in any energy analysis you must also include the workers who will be working in all the other energy technologies. It all washes out.

No. There is a key difference. Any solar installer or windmill truck driver working 10,000 years from now would be helping to add to the energy capturing infrastructure. So their effort would rightly be part of the EROEI of that future energy. The nuke security guard would be still part of the clean-up/protection/decommissioning call-it-what-you-will of energy generated today, so is rightly part of the EROEI of the plant built (and having exhausted its usefulness) 10,000 years before he was born. And same would have been true of each of his predecessors, for lo those 125 or so human lifetimes.

This is not true of wind & solar installations that pose no health or security threat either during or after their useful lifetimes. Anyone working in those fields over the next 125 or however many human generations would be adding to future energy infrastructure, not merely protecting their peers from the harms we ancients placed in their path.

Do you seriously believe wind and solar pose no health or security threats? Don't you think that's a bit of a stretch?

United States Department of Labor: Green Job Hazards: Wind Energy
United States Department of Labor: Green Job Hazards: Solar Energy

No activity is without risks.

Those risks of falls or electrocution are the same risks as installing or constructing anything. You carry the same risks cleaning your gutters. It's not really fair to compare installation risks to operational risks. There will be no wind spill.

It seems to me that everything in life has risks including installing or constructing anything, and yes even cleaning your gutter has risks. Risk is everywhere. There is very little in life that is certain except maybe death. That is why risks assessments are most meaningful when used to compare the various available options, and such a comparison is impossible when one isn't honest with themselves about the risks involved. That is why I felt the need to mention that wind and solar aren't absolutely free of health and security risks. Perhaps I'm being too picky here, but it seems important to me.

In regards to it not being fair to compare installation risks to operational risks, I don't see why not. It seems to me like the total risks involved is what's important. Although even if that is not the case it is hard for me to imagine that there are absolutely no operational risks involved in wind and solar. Modern wind turbines are huge, and sometimes they collapse (not often I Imagine, but it can happen). Here's a story of a maintenance worker killed by a collapsing wind turbine. Also, even without collapsing people still have to maintain them, and I'm sure some of those people might be injured or killed. Listen, I'm not saying wind and solar are bad, or that we shouldn’t use those technologies. I'm just saying that calling them risk free is inaccurate.

The extraordinary maintenance required of nuclear power plants also causes deaths.

I meet a heavily scarred industrial electrician. When he was working as a helper, on a refueling outage at a nuke, they had to rebuild a number of breakers that had been nearly worn out from the testing required at start-up.

One exploded and killed the master electrician he was with and injured him as they were depowering it. Freak accident.

Any other power plant - hydro, coal, NG, etc. would not have had the same level of testing and maintenance.

But *ALL* heavy industrial sites are dangerous.

And I am sure removing dust and bird droppings from solar PV panels will kill some.

Best Hopes for Accepting Reasonable Ricks,


Not really the point...

... and what hazbro says.

I did get a little of subject. Sorry about that.

Good reviews Gail

I just finished the Rapier book and was also stuck by the way he described peak oil. Basically he said he did not like the term peak oil because it tends to muddy the waters.

When you focus on a peak you tend to get everyone, including the peak oil community, skeptics, and deniers, all arguing about which year (or month?) it might happen (or has not happened). Then if the deniers can prove someone in the peak oil community missed a date they can say "see - the theory is wrong!"

One of the rules of argumentation is to not let your opponent define the criteria. Rapier instead describes a problem of ongoing depletion of oil and describes the problem as being when the supply (flow rate) of that resource cannot keep up with the demand growth. That leads to a growing problem in the world. Temporary small deviations around a peak are just focusing on the noise instead of the signal.

I believe that if ASPO talked in those terms it would negate all of these silly arguments I see about "Hubbert got it wrong". Who cares about a 1956 prediction. Hubbert made a great contribution but we should not be talking about Hubbert and instead talk about the undeniable developing problem of a growing disparity between supply and demand (with the accompanying price increase) that began in the early part of this century and continues to pour sand into gears of the world economy.

As some wag said - we have left the world of surplus behind and entered the world of entropy.

I think what Rapier says is closer to what I have been saying, too.

I've read most of Robert's book, and it's an excellent primer on the issues of energy constraints, incorporating various insights he's fleshed out over the years, perhaps most importantly the one you've brought up. I'd greatly enjoy an entire book from him going into greater detail on one of the various subjects he's had as blog entries, too - switching the vehicle fleet over to CNG, or the complex world of biofuels, say.

I also thought it was interesting that neither book makes an argument for limiting population growth as a way of bringing energy demand better back in to line with resources.

Really now. The most draconian population control program ever dreamed up by any government with the power to enforce it, China's one child policy, began in 1971. Since then their population has grown by almost 70 percent. To advocate population control as a means of reducing energy consumption, is at best naive.

But make no mistake the population will be controlled... by mother nature.

Ron P.

In reality, there are better ways to limit the population growth in a simple and humane manner than the radical one child policy or other choices suggested by fundamentalist. Better education, medical services and access to family planning has been one of the most successful manner that allowed those women that are interested in improving their lives to have lesser children. In reality, the reason why this is not encouraged is due to religious and mostly economic reasons. The ponzi debt based fractional reserve banking system requires ever more people to not collapse and that is why most of the aid to the poor countries is in encouraging growth in GDP to "save or improve the people" instead of better education, medical services and access to family planning(most of the efforts in these area are by ngos and their resources are pathetic compared to the cancerous IMF loans that encourage GDP growth.

That is why even if the world system is heading towards disaster the efforts in better education, medical services, access to family planning and empowering the women should instead be intensified not as a means to stop population growth(because at this juncture it is too late) but to instead mitigate against the worst effects of the coming food and energy crisis.

In reality, there are better ways to limit the population growth in a simple and humane manner than the radical one child policy or other choices suggested by fundamentalist.

"Fundamentalist"? I'm not sure what you mean by this term. Where I live (U.S.), a "fundamentalist" is someone who vehemently OPPOSES any form of population control, abortion, or even sex education and contraception on religious grounds. And for the record, why is allowing completly uncontrolled overpopulation vs. a sensible one-child-per-couple policy "radical"? I would argue that the current status quo (humanity out-growing resources and spreading like a cancer across the face of the earth, driving thousands of species to extinction) is what qualifies as "radical".

Mass anthropomorphic (and completely avoidable) Die-Offs are "radical".
Sensible, sane, smaller family size policies? Not so much.

That all depends on your definition of "radical".

I think the reverse of what you claim could just as well be supported.

Population control policies can be seen (and are seen) by many as very radical.

And Die Offs....well, the populations of some countries is already in decline. Such as Japan. It is technically a die off, though there are (fortunatley) no skeletal people wasting away in the gutters....

It doesn't get noticed, discussed or analyzed anymore. At first, when the population started to go down around 5 years ago, the government was all gung-ho to get people to have more kids.

But the population decline only accelerated. Then came Fukushima. And everyone is like "Omigod.....the future looks bleak, let's minimize the suffering!"

No one talks about this much. I heard about one mother in Fukushima who apologized to her daughters for giving birth to them. There are a lot of suicides.

People have pretty much decided to just cling onto the wreckage of the country until the whole thing collapses....

Die Off thus doesn't seem radical at all from here. It has been occurring for 5 or 6 years now unabated. Everyone knows that it will definitely continue. The government published a report that said the population of Tokyo would start to decline in 2020. I think it could be sooner, actually.

There is nothing really radical about it. It's a daily reality. Old people everywhere you look. Classes at schools getting smaller....

People don't blame the government at all. Don't you think since earliest humanity we have been taking our chances? And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

"To advocate population control as a means of reducing energy consumption, is at best naive."

That's pretty much why I don't ever discuss it. What am I supposed to do about population? I feel I can make some contribution in the area of energy, but I don't believe I can have any influence at all over population. Thus, it isn't something I write about (even though our resource problems are population-derived).

My earliest experience with population control was around 1955 when I became involved with a controversy during the height of the baby boom about how many living children a charity patient at Houston's Jefferson Davis Hospital must have before being offered a postpartum sterilization. I thought that the standard should be lowered. I became involved with The Population Reference Bureau around 1960. Later I became program director with the local chapter of ZPG. We had fun but accomplished very little. The birth rate was starting to fall for other reasons. The birth control pill was a factor and perhaps even the turmoil associated with Viet Nam. Garrett Hardin was becoming prominent on the abortion front during the late 60's. On a personal note I had a vasectomy around 1970, one of my best decisions ever. Hugh Moore was an important figure in the population movement well before Paul Ehrlich became infamous. According to Wiki, "Moore was chairman of the board of the Population Reference Bureau, vice-president of International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1964, president of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization for 1964-1969 and co-founder of the Population Crisis Committee in 1965." He is said to have coined the phrase Population Bomb.

Population is hard to discuss because there are so many Social Darwinists who think it's their issue. In reality, rapid population growth is quite simple. It is a by-product of the radical mal-distribution of world income. Few things should be more obvious. Where there is comfort about access to the materials of daily life and retirement, population growth is low or negative. Where there is constant crisis in daily life and no assurance of decent old age, population booms.

What we need to do is admit this basic fact, then start changing economic conditions in the poorest nations, via serious wealth redistibution. The UN should tax the rich countries and manage use of the proceeds to provide decency to every household on the planet, with education, contraception, and equal rights for women.

Of course, this is utterly off the mainstream (corporate) political agenda, so it's undiscussable in another sense. But it isn't complicated.

There is a reason that maggots on a carcass reproduce at an exponential rate, until they don't.

Nature wins and there's not much to discuss.

The most draconian population control program ever dreamed up by any government with the power to enforce it, China's one child policy, began in 1971. Since then their population has grown by almost 70 percent.

It would have grown much more without the one-child policy. Furthermore the main reason for this development is the demographic momentum. When you had 5 till 6 children (nearly the natural fertility of Homo Sapiens with about 6-9 children/ woman) only a few years before implementing a "one child policy", the population must grow at least 2 generations. This was the case in China, because after the "Great leap" the people had more than 5 children per woman. You can only overcome this with a "zero-child" policy, which would not help your population in the middle run.

China's population growth is now very small (of course because of the absolute population numbers and the growing life-expendancy the absolute numbers are not that small) and nearing the zero-line in the immediate future about 2025.

After around 2030 (Assuming no "collapse" before that date) China will lose more than 10 million people every year. At that time Japan will have allready lost 20 million people, Russia 15 million, Germany nearly 10 million. But Sub-Saharan Africa will of course have grown by 500 million people. Good luck!

I'm going to put Stalin's programs over China's one child. The holodomor was quite effective.

Coming to a planet near you.

You raise an interesting question: Why did Stalin remain in power despite his disastrous policies towards the USSR? In my opinion, it's because he played traitor to the Russian people. Anything ring a bell about the present day world?

Energy and the Wealth of Nations is a very worthwhile read and I have given copies of it to some of our state's governmental and energy leaders. The whole concept of declining EROI is important although I think looking at "Net Energy" (a Net Present Value of energy flows) is also critical because we can only invest net energy itself, not energy or financial return percentages. The whole question of establishing common boundaries and assumptions is also critical to the EROI calc and it would seem there is more work to be done on this. My hat is off to Charlie and Kent for this important work that is like no other I have seen.

Looks like Charlie Hall and Carey King made the Economist mag this week too!!

The Economist quote regarding Hall and King is

“What is the minimum EROI that a modern industrial society must have for its energy system for that society to survive?” ask Carey King and Charles Hall in a recent paper*. The academics’ answer: “Complex societies need a high EROI built on a large primary energy base.”

I'm reading through Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil right now, and found a quibble where the author compares CO2 emissions per GDP between Sweden, Switzerland, the US, China and India, contrasting their "energy efficiency". Of course, a fairer representation of the carbon footprint is one where the outsourcing of industrial processes are taken into account - in the form of imported commodities. Taking that into account, Sweden suddenly doesn't seem all that good of a country when it comes to CO2 emissions. Remember, if every country followed Sweden's example there would suddenly be no more countries to export these processes to.

"Taking that into account, Sweden suddenly doesn't seem all that good of a country when it comes to CO2 emissions."

But the U.S. does the same thing. Further, I am not sure how exactly one takes that into account. I am unaware of any data on the extent that this takes place among various countries, so CO2 emissions/GDP is the most representative metric of which I am aware. I don't think there is any doubt -- considering how far apart they are -- that Sweden is still far more efficient than the U.S. in producing GDP even when you take imported goods into account.

Its been done in Europe for several years. The growth of CO2 emissions from European consumption is dominated by emissions that happen in China, not emissions that happen in Europe. If you just look at trends of CO2 emissions in Europe you get completely the wrong picture as to whats happening to the atmosphere as a result of European consumption.

Comparing countries with one another at the current time it probably cancels out, but if you look at historical trends in a particular country you have to account for heavy industry outsourcing or you get the trend direction wrong. While Europe can appear on local data to be improving with respect to CO2, once you account for worldwide emissions from manufacture of goods consumed in Europe, the trend remains BAU.

I am somewhat puzzled about the focus on EROEI for wind energy and
PV. This is, to be sure, just *one* thing we need to care about. The
others are: the materials from which we make them, and in case of
wind the amount of energy that can be generated.

The manufacturing of PV panels and wind turbines requires a sophis-
ticated supply chain not only of raw materials but also of parts.
It is unclear to me how that supply chain will survive a major crash
in energy supply once fossile fuels start to become exhausted. Do
we really think all that can be based on renewables?

I personally take these types of renewables as a bridge technology
that help to ease the problems. They allow us to postpone the most
drastic effects for about one generation. I have no faith that when
the first wave of solar panels and wind turbines wear out (20 to
30 years) we will be able to get replacements in sufficient numbers.

-- Marcus

If wind and solar PV are part of the grid, I really doubt that the grid will last that long. Then we are dealing with using the parts separately. This is theoretically possible, especially for solar panels that are taken down from roof-tops, and used for something like pumping water. Wind turbines might theoretically be rigged up to produce nitrogen fertilizer, if all the necessary parts are available.

I think it is more likely that wind and solar PV will bring the end of the electric grid sooner than would otherwise be the case. They bring more variability, and more need to ramp up and down fossil fuel plants, to offset the wind's variability. I don't see much of a way that they could make the lifetime longer, unless we are expected to run short of fossil fuels, and these techniques would stretch the fossil fuels to make them last longer.

It's always easy to spot those who have never 'played' with PV; those who aren't tinkers or technicians. As other forms of energy, especially portable energy, become more expensive or unavailable, PV's value will increase dramatically, as will incentives to find ways to keep production going. Will we be able to keep our current, massively centralized systems functioning? Most here will agree, likely not. But as a portable or distributed provider of electrical energy, PV is of exceptionally high value. Perhaps a time will come when an individual's wealth is determined by the number of PV enabled energy slaves one owns. Some folks' lack of familiarity with this technology is evident.

One admittedly extreme example:


Suppose this camel had to haul a generator and its fuel to keep these drugs cold... I imagine this camel driver holds his PV panels in very high regard. He doesn't care much about your power grid. Like me, his perspective of the value of PV is very different from those who've been enabled by 24/7 availablity of obscene levels of energy, those who view PV as a niche technology or toy. I doubt his or my perspective will change much.

As I type this, many devices in my home, including this computer, a chicken brooder, refrigerator, more, are essentially running PV direct, despite somewhat overcast conditions, with watts to spare. Funny, that. We need to stop trying to put square pegs in round holes.

Indeed. Your first watt of electric generating capacity is a lot more valuable than your 10,000th, that all-important difference between "some" and "none".

In terms of EROEI considerations, I'd like to see someone set out to design PV panels with a design life of 500-1000 years. There's no real market for that now of course, but I'll bet it's quite do-able, and that'd certainly put the EROEI in better perspective for discussions such as this. And perhaps they could be made in large quantities in a handy size to serve as an intrinsically valuable medium of exchange. They could be manufactured now while most energy is being wasted, and stored away as a future source of wealth.

I'll put that on my long and unrealistic "to do" list...

Which again brings up the fact that most watts generated by humans today are wasted on poorly-designed systems, moving people who don't really need to be elsewhere, and manufacturing disposable crap to stimulate our jaded neurochemical set-points. This suggests that it might be instructive to have some sort of index standard to compare something like PV manufacture to the actual expected average utility of the alternate uses of the power. Seen in that light, PV would do well compared to most stuff in Wal-mart, in car lots, built in the suburbs, etc.

just saying....

The problem with predicting grid collapse is such predictions are likely so far into the future that their accuracy is minimal. Our ability to predict energy availability even a few years in the future is very poor, evidenced by how surprised people were by the shale gas/ tight oil boom, and how nobody predicted shale gas volumes in advance.

The US and other industrialized countries have successfully maintained grids with per-capita energy consumption a very small fraction of current levels. This implies that grid collapse would likely occur far down the other side of the peak oil curve, in the event that renewables and efficiency are not able to cover depletion.

Having seen how grids are built and maintained in less-developed countries (big tangles of wires taped and twisted together in Nepal, grid still functioning most hours of most days with a per capita energy consumption 1/100 of US levels etc.), I think grid collapse is much farther away than doomers believe. Village micro-grids are common too, and events on the national grid have no impacts on local grids. Village power systems often have some mix of PV, micro-hydro and fossil generation and rather than investing in battery storage they just drop voltage or shut down when demand exceeds supply.

So I think there are lots of hacked-together solutions that people will use when they need to, just like people in poorer countries do today. To me, the best prediction of the peak oil down-slope is what people who already live low-energy lives do today. Those people have unstable, flaky grids, but they still have mostly working systems. Since I grew up in the 60's listening to people predict the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, and then watched them move to rural retreats in anticipation, I know that "crying wolf" is common human behavior, and even Oil Drum archives from a few years ago would contain incorrect predictions that collapse would have already occurred today.

"To me, the best prediction of the peak oil down-slope is what people who already live low-energy lives do today. Those people have unstable, flaky grids, but they still have mostly working systems."

These folks are generally pre-adapted to this condition and don't have built-out infrastructure and economies utterly reliant upon a fully functional, stable but nearly maxed out grid. How many buildings or cities in Nepal become virtually uninhabitable when the grid becomes unreliable?

That said, I consider the US electric grids fairly low on my list of crises we face. It'll be the economic and environmental costs of maintaining this infrastructure, of maintaining growth, that'll be the bain of our hyper-complex systems. This collective of systems will be unsupportable, IMO. Which ones begin to fail first may be moot. Which ones we can do without is yesterday's question. Any major scaling back will be depressionary.

Sometimes I feel these deliberations are like a group of engineers having a discussion of how to keep the lights on as the ship sinks. Others are frantically trying to redesign the ship so it wouldn't be sinking in the first place. Meantime, most folks are on the prominade listening to the music, still being told how unsinkable their ship is. Meanwhile, the ship's builders and owners are already in their lifeboats, quietly salvaging anything of value.

My best guess about the peak oil downslope is that the US gets poorer, step by step as we go.
But I know my ability to predict the future sucks, just like everybody else.

The more bull-headed we are about changing our high-energy lifestyles, the harder the transition will likely be, and the poorer we become.
For the moment, we look likely to smash hard into the wall, while the much of the rest of the world puts on the brakes by adaptation.

Even on the Oil Drum, any activity to work towards transition generates hordes of nay-sayers. Individuals and governments can convince themselves that there is nothing to be done (and certainly plenty of people on the Oil Drum seem convinced), but I think such a fatalistic view will have negative real world consequences for the believers, as fatalism usually does.

Meanwhile, as always, optimistic people who see useful work to be done will be happier, healthier,and wealthier than people who claim "nothing can be done" and sit around wringing their hands about it. For individuals and for communities, engaging in efforts to adapt does not guarantee success at all, but I think belief in "doom" is a self-fulfilling prophecy for the believer. If nothing else, being depressed is likely to cause physical sickness.

How many buildings or cities in Nepal become virtually uninhabitable when the grid becomes unreliable?

Most of the buildings and cities in Nepal are virtually uninhabitable now, and the grid there is almost completely unreliable.

The neighboring country of Bhutan is much better. The national objective is improving the Gross National Happiness, and they appear to be making significant progress in that direction. However, greater happiness requires a lot of dedication on the citizens part.

Culture of Bhutan

Only in the last decades of the 20th century were foreigners allowed to visit the country, and only then in limited numbers. In this way, Bhutan has successfully preserved many aspects of a culture, which dates directly back to the mid-17th century.

National Dress Code
All Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code, known as Driglam Namzha, while in public during daylight hours. The rule is enforced more rigorously in some districts (dzongkhag) than others. Men wear a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt, called a gho, folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach. Women wear colourful blouses over which they fold and clasp a large rectangular cloth called a kira, thereby creating an ankle-length dress. A short silk jacket, or toego may be worn over the kira. Everyday gho and kira are cotton or wool, according to the season, patterned in simple checks and stripes in earth tones. For special occasions and festivals, colourfully patterned silk kira and, more rarely, gho may be worn.

The immigrant Nepalese disagreed with this standard, so the Bhutanese ran them out of the country at gunpoint. Bhutan is actually a much nicer country to be in than Nepal, but the standards are strict and enforced.

In addition to that, while I was there I noticed that Bhutan has huge hydroelectric potential and is developing it and supplying it country-wide. In Nepal I noticed that the country has huge hydroelectric potential, but it is doing nothing to develop it.

Sometimes I feel these deliberations are like a group of engineers having a discussion of how to keep the lights on as the ship sinks. Others are frantically trying to redesign the ship so it wouldn't be sinking in the first place. Meantime, most folks are on the prominade listening to the music, still being told how unsinkable their ship is. Meanwhile, the ship's builders and owners are already in their lifeboats, quietly salvaging anything of value.

Good one Ghung. An excellent metaphor for our predicament.

I see my efforts as

- Slowing the rate that the ship is sinking, giving slightly more time to prepare and fewer people sucked in as she sinks/

- Increasing the amount of flotsam for people to grab a hold of afterwards.

- And a certain hope that we can stabilize her - low in the water, listing, but still afloat, barely, despite many drowned below decks.

Best Hopes for making a bad situtaiton slightly better,


We have a lot more water tight doors to close yet.

I am making significant progress on one such.

eMail and I will tell what I can publicly.

Best Hopes,


As Gail noted Energy and the Wealth of Nations seems to be aimed as a textbook. Were I a student or a teacher involved with Energy Economics or associated fields I would be pleased to use this book as a text. I assume that such courses will be designed. Would it be useful if the authors or one of their students developed an on-line credit course?

I talked to Charlie Hall about this after seeing your comment. He thought it sounded like an interesting idea, and wrote an e-mail to a few folks who might work on theoretically be involved in such an effort.

Professor Hall also mentioned that if people want to use Energy and the Wealth of Nations as a text for a class, there is more material and help with questions available. Contact Jessica Lamberg [JLambert at gmail dot com].

I am scheduled to be on Fox News Radio this evening at 7:30 p.m. PST to discuss the book with Alan Colmes. Call in if you have a question or comment:

I missed it. How did it go?

I thought it went pretty well. Here is a link to the interview:

great job Robert!