A Net Energy Parable: Why is ERoEI Important?

[editor's note, by Prof. Goose] Forget not the reddit and digg buttons.

Besides water, energy is the most important substance for life on the planet. For most organisms energy is embodied in the food they eat, be it bugs, nuts or gazelles. The excess of energy consumed to energy expended (net energy) has been integral in the evolution of the structure and form of present day organisms. Net energy is measured as how much energy is left over after the calories used to find, harvest, refine and utilize the original energy are accounted for. It is a term linked to physical principles and departs in many cases from our current market mechanism of valuing things by price. The alternative energy debate seems to have two firmly entrenched camps - those that acknowledge the importance of energy gain to our society and those who focus on gross energy, energy quality and dollars. This post explores what net energy is, why its important and how its principles may impact the future organization of our society.

For most living things, energy is calories. Over eons, natural selection has optimized the most efficient methods for energy capture, transformation, and consumption.( Lotka) Cheetahs that repeatedly expend more energy chasing a gazelle than they receive from eating it will not incrementally survive to produce offspring.

But humans, in a very brief evolutionary time span, have puzzled out how to unlock the hydrocarbon bonds in fossil fuels, freeing up vastly more energy that can be directly eaten. The vast majority of our per capita energy production is spent on non-nutritive exosomatic consumption. We have gradually, with rapidity at times, advanced modern human civilization to a global scale, with liquid fuel in jets, trucks, and automobiles providing the glue that links people and products together.


To harness and consume energy requires some type of energy investment. This investment is what comprises the difference between gross energy and net energy. There is various nomenclature that describes this concept. Energy profit ratio, surplus energy, energy gain, EROI, and ERoEI all represent virtually the same relationship of how much energy we receive, relative to an energy input(dollars do not factor in). The most referenced metric in the Peak Oil literature is EROI or ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), which, in its simplest sense is the ratio:

Energy Output / Energy Input

There is disagreement (sometimes dramatic) in the energy literature not only as to what should be included as energy inputs and outputs (a boundary issue) but how variables are included (how to evaluate co-products, how to include other limiting inputs to an energy technology, etc) These nuances will be covered in a subsequent post.

Net energy is typically given as per unit of energy invested. Thus:

EROI = Net Energy + 1.

(For those of you who've played craps - some tables pay off the hard-ways FOR one and others TO one. EROI and net energy have a similar relationship. EROI is how much energy output FOR an energy input and net energy is the energy output TO the energy input.)

Net energy also can refer to a sum as well as a ratio. For an ethanol process that has an EROI of 1.2:1 -the net energy is just .2, but we can also calculate how much net energy is created for society in a given year or a life-of-resource total. At EROI of 1.2, the 3.9 billion gallons that the US produced in 2005 required 3.29 billion gallons of BTU energy input, resulting in a `net energy' of 610 million gallons. (This post will use net energy and EROI interchangeably - if a sentence uses EROI, just subtract one to get net energy, if I use net energy, just add one to get EROI)


Briefly, the above graph shows a theoretical depletable resource which follows the 'best first' concept of resource extraction. The vertical axis is quantity and the horizontal is time. The gross energy resource "X", is the entire area under the curve. ("X" = "A"+"B"+"C"+"D"). Direct energy costs are "D". Indirect energy costs (like tractors and highways and medical insurance and such) are "C". Environmental externalities (in energy terms) are "B". "A" represents the total net energy of the resource after costs have been subtracted. At any given point in time the EROI can be calculated by taking a ratio of the total area divided by the costs (depending on the boundaries). As can be seen, net energy peaks and goes to zero way before the total gross energy is depleted. (This graphic is from an upcoming paper on EROI by a colleague (Kenneth Mulder) and myself.)


Energy quality is also relevant. From an economic standpoint, the value of a heat equivalent of a fuel is set by its price, energy density, physical scarcity, cleanliness of the fuel, capacity to do useful work, flexibility, safety, conversion aspects, etc. (1)

(Source - Neal Elliot - ACEEE)

Electricity is currently the highest quality energy we have in our society, largely due to its ability to do work. Although crude oil is of lower energy `quality' than electricity, its use is ubiquitous in allowing other segments of society to transport goods, etc. and its `quality' as measured by price, has been increasing relative to electricity in recent years.

Cutler Cleveland et al. devised one method of `quality correcting' the net energy of oil and gas extraction using, The Divisia Index, which accounts for energy quality of both inputs and outputs(1 )Below is a graphic of the the thermal and quality corrected EROI of US oil and gas extraction.

"The Divisia EROI is consistently much lower than the thermal equivalent EROI. The principal reason for this is the difference in the fuel mix, and hence fuel quality, between the numerator and denominator of the EROI. The outputs are the crude, unprocessed forms of oil and natural gas. The inputs are electricity and refined fuels such as gasoline and other distillate fuels. The latter are higher quality than the former, and have higher prices. Refined fuels and electricity are, therefore, weighted more heavily in the Divisia formulation."(1)

In the 1930s, US oil was easy to discover. In many cases it was almost at the surface and had an EROI of discovery of 100:1.(2). It has since declined, depending how one measures it or who one talks to, in the range of 10-15:1. As it gets deeper, harder to find, more viscous, higher sulfur content, etc, the EROI will continue to decline. A typical refining efficiency is about 10:1, so the total refined EROI of our precious liquid fuel is still between 5-10:1. This may not seem so high (compared to 100!), but how many stocks have you owned that make 500-1000%? On each iteration? This is the type of energy subsidy world society has become accustomed to.(My paucity of references for this segment gives evidence to how little concern our leadership has for the issue of net energy. Charles Hall, (with data from John S Herold and Co.) and others are working on new updated oil and gas EROI numbers - but solid energy data is either proprietary or difficult to assimilate)


We all intuitively know the difference between net and gross - we use the concept everyday. If you make $100,000 per year in salary and the government takes 38%, your net is $62,000. If the government took 99%, it really wouldnt matter whether you made $100,000 or $1,000,000, your take home would be very small. The same concept applies to energy, and in particular, whatever energy source is most central to society. Basically, net energy matters because net energy is what we use.

"Energy gain, or EROI, varies with the quality (transformity) of a resource deposit and with the efficiency of the technology used to locate, extract, process, distribute and exploit the resource. As the ease of obtaining or using a resource declines, more energy must be devoted to these activities, causing energy gain to decline. Where an energy budget is substantially constant, allocating more resources to energy production reduces the amount of energy available for other activities. The potential impacts of such a situation on a human system include less leisure time, a lower standard of living, higher taxes, and an increase in childhood mortality. In an animal population, allocating greater effort to energy production may mean less winter fat, increased embryo resorption, lower birth weights, or the like.Tainter(3)

It is fundamentally impossible to maintain a constant level of net energy while the aggregate energy profit ratio drops. Only after the energy profit ratio and the need for new fuel related level off can net energy supplies return to the desired level (4).(This book, Beyond Oil, is 20 years old, but is probably the best book on the concepts of net energy, agriculture and society)

We are currently living in the highest energy gain era of any organism in the history of earth. Although the total amount of BTUs consumed in 2005 was higher than any year in history, world energy per capita peaked in 1979.(5)(One could argue that the plateau in net energy per capita has been maintained by a large wealth transfer from poor to rich, from future to present, and from abstract 'energy' (debt) to real consumption).

There are a finite amount of stored fossil fuels on the planet. Some of the largest, highest quality resources have already been exploited. The remaining resources are in many cases more energetically difficult to harvest, or have negative side effects (e.g climate change and coal).

"Environmental degradation is greater when the resource is of low quality and distributed but heavily used. Thus, a switch to renewable energy sources might bring, ironically, environmental damage comparable in scale to, or greater than, that caused by the use of fossil fuels." (Joseph Tainter)(2)

We already see evidence of this in some of the scaling of biofuel production in Asia


Net energy of corn ethanol examples and debates have been presented ad nauseum from both proponents and detractors. The redundancy is trivializing the concept. Though the ethanol debate is critically important in deciding how to deploy of our remaining fossil energy, what follows is a more benign example:

A civilization of 1000 sasquatches lives on a small distant Planet P. They require only food (energy) and water to live but also enjoy a vibrant culture with artisans, builders, and craftspeople. Sasquatches are vegetarians (as everyone knows) but do raise animals for labor help, namely Hephalumps. These animals help them harvest large hempy plants from the mountain near where they live and process them into Saspacks (the finest, sturdiest, durable backpacks in the universe). Each week (which is 10 days long, based on Planet P's sun), the sasquatch colony works very hard for five days and then has leisure time during for the next 5 days. Once a year, a ship from Planet X lands and trades luxury food items (non-caloric but tasty), medicine, comic books, and basic materials in exchange for an agreed upon cargo of Saspacks.

This societies only source of energy(calories) is Waybread, which is a highly energy dense cake made with Spice, water, and the meat from the Mongo nut, which grows in an enormous grove 25 miles from the sasquatch community. Once a Ten-Day, a troupe of the strongest 300 sasquatches traverses 25 miles to the Mongo nut groves, fills up their packs with nuts, and returns home with their energy bounty. It is a one day grueling journey across the Black Plains and through the Black Swamp but they make a ritual of it, telling stories and laughing most of the way until they arrive late at night. They spend a second day climbing trees and picking Mongo nuts, laughing at the colorful monkeys that play in the Mongo trees as well as picking some flowers to bring home to their wives and girlfriends. On the third day they leave at the crack of dawn and are home by nightfall. These same 300 sasquatches then spend two more days, cracking, pounding and combining ingredients together with the nuts to make Waybread; enough for the entire community for the next Ten-Day. All these sasquatches do no other work or leisure on the days they are procuring energy for the tribe. In return, they receive exalted status as the tribes energy providers, and a five day rest.

Since Sasquatches are freakin' huge, each member of their society consumes 4 m-cals a day. They really only require 3 m-cals to survive, but the extra makes them fat and hearty and also contributes to general gastronomic pleasure (sasquatches do not like to feel peckish). Hephalumps are even bigger and the 100 strong herd each requires 8 mcals per day of Waybread to survive and function. Although Waybread is highly nutritious, it is also highly perishable, and must be consumed within one Ten-Day, after which time it gets wormy, and gross.

During the five-day ritual of energy harvesting and preparation, 600 other tribal members are busy harvesting fiber from the mountain, and weaving and stitching it into Saspacks. The remaining 100 bigfoots, mostly youngsters, clean and maintain the village, manage the water supply from the river, and comb the hillsides for Spice. At the end of the fifth day, a feeling of joy emerges in the community as the tribe can look forward to relaxing, dancing and sleeping for five straight days, with plenty of Waybread for everyone. This routine has been going on for as long as any sasquatch can remember. None of them could imagine anything otherwise.

We can determine the energy gain (or net energy) of this society based on the above information. First let's look at the energy output:

Each of the 1000 sasquatches eats 4 mcals per day and there are 10 days per week on their planet. This equates to 40,000 mcals energy consumption per Ten-Day. Each of their herd of 100 Hephalumps requires 8 mcals per day (8,000 mcals per Ten-Day) Therefore the Mongo nut energy source provides them with a flow of energy of 48,000 mcals per Ten-Day. This is their energy output, which is entirely consumed.

How much energy does this society spend in order to get the 48,000 mcals? Well, 300 sasquatches work/travel for three days to acquire the Mongo nuts and then spend two days refining it into edible quality. They have to eat for nourishment during this time otherwise they would not have the strength to do work. Their caloric input (from the prior week's waybread) is 300 sasquatches times 5 days times 4mcals equals 6000mcals.

The energy gain for this society is 48,000 mcals less 6,000 mcals equals 42,000 mcals per ten-day.

The EROI is 48,000mcals/6,000mcals =8:1. The net energy is EROI-1 or 7:1. (Remember, EROI is FOR one and net energy is TO one.) For every unit of energy spent in energy harvesting/refining, 8 are produced. Since they used one unit to produce 8, 7 are left over for other areas of society. (Of the 48,000 mcals of energy available to their society, 6,000 is used for energy production, 12,000 is used to make Saspacks, 2,000 used for cleaning and water procurement, 8,000 to feed the Hephalumps and 20,000 to sustain the tribe during their 5 days of hedonistic leisure.) Sidenote -even though there is a 8:1 EROI, 30% of the tribes members contribute to energy procurement.

One day, the 300 energy procurers arrive at the Mongo grove and find many of the colorful monkeys lying dead on the ground. They were so disturbed that they carried 2 of the carcasses home to show the shaman. They also discovered that the Mongo nuts were no longer as easily reachable from the ground and they had to go either deeper into the forest, or climb higher up the trees to fill their packs with the largest ones. This ended up taking a whole extra day.

After returning home a day late, the community was in a panic. They would have to spend a day out of their Five-Day to finish the procurement of food! And the sight of the dead, dark colored monkeys made many sasquatches cry. It was decided to call an emergency Council, to determine what might be done about the turn of events. Many wise and respected sasquatches voiced their opinions. They were saddened by the dead monkeys, but they were more concerned about the lack of easy to find Mongo nuts - the implications being the 300 energy workers might have to work MORE than 5 days per Ten-Day. One of the senior males suggested "We could save a little time by not stopping to pick and bring home flowers which aren't really needed for our energy supply". A matriarchal sasquatch immediately stood up and chastised "Zeke-Stinky-foot, you come home without flowers and you'll see how much they are needed, Husband-mine!". There was a vote and it was decided to continue to pick and bring home flowers.

During much arguing and debating, the shaman entered the pavilion and everyone quieted down. He exclaimed "Colorful Monkey-friends die from Black poisoning" A sharp intake of breath from the Council-members. "Our energy providers feet put Black Desert and Black Swamp on Mongo trees while they pick nuts. Colorful-monkey friends get on paws then in mouth then die." The Council went into an uproar - Black poisoning! Because of our energy procuring! How awful! Yet what can we do? - We need the Mongo nuts to survive and have energy to work and sing! And if we go around the Black Desert and Black Swamp it will take an extra day in both directions!!" The sasquatches were very upset, and spent most of their Five-Day arguing and trying to make a new plan, where none had ever been needed before. It was decided by the Council to have the 300 workers spend an extra day at the groves to fill up their packs. The Shamans comment about the Black Desert being carried to the trees, and killing monkeys was only talked about by a few, and drowned out by the sasquatch leaders who really wanted at least 4 days of leisure and 4mcals per day. It was also decided to send 100 of the 600 saspack workers on exploratory missions, something that hadn't been done in generations, to see what was beyond a 25 mile radius of their community.

These plans worked out reasonably well and gradually the sasquatch colony adjusted. After all, they still had the same amount of food and energy, even though they had to work slightly harder for it, and produce a few less Saspacks. At the end of each Ten-Day the sasquatches were not quite as well rested, but were happy in their resolve to work a little harder to get energy for the tribe. (The Hephalumps did not notice any of this, and continued to chew their 8,000 mcal of Waybread per week.)

The phenomenon of `best-first' apparently applies to Mongo nuts as well as oil. We can now calculate an updated net energy for the sasquatch society. The energy production was the same, at 48,000 mcal per Ten-Day. But the 300 sasquatch energy team now worked 6 days per week requiring 4mcal per day or 7,200 mcal. Also, 100 workers spent 2 days per week (on average) exploring and looking for other Mongo nut sites. From a societal perspective, this `energy exploration' expenditure of 100*4*2=800 mcals should be included (somewhere) in any net energy calculations even though it didn't directly result (yet) in energy production.

The updated EROI formula is:
Energy output = 48,000 mcal/Energy input =8,000 mcal = EROI of 6:1 (net energy of 5:1)

Now of the 48,000 mcal of production, 8,000 is used for energy procuring, 11,200 is used for industry (Saspacks), 2000 for village maintenance, 8,000 for Hephalump food and 18,800 for leisure. Everyone in the sasquatch civilization still consumed the same amount of energy as before, but societies mix of labor allocation and free time had shifted.

***Sidebar of interest: We also now have information to calculate a more advanced (thorough) form of EROI, one that includes co-products and externalities. Flowers have value to sasquatch society and as such get a `co-product' credit in the EROI calculation. (much like dry distiller grains in the ethanol calculation) Since they are an additional output, we can reduce the amount of energy allocated to getting the Mongo nuts, as some of the sasquatch caloric expenditure is now considered necessary for getting flowers. How we allocate this is a debated but relevant question. We could take the market price of the two products (sasquatch society has none) or allocate by mass( the flowers have 50% of the mass of the Mongo nuts) or by volume (they are very light - only 10% the weight of nuts).

Allocating by mass would increase the EROI quite a bit:

Energy output = 48,000 mcal Energy input =4,000 mcal (4,000 allocated to flowers) = EROI of 12:1 (Net energy of 11:1)

Allocating by weight would increase the EROI slightly:
Energy output = 48,000 mcal /Energy input = 7,200 mcal (800 allocated to flowers) =EROI of 6.66:1 (Net energy of 5.66:1)

Our market system (in my opinion) underestimates the long term value of energy to society and net energy calculations that give so much `energy credit' to things like Dry Distiller Grains, thus overestimate the true energy gain (or underestimate the energy loss).

Regarding externalities, it is difficult to put an energy cost on dead monkeys. However, the poisoning was clearly a direct result of the sasquatches energy harvesting techniques and to exclude it from an energy analysis would not be holistic. Modern EROI analysis is just starting to value externalities as costs (see Patzek and Pimental regarding soil mining and Life Cycle analysis of GHG emissions) Ecological economics attempts to value things that humans need and value but are considered `free' in the market system. Quite possibly, the limiting factor of large scale ethanol production, even cellulosic, is the degradation of soil and assumption of continued ease and availability of irrigation.

Since sasquatches are a peaceful and conscientious race, lets arbitrarily allocate a high energy cost to the biodiversity loss to their culture of 8,000 mcals. The EROI would then be:
Energy output = 40,000 mcal (8,000 were subtracted) / 8,000 mcal energy input
=EROI of 5:1 (net energy of 4:1)

Continuing with our story:

The sasquatches situation, largely beyond their control, deteriorated further. The Mongo nut supply, while still enormous, was becoming more thinly distributed. Also, the nuts, which once averaged 3 lbs were now mostly 1-2 lbs. It took the sasquatches much more time and effort to pick and organize them. It also took more time to process them into Waybread, as the shell to nut ratio had increased substantially. All in all, it took an additional 100 sasquatches (400 total) a total of 7 days to harvest and process the Waybread. They were beginning to get restive.

One day, while the stressed sasquatch community was hard at work on what was normally their 7th day (2nd of leisure), a troupe of youngsters came running full out into the village "We are saved! We are saved! - We found a new Mongo nut grove with huge nuts and plenty of them!! We'll soon be able to go back to our old routine of dancing and reading comic books! For a Five-Day! These nuts are huge!"

A Council was hastily convened where the youths were eagerly bombarded with questions: "How big was the grove? Were there colorful monkeys? Would you like some water? Have you met my daughter Fern-Blossom?" An old silver-back sasquatch, one of the tribal leaders, stood up and quietly asked "Sons, how far is this grove?" One of the scouts replied "Sir, its 120 miles on the other side of the mountain, but an easy walk, with no Black Swamp or Desert". The leader nodded: "That is 5 days in each direction. If we send our energy workers that far, there will not be enough time for them to process the Waybread upon their return." He paused, "However, our Mongo nuts close to the village are getting smaller. I think we should go harvest this new, bigger energy source you have discovered. We will have to take more of our Saspack workers and our village cleaners too. But you are right, you have saved us."

When everything was sorted out, the sasquatches had to organize 2 energy procurement teams of 375 sasquatches each. One team brought water from the village and met the other team halfway and then returned with the large Mongo nuts to process them. These teams traded off in their duties but worked 8 days total out of every Ten-Day. This left 200 sasquatches to work on the saspacks, and it was decided, to be fair and because they were behind contract, that they also work an eight-day. There were only 50 of the tribe left to work on cleaning, and basic village maintenance. The community was amazed that so much! of their time was spent making Waybread, just to spend it on making more Waybread - very little singing and relaxation time anymore. After a few months, the tribal leader, at a somber Council meeting, announced that everyone would have to cut back, and strict rationing of daily consumption to 3 mcals per sasquatch would be enforced.

Because of the reduction in Saspack labor time, the Hephalumps weren't all needed and some started to roam the village. A large controversy erupted when one of the energy workers, strained from a long ten-day on the road, hit a hephalump on the head and killed it. He wanted to eat it but didn't know how.

The energy gain of this society continued to decrease. The energy output of 48,000 mcal (before the rationing), had an energy input of 750 sasquatches times 4 mcal times 8 days = 24,000 mcals.

The EROI was 48,000 / 24,000 =2:1 (Net energy of 1).
A large portion (50%) of this societies efforts were now allocated to energy procurement. Of the total 48,000 mcals procured, 24,000 was from energy procurement, 8,000 was for their livestock, only (200*8*4mcal) =4,800 mcal devoted to Saspack production, and 1,200 to maintain the village and procure water and 10,000 mcals for leisure and art.

A further problem, (for which I dont plan to attempt the math) was that WATER, not energy was now a limiting factor in the energy harvesting process. Water was much heavier to carry than Waybread so a cache had to be set up midway between the water source and the Mongo nut source. The Energy Return on Energy Invested stood steady at 2:1, but the Energy Return on WATER Invested, was declining dramatically.

After the tribal decision to ration consumption, the energy gain of society upticked. Since each sasquatch only consumed 3 mcals, (and many noticed new clarity of thinking and vitality after initial grumbling), the energy production requirements tapered off a bit:

The tribe still procured the same amount of Waybread (the extra was allocated to the following weeks Mongo picking team). The energy input was now only 750 *3mcal *8days = 18,000 Mcals. Because of their belt tightening (or efficiency) the societal EROI increased to 48,000/18,000 = 2.66 (net energy 1.66).Note: the EROI of energy procuring didnt change, but the societal energy gain, from a Tainter-like perspective, did increase.

At year end, the spaceship landed from Planet X. (There were 14 female sasquatches, and one male, waiting at the landing port, hoping to be rescued.) The alien trader strode down the ships conveyor and frowned when he saw the somewhat disheveled sasquatch community. There were Hephalumps everywhere (a delicacy on his planet), huts and sidewalks were in disrepair, and the tribe looked thin.

He was greeted by the tribal leader who sheepishly stated "Noble trader, our energy supplies have dwindled and we had to spend extra time harvesting a new energy source so only had time to make 3,200 Saspacks, not the 6,000 per our agreement."

The alien snorted, "Silly sasquatches - your world, though small, is FULL of energy - what you call the Black Swamp is also known as crude oil and what you call Black Desert is called coal-both of these substances have way way more energy than your precious Mongo nuts. Since you are good customers, I will give you your materials and ½ the medicine but withhold the tasty treats and comic books until you can make more Saspacks. If you like, I will bring machinery to your planet and help you to harness your Black Swamp, in return for great riches" The community was saddened and confused. How could the Black Desert be strong energy? It was poison. They held an immediate Council and concluded that they could do without the comic books, materials and candy. The local shaman could find his own medicine, and they would continue harvesting Mongo nuts, but would further divide the labor among the tribe and produce Saspacks no more. They also didn't need the Hephalumps anymore and would lead them to the Mongo groves and leave them free next Ten-Day. They waved goodbye to the galactic trader for the last time.

The sasquatches were transitioning from a high to a low gain energy system. By removing the Hephalumps and the Saspack industry, which brought them niceties that they didn't really need, they now only had to procure 30,000 mcals per ten-day. The energy input was still 750 *3mcal*8days = 18,000 Mcals.

The final EROI in our example is 30,000 / 18,000 = 1.66:1 (Net energy of .66). While lower, the community now had reorganized in such a way that 18,000 mcal went to energy procurement and 12,000 were left for leisure and dancing and singing (40% of all energy).


Sasquatch civilization underwent a decline in net energy. The results were less industry and less free time, as a larger effort had to be made to procure essential food. Eventually, they partially offset this loss in energy gain, by jettisoning certain aspects of their culture that were energy intensive yet did not really provide the satisfaction that it cost. The situation of the Sasquatches is not that different from our own. Our assets are human ingenuity, 1.2 trillion barrels of oil, 179.8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 909,064 million tones of coal (of various qualities)(source BP), and the various renewable flows generated from the planet. Our liabilities are a large population, the seemingly unquenchable human desire for more, a growing realization that we have in fact tapped the 'best-first' energy reserves, and ecosystems that are nearing the limits of their resilience to human extraction and waste absorption.

Our civilization is organized around high energy gain infrastructure - low gain sources, possibly even as low as 5:1 may not have the energy density required to power our liquid fuel intensive society. As can be seen by the below graphic, shopping centers and skyscrapers are part of a high energy infrastructure. Renewable flows, at least thus far do not match up in energy gain. Large scale wind has a higher EROI than oil, but cannot (as of yet), power our planes, trains and automobiles.

(Graphic from Cutler Clevelands EROI powerpoint.)

The corn ethanol and even the cellulosic ethanol debates typically miss a larger point. Much mental effort is spent debating whether the energy balance is slightly positive or slightly negative while society runs on an energy gain significantly higher than any liquid fuel alternative. When we hit $150 oil, there won’t be too many parents buying their kids a new GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip toy. At the same time, energy companies will need more and more employees to man wildcats and oil rigs and install solar panels. Though we might not be thinking in these terms at the time, the lack of energy gain (or lower net energy) will be manifesting itself in resources taken away from marginal areas of society (toy companies, hot tubs, hemorrhoid cream, Snausages, poker chips, etc) into energy producing and distributing sectors. It will also likely impact the poor and those who can't afford higher priced basic needs, first.


1) Net energy is more important from a relative basis than absolute. A 3:1 EROI doesn't tell us much unless we know how that compares to what an organism/society has been built on/used to. A 5:1 EROI would have made stone age villagers incredibly rich. A 10:1 EROI may not be enough to power our society. (e.g. as fossil fuels get more expensive they will collapse the economy and no real recovery will ever happen as the high energy gain outputs are already gone)

2) Energy reserves are not as important as energy flow rates. We could have a billion mongo nut trees, but all that matters is the maximum flow that society is able to harvest in real time. (This obviously applies to oil as well)

3) Energy quality depends on the context. High BTU substances, like oil or coal, are clearly very useful to our society, but may not be to others. (the sasquatch colony valued and used Waybread, not oil)

4) Liebigs law of the minimum applies to an energy portfolio. Wind has a high EROI, but our system infrastructure relies on liquid fuels. The net energy of the weakest link matters more than the overall net energy of society. (Adding high EROI wind capacity while net energy of oil dwindles does not solve the problem, unless the energy mix changes from liquid fuels to electricity)

5) Using different boundaries in net energy analysis will lead to different conclusions. A society running at 5:1 EROI would be happy to develop a scalable technology with an 8:1 EROI, however, after environmental externalities are included, it might only be a 3:1 technology. (Coal-to-liquids and climate change comes to mind) The difficulties lie in making meaningful comparisons and valuing important life functions not priced in the market system.

6) Rather than pursuing the highest and most promising energy technologies, it might be prudent to pursue ones that are certain, and meet the net energy decline half-way by reducing energy footprints. As we decline in aggregate societal energy surplus, a great deal of remaining energy is going to be wasted, ostensibly going after 'more oil and gas', which will likely be unprofitable both monetarily and from energy perspective.

7) Since evolution has favored organisms that have the highest energy output energy input ratios, it will be a cognitive challenge for us (as organisms) to willingly reduce the numerator.

8) Consumption, in the sasquatch example, continued very high until late in the game, and was subsidized from borrowing from other aspects of society. Lack of energy gain was a phantom concept until the situation was much deteriorated. The difference between their society and ours is that they got 'paid' directly in energy while we have an intermediate step - an abstraction in the form of digital money. So unlike the sasquatches who had immediate negative feedback to declining net energy, we might temporarily 'paper over' this decline by printing money or relaxing financial requirements - these measures will not be based on anything biophysical and make an eventual reckoning much more severe. In the end, it's not about how much energy we have but how much societies can afford via real inputs and how resilient their institutions are to a change in the the prior trend.

Our collective task will be to improve our net (total cost) energy from renewables while changing the infrastructure of society to best match what our long term sustainable energy gain can be.

-thelastsasquatch (a.k.a. nate hagens)

(1) Net Energy from the Extraction of Oil and Gas in the United States. Cutler Cleveland, Boston University

(2)Hydrocarbons and the Evolution of Human Culture, Hall et al. Nature Novermber 20, 2003

(3)Resource Transitions and Energy Gain, Tainter et al. Conservation Ecology 2003

(4) Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades, Gever et al, 1986 Ballinger Publishing

(5) The Olduvai Theory: Energy, Population and Civilization, Richard C Duncan, The Social Contract Winter 2005-2006

   Great story, reminds me of "The way things work" with the mammoths.  Anyway, I don't understand how the lowering consumption of sasquatch diet (except for the energy gatherers) changes EROI. If corn ethanol has a different EROI than gas hydrogen or whatever, running it through a prius or a hummer does not change that.  Also if food is low could they not kill the monkeys and eat them also reducin mongo nut competition. Maybe have the space ship import plastic flowers and they would not have to pick those either.  Just kidding.
The subtle difference is the energy gain of a process versus and energy gain of a society.
I really can't stand the EROEI terminology. Use efficiency instead. The problem with EROEI is that it does not consider the actual resource of importance. Consider this...

  1. I have a coal mine. It takes 1 joule of oil to pry 100 joules of coal out of the ground. My EROEI is 100, pretty good, huh.

  2. Now, I make a small coal to liquids plant on site (that takes, say 10 joules of coal to make one joule of oil, and provides all the electricity, steam, heat, and whatever else is needed by the mine). Now my energy input is 0, and my output is 90 joules. This is 90 / 0, which is infinity. I've just increased my EROEI to infinity by making one small adjustment. IN ANY SYSTEM WITH EROEI GREATER THAN UNITY, IT IS ALWAYS POSSIBLE TO ADJUST THIS NUMBER TO BE ANY NUMBER GREATER THAN UNITY!!!!

So, which mine is better? Well, if we have 1 million joules of coal in the ground, then the first one will produce 1 million joules, in exchange for 10,000 joules of input oil. The second one will produce 900,000 joules. It is not clear that the second one (with an infinitely better EROEI) is actually the better situation. The problem is that the only resource of significance here (the coal) wasn't considered at all!!!! What type of a metric is that?!?!?

So, using efficiency....

1) If it takes 10 joules of coal to produce 1 joule of oil, then each 100 joules of coal produced is really making a net energy contribution of 90 joules. The efficiency of the mine is therefore 90%, in either case. If the mine can be adjusted so that it runs off of electricity, which only has  a 2 to one conversion factor, then the efficiency is 98%. In either case, whether or not the coal is actually converted to this or that is irrelevant. The mine will function with 90 or 98% efficiency, meaning that somewhere between 900,000 and 980,000 joules of energy will be made available by that mine. End of story.


EROEI terms are much more specific than efficency.  Your coal to liquids example is incorrect if you put coal in it your input is not zero, if it was fischer tropp (spelling) would be a fountain of energy.  The coal is the input.  You can heat it with propane or coal or nuke or whatever but using EROEI totals all inputs and calculates the value of end product.  Some products are more valuable (diesel vs coal) becuase of their form but that is why we convert them. Every conversion has process losses, that is why engineers always look for ways to capture lost energy. (exhaust heat boilers etc)

If you're including all inputs, then it can never be greater than one, thermodynamics being what it is.

So, why do I keep seeing these EROEI numbers of 5, 10, 1.2, etc. thrown around?

Some inputs are "free", light from the sun, coal in the ground etc. you have to count exploration/manufacturing costs all the way to energy consumer.  It can never be infinite and if it is less than 1 it is not worth doing. Arguably if it is near 1 its not worth doing.

So what you're really saying is this...

  1. We have a process for converting these "free" input to useful output.

  2. We consider the utility of this process based on only the amount of non-free inputs it consumes to produce outputs, not on how efficiently it converts the free inputs to useful outputs.

Is that really what you're saying, because that is what EROEI is. And it can be infinite, look at my example above. What exactly is wrong with it?

If you have an ethanol operation that runs everything off of ethanol, then energy input is zero (0), whereas "energy returned" is (presumably) something not zero. If energy returned is zero, then it isn't a source of energy, case closed. If it is not zero, then the EROEI is infinite, by definition. How is this a useful number again?

Seems like nomenclature to befuddle the foolish if you ask me. Use efficiency, it has some basis in science, and makes perfect sense. Such as "with what efficiency does this ethanol process turn sunlight into ethanol?". Answer that question (it isn't terribly hard), and you know, for instance, how many acres of land would be needed to produce X units of ethanol. Simple, useful.

I think you have gotten confused about what EROEI means. It is simply the energy ouput divided by the direct energy inputs. In your example, let's say we have a process that runs off of ethanol. We run the process on ethanol, and we capture a bit of solar energy from growing the corn. If we input 1 BTU of ethanol in producing the corn and turning it into ethanol, and we end up with 1.1 BTUs of ethanol, the EROEI is 1.1, not infinity. Just because you ran the process off of ethanol and produced ethanol doesn't mean you didn't have net energy inputs.

That's so irrelevant though. Ok, if you count it that way, then a process that didn't use any fuel (like having peasants harvest it and not using irrigation...) would have a vastly higher EROEI, even though it would be wildly less efficient than just using the ethanol from the output to run the machinery.

How can this be a meaningful number if it's boosted dramatically by disposing of the machines, even as that causes output to plummet.

What exactly are you trying to measure? The efficiency of converting sunlight into fuel? EROEI doesn't even touch on that problem, so what good is it?


IMHO you are correct to recognize that eROI is an accounting game just like $ROI is.

In the case of eROI, if we stoped allowing ourselves to not-count energy inputs that are "free" (don't cost money) then eROI will always be less than unity because of the entropy laws of thermodynamics --all real world transformation processes are lossy and energy is conserved (assuming no E=mc^2 stuff allowed).

However, if we choose to exclude the money-wise "free" parts of the energy inputs and to exclude the one-time energy costs for manufacturing the contraptions (e.g. ethanol plant) used in transformation (e.g. corn to ethanol), then we get some sort of partly-economic, partly-physics measure of the long term payback we get for our efforts.

We can use this eROI number for comparing one type of apples against another, for example, switch grass ethanol versus corn ethanol --which has higher eROI assuming conversion plants for each are equal?

I'll grant you most of that (and the E=mc2 stuff doesn't really pose a problem, matter is nothing more than "frozen" energy anway), but the comparison between switchgrass and corn, I don't agree with.

If switchgrass had an EROEI of 1.5, but produced (net, after all fuels and such are accounted for) 2 units of fuel per unit of land, and corn had an EROEI of 1.2, but produced (net, again) 25 units of fuel per unit of land, which is really better? Seems to me that in this (contrived, I know) scenario the corn would be better. Neither of us would have any trouble coming up with complete numbers that would make the above work out (switchggrass uses y units of fuel, and produces z units of mass per acre, etc...)

What is the point of EROEI again? It doesn't seem to be actually measuring anything significant. As near as I can tell, it's measuring the boundaries between the various corporations and occupations that run the system. Seriously, why bother?

because corporations use boundaries that are too narrow. that is the whole point.
;-), it's a question of boundries.  It's true that the universe has an EROEI of 1 ... but a lion or human operates on a smaller scale.
You are right, slaphappy, the efficiency of an energy transformation can never be greater than one. The laws of thermodynamics tell us this. Typically, however, we refer to this as efficiency, not net energy. Allow me to elaborate.

1st Law of Thermodynamics:
Energy cannot be consumed or destroyed--only transformed from one form to another. (Energy must be conserved.)

2nd Law of Thermodynamics:
When energy is transformed from one form to another, some of the energy is necessarily transformed into heat. (Entropy always increases).

In a closed system--a system in which no energy can enter or leave--every energy transformation increases entropy and makes less transformable energy available in the system. The earth, however, is an open system--there is a constant flow of energy arriving at earth from somewhere else and a constant flow of energy escaping from the earth.

The fundamental energy source for all life on earth is the sun. Plants (and some bacteria) transform electromagnetic energy (light) into chemical energy. Much of the light energy is lost to heat during this transformation. Living things then  transform that energy into other forms to carry out life processes (e.g. organisms move by transforming chemical energy into kinetic energy). If the organism has stored chemical energy and dies before it can be used, that energy can be "harvested" by other organisms. Thus they have found an energy reservoir.

We can sum up the process of energy transformation on earth:
--> indicates an energy transformation

  1. mass enegery --> heat energy (via thermonuclear fusion in the core of the sun)
  2. heat energy --> electromagnetic energy (via radiation at the sun's surface)
  3. electromagnetic energy --> chemical energy (via photosynthesis by organisms on earth)
Energy stored in chemical form can be transformed by humans to do "useful work". Here are some common exosomatic energy transformations that humans initiate (i.e. energy transformed outside our bodies, not used internally):
  1. chemical energy --> heat energy (via oxidation/combustion)
  2. heat energy --> kinetic energy (via heat engines, e.g. steam or ICE)
  3. kinetic energy --> electromagnetic energy (via electric generators)
  4. electromagnetic energy --> heat energy (via your stove, TV, computer, etc.)

In transportation, Step 5 is the human end-use--kinetic energy is the form of energy we desire in order to quickly transport ourselves in cars, airplanes, etc.

The conclusion of Step 6 provides energy in the form of electricity.

In every single step described above, energy is lost as heat during the transformation process.

A oil deposit is a reservoir of energy, that is, it is a large reserve of stored chemical energy. All of that stored energy can be obtained and released (transformed) by using a much smaller amount of energy. This is EROEI.

Even so, it is still not a useful number. Imagine I made an oil rig (or whatever...) that ran off of oil (as they actually do). Now EROEI is infinite, as there is no energy input. It takes energy from the reservoir, and uses that to proudce more  energy from the reservoir, some of which it sends on too the next stage in the process. Energy input is zero, energy output is not zero, therefore EROEI is infinite.

You say that EROEI (for oil, for instance...) is 2, or 10, or whatever, but this all depends on where you draw the lines. Draw the lines to include the refineryy and all the machinery to drill, pump, and refine the oil, and the EROEI is infinite. Draw the lines around all of Saudia Arabia to see this effect, or do you think they import gasoline to fuel the pumps that pump oil? Saudia Arabia has an infinite EROEI, but so what? This makes absolutely no difference in the real world. A number that has nothing to do with the process, and everything to do with where the lines around the process are drawn is not a viable way to describe the process itself.

You are confusing fixed vs marginal EROI. Both must be included in a total EROI figure. You can never have an infinite EROI - the laws of thermodynamics assume there is always a heat loss. But your point about 'drawing the lines' IS at the heart of the net energy debate

It still seems that it's all about what you consider input. If you consider the "free" coal in the ground to be input, then EROEI is always less than one. If you don't, then it can be infinite. Really, it's as simple as that. If you include all inputs, then it's the same as efficiency, if you don't, then it has no meaning. The laws of thermodynamics don't cover something as arbitrary and contrived as EROEI, any more than they tell us how high the stock market can go.
We really should include:

Free inputs (fossil fuels, renewable flows) plus the technology that accesses them plus the efficiency of consuming them.

FREE(stocks +flows)*efficiency of production *efficiency of consumption = societal EROI

Now, I make a small coal to liquids plant on site (that takes, say 10 joules of coal to make one joule of oil, and provides all the electricity, steam, heat, and whatever else is needed by the mine). Now my energy input is 0, and my output is 90 joules.

I guess I am not following this at all. For this step, if you input 10 joules of coal and got one joule of oil, your energy return on energy invested it 1 joule of oil per 10 joules invested, or 1/10. Nine joules were apparently consumed while making the oil.

To be sure, people apply EROEI in many different ways. This becomes especiallly important in 2-step processes like you describe above. I have seen people calculate 5/1 and 9/1 for exactly the same process, depending on the assumptions.

For instance, let's say I have an oil extraction EROEI of 10/1 and a refining EROEI of 10/1. If you do the calculation correctly, the overall EROEI is 5/1. However, here is how to do it incorrectly and get 9/1. Use 1 BTU to extract 10 BTUs of oil. Now, take 1 of those BTUs of oil, and refine to gasoline and diesel. The apparent EROEI is 9/1. I input 1 BTU, and got 9 back out. But can you see the problem with this scenario? Hint: It is like the difference between simple interest and compounded interest.

EROEI analysis assumes an energy input which is considered a "gift", and and output of "useful" energy. To effect the conversion, some form of energy input is required.

In your example, I think that coal in the ground is the "gift", and mined coal is the "useful" energy. Other forms of energy (oil, electricity) are the inputs. But why not use a process in which coal itself is the input?

By doing this, you correctly conclude that the EROEI of the process can reach infinity, and that it may not be a very useful number in this case. But also notice, that by doing so, you have reduced the yield of coal. Less coal per unit time when some of it is used for the process. This seems to indicate an unavoidable trade-off between EROEI and yield.

Nevertheless, EROEI is probably still a useful concept when dealing with renewable energy "gifts" (the solar energy flux), and the inputs are fossil fuels, which need to be minimized for a number of reasons.

For example even the EROEI of ethanol from corn can push towards infinity if some (most) of the ethanol product was used for the input. But the yield per acre would be ridiculously low. With better sources (sugar cane and presumably cellulosic), the yield is probably high enough to use some of the biomass as energy inputs in the conversion process, and still get a decent yield. Having a high EROEI with reduced yield is still probably important if we really want to minimize the fossil fuel input.

Or so I think. Objections?  

eROeI is an accounting nightmare just as
$RO$I is an accounting nightmare.

It's all a matter of what you choose to count and what you choose not to count or fail to count.

I very much agree that output in the eROeI equation must be qualified as "useful" energy; and I would add to that "in a timely manner".

Due to conservation of energy law (thermodynamics), energy out is always same as energy in (and eROeI always equal to 1) if you allow "energy" to mean ALL energy as accounted for over infinite time. In the oil equation, we blindly discount solar energy accumulated over millions of past years.

Step Back,
Regarding "in a timely manner", I wonder it Hirsch/Bezdek got some of their input from "Beyond Oil" (Gever, Kaufmann, Skoel and Vorosmarty)

Figure 7-1  Comparison of Net energy Production If Society Invests in Fuel-Producing Systems before Fuel Quality Declines versus Investing When Fuel Quality Actually Starts Declining

Green line is production if investment begins before decline, red line is if investment begins during decline. Can you imagine society at 30% of todays energy levels? And that is WITH all current alternative energy technologies.

I agree that the "useful" energy must also be available in a timely manner in order to be useful. But I think the EROEI number has physical significance beyond accounting definition.

My conceptual framework recognizes "gift" energy, "useful" energy and the input energy necessary to power the specific conversion process from "gift" into "useful".

A specific process may in fact utilize some of the "useful" energy output as a process energy input. This type of process will increase EROEI at the expense of decreasing yield.

These processes have physical and environmental significance if this substitution reduces the fossil fuel dependence of the process energy.

This is exactly the point. EROEI doesn't matter, only yield, aka efficiency. If I can convert a coal bed to gasoline with 70% efficiency, what do I care if I buy the gasoline from someone else (EROEI of, say, 3) or make it myself (EROEI of infinity). Does that have any physical significance? No, so who cares? Only yield matters. If EROEI is less than one, you will see easily enough that the yield is negative, and hence not a useful source of energy. Even better, by forcing the conversion, it forces a reasonable form of equivalence between the various types of energy.

here's another one that illustrates that point.

  1. Mine coal using machines using electricity.
  2. Burn coal to produce electricity.

If you count the coal mine alone, its EROEI might be (for example) 1.5. You'd think that's good, but it's only good because you're taking electricity (very useful energy) as energy in, and producing coal (not very useful) as output. The conversion between them is 2:1, roughly. The coal mine wiht an EROEI of 1.5 doesn't produce enough coal to power itself, if you included the electrical plant in the system you'd see that.

Use efficiency (assume that coal is burned to produce the electricity that runs the mine) and you immediately see that the efficiency is negative. There is no output after all the inputs are generated from the output, and the real input (the coal) is most definitely not zero. Efficiency explains it perfectly, EROEI does not.

No, not true. EROEI makes sense ONLY in a situation where the outputs of the system cannot possibly be used to produce the inputs. In that sort of case, then yes, the day we run out of oil, there won't be another drop of ethanol ever, so it does matter.

This is not reality however. Farm machinery could (in theory at least, in reality if the market forces it to...) run off of ethanol. Consequently, it's easy to imagine an ethanol producer with infinite EROEI, as energy input is zero, it is using its own ethanol to produce more ethanol. How is this number useful if a tiny tweak to one stage changes it from 1.2 to infinity? Do you REALLY know what all those tractors burn out there, is that really the point of the research?

Here's another example. Ghawar has an EROEI of 100 (or whatever), but Saudi Arabia has an infinite EROEI, because they don't import energy. EROEI doesn't have any of the properties of a useful number. It doesn't describe the process, and is not additive in any way. A single oil field has an EROEI of 100, but a country full of oil fields has an infinite EROEI because it also contains refineries. Oil field has EROEI of 100, refinery has EROEI of 10, refinery plus oil field has EROEI of infinity, WTF?

It is just not useful. You give me a process, and if its EROEI is greater than 1, I'll make it into any positive number greater than 1 (even infinity) by just adjusting the fuel mix of the various machines used in the process. Why do people argue about a number that is so blatantly fabricated?

Brilliant. Now I may dream of Saspacks and colorful monkeys, but it's worth it.

There's a fellow in Honolulu I've never met. He used to be some sort of a stock trader, or high tech, or both. Now he details cars. He'll do a great job for $25 or so. He does two a day. No more. That's enough. Lives in one of the rented rooms that are rather common and quite cheap there I suspect. He probably has more in the bank now than he had in his high-tech days and is no longer in danger of hearth attack, suicide, or screaming lunacy.

He went from insane to sane.

My own savings ratio hit its all-my-life high when I made $5 an hour and didn't have a car.

Being rich has nothing to do with how much money you make.  It's all about how much you DON'T spend.


Its even more about how much you don't desire.
Yeah, I know an old jazz guitarist with an estate of 5 million bucks. He makes crappy investments. OTOH his many balls of string are now considered as valuable antiques. His infinite collectiopn of plastic bags of course has no value. But just a gigging jazz guitarist, hoping for and occasionally making scale, and probably richer than John Scofield.
wow! I think that will work for me. Oh how I miss sanity...
Hello theLastSasquatch,

How ironic--I basically just posted the same ideas in the previous StSt EIA thread, minus the cheetah & gazelle photo:


Perhaps the detritus-driven 'humanimal ecosystem' of innumerable detritovore species is gaining credence?

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

dude, I just finished an aritcle I'll be posting the next couple of days and I was "this" close to using the same picture of Bigfoot in my article. (to make a totally different point though)
How did the mango wars turn out?
Hello AMPOD,

Didn't TLS do an excellent post [I think so!]?  Are you going to premiere your recently written article on TOD or LATOC?  Contending alpha males who can text display the best set of Mongo Nuts? Definitely has a smaller energy footprint that competing for fancy cars and real estate, LOL!  Jay H. would be very proud of you two.

Your question: "How did the mango wars turn out?"

This is obviously the key question for postPeak Humanity.  Can we learn to be happy with Mongo Nut Waybread, or do we absolutely got to have "hot tubs, hemorrhoid creams, Snausages, and poker chips, etc"?

I will comment below on theLastSasquatch's basic points:

  1. Net energy is more important from a relative basis than absolute.  Very true, we need to detritus downscale match our lifestyles and population to the Hubbert Downslope and quickly upscale grow truly sustainable biosolar energy processes.  The sooner the planet cuts the silly crap and adopts ASPO's Energy Depletion Protocols the sooner we can derail the worst of detritovore MPP.  Large, contiguous biosolar habitats is the best way to maximize and protect biosolar growth, other species, and appropriate technology.  Cascadia anyone?

  2. Energy reserves are not as important as energy flow rates.  It is a given that detritus flow rates will eventually decline, but biosolar flowrates could potentially be ramped up to greater degree than currently thought possible.  Who knows?  If a sufficient biosolar net energy gain can be achieved, then more energetic lifestyles can flourish at some future point.  I suggest that Foundation planning of maximizing detritus energy flows towards the building of sustainable habitats is the best method for leveraging this paradigm shift.  

  3. Energy quality depends on the context.  A good example of this would be nuking a biosolar habitat--total contrast of what is logically desired.  Thus, 'Nuke their Ass--I want Gas' is a non-starter from the get-go of the proper direction; it merely reshuffles all the potential Liebig Minimums and drastically lowers the affected ecosystem equilibrium points.  Pounding Hawaii with nukes till it is below sea-level to merely deny a homebase for the Pacific Fleet kind of defeats the purpose of the attacker.  Better that all parties be content with Mongo Nuts & Waybread.

  4. Liebigs Law of the minimum applies to an energy portfolio. Fellow TODers AlanfromBigEasy and ThatsitImOut have been pushing for transportation electrification as a solution for some time.  Alan for RRs and mass-transit, Roger for plug-in vehicles.

  5. Using different boundaries in net energy analysis will lead to different conclusions.  Hopefully, an international effort to really define all entropic flows will develop, and a true accounting for all environmental externalities can be included into a huge dataset for petaflop supercomputer Foundation analysis of predictive collapse and directed decline.  Evolutionary change is already routinely accomplished by companies introducing a new product to cannibalize the older product's target market.  Foundation merely seeks to take this to the next level.

  6. Rather than pursuing the highest and most promising energy technologies, it might be prudent to pursue ones that are certain, and meet the net energy decline half-way by reducing energy footprints.  Sounds like 'No Thanks--I like Empty Tanks' to me; again ASPO's Protocols and conservation to the maximum.  But preventing the '3 Days of the Condor' scenario will be enormously difficult unless a child's footprint is more valuable than the energetic footprint of Abrams M1 tank or a Hummer on some foreign beach.

  7. Since evolution has favored organisms that have the highest energy output energy input ratios, it will be a cognitive challenge for us (as organisms) to willingly reduce the numerator.  Reread again my first paragraph: can intelligent postPeak alpha males compete by grey-matter, or are we doomed to lizard brain impulses all the way back to Olduvai Gorge?  I think Socrates, Plato, and other thinkers, musicians, and artists, had female groupies too, even though they had very small energy footprints.  Once detritus power is essentially nil, females will pursue biosolar power and clever brains.  Women have always admired a good sense of humor--Comedians and storytellers have always been considered sexy.

  8. Consumption, in the sasquatch example, continued very high until late in the game, and was subsidized from borrowing from other aspects of society. Lack of energy gain was a phantom concept until the situation was much deteriorated.  Can our society become aware of this trend in time to shift gears and thrust a new set of leaders to lead us in Powerdown?  Can Peakoil Outreach cause this essential shift?  I have no easy answer to this unless the MSM can turnaround and go to a full court press to convince the unwashed masses.  Demand Destruction of everything by energy and scarcity pricing alone strikes me as a suboptimal way to prepare for our future.

Our collective task will be to improve our net (total cost) energy from renewables while changing the infrastructure of society to best match what our long term sustainable energy gain can be.
-thelastsasquatch (a.k.a. nate hagens)

Well done, Nate!  Perhaps Foundation might be the best way to coalesce our inherent political nature into a force to meet this collective task.  But I am open to other suggestions.

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


Cool story but you skipped over population effects. If there population grew then they lose no matter what. Its a pretty big flaw in you scenario. Once you are in a renewable/depletion mode you have to have a stable population or you have to find new disconnected ecosystems even our solar system would eventually deplete. Disconnection is critical it is what breaks the thermodynamic barrier. No choice. If we want to grow we have to go to the stars. Also it gives us techie types something to do besides muck up a closed system (improving it ) I'd not be happy btw in a stagnant society no matter the quality of life I have to keep asking and answering questions. I'm sure there are tons of other personality types that would not fit in also.
Agreed. But I was at 6,000 words already, so I took it as given that somehow the population always was 1,000.

Population increases will make net energy decline even faster, as you point out.

There are two simplifications in your story which make it both valuable (as an EROEI explanation) and limited. Constant population is one of them, the other one being the coordinated response to the crisis. And that's what struck me most: that if only humanity could do those 2 things (keep the population in check and proceed in sync) we could be very well off indeed, relatively speaking. An unrealistic goal, I know, but somehow your story illustrates why it's worth pursuing regardless.
My take on this issue for some time has been the following (obvious) observation:  "We have to kill consumption before consumption kills us."  

I am reminded of the story about "Belling the Cat."  A group of mice were terrorized by a cat, and they held a meeting to decide on what to do.  A plan was agreed on.  A bell would be placed on the cat, so that the mice would hear the cat coming.  A sage old mouse then stood up and said, "Very good plan, but who is going to bell the cat?"

One of the many problems we have here in the US is that the majority of Americans live off the discretionary spending (unnecessary consumption) of other Americans.  A couple of days ago, our esteemed president was at the Port of Miami extolling the economic virtues of the cruise line industry--which uses vast amounts of energy--and employs lots of people--on voyages to nowhere.

The problem that politicians face--even ones that agree that we need to kill consumption--is implementing legislation that will cripple businesses like the cruise line "industry."  In other words, who is going to "Bell the cat?"

However, as Jim Kunstler said, whether we like SUV's or not, reality will force us to change.  On a personal level, we can change our way of life, and we can try to warn those who will listen.

As a longtime practitioner of Zen Buddhism, I appreciate westexas' insistence on his "obvious" observation. As I recall, thelastsasquatch and a number of others at TOD have occasionally expressed interest in the Buddhist notion (actually, it's not just a Buddhist notion) of achieving happiness by minimizing consumption. Such Buddhist ideas were applied to economics, you may recall, by E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: ECONOMICS AS IF PEOPLE MATTERED. In fact, in a chapter of that book entitled "Buddhist Economics," Schumacher says this:

"[The modern economist]is used to measuring the 'standard of living' by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is 'better off' than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption."

Economists like Schumacher--there are far too few of them, in my opinion--seem worth reading and studying in just this regard.

As I recall, thelastsasquatch and a number of others at TOD have occasionally expressed interest in the Buddhist notion (actually, it's not just a Buddhist notion) of achieving happiness by minimizing consumption. (emphasis added)

Likely in every complex civilization a minority emerges who pursue a radically different strategy in managing their lives -- almost always involving lower consumption.  In ancient Greece and Rome, this included most of the philosophical schools.  Take the Epicureans and the Cynics for example.  The message is: learn to recognize that luxury and comfort are easily dispensed with, and you will live a free and happy life.  Epicureans believed in forming small communities of the like-minded somewhat detached from society.  The Cynics believed in becoming tough SOBS with no regard for public opinion who could live off the fat of the land in an urban environment.

As far as I can discern out the "proto-Taoists" of ancient China are in the same camp.  I think Diogenes (the Dog) and Chuang Tzu would find good company in one another.  And both emerged once society had reached a certain level of complexity.

And, yes, good ol' USA is not exempt.  The New York Times ran a recent piece showing that a growing number of men are  choosing not to work. (And this does not show up in the unemployment stats)  Believe it or not 25% of the males of West Virginia do not work at any given time.  (I've been there, I believe it!)

Of course, by definition, such people are always in the minority since empires expand and are sustained by a very different animal.   In an sense, these "drop-outs" are insisting on living something that resembles a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in a society that seeks to draft everybody into its machinery.

For a minority, it's just not worth the hassle.  


The people desire disorder -- Joseph Tainter quoting a Chinese poet.
Buddhist economics offers an interesting twist to mainstream economics, which focuses on the scarcity of material goods and services. However, at the core of economics is the concept of opportunity cost:

To gain something good you must give up something else of value. The core of Buddhism, as I understand it, is giving up what we believe to be of value (but which in fact makes us spiritually and often physically ill) but which in fact is a barrier to choosing that which will provide true happiness and fulfillment. Thus, in economic terms, Buddhism is extremely effective and efficient--a really "good deal!"

BTW, there are striking parallels between Socratic thinking and that of the Buddha (as well as close parallels to the teachings of Jesus in both cases).

What I find most striking is that great minds coming from very different beginnings and cultures can come to conclusions that are so very very similar.

That probably explains why Rudy Giuliani was on TV the other day, saying we have to conserve...but not too much, or it would hurt the economy.  
You know how few people are ready to listen these days. It is therefore just as important to keep preparing for when they do become ready. Picture this: a cruiseline company has just declared bankruptcy. Scores of employees are leaving the floating scrapheap that used to be their workplace. You are standing ashore as they disembark, holding a bunch of flyers titled "Out Of Fuel: do you really know why you are being laid off?". Next to you is a recruiter for the militant Hispanic Nation party. Or, if we're lucky, there is a recruiter for the local Homesteading Cooperative. And if we're truly lucky, there is a businessman next to you who plans to turn the liner into an offshore wind+wave power plant...
I am wondering just what the purpose of people and society is? Is our only purpose to "exist" or are we supposed to be doing things that will benefit society and society's future?
In the story, everyone had a job to benefit the group. There were no non-productive members of their society!
Some of the oil producing countries supply little other than oil for "society" while their growing populations continue to consume an ever increasing level of energy. Does this benefit the future of our species?
Should energy consumption be somehow tied to productivity? Should the plumber, auto mechanic or machinist get a bigger piece of the energy pie than the bum, the playboy or the other non-productive members of our society? (Looks like the politicians get to walk home to a cold house with no food <BGB>)
Should the movie star or the mechanical engineer be driving the Hummer and who riding the bicycle?
These kinds of questions could drive a sane person nuts trying to figure out appropiate allocations.
And I'll bet everyone here has some good (and all different) ideas on how to do it?
We already have a system, capitalism.

The Soldier should be the one driving the hummer, that is what the vehicle is for.

"Is our only purpose to "exist" or are we supposed to be doing things that will benefit society and society's future?"   42

And the answer is...


I get the reference, but the true answer is 43, as in the 43rd president.  He should be the hero for all people desiring to do absolutely nothing, while having the entire world handed to them.
Tainter's thesis is that civilizations exist to solve problems. They do this by increasing complexity (which has historically required increased energy usage). At some point the complexity and energy usage become unmanageable and the civilization collapses.

"A zygote is a gamete's way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe."

While stated in a humorous fashion the above does highlight why we exist -  to pass on our genes. Everything else is secondary in that process, unless we decide to jump to the realm of metaphysics, which is probably not appropriate here.

You don't think that the gene statement isn't already metaphysics?
Following is an e-mail I sent out in 2004.

"The maximum is not optimum."

The captioned quote is by Garrett Hardin, an ecologist who recently passed away.  The quote was in an article from the 3/14/04 New York Times (Week in Review, Page 5).  The article was about how our level of consumption is not necessarily good for us, the economy and the environment. 

My continuing assertion is that most governments, most companies and most consumers have two choices:  cut spending now, or market forces will make you cut spending later.

The paragraph below the flow chart I would summarise as saying when EROEI declines society will have to devote more effort to basic resource gathering subsistence and less to having a good time. Rewinding history you don't seem to hear of homesteaders and pioneers partying that much. Is #6 saying all top predators will eventually lose out? It does seem that humans are the species saving lions, tigers and great white sharks. Trouble is there is no-one to save us.
Can you please relate net energy to exergy.

And let me know if you see any of those pictured critters on your way through Northern California.

There is no explicit relation between exery and net energy other than the importance of each in its own right.  Exergy is the useful part of energy (that part that does work, not that part that produces heat.)  Exergy is used up, energy is not. But using exergy vs using good estimates of energy cost both require the same number of e.g. barrels of oil.  

EROI generally uses total energy (Kcal etc) in, including that part that is (necessarily) turned into heat. So it does not really help or clarify to consider exergy input.

Im staying with someone who swears he saw a sasquatch family in Oregon when he logged there in the 70's, but then again, he is drinking.


I have to admit it.  I frankly thought I had spent my beauty sleep time reading a very nicely written, amusing story, but simply another inane Malthusian parable.  And to what possible point?  After over a century, been there, done that, heard that....

But then, EUREKA!  You hit the center of the world, the mother lode, the bloody JACKPOT!!  Let's repeat exactly where....

  1. Liebigs law of the minimum applies to an energy portfolio. Wind has a high EROI, but our system infrastructure relies on liquid fuels. The net energy of the weakest link matters more than the overall net energy of society. (Adding high EROI wind capacity while net energy of oil dwindles does not solve the problem, unless the energy mix changes from liquid fuels to electricity)

  2. Using different boundaries in net energy analysis will lead to different conclusions. A society running at 5:1 EROI would be happy to develop a scalable technology with an 8:1 EROI, however, after environmental externalities are included, it might only be a 3:1 technology. (Coal-to-liquids and climate change comes to mind) The difficulties lie in making meaningful comparisons and valuing important life functions not priced in the market system.

  3. Rather than pursuing the highest and most promising energy technologies, it might be prudent to pursue ones that are certain, and meet the net energy decline half-way by reducing energy footprints.
And there you have it.....exactly where the heart of the crisis is, the problem is, and the solution lies.

I have been smacked around so, let me repeat, sooooo many times here for stressing that the "Peak Oil" crisis is NOT an energy crisis per se, but a liquid fuels crisis.  It is also not a a "crisis of capitalism", "a crisis of free enterprise" "a social crisis", "a moral crisis" (and thank you for not painting your sasquatches as some kind of morally bankrupt swine monkeys), not a political crisis (thank you for not painting your sasquatche chiefs as horrendous Fascist dictators), not a "currency crisis"....it is what it was, and what it continues to be, a crisis of the minimum,  A LIQID FUELS CRISIS!

Your next point sings..."Adding high EROI wind capacity while net energy of oil dwindles does not solve the problem, unless the energy mix changes from liquid fuels to electricity."  

UNLESS the energy mix changes from liquid fuels to electricity.....you may have well as said UNTIL, because it will happen.  

I made my case for this in the string, "Vinod Khosla - Give Him Your Ideas"


And a fellow poster makes on TOD makes it in his ongoing case for Electrified Rail and Electric Light Rail.

In fact, if oil and Diesel were not so damm convenient, one can make the argument that the whole error was made back at the turn of the century, with the abandonment of the twin technologies (electric cars and delivery trucks for local delivery, and electric rail for long haul transport) of electric transportation when they were aborning.  It was that hated hard to measure factor "percieved convenience" that led us off down a road that now will be challenging to recover from, the road of complete transportation reliance on liquid fuel.

The other major point you made and I repeated
"6) Rather than pursuing the highest and most promising energy technologies, it might be prudent to pursue ones that are certain, and meet the net energy decline half-way by reducing energy footprints."

 Of course, that's my continued argument for efficiency and conservation through artistic and modern design.

A revolution is coming, and it is LONG OVERDUE.  None of the issues surrounding our liquid fuel crisis was a surprise to those who have been alert for the past half century.  We knew this was coming, but we got lazy, and frankly, we liked the look, the sound, the feel of the big gas cars and trucks.
What we have seen is a crisis of habit, of aesthetic, not of science and technology.

A revolution is coming.  And it ain't gonna be all bad...challenging yes, but if we do it right, it could be one of the great leaps forward in centuries.  It is time to get ready for a new aesthetic, a new "look" in the world.  Some of us have been waiting, putting up with the "retro" return to yesterdays cliche's, rehash Thunderbirds and PT Cruisers and retro Mini's and mad dog Viper's...putting up with it with gritted teeth...

Now, we get ready for what we have been promised for a half century....MODERN DESIGN.

Great job sasquatch, we owe you one.

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

It may interest readers to know that all the trunk railway routes in India have been electrified over the past 25 years. The bulk of the long-distance passenger and freight traffic is powered by electricity now.

However, cars are growing rapidly in popularity and air travel has become more affordable than ever so Its a wash overall.

"we liked the look, the sound, the feel of the big gas cars and trucks."

Just look at these beauties:

And here we have rail trumping SUV ("Whack," get back ya impatient SUV-driver!):



Can you name a car that would meet your definition of modern design?  
tstreet asked,
"Can you name a car that would meet your definition of modern design?

The other day, I showed a couple of photos:



I said at the time:
"One of the most aerodynamic cars ever built, smooth, quiet and efficient....small compact V6, with electronic fuel injection, great road holding from front wheel drive, hydraulic suspension to control ride and handlling, sold as a luxury car and commanded a high price....efficiency from a great beautiful design.  Should we not be scolding and preaching to our industry and designers because we do not have something closer to this in our market now.....because he're the punch line, this car was in 1971!  Imagine that package with one of the modern plug hybrid drivetrains today!  It could be a 100 mile plus ultra modern transprt carraige right out of science fiction, fast, comfortable and efficient, and altering the economics of the transportation industry.  We must stay on the message, and make everyone sensitive to the sight and construction of any efficiencies we can find, great and small."

Now let us look at, and think about, possibilities:
http://car-reviews.automobile.com/news/lexuss-hybrid-ls-600h-l-targets-aims-for-ultimate-luxury/1813 /

This is the concept of the "heavy hybrid", and sure to be a car greatly hated at places like TOD, because it indicates that (a) Wealth will always have it's privaliges and (b) There is a way forward that will rely less and less on crude oil in particular and fossil fuel in general.  First, read the specs...
"Coinciding with the debut of the all-new LS is the introduction of the Lexus Hybrid Drive name, which will be used globally for all Lexus hybrid models. The hybrid-drive system in the LS 600h L builds upon the Toyota and Lexus legacy established by the Prius, RX 400h and GS 450h to combine an all-new five-liter V8 gasoline engine with large, high-output electric motors and a newly designed large-capacity battery pack. This advanced combination will provide the LS 600h L with an unmatched balance of environmental efficiency and performance, furnishing the hybrid with a peak combined output rating of more than 430 horsepower.

To distribute this immense power, a new full-time all-wheel-drive system is utilized for superior handling control. The LS 600h L also employs a newly developed dual-stage electronically controlled, continuously variable transmission. This combination results in impressive power and seamless acceleration."

Now, the road forward:  Toyota is now admitting that they think a "PHEV" or Plug Hybrid Electric Vehicle is very possible within the next two years.  Astounding even the optimists, they are talking about a generation of batteries that will deliver a "50/50 hybrid" that is, up to 50 miles per hour and 50 mile range on electric grid power alone, BUT able to go unlimited distances when the need arises on onboard fossil fuel, but recapturing braking and deceleration energy down the open road.  The potential efficiency is staggering.

If they are able to deliver this in even 2 to 4 years in the future, it will be essentially one of the GREATEST TRANSPORTATION/ENERGY ECONOMICS REVOLUTIONS SINCE THE BIRTH OF THE AUTO.

Such a car could be fast, luxurious, safe, and get over 100 miles per gallon (possibly as much 150mpg) on the fossil fuel used.  It converts the fossil fuel to that of "range extender/performance enhancer, and not for use as the "essential baseload power".

At such a point, this car could be powered by CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas, or Propane) Butanol, or even a small container of compressed hydrogen.  It also makes biofuel at least viable, due to the extreme low amount needed for the huge miles traveled.  Certain varieties of ethanol, methanol, and biomass or bio Diesel which make NO SENSE as the backbone fuel at 20 miles per gallon, make GREAT sense at 120 miles per gallon!  Recaptured methane from waste enters the equation.  The scale of "liquid fuel consumption" is so completely altered, that all prior calculations have to be altered because they are absurd.  

AGAIN, NOTE THE TIME SCALE.  Toyota is talking 2 years out, with the multitude of advanced developments and alternative fuels systems mentioned above still in front of them.

Even if Toyota runs slow, and we are talking 3 to 5 years out, that is no time in the auto and fuel industry.  I am convinced that the developments above which comport EXACTLY with the conditions and points made by thelastsasquatch in his EROEI post.....that being,  "Adding high EROI wind capacity while net energy of oil dwindles does not solve the problem, unless the energy mix changes from liquid fuels to electricity), and the reference to Liebigs Law of the Minimum, and the reduction of the energy footprint.  The grid based auto brings wind, solar, nuclear, and distributed generation directly into the liquid fuel competition, thus making all energy production types directly competitive with one another.  The grid would be used mostly at night to charge the vehicles, thus, smoothing out the peak off peak day/night load for the utilities.  It is a stunning breakthrough in energy use and management.

We are much, much closer to a revolution than we know.  If fuel prices continue upward, or peak actually is on the doorstep, the technological flood will be astounding (whether the anti-techies like it or not), and the nations like Japan who have made the investment, taken the chances, and laid the infrastructure will be RICHLY REWARDED.

On another string, a poster claimed that the oil producing countries will be the richest on Earth in the next 50 years.  I THINK THIS IS THE FURTHEST POSSIBLE PICTURE FROM THE TRUTH.  The oil producing countries are terrified of the technical developments coming.  IF we accept the concept of declining EROEI, then oil will be more and more expensive to extract, making it a lower and lower return on investment commodity to produce.
Saudi Arabia is a debtor nation with a growing population and facing social instability.  They consume more of their own oil and gas in their own market.  They are little different than many oil producing regions.  I do not see an easy future for the current OPEC nations.

On the other hand, the nations that invest in design, in science, in respect for REAL EFFICIENCY will be greatly rewarded.  The one item on Earth with an increasing and not decreasing EROEI is artful and creative thought and design.  It has always been so.  It will always be so.  Notice that the nations invested deeply in design, creativity and science, including respect for the arts, are the ones who seem least nervous about Peak Oil.

Wonder why?

Of course, the poor shall always be with us....and they will drive something like this:

We will talk about the other breakthroughs coming, like hydraulic hybrid, pneumatic hybrid, liquid air storage of energy,and such, when I want to do a long post ;-)

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

I was actually thinking of the Prius, but the Citroen will do.  Didn't it also have the ability to have its clearances adjusted. I think this would be a good feature for the Prius, for those of us in snow,rough road country. Some people object that its clearances are too low.
We clearly will not do it right. Look at our plans for coal and look at our plans to remain dependent upon liquids through CTL and other flawed schemes.

For those who really love their cars, they should think about how an electric motor is a much more efficient way to get torque than an ICE running on gas.  Personally, I think torque is overrated but I understand that in order to appeal to the masses that the electric vehicle will succeed when people catch on to the fact that they will be able to smoke a ferrari and a porsche turbo with a vehicle with an electric motor.

To thatsitimout,

Yet again the problem of a finite planet throws a big spanner in the works. Electricity is not a power source. And, when the population grows by another billion in the next ten years, the primary fossil fuel sources that produce the electricity will drop precipitously.

That means less electricity and much more death.

The techno people continue to rule this site.

While reading the above comments, with the full intent of mentioning the typical fallacy that techno people tend to employ when making arguments about our situation, I came upon threads that point out this fallacy. They point out the uncomfortable truth of population growth. Yeah, apparently on this "planet" with only 1000 souls no one screws. Must have been a mass immaculate conception that got them there in the first place.

The physics of eroei are easily understood and it is nice to see the primer, but you must use the full equation, all of the factors. If you read "The Limits to Growth," you will see they have modeled these factors and then gamed it to its logical conclusion. In any event, if you do not restrict the population and reduce it to a sustainable footprint, the population crashes. It crashes even if we develop perfect cheap fusion. It crashes if we eliminate pollution. It crashes in any event unless we control and reduce population. The furthest out the simulation can get before a crash is 2100.  That is not much time to arrest population growth and reduce it to sustainable levels. Fortunately, or unfortunately, for the species (us) as a whole, and especially for the rest of the species on the planet, simple systemic destruction of our non-complex society will cause the population to acheive equilibrium.

(I say non-complex society because we do not live in a complex society. Nature is complex. We have worked mightily to destroy that complexity and replace it with simple linear structures that are not self-sustaining. [Self-sustaining systems are the hallmark of complexity.] Humans love to claim complexity for their pale imitations of nature's systems because they are extremely egotistical and a species chauvinist.)

So, ultimately, any techno fix is useless unless we reduce the population to a sustainable level based on real-time solar income, not on fossil sunlight, because fossil sunlight will run out. It has to. Every attempt to "techno-fix" the problem is automatically doomed to failure unless this fundamental law of existence is met.

By starting at this fundamental point, we can avoid the useless argument and techno dead-ends that are the hallmark of this site.

Now, I know there is a sense of camaraderie on this site as you will find on any other hobby site where people of like backgrounds discuss like interests and it is fun. Lots of the good ole boy feeling here. Nevertheless, if this were merely a site arguing the merits of a reality TV show, or talent show, then it would be no big deal, but this site is about the survival of the species, of many species. While it is fun to argue and push our little pet projects at each other citing this and that expert, the root of the argument will always be the sustainability of the species given current solar income. Until this site admits that we must determine the carrying capacity of the planet sans fossil sunlight and work from there, this will always be a just another blog discussing the equivalent of a reality TV show. I.E. a discussion not based in reality.

Until this site admits that we must determine the carrying capacity of the planet sans fossil sunlight and work from there, this will always be a just another blog discussing the equivalent of a reality TV show. I.E. a discussion not based in reality.

Another DENIAL BARRIER to break!
Even less chance with this one than with the "non-negotiable way of life".

Hence my assumption (not a scientific prediction but an assumption based on personal experience and intuition) that the human race will choose to go SPLAT! rather than choose to actually think about and solve the problem.
(I say non-complex society because we do not live in a complex society. Nature is complex. We have worked mightily to destroy that complexity and replace it with simple linear structures that are not self-sustaining. [Self-sustaining systems are the hallmark of complexity.] Humans love to claim complexity for their pale imitations of nature's systems because they are extremely egotistical and a species chauvinist.)

Yes and "nature complexity" is stable, not only because it is orders of magnitude larger but because it has matured thru ages.

I argued about that in another thread against odograph who, BTW, is beating poor Jason to pulp but is not so keen to answer more incisive replies.
;-), I've actually been letting your posts go by because I think they are too diffuse to answer with brass tacks.

That and I can't really get past this "contradiction" you see between demanding good models and disbelieving that they exist.

For me, a good model would be a disproof of my position.  And so I demand it, to disprove my position.  That seems straightforward.

too diffuse to answer with brass tacks

I will be happy to learn, please show me a "non-diffuse" post of yours.
Also, did you mean "brass neurons"?
I understand rigidity can be a problem.

... demanding good models and disbelieving that they exist.

No better way to say that you are a jackass!

And so I demand it, to disprove my position.

So either there cannot be any "good model [which] would be a disproof" OR you will be able to shoot it down with the arguments from "Fooled by Randomness" without appearing to have switched policies.

How clever!
Except this is a "self-sealer" which makes your whole argument devoid of any value, even Don knows that (using it inappropriately, of course).

in which case if you puncture his argument, that proves that you "don't get it."

N.B. Marxism and Freudianism also have "self-sealers" built in.

How emotional, but no, this is not a self-sealer.  This is the opposite.  I'm offering to be disproved.  I'm saying to people who "know" the future, show me how you know.  Show me your math.

Really I started a year or two ago with an "idea" of the future.  If you look back you'll see me saying things like "worse than the 70's, but not as bad as the 30's."

This whole process (reading other sources, and seeing other folks' predictions) has made me more humble about my own predictive ability.  I don't really push my idea of the future any more.  Instead I keep keep an eye on things.

I let history (and not my brain) tell me where things are going to go.

I'm saying to people who "know" the future, show me how you know.

Just like "Global Warming need more studies"?

Yet you kinda "believe" in global warming, what is so different between Global Warming and Peak Oil?
Peak Oil is MUCH SIMPLER to assess than global warming, and you don't seem to be a believer in abiotic oil either, so what...

Show me your math.

Yeah! trust the models.

Modelling bottom up, from the details or consumption, supply of each oil field, EROEI, etc... is of course even more infeasible than with climate models, where at least we can hope to pinpoint most if not all the parameters.
We don't really know how the economy works (much harder than physics) so we have to proceed top down from global aggregates, total supplies, total uses.

Removing from a finite supply exhausts the supply.
Any problem with this?
Not enough "mathematical flavor"?
A not infinite => A - 1 < A, all right?

As for substituting "different" sources you seem to have difficulties understanding the "LOW HANGING FRUIT FIRST" law.

    Why does everybody picks the low hanging fruit first?
    Because it is easier and cheaper.

Substitution is sometimes possible, almost always at an increased cost, barring miracles (oil WAS a miracle with respect to wood and coal).
So the cost of a given unit of energy is a Nondecreasing Function (Yeah! Maths!) and Tainter's diminishing returns apply.
Which part don't you understand?
Do you need any help?

As you say:

Unfortunately, I haven't seen the big EROEI gains I hoped for.
This makes me a bit more pessimistic about the long term.

Are you now betting on a "miracle" like nuclear fusion or whatever?
Why not, but what are the chances?

This is what I mean by diffuse, rather than brass tacks.

I was talking about those pessimistic predictions some make for the course of human history over the next decades and centuries.  You've taken that and reapplied it to all kinds of things I did not say.

I suppose you expect me to follow the "fan-out" of your argument, but that simply does not interest me.  Sorry.

Still weaseling!

Not to be "diffuse", do you think or NOT that the shortage of oil or more generally cheap energy will bring a major downgrading in "civilisation", that is the average standard or living for people world wide, in, say the next 30 years (to be generous...)?

And spare us the questions:

What is generally?
What is cheap?
What is major?
What is downgrading?
What is civilisation?
What is average ?
Etc... etc...

That's not the same question.  I'll answer out of politeness, but I'll also note that we've changed subjects.

Sure, I think society will change and respond to higher energy costs and lower availability.  My gut says that the path will be painful but not murderous.

But I'm humble.  I don't put my gut ahead of anyone else's.  I won't pretend that I've charted a sure-thing path for world history.

painful but not murderous.

That is OK for an answer.
So, either you didn't understood Tainter, or you don't believe him, or you think it will not happen that soon.

I think it WILL BE murderous and pretty soon.
I am not alone and this is not "from my guts" but from VERY SIMPLE reasoning.

sure-thing path for world history.

Tainter (and more or less Diamond) DO GIVE a "sure-thing path" for any civilisation.
The trouble is that today the whole world is a single civilisation, even those who seemingly reject it, the Jihadists get most of their FOOD and WATER from the Kafirs.
Upon collapse ALL will be hurt except for a few crumbs like the Sentinelese who will likely survive it as well as they survived the tsunami.
Naysayers will find out, just like everybody else...

I think Tainter folks are thinking from their gut, but just don't want to admit it.  They assert more than they prove.
Im not sure what a "Tainter-folk" is. I respect his writings and can see beginnings of parallels in modern society - Governor Schwarzenegger bypassing US Govt and negotiating directly with Tony Blair? That sounds like seeds of collapse to me.  Its not just Tainters work but Odoms, Lotkas, Georgescu-Roegen, etc. Organisms with the most energy win. We have to increase our energy or decrease our population. The opposite is happening, so we are relying on history to guess what the current trajectory might bring.

I certainly don't 'know', but the midpoint of the distribution of probabilities is the end of growth and a slow crash - There are points on either side of that one.

Why wouldn't Schwarzenegger's(*) move be an example of adaptiveness in the network?

I'm not saying it is, but I think I'm pointing to why these things are so hard to call.  The path forward (assuming peak oil) is about an interaction between culture and technology.

That's hard to project, and what I mean by "Tainter folk" are those here who presume to have a "final answer."

* - thanks for the spelling, as I cut and paste

(BTW, it almost seems that one needs "collapse" as a premise in order to see Schwarzenegger's move as a bad thing.)
seems that one needs "collapse" as a premise

Short circuit in the neurones again!

It is the OPPOSITE :
"Such moves" are premise for collapse.
The early signs of the demise of centralized power.
I bet you DID NOT read Tainter.
Answer? YES/NO (only 2 choices...)

No, and to be honest you are reducing my impulse to read Tainter.

Are you ready for a hard question?  Engineers generally see redundancy as a defense against failure.  Explain how "complexity" does not include redundancy.

you are reducing my impulse to read Tainter.

Going "emotional" ?

Explain how "complexity" does not include redundancy.

Redundancy is not "granted", either it is DESIGNED or GROWN by selection, natural or just thru maturing, that is once all the brittle "solutions" have failed the surviving ones usually do so by redundancy.

This is EXACTLY what we are about to face as a specie, is the human specie brittle when faced with it's own crappy habits?

Are you ready for a hard question?

Your "bozoity" index is amazing, read Tainter, read my explanation about how complexity brings failure and tell me WHAT you did not understand
I will help you...

P.S. I suspect you know zilch about any kind of technology, chemical or otherwise and are just a PR guy.
Beware of unemployment, it happened before.

BTW, Thanks for the fun.

All you've demonstrated is that you can't answer a simple question without spinning off to handwaving and abuse.

If you are happy with that performance, it only makes things sadder.

All YOU've demonstrated is that EITHER:

- You are unable to understand a VERY SIMPLE STATEMENT (repeated below)
- or YOU are SPINNING by pretending not to understand such.


Redundancy does not come AUTOMATICALLY with any kind of complexity.

1) It has to be planned and built by the designers of the system if the system is ENGINEERED (*).

2) Or it is the outcome of a selection process which takes TIME and many trials whenever the system is grown, naturally or by being the result of trials and errors by society.

"Happy ... makes things sadder", turning to "emotional" when you run short of arguments.
Talk about spinning and handwaving, yeah!

Please EXPLAIN why you would not read Tainter and still pretend to argue about Tainter's ideas!
Not that much reality-based, Eh?

* Difficult thing, this is what Murphy's laws are about, especially the sixth one:

6. If you perceive that there are four possible ways in which a procedure can go wrong, and circumvent these, then a fifth way, unprepared for, will promptly develop.

The question was specifically about the measure of copmlexity, and how redundancy was excluded from that measure.

I haven't seen an asnwer to that.

BTW, if you think you can name a standard of living 30 years hence, you haven't really digested "fooled by randomness."
On third thought this is really funny!  I say that I don't think human history, decades hence, is predictable.  You tell me to "stop weaseling" and give a prediction for 30 years in the future.

Either you aren't getting me, or you are a comedian ;-)

BTW, relating this back to the main topic ... I've actually seen more response to energy problems over the last two years than I expected.  That makes me adjust my short term mood toward the more optimistic.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen the big EROEI gains I hoped for.  This makes me a bit more pessimistic about the long term.

... the longer we look for higher EROEI replacements for fossil (esp. liquid) fuels, the darker things look.

Any techno fix is useless unless we reduce the population to a sustainable level based on real-time solar income, not on fossil sunlight, because fossil sunlight will run out. It has to. Every attempt to "techno-fix" the problem is automatically doomed to failure unless this fundamental law of existence is met.

You and I are standing just a couple of hundred miles above an immense fission reactor that is putting out emmense amounts of untapped energy (and non-solar energy at that). It is called the core of our planet Earth.

Maybe the technology for tapping this energy is not immedaitely available, but the "energy" is there. We know it's there. We just don't know how to scale up its utilization.

Never say never :-)

"fossil" heat will also run out.

point goes to Cherenkov

The score:
30-Love (Cherenkov-TechnoOptimists)

"universe" will also run out.

match point and end of game. sigh.

I don't know if dinosaurs are fissable, but which runs out first, geothermal or does our BOB (big orange ball) become a even bigger red giant once the helium begins burning? I think (assuming its possible) geothermal energy won't peak during homo sapiens existence, we die out or evolve but you are talking about another billion years of magma.

So geothermal is not sunlight neither is human induced fission/fusion.

On your scoreboard Cherenkov gets no love.

It doesn't matter that the earth's core won't run out of heat. There are very few places in the earth's crust where it is easy or even possible to access that heat. Even fewer of those actually have water + steam. Those areas can be exploited, but not indefinitely, and not to an infinte degree. The fact that the limitations are not well known does not negate the fact that ther are limits.
yup and even if one has a rather stable source of it for electricity you are not going to transmit it very far. resistance and all.
There has been quite a few posts about deep drilling for geothermal energy over the last few days.

The best places for tapping geothermal energy are frequently in use now (back to low hanging fruit again). These places are almost always on or close to subduction zones where geothermal heat is close to surface and easy to reach. The classic example is New Zealand. Other areas include Iceland which can and does make very good use of Geothermal energy at an oceanic ridge. Again , heat is near surface or even at surface.

Drilling is currently constrained as far as depth is concerned by a variety of issues such as Down Hole Temperature, Down Hole Pressure, Hole squeeze, frictional pressure losses of drilling fluids being pumped downhole to lubricate the bit and wash drill cuttings to surface, Hydraulic horsepower delivered at the drill bit and the size and power of the prime-movers at the surface rig. etc.

Now, 30 000 feet is not impossible, but these are often along hole depths rather than true vertical depths. They are in relatively soft sedimentary rocks.Such depths are reached by Oil Companies looking for a big payoff. True enough at final depth, you can achieve bottom hole temps of  above 150 degrees centrigrade but it is a long way to go for these kind of figures.

Most Geothermal projects, then are on destructive margins (Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand etc) Or construcive margins (Iceland). Iceland is an exceptional case. A relatively low population, served by an enormous energy bounty, but very far from anywhere else that could use that energy to the full. (Lucky Iceland...)

Since most GT Projects are at these geological margins, the assocated rocks are Hard Rocks: Igneous, Metamorphic etc.

Drilling Hard rock is difficult to say the least:


The above link is to the West German Deep Borehole project near Bayreuth. It is a scientific programme for understanding the geology of the 'deep' crust, - because here, the deep crust is believed to be close to surface I think as a fossil remnant. I think it got to about 9 .
Kilometers and it took a long time to drill.

For much more information, just google KTB Deep Borhole Project. I had a very pleasant trip to KTB in the pre-drilling phase of the main borehole in the late 80's.
A superb place for a 'working'holiday.

GT Energy in IMO is generally a local , near surface, phenomena that can tapped. Getting down deep enough wherever you may wish to sink a borehole and then circulate water to extract the heat with power station nearby to users is problematic.

What has been tried is taking hot water and then heating it conventionally (I seem to remember it is called 'flashing') to super heat the steam and generate electricity. I suppose the basis is that you do not have to expend as many BTU's turning cold water into superheated steam. Again , this may be a localised solution.

One other problem that does occur is that Hot , Hard rock bodies tend to have very high concentration of less than pleasant heavy metals and radio active minerals.

These of course can end up at surface causing contamination.

Tapping into this energy source on a global basis will not be easy. Simmons has suggested Geothermal Energy in a few of his presentations. When he says 'we need a new Manhattan Project''. I think this is what he alludes to.

Where may it work?

Japan, New Zealand, The West Coast of the USA, Hawaii (A regionally isolated hot spot), Yellowstone (similar to Hawaii), Iceland, parts of Italy, Turkey, Maybe Cornwall etc , etc.

Elsewhere, it may be just a way to heat greenhouses.

But who knows?

Is it a knight in shining armour? I dont think so, not with current drilling technology or sizes of rigs.



if you do not restrict the population and reduce it to a sustainable footprint, the population crashes. It crashes even if we develop perfect cheap fusion. It crashes if we eliminate pollution. It crashes in any event unless we control and reduce population.
ultimately, any techno fix is useless unless we reduce the population to a sustainable level based on real-time solar income, not on fossil sunlight, because fossil sunlight will run out. It has to. Every attempt to "techno-fix" the problem is automatically doomed to failure unless this fundamental law of existence is met.

Exactly. You all need get this. I mean GET IT. Really really understand it. This is the fundamental physics underlying the existence of life.

I'll just add that population will return to a sustainable level. With each day we delay in deliberately reducing population to that sustainable level, we increase the amount of damage done to the living environment that supports our existence. This damage to solar-based living systems decreases the number of humans that can live sustainably. In short, if reduce population willingly, we might be able support 2 billion. If we let nature reduce population for us, we'll be lucky to support 200 million.


The heart of your argument is correct, I accpet it without argument, if your argument is, "Thre is a carrying capacity limit to the amount of resources that the world can combine, and if exceeded, almost no technical fix can overcome that."

My problem is this:

  1.  I do not know what that limit is.  I have heard various numbers thrown out, but how much consumption occurs per person MUST have an effect on how many people the planet can carry, is that correct?  And how much consumption occurs depends on (here we go again) how we design our technology (and one has to assume there will always be at least some technology)
  2.  I feel I can change design better than I can somehow force downt the population.  I have done all I can do for holding down population (short of suicide) I can do.  I have no children and am not married.  How many here have accepted that limit  (although it has been more for economic reasons than as environmental sacrifice!  Still, I do love children, and have thought of having at least one or two on several occasions...so there is some sacrifice there)
  3.  You say, "if you do not restrict the population and reduce it to a sustainable footprint, the population crashes."  I personally do not have the right to "restrict the population and reduce it".  You say, "it crashes".  Of course the greatest crasher of population has been the birth control pill and freedom for women.  Birthrate in almost every developed country is dropping now (in some cases by shocking amounts) and only immigrants are holding the population up.  If we can get them richer, on birth control, and their women more liberated and educated, all evidence is the birthrate in those countries will drop.  This is why to me the concept of "poverty induced poweredown" by reduced technology is frankly, catastrophic to the cause of reduced population.  It will destroy the trend which has been occuring in developed countries since the 1970's, the trend to lower number of children per couple.

Your last point, "Until this site admits that we must determine the carrying capacity of the planet sans fossil sunlight and work from there, this will always be a just another blog discussing the equivalent of a reality TV show. I.E. a discussion not based in reality."

O.K., let's admit it.  Now you confront a problem.  Can you somehow use a small (tiny in fact) minority to somehow enforce some kind of draconian measures to enforce population control?

Or does it not seem to be at least as valid to discuss and gain acceptance for the kind of efficient, intelligent design that can reduce energy consumption, water consumption, metal consumption, etc, per person.

I am deeply, deeply, deeply disturbed by those who's first answer to every problem is "WE MUST GET RID OF PEOPLE".....those who seem to see humans as alien to the universe, who do not belong here.  As Cramer said on "Sienfeld", when he was told not to pick on a chimp because it was just "an innocent primate", and Cramer replied, "Well, so am I!!"

Misanthropic philosophy has a long heritage, but I have never heard of it greatly improving human existance.  

"A discussion not based on reality" would be a discussion that somehow dreams of, whether the larger population likes it or not, the goal of destroying peoples cars, their homes, their entertainments, their lives and their arts and goals.

It is possible that a discussion based on reality would be finding a way to preserve some portion of a great culture, but improve it's design so that it becomes much more durable and sustainable.  To believe that it cannot be done would be to believe that what we see each day on our roads, and in our cities, is efficient and artistic technology and design.

I just don't think it's that damm good....:-)

If the population comes down in a way that does not cause suffering (i.e., happy boomers wiith no kids because they love that way, or lesbian or gay couples who have no interest in children and small odds of making them accidently!), then it just makes the design job all the easier!

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

Looking into the ERoEI of ethanol, this has not been solved yet, answers are all over the place, which model should I trust? http://gog2g.com/2006/07/27/looking-into-the-eroei-of-ethanol.aspx
What you should note is that those EROEIs are all near 1. Whether they are slightly less than 1 or slightly greater than 1 doesn't matter in the long run, since they are replacing gasoline which is 5 or greater. That was the point of sasquatch's story. We are trying to replace a high EROEI process with a low EROEI process, and most people don't understand the ramifications of this.
Something with an EROEI near one should be treated as an energy carrier instead of an energy source. If we are looking for a repacement for gasoline we would be better served comparing it to the efficieny of alternative ways of turning the non-liquid energy sources into a replacement for gasoline.
Comparing it natural gas to hydrogen for fuel cells ethanol is more efficient (modest energy gain vs small loss converting natural gas to hydrogen) and requires less infrastructre (no new cars needed)
Comparing it to natural gas to electricity for electric cars the greater efficiency of converting natural gas to electricity in a power plant and powering an electric car campared to the efficiency of an internal combustion engine probably out weighs the modest energy gained from ethanol but you still need to build electric cars and upgrade the power grid.
Of course the simpler thing would be just to convert biomas to electricity or fuel the large vehicles (buses semis etc) with compressed natural gas.
I think a key element is longevity and maintenance costs of physical capital.  Civilization is a machine for turning energy and material resources into human structures and infrastructure.  If we double the lifetime or halve the maintenance cost of buildings and transport and other systems we can have about twice the quality of life or support twice the population density given the same resources (energy flow, clean water or other raw materials).  Planned obsolescence is evil.

Society needs to invest to maximise the ratio:

marginal improvement in quality of life / resource flow required

Quantifying this is what economists should be concentrating on.

Well done, excellent parable!

From the snippets I've read, the study of energy flows in ecological communities yields some interesting insights. For example, birds have an optimal territory size. Too large and they invest too much time and energy in defending it rather than raising offspring.  Too small and they don't have sufficient resources for their offspring. Males investing energy in defending territories also can make suboptimal expenditures that reduce their offspring. More complex plant communities contain and capture more energy than less complex plant communities, particularly monoculture agriculture. And so on.

ERoEI is a useful concept, but has limitations.  Strictly speaking, we cannot know the energy input of anything.  We can estimate it, but cannot know it.

For example, what is the energy input of a barrel of oil coming out of a well in Texas?  

Think it through.  Energy is used to run drills, make pipe, transport rig hands, etc. etc. etc. Some of this can be estimated, but a lot of it cannot, e.g., what about energy used to build roads that the rig hands use; or energy used to keep the accountant, who does the numbers for the oil company, in food and drink; or energy used to make the pencil that the accountant uses; or energy used to make pig iron in England in 1790 that eventually got recycled in 1830, and again in 1890, and hauled to America as the hull of a ship to again be recycled in 1926, and again in 1942. There is no way that we can keep track of this, which means, there is no way to know how much energy goes into a barrel of Texas oil --- which further means: when it comes to energy and its flows through the human system, we have to be humble.  

There is a way around the problem, sort of, though not one many of you are going to like, because it entails a concession to some old friends of ours, the economists.  They have one idea that is useful, to wit: under the right circumstances, the price of something gives reliable information.

What this means is simple: in a market system, if you can make money, net money - i.e. a profit -- on the energy you use to get energy, than your operation is net energy positive.  Said another way: no net energy loser can make money (unless of course it receives a subsidy).  
There are other caveats necessary too.  You might for some reason want energy in a specific form, and be willing to take a net energy loss to change coal to oil, or oil to coal, or whatever.  But in general, in the workaday world, if your operation is not net energy positive, you better look around for something else to do --- or get on the phone to Washington.

This is an absolutely great parable. It hits on so many of the issues surrounding our experience with a hydrocarbon economy, as well as attempts to replace it with lower EROEI fuels like ethanol. Well done, Nate.
A good energy parable, but it's hard not to notice that their society did not suffer from all the shortcomings of ours.

No elites, no warrior class, no laboring underclass, no rival villages competing for resources, no overpopulation...........

In reality the solution is simple, just enslave part of the village to work 10 days a week.  Then the masters can enjoy greater status an leisure time.

We have a guy over in software development who kinda looks like the blurry sasquatch in those pictures.  Interestingly, mental images of him picking mongo nuts and bonking hephalumps on the head don't seem that strange...

Anyway, nice article.  Makes perfect sense.

Just a note that Sasquatch's Tainter reference is available online here:


Great story- should be told in classrooms around the country.  
I'm just pessimistic that we will ever see co-operation on a scale that is needed to meet the challenge.  I think that the status quo will be defended by TPTB until it is less painful to change- "the tipping point"?. Can anyone imagine Walmart shutting its doors- "we don't want to sell crap you don't need anymore lets all become independant farmers" with out a fight?
What there will be left to work with past the tipping point will be interesting (or depressing)to see.  We humans have never gotten along for a long period of time (wars).  I suspect this will be our future, add in famine and disease and we will reduce our population to sustainable levels- maybe.
Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. ;)
great story, thank you - a little too clear - time for some non PO time...
Here is a power point, from Michigan State academic, Bruce Dale, who argues (strongly) against net energy as being an important metric. He correctly points out that energy quality is also important but misses the fact that oil has been a 'freebie' to society and to replace its bounty is nearly impossible. Also, he does not address the fact that externalities must be included in an alternative energy product. And finally, full net energy analysis also includes other inputs to a process e.g. soil, water, etc will be limiting factors in the scaling of ethanol, irrespective of its energy balance.
Energy quality is relevant and important.  However, it depends on how one defines "quality".  I assume he means that ethanol could be a good thing and meets his quality criteria because it takes diverse inputs, some of which can not be used to run liquid fueled vehicles and turns it into a liquid fuel which can be used to run those vehicles.

One, the quality of ethanol is lower than gas in terms of its btus per gallon.

Two, this is a short term perspective and is dependent upon the point of view that society benefits by indefinitely flogging and keeping alive an inefficient and destructive technology, the ICE.  

Three, perhaps we would be better of if we used those inputs to create electricity to run electric motors for vehicles.  The benefit would be more overall efficiency in miles per unit of energy from well to wheel and less emissions of CO2 per mile.  For example, an extremely high mileage vehicle, the Honda Insight emits 39.6 grams per km while the electric Tesla emits 12.6 grams per vehicle. This is based upon using natural gas for the energy source for the electricity for the Tesla, but even if adjusted for the average U.S. emissions per kwhr produced, one can see the advantages of the electric vehicle.

The other advantage of the electric vehicle is that its efficiency can be improved with the introduction of more efficient power generating systems and distribution systems. In addition, if we can modify our fuel mix in power generation to be more oriented towards natural gas, solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, whatever, then we can reduce the co2 emissions per mile.

You need to include the embedded energy in the limited-life batteries.  Makes a HUGE difference.
Do you have any specific info on how much energy is used to manufacture batteries??
With the infrastructure to recycle/refurbish/remanufacture the batteries, the embedded energy can become less of an issue.
nope. on a whole the costs of running those facility's and disposing of it's wastes will outnumber the gains from recycling.
Correct - and this gets back to Hirsch/Bezdek research that shows we need 10-20 years to transition the energy mix.  Allocating a large % of our resources now (3 ethanol plants per month now and 8 per month by 2008) will be a large sunk cost - we are sending the alternative energy aircraft carrier off in the wrong direction (and maybe the wrong ocean)

The dam will break when Toyota sells plug-in hybrids.

The key economic bottleneck right now is the combined
density and longevity of the batteries.   Right now, I think the energy density of the best ones is just (barely) at what is acceptible, but their longevity under the high loads of electric vehicle use is not satisfactory.

One very important point:  long-lasting batteries do not violate fundamental laws of physics, and are not constrained by geophysical reality.

how are you going to charge those batteries when energy supplies are declining? you're not. so it doesn't matter how long the batteries will last.
  1. Electric cars are charged at night. They run on coal or nuke and have very high eroei.
  2. Long lived high power batteries are more energy intensive to build than lead acid batteries, but carry more energy per pound. I can't tell you which are better from an energy point of  view. I do know that lead acid batteries will use a trivial amount of oil in a battery only car, but that polymer lithium batteries will use less oil in a hybrid car.
I'd just let people choose the more expensive batteries with the longer range, or the less expensive batteries with the shorter range.
Electric cars are charged at night. They run on coal or nuke and have very high eroei.

Cars dont have an EROI. They use energy so could have an efficiency. EROI measures an energy extraction technology.


This may not come as a suprise, but we're getting shanked.  I've posted this before but it's a good time to bring up again.  Jay Leno has a 1909 Baker Electric (that is the year 1909) that has the original lead-acid batteries.  They were made to be serviceable, you pull them out, clean them of the sulfation/etc that makes them crap out, put them back in and they're like new.  Range?  110 miles.


Ok... I've looked at the link and photo of Jay with these batteries.

Does anybody have some knowledge/proof of the veracity of this claim... indestructible batteries?

I watched a video recently on a car show of Jay taking this car out for a drive... yes it was impressive BUT I'm sure I remember him as saying that the batteries were modern... and I remember this because he said they were 6v batteries.. which surprised me.

I don't recall offhand the voltage of the lead acid reaction, but it's always around 6 volts. You up it by putting lead acid cells in series.

But yes, lead acid batteries are trivial to recycle.

I think it is 5 x 1.2V/cell for Lead acid
No, its 3 x 2V, 2.40 - 2.50V per cell while charging and 2.25 - 2.30V if you are trickle/maintainance charging.
When I was a young chemist I interviewed at a factory that did large scale car battery recycling ... and gave everyone involved weekly blood tests to check lead levels.

All in all, I think I'd prefer to have someone like that do it, and not me on my back porch.

The energy parable is good, but as an average Joe in this lovely country, I'd like to extrapolate for a minute, and ask - what does consistently rising prices mean to me, and how will my lifestyle change.
Not what people could do or should do, but what will likely happen - realistic and likely scenarios of supply and demand.

Now a statement that will be anathema on this board: economics rules human behavior.

I think we need to think about demand. We have to move to the economic and political implications of steadily increasing prices. Where is the "break" point?
If you look at Oil as a % of GDP, the maximum oil got to is about 8% of GDP (?) in the 70's crisis (see OilCEOs blog for the chart). Thats where people changed their behavior. I think that implies $120 oil today (?). So when do we get there? 2 years?
At what point does the price of oil affect our "way of life"?
How essential is oil really?
We are going to find out, but I think we need to think through the possible scenarios.
"demand destruction" is a nice buzz word, but what does it really mean to Joe average?
Key question: at what point do supply and demand reach stability - given steadily decreasing supply? any guesses?
$150/barrel? $200? when do we get there? how do you plot this?
Then we need to look at countries that have been (and are) 100% oil importers. Like Japan and Europe. How are they reacting?
Business Week had a good article last week on % of driving done for work, leisure, etc in the US. Only about 25% is work. Most driving in the US is "non-essential" ... so do we all just switch to scooters like Italy?
The US imports about 11M barrels a day, or about 70% of consumption. At $70 thats a 281B deficit a year. People seem OK with it now. If it doubles, is that still OK?
How long do we have till that happens?
Personally I think the geopolitical implications are dire. We are heading towards a brick wall, but we don't know when we will hit it, or how hard we will hit, or what the fallout will be. I feel like I'm sailing on the Titanic. The US will be forced to dramatically revise its global defence strategy, which will have a geopolitical fallout I cannot even imagine.
There are lots of web sites on the dollar collapse, and the current economic crisis. i believe Oil will be the cause of the collapse.
When I think it through, the only rational response as an individual is to buy gold. I feel like Henny Penny. I have seen some discussions that say this is an overreaction. People have been looking for an excuse to forcast "doomsday" for hundreds of years. Is this just that? another fantasy doomsday scenario that modern ingenuity and economics will overcome?

What will the average American do?

Good question.  I consider myself pretty average.

I drive less.  I stay close to home.  I've been bringing my lunch to work.  I go out less.  I take public transportation.  I go to the beach on the weekends (I live in a beach town).  I'm growing tomatoes.  I cook on my grill.  I'm adding insulation to my house, and looking for other ways to be more energy efficient.

Preparing for the end of the world is hard.  I go back and forth ... one day I lean towards technology saving us (at least from civilization collapsing), the next I think we're forked.

Am I being foolish saving (tax deferred) for a retirement that's 30 years away?  Should I be pumping that money into bullion instead?  Buy land in the sticks?  Build a cabin?  

What should I tell my mother to do with her retirement account?  What about my father who is retiring and getting a govt pension?

When I try to talk to people about PeakOil they all think I'm nuts.  When I try to talk to people about the economy, about the govt, about fiat money, they think I'm nuts.

Maybe I'm nuts?  :)

i feel about the same way.

as long as we pay our taxes on time, they let us run around without a straitjacket ?  :-)

i'm 48 - hopefully, still in the pre-senile-dementia phase.

i have never seen so much denial & delusion, in the United States.

  •  oil production declining in Ghawar - reserves downstated by Kuwait - Cantarell declining ... etc.
  •  US military killing civilians in Iraq

the list of "grim realities" goes on and on.  no one wants to think about it.

this situation of collective denial reminds me of the Matrix, and of the character who gets tired of reality and snitches on his buddies so he can go back to ignorant bliss.

i would like to be among people who are willing to face reality some of the time, and THEN go back to changing diapers and finding low-energy ways to recreate, like taking the kids to feed the ducks at the park.

i live in San Francisco right now, and i would say the denial here is just as strong as anywhere else - the priorities for "liberals" in San Francisco appear to be gay rights and marijuana rights.  both of these rights are conferred by the laws of physics, and to me seem secondary to some of the bigger tidal waves on the horizon.

- - -

oh, uh, one aside about EREOI.  i was listening to one show about great white sharks.  they were filming the sharks attacking a seal decoy, the version where the shark leaps out of the water. the marine biologist said he felt sorry for the shark and wanted to curtail the study, because the shark was using up so much energy and getting a mouthful of wood in return.

it's hard for me to feel sorry for a great white, but i did think it was an interesting comment.

I don't think your statement is anathema.  Economics does rule most first world behavior, moreso in the US and other liberal democracies.  The social democracies of the world less so, but I don't have a problem with that.

I think we all may find varying levels of normative displeasure the statement, but that doesn't mean that's not how it works.

Is it factually correct to assert that economics rules most behavior in the U.S.?

Speaking as a sociologist, for the momement, I'd say that most behavior is rulled by informal social controls, by norms, by roles and statuses and tradition and inertia. Now it is true that our norms and the values that justify them are created in a market context, but the "model of man" as a purely--or even mainly--economic creature is highly questionable.

One of the failings of many economists is that they tend all the time to see the world through the lenses of economic concepts.

But psychology is not an empty discipline, and sociology also has much of value to offer when trying to understand human group behavior.

Wow! I have to almost concur with Don on that!

The only not so insignificant difference is that all those "informal social controls, norms, roles and statuses and tradition and inertia" which are certainly the REAL motives of people behavior do, infortunately, CURRENTLY end up in results which can indeed be summarized as "economics does rule most first world behavior" with a very tiny error margin.

So, what about CHANGING all those "informal social controls, norms, roles and statuses and tradition and inertia" such that they don't screw up our ressources base and mankinds future?

To be more precise, this means any DIRECT "political solution" is bound to fail if people's minds and hearts are not changed FIRST.
Alas, not any easier, probably much harder than political changes...

Regarding the hazards of low EROI oil production.  Here's the latest from the Alberta Oil Sands.  Large French project postponed.

Because of record oil prices, costs for new oil sands projects are out of control.

but... but..... aren't these projects supposed to help bring down the price of oil by adding new supply??  Are they really saying high oil prices lead to oil project postponement?  There's more to it, of course.


From article above:

Scotia Capital Inc. calculated that the expansion needs a long-term oil price of more than $60 (U.S.) a barrel to produce a 15-per-cent pretax internal rate of return.

low EROI oil seems to amount to a lot of effort for low return.

Why is it so hard for the defenders of EROEI to see that equal amounts of different forms of energy have different market values?  Surely they can see that a pound of gold has a much higher price than a pound of iron.  Now if 10 pounds of iron are consumed to produce 1 pound of gold, the market says this should be done even though the metal return on metal invested is .1.  Energy in the real world is just a commodity like metal.  If one can turn a cheap form of energy into a more expensive (i.e. useful) form, it should be done.  The real world market does not give a snap that the EROEI is less than one.  It is irrelavent.  EROEI is a fallacious concept because it ignores the real world market values of the various forms of energy.  All that matters in the real world is that the market value of the energy output is greater than the cost of the energy input.  Why is this so hard for the highly educated and intelligent people here to grasp?  I'm beginning to think there are alterior motives or the posters here are not as smart as I thought.  
If one can turn a cheap form of energy into a more expensive (i.e. useful) form, it should be done.

The problem is that in the post-carbon age, those "market values" may well change.  If your children are starving, will you still be in favor of turning food into fuel, no matter the cost?  That is the calculation we are trying to capture with EROEI.  If the EROEI is favorable, then yes, turn corn into the ethanol to run tractors, and make more food than you are giving up.

But if the EROEI is not favorable, it's not a smart thing to do.

If the free market prevails, prices will automatically adjust to reflect the new reality.  Corn, coal, whatever, will get so expensive that it will be impossible to turn it into a "more valuable" form.  

Economists are really dumb.

All money is a representative of a fixed amount of energy flow. Energy flow sustains our unsustainable society. Slow, or eliminate that energy flow, we start dying. Money is still a symbol and not a very tasty one at that.

Zen Koan:

If energy is the wind, money is the flag. As long as the wind blows, the flag waves. Once the wind is gone the purpose of the flag vanishes. Does the wind move the flag? Or, does the flag move the wind?

But perhaps we are just money's way of making more money.
"Economists are really dumb."

Not half as dumb as insanely broad comments.

After we're done trashing economists, can we move on to engineers and geologists and beat them to a pulp for not knowing diddly-squat about how markets work?  No?  Good.  Then we should lay off all the laughable generalizations.


And please do not generalise about jack-of-all-trades handymen who ride tricycles.

That would be me, and I'm a very sensitive guy!  :)

More seriously, I think about WestTexas' notion that too many of us make our living from other people's discretionary income.  I feel like some of my work comes from discretionary income of some pretty well-off people  -- businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, and the like who have more discretionary income than time to do repairs and clean and do yardwork.  Yikes!

I do ride trikes that can haul significant loads or be used as pedicabs.  So I could provide gasoline-free nieghborhood transport for people.

I can do some very necessary repair and maintainance work, and can garden too.

I could continue to help people by doing gardening to raise food at their homes.  I could learn to can and dry foods to preserve the garden produce for people.

I've thought about developing a rain-barrel construction and installation business.

Another service I could provide is some bike repair, and possibly help with developing more community gardens and such.

Any other suggestions, short of moving out of town to start a small organic farm?

Oooops!  My above post was off-topic.  Feel free to reply, or maybe we should take it to the Drumbeat?  Sorry!
 With your skills, depending on where you live , you can do very well. Rainwater harvesting can see increasing demand. As people get tired of rolling blackouts and brownouts, solar water heaters and solar panel installation may see increasing demand, micro hydro installation could be big.
 Depending on how things unfold,  a competent jack of all trades may be in very high demand.
Thanks, Gunga2006!

That's encouraging, and along the lines of my hopes.

Of course the competition will be high. I know at least one electrical engineer who is a one-person-wonder with all manner of hanywork, from woodwork to electrical to yardwork and gardening.  I hope he keeps even busier with engineering design and testing!  I'll bet those skills will be in very high demand.

I do keep pondering the possibilities for future livelihood as things play out.

"Economists are really dumb."

I think you've vastly overestimated the intelligence of economists. I think we can more accurately say:
Economists are suicidally retarded.

All money is a representative of a fixed amount of energy flow.

Unfortunately no, otherwise the price of any widget or property would be STABLE and reducible to its "energy content".
Does the appreciation of real estate means the energy content increased?

Money introduce an extra layer of complexity which blurs the energy equilibriums and you cannot get rid of this warping.
May be money is INHERENTLY unstable?


You and the EROEI defenders are talking about different things.

You are talking from the perspective of a participant in a market economy who has a pile of corn or a bottle of Dom Perignon and who believes he can turn it into useful liquid fuel and make a buck based on the price signals the market is giving him.  By all means, he should proceed on the basis of market prices and not give a thought to EROEI if he wants to make some cash.

The EROEI people have a different project.  They are worried  about how to power an economy over the long term.  And they have no real price signals since nobody is selling futures contracts for 2050 or 2035 or 2020 for the amount of energy required to power a major economy.  Their purpose is not to make money in any event, but to plan energy acquisition by society in the absence of price signals.  Biology, physics, chemistry etc now come into play big time.  In fact, they were never out of play. In the long run, the market reflects fundamental biological and physical reality.

Hope this helps.  


I think one of the reasons that EROEI has been discussed so much in the context of corn ethanol is that the market signals are so fallacious regarding that product.  There are so many subidies that we end up doing something very stupid and wasteful even though the EROEI signal tell us that we shouldn't produce it.

If the market for energy in general and corn ethanol, in particular was free of subsidies, hidden and otherwise, then perhaps we could just simply let the market take its course, trusting that the cost of energy inputs would send the right signals. But, from a societal level, we are interested in not wasting billions of dollars on a fuel that may do very little good regarding peak oil, energy independence, and greenhouse gas mitigation.  If capital could be more usefully employed elsewhere, such as in battery technology, then we would hope that we could influence that decision, especially when it comes to government research and incentives.

I don't know, with a high degree of certainty, that a more pure market would lead to an optimum allocation of resources between the various technologies. But I am reasonably certain that the current set of incentives and subsidies will lead to a poor allocation of resources.  Resources are scarce, even for economists.  And part of their job is to figure out ways to ensure that resources are allocated in an optimum way.

Indeed, markets are subject to all kinds of distortions.  And yes, I suspect along with you that at a  societal level those corn ethanol incentives and subsidies may amplifiy false signals.

But the market signals also give us data points we otherwise wouldn't have.  If research shows the usefulness of a biofuel is suspect and it fails in the marketplace to a attract customers, we are more certain it's a deadbeat idea!

I'm a big fan of giving things a chance to fly in the 'real' world.

The reason is simple:

there are no lobbyists from industries yet to be built.

There are plenty in the "corn belt" and the myth of the rustic farmer (more like a rich coal and oil guzzling resource miner) is much more potent than nerds in a labcoat.

Ethanol is a popular illusion since it combines the emotional resonance of stuff that average people like:

  • Driving cars exactly like normal
  • Farmer John's wholesome goodness
All that matters in the real world is that the market value of the energy output is greater than the cost of the energy input.  Why is this so hard for the [geek ignoramuses] here to grasp?  I'm beginning to think there are alterior motives or the posters here are not as smart as I thought.

I'm not sure if you are teasing with the toads here or what?

Concepts like "value", "price" and "cost" are fictions that humans make up. They are not part of the "real" real world where Mother Nature rules.

Make all the noises you want about how you are being "practical". Mother Nature is not listening.

If you want to embark on a survival stategy that sinks more useful energy into a well than you get out, be my guest. How long do you think such a sub-unity EROI activity is going to last?

And even if you accumulate tons of money from your endeavor, what are you going to spend it on if the society around you has collapsed?

Is this more of that Huber and Mills nonsense?

As in: let's upgrade some electrons to photons!    

Wow... a blue laser!!!

The real world market does not give a snap that the EROEI is less than one.  It is irrelavent.

The market is based on marginal supply equals marginal demand in a just-in-time-inventory system. This does not provide a mechanism for substitutes that are essential non-luxury components of society (oil) that have long lead times on alternatives.  

Energy extraction technologies that have EROIs close to 1:1 will ALWAYS be the 'energy of the future' as all inputs to the technology will go up with the general price level. Coal-to-liquids is profitable at $50 oil. Once oil gets to 100, CTL will be profitable at $80 oil ,etc. Steel, copper, cement all have correlated price increases as energy gets higher.

I'm beginning to think there are alterior motives or the posters here are not as smart as I thought.  

EROI is the same as ROI (financial) if there is:
a) same time frame (financial is much faster, while energy change takes 5-10 years minimum

b)there are no subsidies (energy technologies that have positive financial returns (ROI) but low EROIs are likely subsidized (like ethanol)

c)there are no externalities. Turning coal to liquid fuel might make money, but thats because the market is not currently penalizing technologies that contribute to global warming.

Net energy is a combination of physical principles (entropy laws) and ecological economics (full cost pricing.

I have no ulterior motive than for people to learn while net energy is still very high.


You added some much needed dimensionality to EROI.

Good job!

Here's an similar parable that use with my students to help demonstrate the tie-in between resource use and population:

To illustrate how humans are similar to bacteria in a Petri dish, imagine an isolated group of people living on an island in the middle of the ocean.  These folks gather all of their own food, build all of their own shelters, etc; for anything that happens on the island, they are doing it with local resources.  

Obviously, the island only has a certain amount of fruit, game and freshwater; if the number of people living on the island gets too large what will happen?  They will eat fruit faster than it can grow, hunt game to extinction, and drain the freshwater supplies.   When this happens, we say the island population exceeds the island's carrying capacity.  At this point, the island population is imperiled. What will they do?  Let's allow the island inhabitants to be pretty clever; so, they become more efficient and develop special fruit-growing agricultural techniques.  These improvements in efficiency and agriculture can increase the carrying capacity of the island--but only so far.  

Now let's suppose that one day a plane flies over the island and drops an enormous crateful of SPAM<sup>TM</sup>.  The islanders break open the crate and investigate the odd rectangular-shaped contents; then someone realizes that they can be opened--and enjoyed.  Furthermore, it is discovered that the empty cans have a myriad of uses: from drinking cups to scoops, and--with a little shape modification--plows, hoes, spoons, and fashion accessories.   Every month, an identical crateful of processed meat product parachutes down to the island.  

These mysterious monthly arrivals go on for years, and the islanders continue to make splendid use of the heavenly deposits--even the parachute material is utilized.  In a very short amount of time, the islanders become completely dependent on the regular deliveries from the sky: their entire social organization will center on the regular arrival of the SPAM<sup>TM</sup>, with special food and materials distribution and processing networks, as well as SPAM<sup>TM</sup> allocation legislation.  The population will continue to grow because the SPAM<sup>TM</sup> bonanza artificially increased the carrying capacity of the island.  

But unfortunately, a financial audit occurring thousands of miles from the island uncovers the fact that no one has been paying for the SPAM<sup>TM</sup> deliveries all of these years, and the monthly pink manna suddenly stops falling from heaven.  The islanders are in trouble: what they had taken to be normal and enduring turned out to be extraordinary and temporary.

I suggest to my students that petroleum is our "SPAM."

thelastsasquatch -

I think your parable on ERoEI is great!

This may seem silly, but it also occurred to me that your parable might lend itself quite nicely to the format of an 'adult' comic book, an example being the comic book 'Maus' which gave a very effective and chilling account of the Holocaust.

 If you made the text a bit less quantitative and collaborated with a good comic book artist, you might be able to pull off a very pursuasive vehicle for putting the energy picture into a high digestible form for wide readership.  

Just a thought, but I think some interesting concepts can be developed around it.

I think that is the best idea to ever grace TOD. If you could take that parable and get it into the size of a comic (or, maybe a four-part series), you could rach a lot of young people who are tune d out of most of these discusssions.
I agree its a good idea. There are also many other good ideas along similar lines.  You have chosen one that will fit the neural grooves of a society that largely could never understand Peak Oil in conventional ways by reading the Hirsch report because their attention spans have been truncated by shorter and shorter synapse paths and alpha-wave habituation from television.

However, if I (or anyone) would pursue a Peak Oil comic book, or any other idea, I would first want to know the ultimate goal.  What should be the objective, given what we know?? I think once one understands whats ahead of us, mitigation and adaptation boil down to three choices:

  1. Macro level policy change - (this is the bent of TOD). Try and change politics locally, nationally and internationally to use less oil, transition to more of an electric system, consume less overall, and incrementally increase the value we place on natural systems

  2. Micro level changes - construct as many sustainable changes in your local community - grow local, install renewable infrastructure - do everything you can to have the local ecosystem produce without global commerce

  3. Party likes its 1999. Recognize whats coming and live life to its fullest. Travel, consume, etc because you won't be able to in the future. This may have unintended consequences of hoarding, etc.

Were the comic book "Sasquatch Overshoot" to ever take off publicly, there might be a large majority choosing door #3, which I am not judging as right or wrong. Im just asking what can, should and will be done.

(I can't draw for crap, so if anyone does want to pursue such an idea, I could probably start to fund it and generate the story line, but unless you want stick figures, Id need artistic help)

This may seem silly, but it also occurred to me that your parable might lend itself quite nicely to the format of an 'adult' comic book...

Think of how many you would reach by turning it into an adult movie. :-)

Funny off-topic story. My wife was in Blockbuster once, looking at children's movies with my kids. An employee came by, and she asked "Where can I find the adult movies?" The employee frowned and said "We don't rent those kinds of movies."