Why EROEI matters: the role of net energy in the survival of civilization

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 13, 2017

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The image above was shown by Charlie Hall in a recent presentation that he gave in Princeton. It seems logic that the more net energy is available for a civilization, the more that civilization can do, say, build cathedrals, create art, explore space, and more. But what's needed, exactly, for a civilization to exist? Maybe very high values of the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) are not necessary.

A lively debate is ongoing on what should be the minimum energy return for energy invested (EROEI) in order to sustain a civilization. Clearly, one always wants the best returns for one's investments. And, of course, investing in something that provides a return smaller than one is a bad idea, to say the least. So, a civilization grows and prosper on the energy it receives. The question is whether the transition from fossil fuels to renewables could provide enough energy to keep civilization alive in a form not too different from the present one.

It is often said that the prosperity of our society is the result of the high EROEI of crude oil as it was in mid 20th century. Values as high as 100 are often cited, but these are probably widely off the mark. The data reported in a 2014 study by Dave Murphy indicate that the average EROEI of crude oil worldwide could have been around 35 in the past, declining to around 20 at present. Dale et al. estimate (2011) that the average EROEI of crude oil could have been, at most, around 45 in the 1960s Data for the US production indicate an EROEI around 20 in the 1950s; down to about 10 today.

We see that the EROEI of oil is not easy to estimate but we can say at least two things: 1) our civilization was built on an energy source with an EROEI around 30-40. 2) the EROEI of oil has been going down owing to the depletion of the most profitable (high EROEI) wells. Today, we may be producing crude oil at EROEIs between 10 and 20, and it keeps going down.

Let's move to renewables. Here, the debate often becomes dominated by emotional or political factors that seem to bring people to try to disparage renewables as much as possible. Some evidently wrong assessments claim EROEIs smaller than one for the most promising renewable technology, photovoltaics (PV). In other cases, the game consists in enlarging the boundaries of the calculation, adding costs not directly related to the exploitation of the resource. That's why we should compare what's comparable; that is, use the same rules for evaluating the EROEI of fossil fuels and that of renewable energy. If we do that, we find that, for instance, photovoltaics has an EROEI around 10. Wind energy does better than that, with an average EROEI around 20. Not bad, but surely not as large as crude oil in the good old days.

Now, for the mother of all questions: on the basis of these data, can renewables replace the increasing energy expensive oil and sustain civilization? Here, we venture into a difficult field: what do we mean exactly as a "civilization"? What kind of civilization could a renewable-powered society support? Could it build cathedrals? Would it include driving SUVs? How about plane trips to Hawaii?

Here, some people are very pessimistic, and not just about SUVs and plane trips. On the basis of the fact that the EROEI of renewables is smaller than that of crude oil, considering also the expense of the infrastructure needed to adapt our society to the kind of energy produced by renewables, they conclude that "renewables cannot sustain a civilization that can sustain renewables." (a little like Groucho Marx's joke "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.").

Maybe, but I beg to differ. Let me explain with an example. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the energy source that powers society has an EROEI equal to 2. You would think that this is an abysmally low value and that it couldn't support anything more than a society of mountain shepherds, and probably not even that. But think about what an EROEI of 2 implies: for each plant in operation there must be a second one of the same size that only produces the energy that will be used to replace both plants after that they have gone through their lifetime. And the energy produced by the first plant comes for free. Now, consider a power source that has an EROEI= infinity; then you don't need the second plant. So, the difference is only a factor of two in the investments necessary to maintain the energy producing system forever.

It is like that: the EROEI is a strongly non-linear measurement. You can see that in the well-known diagram below (here in a simplified version, some people trace a line in the graph indicating the "minimum EROEI needed for civilization", which I think is unjustified)):

 

 

You see that oil, wind, coal, and solar are all in the same range. As long as the EROEI is higher than about 5-10, the energy return is reasonably good, at most you have to re-invest 10% of the production to keep the system going, which is pretty reasonable. It is only when the EROEI it becomes smaller than ca. 2 that things become awkward. So, it doesn't seem to be so difficult to support a complex civilization with the technologies we have. Maybe trips to Hawaii and SUVs wouldn't be included in a PV-based society (note the low EROEI of biofuels) but about art, science, health care, and the like, well, what's the problem?

There is a problem, though. And it has to do with growth. Let me go back to the example I made before, that of a hypothetical energy technology that has an EROEI = 2. If this energy return is calculated over a lifetime of 25 years, it means that the best that can be done in terms of growth is to double the number of plants over 25 years, a yearly growth rate of less than 3%. And that in the hypothesis that all the energy produced by the plants would go to make more plants which, of course, makes no sense. If we assume that, say, 10% of the energy produced is invested in new plants then, with EROEI=2, growth can be at most of the order of 0.3%. Even with an EROEI =10, we can't reasonably expect renewables to push their own growth at rates higher than 1%-2%(*). Things were different in the good old days, up to about 1970, when, with an EROEI around 40, crude oil production grew at a yearly rate of 7%. It seemed normal, at that time, but it was the result of very special conditions.

So, the problem is here: our society is fixated on growth and, in order to have high rates of growth, we need high EROEIs. Renewables are good for a steady-state society but probably can't support a fast growing one. But is it a bad thing? I wouldn't say so. We have grown enough with crude oil, actually way too much. Slowing down, and even going back a little, can only improve the situation.

(*) The present problem is not to keep the unsustainable growth rates that society is accustomed to. It is how to grow renewable energy fast enough to replace fossil fuels before depletion or climate change (or both) destroy us. This is a difficult but not impossible task. The current fraction of energy produced by wind and solar combined is less than 2% of the final consumption (see p. 28 of the REN21 report), so we need a yearly growth of more than 10% to replace fossils by 2050. Right now, both solar and wind are growing at more than a 20% yearly rate, but this high rate is obtained using energy from fossil fuels. The calculations indicate that it is possible to keep these growth rates while gradually phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, as described here

 

2 Responses to Why EROEI matters: the role of net energy in the survival of civilization

  • JJGrey says:

    Growth occures not only economically but in population as well. A population growth rate of doubling about every 20 years is more or less expected. If the net economic growth does not match population growth, the population experiences a decline in quality of life. This is EXACTLY what we seem to be seeing today around the world. Developing nations that had briefly been having an improved quality of life are no longer seeing such an improvement and are in fact in many cases seeing a reversal in quality of life. 1st world nations have reduced their native population growth to a point that it seldom exceeded their economic growth, BUT then these nations allow excess population from developing nations to immigrate, which brings down the developed nations standard of living. That is why the USA has 'pushback' against the hispanic immigrants from Mexico and countries further south, why much of europe is seeing the birth and rebirth of anti-immigrant and pro-native political movements, etc.

    Nothing is wrong with immigration when it is a controlled trickle that is less than the economic growth of a country, an less than the growth of the countries 'native' population (for the USA this refers to the 'WASP' type population, not the minority American Native Tribes). But when Economic growth slows, and migrantion increases or appears to increase (and the two often go together)  then you get increasing tensions and conflict.

    A unified population without significant immigration (i.e.: Japan)  in a developed nation still suffers tensions and conflict as the EROEI of their industry trends downward, but it is far less tension and conflict; and the population will often choose to reduce their growth voluntarily. There are problems with taking the  path of reduced population growth as well (Japan is expecting many of their nursing homes to become largely automated as they can not find enough qualified native population young people to take over the various necessary grunt work).  Also in the medium run, reducing population growth like japan has, can leave a nation vulnerable to hostile neighbors either from outright invasion, or just being out competed for resources.

  • Disaffected says:

    Short answer: Read Wiliam Catton's book <i>Overshoot</i>.

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VVH4UGG/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

    THEN discuss.

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