Energy Return on Energy Invested – Prof. Charles Hall’s Comments

In my most recent post, Why the Standard Model of Future Energy Supply Doesn’t Work, I made some comments about the calculation of Energy Returned on Energy Invested. Professor Charles Hall sent me the following response to what I said, which he wanted to have published. I have a few follow-up comments, but I will save them for the comments section.

Section of Why the Standard Model of Future Energy Supply Doesn’t Work Upon Which Comments Are Being Made

The Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) Model of Prof. Charles Hall depended on the thinking of the day: it was the energy consumption that was easy to count that mattered. If a person could discover which energy products had the smallest amount of easily counted energy products as inputs, this would provide an estimate of the efficiency of an energy type, in some sense. Perhaps a transition could be made to more efficient types of energy, so that fossil fuels, which seemed to be in short supply, could be conserved.

The catch is that it is total energy consumption, that matters, not easily counted energy consumption. In a networked economy, there is a huge amount of energy consumption that cannot easily be counted: the energy consumption to build and operate schools, roads, health care systems, and governments; the energy consumption required to maintain a system that repays debt with interest; the energy consumption that allows governments to collect significant taxes on exported oil and other goods. The standard EROEI method assumes the energy cost of each of these is zero. Typically, wages of workers are not considered either.

There is also a problem in counting different types of energy inputs and outputs. Our economic system assigns different dollar values to different qualities of energy; the EROEI method basically assigns only ones and zeros. In the EROEI method, certain categories that are hard to count are zeroed out completely. The ones that can be counted are counted as equal, regardless of quality. For example, intermittent electricity is treated as equivalent to high quality, dispatchable electricity.

The EROEI model looked like it would be helpful at the time it was created. Clearly, if one oil well uses considerably more energy inputs than a nearby oil well, it would be a higher-cost well. So, the model seemed to distinguish energy types that were higher cost, because of resource usage, especially for very similar energy types.

Another benefit of the EROEI method was that if the problem were running out of fossil fuels, the model would allow the system to optimize the use of the limited fossil fuels that seemed to be available, based on the energy types with highest EROEIs. This would seem to make best use of the fossil fuel supply available.

Charlie Hall responds:

I have always been, remain and will probably always continue to be a huge fan of Gail Tverberg, her analyses and her blogs. I am also committed to try and make sure science, such as I understand it, remains committed to truth, such as that is possible, which includes an accurate representation of the scientific work of others. In that spirit I wish to correct a short piece (referenced above) that is attempting to represent my own work on Energy Return on Investment (EROI or EROEI) but does not do so in a way that is fully consistent with the published work of myself and my colleagues. Continue reading

Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

This is a guest post by Toby Hemenway, author of  Gaia’s Garden, a Guide to Home Scale Permaculture. It is being republished with the author’s permission. It was previously published on his blog, Pattern Literacy

Jared Diamond calls it “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”(1) Bill Mollison says that it can “destroy whole landscapes.”(2) Are they describing nuclear energy? Suburbia? Coal mining? No. They are talking about agriculture. The problem is not simply that farming in its current industrial manifestation is destroying topsoil and biodiversity. Agriculture in any form is inherently unsustainable. At its doorstep can also be laid the basis of our culture’s split between humans and nature, much disease and poor health, and the origins of dominator hierarchies and the police state. Those are big claims, so let’s explore them. Continue reading

The Faustian Bargain that Modern Economists Never Mention

This is a guest post by Dr. Gary Peters. He is a retired geography professor.

Historically people have shifted their belief systems in various ways. The Greeks and Romans believed in numerous gods and goddesses and attributed all kinds of powers to them. Then the great monotheistic religions came along and people began to believe in just one god, though they honored him under different names.

Recently, beliefs have shifted again, with people worshipping just one part of a god, the invisible hand. Thanks to Adam Smith and those who followed him, especially the current neoclassical economic theologians, we have seen such an increase in the world’s wealth and sheer numbers that it is hard to imagine life before the industrial revolution, with its shift from mostly human and animal muscle power to the energy dense fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. It is also hard to imagine that humanity could someday slide back into another age of scarcer and more expensive energy, but that is a possibility that cannot be excluded from our thinking.

The Faustian Bargain

What about the Faustian bargain? It remains deeply hidden from view because its exposure by the high priests of modern economics would force us to rethink how we live and why we live this way, as well as what we’re planning to leave for future generations. The Faustian bargain goes something like this: Thanks to the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels, humans (really just a small minority of them) are able to live richer lives today than even the queens and kings of yore could have dreamed of.

Furthermore, we’ve used some of those finite resources to increase food supplies and to expand the human population, which provides the economic system with both more workers and more consumers, a necessity to keep the economy growing under our current economic model. The world’s population increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today, and we add about 80 million more each year. Humans have quickly become the most numerous megafauna on the planet.

The other side of the bargain, the side hidden from view and never mentioned in economics texts is this: At some undetermined time in the future, one that creeps ever closer, this economic system, fed by energy and other resources at ever increasing rates at one end and spewing out waste products at rates that cannot be absorbed by Earth’s ecosystems at the other, is unsustainable. What that means is simple enough: Industrial society as we know it cannot go on as it has forever—not even close.

Our economic system must exist within Earth’s finite limits, so recent and current generations have sold their soul to the devil for temporary riches, leaving the Devil to collect his due when the system falls apart under its own weight and the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride again across the world’s landscapes. None of this will happen tomorrow or this week or this year, but our economic system is faltering at both ends.

For many, if not most, of the world’s population life may become more difficult, incomes lower, and uncertainty greater. It does not mean the end of the world, as some predict for 2012, but it will mean that future generations probably will not live like current ones. Rather than admit that the current system cannot be sustained, the affluent and powerful will do everything possible to maintain the status quo. Continue reading

Understanding our Economic Trajectory – 1952 to Today

This is a guest post by “Shunyata.” Shunyata has training in financial engineering, actuarial science, statistics, and mechanical engineering. While he does not work directly with structural economic theory, his background in financial engineering gives him insights. The observations below represent Shunyata’s personal opinions based on his study of economics and monetary policy to protect his personal interests. This post is not intended to represent investment advice.

Since 1952, US Nominal GDP has grown by about 6% per year. Why did this growth occur?

A. Did the economy discover new efficiencies and/or develop new natural resources?

B. Did Government monetary policy artificially inflate GDP?

C. Did Society borrow against tomorrow to purchase luxuries today? (…meaning that Society borrowed against tomorrow’s GDP to inflate today’s growth.)

Certainly reality is a mixture of all three mechanisms, but is one dominant? We would hope for (A). We can live with (B). But (C) would be troubling.

We can evaluate the impact of monetary policy by examining Real GDP trends. Figure 1 shows Gross GDP divided by CPI to bring everything to 2011 levels.

Figure 1

Continue reading