Quite a while back we had a discussion of the idea of Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) as a measure of the viability of solar and wind energy. I did the numbers for solar (including battery backup) and came to the conclusion that EROEI was at least 10 and therefore not a problem.
The issue has come up in an email discussion I’ve been having. Thinking about it, I concluded that using a ratio of energy generated to energy invested is incorrect. As a starting point, I assume that we want to consider energy separately from market goods in general. Producing new energy requires inputs of both energy and market goods (including labour and capital). Think about this example
Technology A uses 1 Mwh of energy input and $180 of market inputs to produce 10 MWh of energy output
Technology B uses 1 Mwh of energy input and $600 of market inputs to produce 20 MWh of energy output
Technology B has an EROEI of 20, while that for A is 10. But using technology B with 1 MWh of energy input, we produce 20 MWh yielding a net output of 19MWh, at a cost of more than $30/MWh. By contrast, using A, with 2.1 MWh of input, we can produce 21 MWh of output for net generation of 19 MWh at a cost of less than $20/MWh
How can we capture this. The calculation implied above is (EREOI – 1)/$ where $ is the cost of market inputs associated with a unit of energy input. In the absence of constraints on how much of each technology we can deploy, this gives us the lowest cost way of generating a given amount of additional net energy.
Where did the idea of using a ratio come from? I think it’s because ratios can be used to derive a payback period, which is commonly used in the evaluation of private investments. But the payback period is a kludge even in this case, and has no relevance when we are evaluating an energy strategy.
An EROEI criterion would make sense if we had a fixed amount of energy available as input to new energy generation and didn’t care about market costs. More generally EROEI would be relevant if we were seeking an energy transition so rapid that the construction of new generating sources was a major part of total energy use. But that isn’t the case. I don’t have data for the share of total energy use going into the manufacture and installation of solar and wind power. But that’s because this share is too small to be broken out from general industrial uses of energy,
I thank commenter MartinK for pointing out problems with the original version of this post, which used much lower EROEI numbers for both technologies.
60 thoughts on “Energy return: ratio or net value (revised)”
I believe this misses a different issue, at least for examples A and B where the EROEI is well under something like 3. To get 1 Mwh of usable energy from A you need to capture 11 Mwh of raw energy whereas B would require just 2 Mwh of that energy, that is less than a 5th of the panels/windmills to get the same output. That is, you would always 5.5 times the amount of panels/windmills, not just at the start.
This would also affect how quickly we can ramp up renewables. I’d guess that would also be diminished to a non issue of the EROEI is 3 or more but I’m not certain without some calculations (say we have 10Mwh per year energy requirement and have a maximum fossil fuel energy capacity of 12Mwh per year how can we ramp up solar production capacity to minimise the total fossil fuel usage ever?)
(Please excuse my uses of Mwh-per-year units, I am sure that will grate with some readers)
This is a good point. I overegged the pudding and will revise with higher EROEI in both cases as you suggest.
There’s two unrelated concepts at work as well: cost of consumables (this is where carbon emissions started, and water for PV cleaning); and obviously capital cost. In the extreme you have (some) hydro dams where the answer is in all seriousness ‘we imagine it will stop working eventually’.
The problem with developing technologies is that we are guessing some of the critical numbers. Like economists using 100 year discount rates, engineers are pulling life expectancies out of their nether regions. And because of the way various subsidies/tax schemes work, it can make economic sense to trash working solar panels and replace them with new ones. While there is some market to reuse those panels, and some recycling at least of the aluminium, many end up as waste.
Battery systems may go the same way, although we know that inverters and other active electronics only last 5-10 years. But even the BMS components may last longer than that because they’re close to passive. But the actual cells… as the electric car companies keep having to say “longer than we thought” and that’s the best answer they have.
So anything “divided by the number of years the device lasts”… it’s definitely a number. Beyond that I don’t think anyone can do more than give you error bars big enough to let the thing fly.
We are starting to realize that we don’t even understand what is or would be sustainable. We have created a system too complex for us to understand. We don’t adequately understand our technological political economy. We don’t adequately understand the earth systems (biosphere) in which our technological political economy.is embedded. This indicates that we don’t have “civilizational agency”. We can neither understand nor control where our (global) civilization is headed. Personally, I am just hoping emergence and evolution take us somewhere. It’s a forlorn hope, even in the military sense.
“A forlorn hope is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the vanguard in a military operation, such as a suicidal assault through the kill zone of a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high.” Such a band is also known as the enfants perdus (French for ‘lost children’). 
The whole of humanity, all 8 billion or so, has now become a “forlorn hope”. We have based our entire strategy on one massive vanguard of one advancing global technological system. It’s a suicidal assault on the natural world through a biosphere crisis kill zone and a few may see the other side… or none at all.
A Jan 2009 paper titled “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?” by Charles A.S. Hall, Stephen Balogh andDavid J.R. Murphy, concludes with:
“Our educated guess is that the minimum EROImm for an oil-based fuel that will deliver a given service (i.e. miles driven, house heated) to the consumer will be something more than 3:1 when all of the additional energy required to deliver and use that fuel are properly accounted for. This ratio would increase substantially if the energy cost of supporting labor (generally considered a consumption by economists although definitely part of production here) or compensating for environmental destruction was included. While it is possible to imagine that one might use a great deal of fuel with an EROImm of 1.1 : 1 to pay for the use of one barrel by the consumption of many others, we believe it more appropriate to include the cost of using the fuel in the fuel itself. Thus we introduce the concept of “extended EROI” which includes not just the energy of getting the fuel, but also of transporting and using it. This process approximately triples the EROI required to use the fuel once obtained from the ground, since twice as much energy is consumed in the process of using the fuel than is in the fuel itself at its point of use. Any fuel with an EROImm less than the mean for society (about 10 to one) may in fact be subsidized by the general petroleum economy. For instance, fuels such as corn-based ethanol that have marginally positive EROIs (1.3: 1) will be subsidized by a factor of about two times more than the energy value of the fuel itself by the agricultural, transportation and infrastructure support undertaken by the main economy, which is two thirds based on oil and gas. These may be more important points than the exact math for the fuel itself, although all are important.
Of course the 3:1 minimum “extended EROI” that we calculate here is only a bare minimum for civilization. It would allow only for energy to run transportation or related systems, but would leave little discretionary surplus for all the things we value about civilization: art, medicine, education and so on; i.e. things that use energy but do not contribute directly to getting more energy or other resources. Whether we can say that such “discretionary energy” can come out of an EROImm of 3:1, or whether they require some kind of large surplus from that energy directed to more fundamental things such as transport and agriculture was something we thought we could answer in this paper but which has remained elusive for us thus far.”
In the YouTube video below, published in Nov 2012, titled “Peak Oil Postponed – Charles A.S. Hall”, Professor Hall presents from time interval 0:22:12, a graph titled “Society’s Hierarchy of ‘Energy Needs'”. Hall presented his findings that various activities need to have with a minimum ERoI (for conventional sweet crude oil) to sustain them:
1) To extract oil requires a minimum ERoI of 1.1:1
2) To extract & refine oil requires a minimum ERoI of 1.2:1
3) To extract, refine & transport the refined fuel for use requires a minimum ERoI of 3:1
4) To grow food with the transported fuel requires a minimum ERoI of 5:1
5) To support workers and their families requires a minimum ERoI of about 7 or 8:1
6) To support basic education for a society requires a minimum ERoI of about 9 or 10:1
7) To support healthcare for a society requires a minimum ERoI of about 12:1
8) To support arts, sport and leisure activities requires a minimum ERoI of about 14:1
Hall says ERoIs for 1) through 4) are “pretty solid” but get “increasingly squishy” the further up the hierarchy graph.
As long as ERoI remains below 6:1, industrial civilization is locked into a death spiral where an ever increasing fraction of its economic output (GDP) is spent on energy at the cost of an eroding standard of living.
Mox : ‘We imagine it will stop working eventually’. There are Roman bridges still carrying wheeled traffic, for example the Pons Fabricius in Rome (built 62 BC).. I imagine the potentially longest-lived useful structures are tunnels in stable rock, cf. caves.The Pyramids of Giza are only useful for specialised values of “useful”, like “wowing passers-by thousands of years after I’m dead.”
But James, what if they’re imperial bridges? Surely they should be replaced with modern metric bridges? And since the kilogramme and metre were just officially redefined, we should probably replace all the old-metric stuff: https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-11-16/the-definition-of-the-kilogram-is-about-to-change-heres-why/10502194
The issue is not just about a “simple” EROEI calculation. EROEI calculations, including an accounting all embedded energy, are not simple anyway but let us leave that aside. I have banged on before about the efficiency of an electrical economy versus that of a fossil fuel economy but I haven’t noticed that I have gained any understanding from others on this point. Here I go again.
An electric motor can be about 80% efficient in converting energy to useful work. In thermodynamics, the exergy of a system is the maximum useful work possible, extractable or available during a process. An internal combustion motor can be about 20% efficient in converting energy to useful work. These are approximations of course. If we take motors as suitable proxies, this suggests that an electrical economy theoretically could be about 4 times as efficient as a fossil fuel economy at extracting useful work.
If we get conservative and reduce the efficiency (exergy extraction) boon to just 2 times, this still suggests that an electrical economy running at an EROEI of 6 will do as much useful work as a fossil fuel economy running at an EROEI of 12. This is a significant issue. I wonder this time round if anyone will get my point? Maybe people have understood this point before but IIRC I have never had confirmation that anyone understands this point. Clearly, this exergy issue plays into the EROEI debate and improves the case for, via the empirical reality of, a renewable and fully electrical economy.
I think JQ’s post captures the essential limitation of EROI: without knowing whether a process is hard or easy (in terms of other resources), EROI gives you very little information about whether it is worthwhile. As long as EROI is considerably above 1, then a process might be able to power all of society if it doesn’t require much other investment, and can be performed quickly enough. Keep doing it until you have as much energy as you want.
Energy payback time seems more useful as an idea, and gets you towards dynamics. But a payback time of a year (for solar/wind or even nukes) is just telling you that you don’t face a real problem on that front. You could replace the whole energy system in a few years if that was the main limitation.
EROI and energy payback are largely a red herring: the real challenges, and the bulk of the money in the energy sector is storage, transport, and transformation of energy. Raw energy input is crucial but just not that scarce. The big job is delivering the right kind of energy, in the right place, and at the right time. And being able to use it. What is really needed is energy services, not energy per se: transport, not petrol.
Tangentially, on the matter of waste generated by renewables, I think they would have to make a LOT more waste to come anywhere close to the waste fossil fuels generate.
I’ve read estimates of 100,000 tons a year of solar panel waste per year in Australia by the time large scale use flows through to waste stream but Australian coal burning alone makes 12.5 million tons a year of heavy metals contaminated fly ash, ie 125x more fly ash waste than solar panel waste. And don’t forget the one this is all about; CO2 waste beats all by a huge margin, 5 times more than
ALL other waste put together – perhaps 1000x (?) solar panel waste in an Australia with very high levels of use.
Obviously that is not comprehensive – more waste is involved in solar than panels alone and more waste is involved in fossil fuels than fly ash but I think a shift to renewables will reduce – greatly reduce – waste streams, not increase them. Also recycling solar waste looks less problematic and achievable than dealing with fossil fuel waste. Certainly we are seeing the beginning of solar panel recycling and growing inclusion of pre-payment for eventual recycling being included in solar supply and sales and installation streams.
I do think arguments that a shift to renewables will make more waste than not shifting to renewables is facile and misleading – and hyped far beyond it’s real significance as one element of a broader anti-renewables campaign.
mrkenfabian: I assumed fossil fuels were being left out because they’re of historical interest only. Even the most pro-coal Liberals don’t seem able to build a new coal-fired power plant, hopefully because within the party there are enough sane people to shout them down.
The real discussion is between the few surviving terrestrial fission fans, the odd biomass/burn food enthusiast, and various forms of renewables. And EROEI of whatever form is just one factor that influences what we (want to) build. And it should also influence government policy in various areas as it affects those choices.
Ikonoclast (Re your comments at MARCH 9, 2021 AT 8:42 AM),
You state: “I have banged on before about the efficiency of an electrical economy versus that of a fossil fuel economy but I haven’t noticed that I have gained any understanding from others on this point.”
Perhaps you missed my comments here:
“Most of the embodied energy in fossil fuels is wasted as heat – circa two-thirds. Electrification, heat pumps, etc., dramatically reduce energy consumption and still do useful work.”
You also state:
“If we get conservative and reduce the efficiency (exergy extraction) boon to just 2 times, this still suggests that an electrical economy running at an EROEI of 6 will do as much useful work as a fossil fuel economy running at an EROEI of 12. This is a significant issue.”
I’d suggest doing a detailed ERoI analysis for an all-electric-based economy scenario is what is required to test that your assumptions are not significantly flawed. That’s a big task and I’m not remotely qualified. Perhaps someone qualified and with the necessary skills somewhere in the world is already looking at this very same issue?
What I think is missing to plug in to an ERoI analysis are meaningful data for mature replacement technologies for aviation, marine, long-distance road transport, agricultural equipment, etc. Lots of knowledge holes to fill.
all-electric-based economy scenario
One thing that peeves me about a lot of those analyses is the assumption that society will change in no way except for the electrification. And if something is obviously ridiculous using current electrical technology then the project cannot be undertaken or is doomed to fail.
The real questions are what else will change, and how that will affect this one project out of all the projects we’re undertaking during that.time. The cliche that 18 months ago no-one would have accepted a model that had an 80% drop in international flights is worth keeping in mind: the situation changed, and people changed their behaviour.
So if, for example, electric flight turns out to be short-haul, that doesn’t mean we have to keep driving fossil cars, or even flying fossil aircraft. It might instead mean that competition for long-haul travel switches to BOAC-style multihop flights vs cruise lines (or even airships), and the quarantine requirements mean that if groups of passengers isolate en route they spend less time locked up at their destination.
We may also have an answer to “but with current population” problems, given the vigour with which some countries are breeding more effective variants of the current pandemic.
OP: *** “(EREOI – 1)/$”
ERoEI for Beginners
Looking at my power bill, as one does, it seems fairly obvious that ~ half our consumption is for hot water yet that is charged separately, as in off peak.
It’s also bleedingly obvious that our solar production unit earns sfa, it’s this wholesale/retail thing all over again.
Our HW heater is nearing it’s recommended life span so, wary of sudden explosions and leakages, I checked out what’s on offer.
It seems that a heat pump water heater ticks all the boxes and more, it uses ¼ of the power and does so when the panels are operating at their peak.
All of a sudden the argument for 24/7 power lost its oompfth.
half our consumption is for hot water yet that is charged separately, as in off peak.
Annoyingly I’m roughly net zero and pay slightly more for off peak power than I get paid for the solar… but I can’t replace my resistive heater with a solar+boost without losing the off peak metering. So I either need to commit to solar hot water (cold shower on wet winter days), or pay full/peak rates for the boost.
Or, as you seem likely to do, put in a heat pump system (and set it to heat during the hot part of the day!)
I’m not sure how that could be addressed at a policy level, but from my engineering view a largely passive solar hot water system seems a lot more sensible than yet another heat pump with the reliability and recycling issues those have (solar HWS is largely separated bits of glass, copper and aluminium, heat pump is a mess of metals and plastics filled with gas).
akarog (Re your comment at MARCH 9, 2021 AT 6:13 PM),
You state: “Our HW heater is nearing it’s recommended life span so, wary of sudden explosions and leakages, I checked out what’s on offer.”
I’d suggest you don’t wait until your HWS fails, unless you want to replace it with like-for-like on the day it fails, or likely do without hot water for days/weeks while you are waiting for a different type of system to be installed.
You also state: “It seems that a heat pump water heater ticks all the boxes and more, it uses ¼ of the power and does so when the panels are operating at their peak.”
The Coefficient of Performance (CoP) for heat pumps varies at different ambient temperatures while operating. For example, the Sanden Eco® Plus model heat pump hot water unit is specified to have a CoP of 5.96 at 32.45 °C ambient air temperature and with 18.74 °C water inlet temperature. At an ambient air temperature of 0 °C the CoP apparently drops to less than 3. In my experience, the tank recharge time is significantly longer in winter (2¾ to 3¾ hours) compared with in summer (1½ to 2¾ hours).
Moz, a few options for conventional electric hot water for solar households:
1. Put your hot water system on a timer so it switches on during the day. (The smaller the heating element the more solar energy and less grid electricity it’s likely to use.)
2. Use a hot water diverter that will send only surplus solar energy to your hot water system. If your solar system is large enough this can mostly eliminate grid electricity use.
3. Use a relay that switches your hot water system on when there is sufficient surplus solar energy being exported to the grid.
Of these a timer is the cheapest and simplest. Another option is to get a heat pump hot water system. Their drawbacks are greater expense and lower reliability, but on the bright side they usually have a timer built in, so you can still get it to mainly switch on during the day.
Ronald, all of those options are covered by “cold shower on wet winter days” (and as you agree, can’t be connected to off peak power). The problem I would like addressed is buying grid power efficiently when there’s no solar input worth mentioning. If I’m willing to wait until the overnight low of grid prices why can’t I hook the boost element in my solar HWS up to that? It seems to be a regulation designed for 1950’s ripple control systems, and even then errs heavily on the side of “the state owned electricity company makes the rules, mere citizens are irrelevant”.
Moz, if you never want to use grid electricity for hot water I’m afraid the only choice is to have a large enough solar system to meet your needs even on cloudy winter days. Even on the cloudiest of days solar will provide some power. While that may not be practical for your situation, as solar is continuing to fall in price, people are finding it worthwhile to install larger systems to help meet their own needs despite the general trend being for solar feed-in tariffs to fall. This does make shifting consumption to the middle of the day more important.
There is no particular reason why a hot water system couldn’t have an insulated lump of iron or other material that gets heated to 200 degrees when electricity is cheap and acts as a thermal storage to get through periods of poor solar output. Well, no reason other than cost, common sense, etc…
How are externalities factored in to EROI? Seems like a wicked problem. Where is the edge of knowns and how old is the data?
Does this quote indicate why you are debating EROI and how it will be used for dis / advantage?
…”The fundamental policy question is whether we want global markets that manipulate the presence of externalities to their advantage, or a policy regime that attempts to internalize them.” – Benjamin K. Sovacool, Jinsoo Kim, Minyoung Yang, who published last month,
“The hidden costs of energy and mobility: A global meta-analysis and research synthesis of electricity and transport externalities
“What is the range and scope of externalities associated with electricity supply, energy efficiency, and transport? What research methods and techniques of valuation does the community use to monetize these externalities? What policy implications arise in terms of better governing energy and mobility systems? To answer these questions, this study offers a comprehensive and global research synthesis of externalities for energy and mobility. It synthesizes data from 139 studies with 704 distinct estimates to examine the hidden social and environmental costs. The mean external cost for electricity supply is 7.15¢/kWh. When correlating this with the actual amount of electricity generated per year, the amount is $11.644 trillion. This likely exceeds both the reported revenues for electricity sales, oil and gas production as well as the levelized costs of energy. The mean external cost for mobility is 17.8¢/km. Using differentiated estimations of the externalities associated with aviation, road travel for passengers and freight, rail, and coastal water/marine modes of travel, transport’s global externalities amount to another $13.018 trillion. When combined, this $24.662 trillion in externalities for energy and transport is equivalent to 28.7% of global Gross Domestic Product. Energy efficiency or demand response by contrast has net positive externalities of approximately 7.8¢/kWh. When put into the context of global efficiency and demand management efforts, this approaches an annual positive value of $312 billion. The fundamental policy question is whether we want global markets that manipulate the presence of externalities to their advantage, or a policy regime that attempts to internalize them.”
“The missing trillions: The hidden cost of energy externalities
“The hidden social, environmental and health costs of the world’s energy and transport sectors is equal to more than a quarter of the globe’s entire economic output, new research from the University of Sussex Business School and Hanyang University reveals.
KT2, you’re getting perilously close to “what is the value of a rainbow” there. And the sticky, sticky question of whether the externalities should be valued by profit derived or the cost of remediation (where the latter can be many orders of magnitude larger). Or, even more profitably, the fines applied for breaches/the
bribespolitical donations required to evade the obligation?
Rio Tinto is currently trying to weasel completely out of their smelter pollution costs in Aotearoa and on past history the cost of that particular externality will be a tiny fine and a momentary decrease in corporate reputation. One example linked below. Of course, the remediation cost might be as trivial as shipping the accessible waste back to Australia for burial, or as enormous as returning the whole water table to its pre-smelter condition.
Googling on a related matter brought this post to my attention – thanks to John Quiggin for writing, and to the commentators for the thoughts.
I certainly won´t claim any expertise, but my understanding is that while the net energy analysis (NEA) is fairly simple in theory (EROI = Eout / Σ (Einv), where Eout = energy return, and Σ (Einv) = sum of all energy invested), it is a bit tricky in practice – many differing answers can be produced depending on system boundary, supply chain stage sampling, etc. (e.g. are you calculating EROIst, EROIpou, EROIext, etc.). Of course, for variable renewables (VREs) it becomes even more complex as one should include the ESOI (but then that is highly dependent on the selected system, assumed storage necessary, selected storage technology, etc.). In short, it would seem a little complicated to get an answer which “fully accounts”, so to speak (and as with many other things, the more one wishes to include, the larger the error bars tend to get).
I don´t know if this will help at all (and apologies if I am merely adding fuel to the fire!), but I´ve found the work by Capellán-Pérez et al. (1) rather interesting, as they make an attempt to undertake NEA while considering the impacts of implementation and VRE penetration (though, as they themselves note, such approaches must necessarily be caveated and the assumptions well understood). This sort of work seems useful, as it attempts to try to consider the total energy cost (as much as possible) while also trying to account for “rate of adoption, based on green growth scenarios”. I don´t suggest this as a final word on the topic, of course, but merely as a hopefully thought-provoking work for consideration.
One issue I think touched upon here is that everything is highly dependent on what sort of “energy system” (e.g. generation, transmission, storage, usage, etc.) you have in mind. For example, a scenario which relies on high levels of VRE penetration will, I suspect, look a bit different to those which do not. One which considers a mix of energy carriers will likely be different to one which is reliant on only one. Moreover, other queries (such as, for example, are you planning on nuclear acting as a permanent source of power generation, as a “transition technology”, or as something to be eliminated as soon as possible) also seem to be things which need to be considered, as they will likely impact the “manifold” (for want of a better term) of the NEA.
I do think that decoupling the physics from the economics makes a lot of sense – for while the monetary cost may be something which factors in the “final decision” (so to speak), I think it muddies a little any attempts to think what sort of energy system(s) is “optimal” from a purely technological perspective (and I´m always a little wary when this happens).
However, it seems likely that even a “good” calculation of NEA for one technology (though important) must still be carefully treated. As has been pointed out, it is tricky to compare EROI values from different supply chains (2), and the EROIpou should probably also be compared with respect to not only energy carriers, but also mixtures of functionally equivalent energy carriers as well. From this, my takeaway would be that NEA has the potential to be a powerful tool – but like all powerful tools, careful handling is required.
And as a final comment, it is also then quite critical to ensure that the “best values” (by which I mean most accurate, with the limitations and errors well defined) are used for all parts of the NEA. For example, I sometimes see ESOI values being used for technologies which are based on somewhat outdated evaluations (though again, it becomes even more complicated when one considers the effect that depth of discharge, environmental conditions, etc. may have) – e.g. “lead” evaluations seem to be frequently based on either traditional flooded or VRLA systems (3), rather than the ALC technologies “more recently” available in the market (this isn´t to criticise, but rather to point out the difficult and complex nature of such analyses, and that once established such information tends to propagate easily without necessarily being updated). Of course, it is worth noting that the specific example given here only becomes important if ESOIbat is a factor in your NEA – which again emphasises the importance of examination of the assumed system. In summary, it would seem that – given the potential impact on the NEA – the selection of data and assumptions made are also critical considerations for such analyses.
To try to summarise my (uninformed and non-expert) comment, this seems to me to be very important work, but somewhat daunting in terms of complexity, scope, and required nuanced understanding of a broad range of areas of expertise. I will be fascinated to see what the outcome will be, and what conclusions are drawn. Until then, I certainly wish John Quiggin good luck with this endeavor.
(1) Dynamic Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) and material requirements in scenarios of global transition to renewable energies, I. Capellán-Pérez et al., Energy Strategy Reviews (2019), 26, 100399
(2) Net energy analysis must not compare apples and oranges, M. Raugei, Nature Energy (2019), 4, 86
(3) On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage, C. J. Barnhart et al., EES (2013), 6, 1083
“How are externalities factored in to EROI?”
KT2, EROI is a physical concept. Externalities are factored in to EROI by various measuring methodologies. The methodology issue is controversial and far from settled as big money and thus politics are in play, BUT externalities (EROIExt) are factored solely in energy terms. It impacts on and is impacted by public health, the environmental, social, and economic, but those are externalities in another sense.
Re the articles and paper linked (johnquiggin.com/2021/03/08/energy-return-ratio-or-net-value/comment-page-1/#comment-234377)
– 1 March 2021 The missing trillions: The hidden cost of energy externalities by University of Sussex https://phys.org/news/2021-03-trillions-hidden-energy-externalities.html
– 18 February 2021 The hidden costs of energy and mobility: A global meta-analysis and research synthesis of electricity and transport externalities Benjamin K.Sovacool, Jinsoo Kim, Minyoung Yang, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629620304606
The OP calculation above, (EROI – 1)/$, is arrived at by way of a numerator consisting of real physical phenomena measured in SI units, and a denominator measured in funny money.
A search of the paper for eroi, eroei, eroeiext… finds nil. In a paper weighing everything heavily by funny money value concepts funnily enough a search for “return” also… finds nil. For the words energy, external—, on… find lots. For the word “investment” find 10 in funny money terms such as capital investment, efficiency investment, annual investment, global investment, BUT in energy terms of physical energy investment… find nil. If the scope of the “externalities” reviewed is not immediately understood from the title of the paper (it isn’t until the paper has been read) their Figure 1 graphic makes it plain the paper will not be concerned with EROI / EROIExt.
OP: “…I did the numbers for solar (including battery backup) and came to the conclusion that EROEI was at least 10 and therefore not a problem.”
– the energy-intensive component of a solar PV module is the polysilicon used to produce the wafer, which is produced using an electric furnace.
– a quick calculation shows that each watt of PV requires 2 KWh of electricity in production or about 1 year’s generation in a favorable location. So, for a panel with a 10-year lifetime, the EROEI is 10.
– The estimate omits the energy costs of the rest of the module, but that’s almost certainly more than offset by the conservative assumptions about polysilicon.
Is it though?
If the energetic costs of pv wafer production are actually only *57% of overall pv system production and installation the energetic costs of an installed system less those of the wafer are 75% of those for the wafer alone. Given the OP numbers above, then each watt of installed pv system requires 3.5KWh in production being 1.75 times that given for the wafer alone. So, for that installed pv system with a 10-year lifetime, the EROEI would be 10/1.75=5.7. Or for the OP numbers given above after adjustment an installed system net energy of 82.5% obtained from a typical energy cliff graph. The bleak figures for EROEI of 5.7 and net energy of 82.5% are about what is mostly seen quoted and as likely 43% or thereabouts closer to reality than the rosier figures of 10 and 91% respectively.
*See Supporting Information PDF, page7, Figure S2 graphic for Financial and Energy costs breakdowns of crystalline silicon PV system installation in: Dale Michael and Benson Sally M. (2013) Energy balance of the global photovoltaic (PV) industry – Is the PV industry a net electricity producer? Environmental Science and Technology, 47(7), 3482-3489, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3038824#
As the discussion seems to be focusing more on EROEI side of NEA, I hope no-one will be offended if I take the liberty of proffering some resources I have found interesting (merely in case any have not seen them before, but might find them of value).
In addition to the dynamic EROI analysis I mentioned earlier (1), I would also highlight a recent study of the current leading VREs in terms of EROIpou and EROIext (2). The importance of these estimations may further be put into context via a more general discussion of biophysical economics, which I think is quite a useful introduction and frames the issues nicely (3).
My understanding of all of this is that current analyses suggest if we are to transition to high RE+VRE penetration (within timeframes in keeping with the “green growth” scenario), we could see EROI drop as low as 4:1 – 2:1 due to the energy investment costs required for rapid development of infrastructure. This would seem to suggest that, while RE and most VRE offer EROIext > 1 (making them a net benefit, so to speak), a 100% RE+VRE system would seem unlikely to provide an EROIext sufficiently large to maintain a high “quality of life” level (to put it somewhat colloquially). This would seem to be reinforced by an attempt to assesses the potential wind+solar production in the EU which was found to be insufficient for a 100% RE system – in part due to the necessity of including ESOI (4).
While there are certainly many considerations for people interested in rapid decarbonisation of electricity generation (which is, of course, only about 26% of total GHG emissions – making it one problem of many to solve), the physics is probably one of the most significant things needing consideration. I think (based on what I´ve read) there are going to be some very hard choices in the near future, which I doubt most societies (if any) are well equipped to deal with.
In short, as attractive as green renewables are (and certainly they might well play a significant role), I see little evidence to support the idea that this will be a panacea in and of itself. However, I look forward to more in depth studies which will hopefully help shed some light on this.
(1) Dynamic Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) and material requirements in scenarios of global transition to renewable energies, I. Capellán-Pérez et al., Energy Strategy Reviews (2019), 26, 100399; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esr.2019.100399
(2) Standard, Point of Use, and Extended Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) from Comprehensive Material Requirements of Present Global Wind, Solar, and Hydro Power Technologies, C. de Castro et al., Energies (2020), 13, 3036; http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/en13123036
(3) Why ecological economics needs to return to its roots: The biophysical foundation of socio-economic systems, R. E. Melgar-Melgar et al., Ecological Economics (2020), 169, 106567; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106567
(not open access)
(4) Global potential of wind and solar energy with physical and Energy Return on Investment (EROI) constraints; application at the European level (EU 28 countries), E. Dupont et al., ECOS 2019; https://dial.uclouvain.be/pr/boreal/object/boreal:220138
The problem with EROEI and its children, EROEIxxx, is that they are exclusively the domain of energy pessimists/doomers. People who have been pessimistic about energy have spent the last 20 years being wrong about renewables in almost all ways possible. As a result, the EROEI people have ended up in an echo chamber, talking to each other; the rest of the energy community rolls their eyes.
So what you see in these articles is mostly a combination of zombie arguments. e.g.:
1) 100% Variable renewable energy systems will need to be massively overbuilt and need massive storage (e.g. mostly a straw man, sensible designs are not that difficult).
2) Space limitations mean e.g. Europe doesn’t have enough room for renewables (i.e. being rather pessimistic about how much land is available for PV and the potential for offshore wind).
3) A mix of very pessimistic assumptions about how long wind/solar arrays will last, and out of date estimates of e.g. PV energy input costs etc. Also, an assumption that this never gets better.
It is very hard to sustain the claim that renewables are not massively energy positive when they are the lowest cost form of new electricity generation (even just capital-cost-wise they are competitive). Also, in the near term, concerns about integrating renewables into the grid look overblown; there are places with ~50% variable renewable generation, with very little investment in storage or new transmission.
“It is very hard to sustain the claim that renewables are not massively energy positive when they are the lowest cost form of new electricity generation (even just capital-cost-wise they are competitive). Also, in the near term, concerns about integrating renewables into the grid look overblown; there are places with ~50% variable renewable generation, with very little investment in storage or new transmission.”
The electricity grid is only part of the energy mix.
Ben, where are the mature, “massively energy positive”, “lowest cost” replacement technologies for aviation, marine, long-distance heavy road transport, agricultural equipment, steel-making, concrete-making, etc.? These all need to be deployed at large-scale globally to displace ALL coal, fossil gas and petroleum oil combustion entirely in less than 20 years, preferably better within 10 years.
I think displacing oil entirely in the timeframe required will be the really tough nut to crack, and the clock’s ticking.
I’m not being ‘doomist’ – I’m highlighting the stark reality of the temporal, physical and economic challenges.
Meanwhile, we have governments (federal, state and local) that are still promoting and encouraging policies like a “gas-led recovery”, and approving/supporting more fossil fuel project developments and infrastructure dependent on them, despite all the compelling scientific (and increasingly economic) evidence not to do so.
The YouTube video below titled “Can flying go green? | The Economist”, published Feb 11, duration 0:08:07, highlights some of the big hurdles. And that’s just aviation.
“aviation, marine, long-distance heavy road transport, agricultural equipment, steel-making, concrete-making, etc.?” There’s no fundamental technical problem with electrifying marine AFAICT, just that its a bit more expensive and there has been no pressure on shipping companies to cut emissions. As you’re obviously aware, electrified rail is a very mature alternative to heavy road transport (leaving aside the fact that electric trucks are coming on the market). Fair to say that the alternatives aren’t mature in steel or concrete, but they certainly exist. Again, there’s a cost difference, but not a huge one.
Aviation is the only really intractable problem with current technology and (contrary to perceptions) doesn’t account for a large share of total emissions. The pandemic has shown us we can by with a lot less aviation than we have been used to.
I’m not arguing that wind/solar can solve all our CO2 problems by themselves.
The claim that is being made is: the capital-intensive nature of wind/solar makes widescale use of them to sustain a modern society impossible. But this is nonsense. First, it just isn’t more expensive than fossils in sectors that can be electrified. Electrifying land transport and space heating will massively reduce primary energy needs.
Also, primary energy production is just not occupying a lot of our resources and labor; the energy sector is 5% of so of GDP worldwide, and most of that is energy transformation and distribution. If the primary energy sector expanded by 50% over the next 30 years, that would be a rounding error; the trend anyway has been for it to get smaller in relative terms.
The kinds of lifestyles that moderately well-off Australians/USians are living are a testament to massive excesses in energy production. ‘Not enough energy’ is a spectacularly incorrect diagnosis of what is wrong with this bit of the world. Per-capita energy use is several times that of similarly well-off European countries.
The EROEIext people would have you believe that this kind of excess is somehow linked to the ability to support sophisticated culture and the arts. But in places like Australia/US it mostly just allows large inefficient houses and cars and unnecessary air travel. I guess that is a kind of “culture”…
“The claim that is being made is: the capital-intensive nature of wind/solar makes widescale use of them to sustain a modern society impossible. But this is nonsense. First, it just isn’t more expensive than fossils in sectors that can be electrified.”
I’m not arguing about the *easier* GHG emissions reduction solutions. There are great gains to be made, in terms of affordability and lowering GHG emissions.
What about those sectors that so far appear to be very difficult to be electrified, are energy intensive and contribute significant GHG emissions contributions? I’d suggest sectors like aviation, marine, long-distance heavy road transport, agricultural equipment, steel-making, concrete-making, etc., are critical for sustaining our modern society.
“Maritime transport is the backbone of international trade and the global economy. Around 80 per cent of global trade by volume and over 70 per cent of global trade by value are carried by sea and are handled by ports worldwide.”
Per Wikipedia “Environmental impact of shipping”:
“Of total global air emissions, shipping accounts for 18 to 30 percent of the nitrogen oxide and 9% of the sulphur oxides. Sulfur in the air creates acid rain which damages crops and buildings. …
Maritime transport accounts for 3.5% to 4% of all climate change emissions, primarily carbon dioxide.”
“Non-CO2 climate impacts mean aviation accounts for 3.5% of global warming
Aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, but it’s overall contribution to climate change is higher. This is because air travel does not only emit CO2: it affects the climate in a number of more complex ways.”
Re agriculture: from The Conversation article headlined “UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases”, published 8 Aug 2019:
“Emissions from land use, largely agriculture, forestry and land clearing, make up some 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Counting the entire food chain (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale) takes this contribution up to 29%.”
Cement production accounted for 7% of total global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018.
I reiterate, humanity needs to solve ALL the human-induced GHG emissions issues across ALL sectors and deploy measures effectively for rapid GHG reductions at large-scale in a timely manner, not just for the easier ones that you are referring to. I repeat, where are examples that demonstrate scalable, affordable, effective solutions? Please point to some GHG reduction solutions that you think can do the job and can be deployed at large-scale within the required timeframe for the following sectors:
* cement manufacture;
And I’d also suggest there’s an increasing risk of a global post- ‘peak oil’ world, if Figure 5 in Economics from the Top Down post titled “Peak Oil Never Went Away” continues to be sufficiently accurate. The aviation industry represents 7.8% of final oil consumption worldwide, while maritime shipping accounts for 6.7%. Less global oil supplies also threaten our currently configured modern society.
Your statement: “‘Not enough energy’ is a spectacularly incorrect diagnosis” IMO is just ‘hand waving’ if you are unable to highlight fossil fuel-free solutions for the more problematic sectors that are also critical for sustaining our modern society.
Geoff – Yes we are lagging, not helped by having elected an Australian Government that prioritises it – although that was not necessarily why people voted for them.
Despite significant contributions to better solar and better batteries by Australians we very much depend on the rest of the world doing the R&D and commercialisation for us – and that too has been less than needed. Bill Gates suggests quintupling clean energy R&D – and whilst I don’t think he has any special insights that one is probably on the money. But we are facing decisions about new and replacement generation every day; they are not future decisions awaiting tech advances any more.
I think we have crossed a tipping point on electricity – renewables have the market advantage now and look likely to strengthen their positions irrespective of policy. Better with clear policy.
Whether the storage, distribution, backup constraints prove intractable or not the growth in RE is forcing us to face them. I think that had the obstructors got their way and growth of solar and wind been deferred until those issues were proven not intractable it would have led to deferring the finding of those very solutions.
Waiting until we know for sure – as well as insisting we must know how much it will cost, when we can’t even know how much it will cost using fossil fuels – is a dishonest exercise in justifying lack of commitment. I think the only certainty on costs is that it will be more expensive – cumulatively and irreversibly more expensive – to fail to act.
EV’s – cars – are going to help, including by paving the way to doing road freight. Rail has enormous potential for low emissions freight, but I think not through the kinds of electrification that Australian urban commuter trains use. It needs the double container height corridors. Battery electric looks very doable to me, charging at station stops, but haven’t because they haven’t had to.
I suspect battery R&D has already exceeded Bill Gates’ target of quintupling, even over the last decade. I think that raises the odds of them being able to do the jobs we need them to do at reasonable cost. Not this year. By 2030? Seems unlikely, yet don’t these go slowly at first and then very quickly?
Of course if the bottom line is “only reduce emissions where it is cheaper than not reducing emissions – with climate costs excluded” we are using cheating as well as economic alarmist fear to justify being laggard. Can’t our body politic just grow up a bit?
If we really wanted to we could roll out NiFe batteries across much of the rich world right now, and compensate for their (relatively) rapid self-discharge with more solar one the roofs of our oversized mcmansions. The reason for that technology is that the materials are cheap, the technology is mature, and they’re non-flammable and relatively non-toxic (do not eat!).
But we don’t, because we’re not *that* desperate for electricity storage… we still have grandchildren to burn. Or in the case of some of the younger politicians, children… “don’t be afraid, the conversion from coal power to child power is straightforward” (didn’t the English have treadwheels in their poorhouses?).
ERoI plain and simple? Or ERoI flavoured?
Svante. Thanks. I appreciate your input. I had assumed someone would say as you did “KT2, EROI is a physical concept.”.
I was accepting of ‘eroi’ plain & physical. Yet seeing JQ grappling, I looked again and realised something else is going on too.
JQ said “An EROEI criterion would make sense if we had a fixed amount of energy available as input to new energy generation and didn’t care about market costs.”
So the tablet hasn’t been delivered from the mountain yet.
Who doesn’t care about market costs? Inventors. That’s about it. Happy to be corrected.
ERoI yes, but it seems many flavours, favours and boundaries make eroi a useful statistic, messy, and but as I quoted and agree with, ERoI doesn’t answer: “”The fundamental policy question is whether we want global markets that manipulate the presence of externalities to their advantage, or a policy regime that attempts to internalize them.” – Benjamin K. Sovacool, Jinsoo Kim, Minyoung Yang.
It is policy and eroi and society and time and feedbacks and “markets that manipulate the presence of externalities to their advantage”. So messy eroi+++….
From ^2. below, these analyses may be beneficial to break out / include in eroi of ‘project’ and / or ‘society’
– “fractional re-investment  or
– energy proﬁt ratio.”
Whereas ^1. below wants to use eroi as: “We suggest that EROI studies use either equation five or six to adjust energy data by the quality of fuel types, noting the assumptions and limitations of each method.”
At boundary level ‘just energy’ 1 eroi = eroi. But at a higher level, over time, how are the well heads and roads and etc produced? Someone finances them. Bernie Madoff, or T-bills at 0%/30yrs? At what discount rate, with what tax break, at what quality delivered to whom when and where? So as may be seen in ^1. below, several boundaries, add-ons and a base – “Since most EROI analyses account for both direct and indirect energy and material inputs, we have deemed this boundary to be the “standard EROI,” and assigned it the name EROIstnd.” And “If both labor and environmental costs in addition to indirect costs are considered then you can write EROI1,i + lab + env and so on. The important thing is to make what you include very clear.”^1.
I favour a straight physical eroi. And using ^2. recommendations for profit, society etc. But THEN someone will combine them! JQ?
And I also understand and agree with Moz in Oz @ 4:42 PM – “”KT2, you’re getting perilously close to “what is the value of a rainbow” there””. (! See rainbowcoin!)
My “what about externalities”, and Moz in Oz AT 4:42 PM still need an answer imo – “And the sticky, sticky question of whether the externalities should be valued by profit derived or the cost of remediation (where the latter can be many orders of magnitude larger). Or, even more profitably, the fines applied for breaches/the bribes political donations required to evade the obligation?”
“Order from Chaos: A Preliminary Protocol for Determining the EROI of Fuels
“We do this by addressing four areas that are of particular interest and uncertainty within EROI analysis: (1) system boundaries, (2) energy quality corrections, (3) energy-economic conversions, and (4) alternative EROI statistics.”
“Fundamentally, the fact that fuels have different prices per joule indicates that factors other than heat content are valued by energy consumers. Given the aforementioned shortcomings, prices produce quality weights for fuels that can be used to adjust energy data for differences in quality . We suggest that EROI studies use either equation five or six to adjust energy data by the quality of fuel types, noting the assumptions and limitations of each method.
“4. Deriving Energy Intensities from Economic Data
“Often, the only data available, or available for free, for capital equipment and other energy or material inputs is economic data. Because of this, there is often a need to convert dollars to energy units. The most straightforward method is to use an energy intensity value, i.e., a value reported in units of energy per dollar (ex. joules per dollar). Which energy intensity value should be used is a more difficult question to answer
“In most cases, we believe that omitting data because it uses dollars instead of energy units creates more error than including that data via an energy intensity conversion. Many of the papers in this special issue explore uncertainties associated with these values through sensitivity analysis.
“2.2. An Example of Multiple Boundary EROI Analysis…
Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of Solar PV: An Attempt at Reconciliation [Point of View]
…”IV Conclusions & Recommendations
…”Additionally, EROI analysts aiming at goals (A) and (B) may do well to take a lead from ﬁnancial analysts who calculate the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE).
“Adopting similar methodologies, system boundaries and accounting similar costs would facilitate both inter-technology comparison of EROI values as well as inclusion of EROI with other performance metrics (e.g. LCOE, water use or GHG emissions) to allow for multi-dimensional assessment of technologies.
“We also recommend transparency on the part of analysts when presenting EROI results, to emphasize the level (project or ‘society’) at which an analysis was conducted, and caution on the part of readers when comparing the results from such studies.
“On a personal note, the ﬁrst author would like to see the term “EROI” dispensed with when discussing ‘societal’ level analyses, to avoid both confusion with project level analyses and attempts to directly compare the results. For a society composed of projects that have a lifetime of more than one year (which is generally the case, especially for industrial societies!), it is unclear in what sense the “return” in any one year is due to the “investments” in that same year. There are, however, other metrics (or alternative names for the same metric) which more accurately reﬂect the dynamic nature of such an analysis, for example, fractional re-investment  or energy proﬁt ratio.”
Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of Solar PV: An Attempt at Reconciliation [Point of View]
Thanks all. I don’t have the answers but I’ve learnt alot. Very poor productivity tho, as I foolishly expected eroi would be lockedndown or an ISO std.
Really storage is only a small part of the problem, ~90% of the energy will be served “fresh” from renewables.
Demand response (EVs, and things like electricity-to-fuel/fertiliser) and conventional hydro play just as important a role as batteries (or pumped hydro) in most future grid designs.
Storage is also not doing much heavy lifting until way higher proportions of wind/solar on the grid (i.e. well above SA levels of ~60%).
Geoff: I’m really just addressing the question JQ was talking about in the OP, of whether there is a “net energy problem” with wind/solar (there is not).
Probably worth noting that emissions from agriculture are mostly not to do with energy at all.
The longest off grid stretch of Australian highway is something like 1,800 km. The claimed range of the Tesla electric semi is 800 km. That’s 2 semi/battery changes. It’s not as if there’s no solar resources to make use of out there. What’s going to be cheaper? Diesel tankers hauling diesel or solar panels?
Ben McMillan (Re your comment at MARCH 14, 2021 AT 7:44 PM),
You state: “I’m really just addressing the question JQ was talking about in the OP, of whether there is a “net energy problem” with wind/solar (there is not).”
Abundance of energy is not the problem – it’s everywhere. A quick google search suggests: “In a single hour, the amount of energy from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in an year.”
The problem lies in having it in a FORM (that’s apparently not reliant on higher ERoI fossil fuels) to do certain types of USEFUL WORK for critical sectors like aviation, marine, long-distance heavy road transport, agricultural equipment, steel-making, concrete-making, etc.
Ben, it seems to me you are highlighting the *easier* technologies – and I make it clear that I’m not disparaging you for that – but you appear to be dismissing/ignoring the more difficult challenges that are also critical for sustaining our modern society – I’d suggest you are perhaps one of many people doing that.
My point is we/humanity need to cover ALL aspects of our modern society re energy/climate mitigation solutions; not just the easier ones. But that doesn’t mean we should hold off on transitioning to the easier solutions – we need to do so ASAP, while working on solutions for the more problematic areas in anticipation of finding timely solutions. There’s no time to waste.
You also state: “Probably worth noting that emissions from agriculture are mostly not to do with energy at all.”
I’d suggest it’s a bit difficult for our modern civilisation to survive without agriculture/food. GHG emissions from agriculture are substantial, and if we can’t rapidly reduce them, then agriculture and food supplies are at risk of diminishing.
Geoff: You seem to have repeated the same list of supposedly intractable problems, ignoring responses. This is, sadly, the norm for idees fixes. I’ll repeat the point that rail can replace road, and spell out some of the points I thought you would be aware of if you were keeping track, rather than restating beliefs you arrived at some time ago.
As I mentioned, the technology for carbon free steel isn’t yet in operation on a commercial scale, but it’s only a few years away https://stockhead.com.au/energy/swedens-h2-green-steel-plant-is-4bn-green-giant-fuelled-by-hydrogen/
Cement maybe a little further off, but there are lots of ideas on what to do
and some actual products
Ben McMillan – “The claim that is being made is: the capital-intensive nature of wind/solar makes widescale use of them to sustain a modern society impossible. But this is nonsense.”
No, that is not the claim. It is not their current capital-intensive nature. It is the relatively quite low net energy gain.
BM – “Also, primary energy production is just not occupying a lot of our resources and labor; the energy sector is 5% of so of GDP worldwide, and most of that is energy transformation and distribution. If the primary energy sector expanded by 50% over the next 30 years, that would be a rounding error; the trend anyway has been for it to get smaller in relative terms.”
If indeed the energy sector share of GDP (mixing physical phenomena and funny money again) is 5% it is because of large financial and other subsidies, and because the net energy available to start with is reasonably cheap because it is available in great abundance because the energy gathering technologies used up to date have high EROEI.
BM – “The kinds of lifestyles that moderately well-off Australians/USians are living are a testament to massive excesses in energy production.”
No, it is due to the excess net energy gain on the energy consumed by the required energy gathering activities.
BM – “‘Not enough energy’ is a spectacularly incorrect diagnosis of what is wrong with this bit of the world. Per-capita energy use is several times that of similarly well-off European countries.”
It all holds for just as long as the current local and global energy regimes hold. We are past peak oil!
BM – “The EROEIext people would have you believe that this kind of excess is somehow linked to the ability to support sophisticated culture and the arts.”
Not too sure what you exactly mean by “sophisticated” (film, tv, lighting, digital/crypto NFT art?), but quite a few ancient civilizations through to early modern times certainly had sophisticated culture and arts but limited for the most part to their elite classes due to the low net energy produced by the energy gathering technology those societies relied on, ie., human and animal muscle power with a dash of wind and water here and there. At its peak Roman civilization ran on an EROEI of <2.7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_return_on_investment#Economic_influence
BM – "But in places like Australia/US it mostly just allows large inefficient houses and cars and unnecessary air travel. I guess that is a kind of “culture”…"
In that respect there is no difference between the modern and those earlier times in that the elite classes always have more of whatever "culture" and/or culture is available at the time. The greater number of energy slaves at their command furnishes them greater lifestyles.
JQ: – “You seem to have repeated the same list of supposedly intractable problems, ignoring responses.”
Do you mean your responses? IMO, you are not offering substance/detail. I was hoping you had more to offer to support your statements.
JQ: – “I’ll repeat the point that rail can replace road, and spell out some of the points I thought you would be aware of if you were keeping track, rather than restating beliefs you arrived at some time ago.”
It’s not people like me, who are receptive to the view that rail needs to become the dominant mode of land transport, that you need to convince. What studies/roadmaps/plans can you point to that you think would contain compelling arguments for a change in the mindsets of our political, business and media leaders to support your statement that “rail can replace road”? What can you offer to counter arguments like those put, for example, by a report published by The Grattan Institute titled “Fast train fever: Why renovated rail might work but bullet trains won’t”, dated May 2020? The Grattan report includes:
“It’s true that a 2013 feasibility study concluded that the benefits of a Melbourne-to-Brisbane bullet train would greatly outweigh its costs. But it is unlikely that this would be the finding of a rigorous independent study now. That’s because the 2013 result was skewed by a cherry-picked discount rate, by ignoring the question of how to pay the enormous costs of construction, and because the study was done before the decision was made to build a second Sydney airport.”
I note that the NSW Government appointed a panel, headed by British high speed rail expert Professor Andrew McNaughton, to assess and prepare a report for the government on how a fast rail network could best be delivered in NSW. As I understand it, a report was presented to the NSW Government about mid last year, but as far as I’m aware, has not been made public – it’s apparently still being “reviewed”.
JQ: – “As I mentioned, the technology for carbon free steel isn’t yet in operation on a commercial scale, but it’s only a few years away”
Thanks for the link. The “carbon free steel” technologies are encouraging, but IMO they are not demonstrative yet of being sufficiently mature to enable a rapid large-scale rollout. Humanity cannot afford any hiccups.
JQ: – “Cement maybe a little further off, but there are lots of ideas on what to do”
Ideas are great, but the question is: Can these ideas translate into effective, timely solutions? IMO, it looks uncertain.
IMO, the real problem is that governments, businesses and media aren’t even acknowledging there’s an urgent challenge.
Ben McMillan, this comment was made prior to my last…
Ben McMillan – “I think JQ’s post captures the essential limitation of EROI: without knowing whether a process is hard or easy (in terms of other resources), EROI gives you very little information about whether it is worthwhile.”
EROEI gives the information on the resource of primary importance, ie., energy. Any other considerations and resources are of secondary import, and below. It’s physics – thermodynamics. The game is to support a desired outcome from the application of energy, in this case the outcome is a given society. If there is insufficient net energy produced from whatever energy gathering system employed the game is over. Either it’s over, or the outcome desired needs be lowered or restructured to one achievable on the net energy available. Such is life no matter the quantity or quality of other resources, including funny money, and any of those brought to bear are calculable as energy too.
BM – “As long as EROI is considerably above 1, then a process might be able to power all of society”
If you mean what maybe 25% of current global population per status quo contemporary advanced industrial developed societal measure, sure, if EROEI is well into double digits, and if it comes soon – real soon. For a majority of the global population, or for lower and single digit values of EROEI, forget it.
BM – “People who have been pessimistic about energy have spent the last 20 years being wrong about renewables in almost all ways possible. As a result, the EROEI people have ended up in an echo chamber, talking to each other; the rest of the energy community rolls their eyes.”
You conflate many different things there about energy generally by conflating all energy with electricity generation, by lumping all renewables together, by lumping all fields of energy studies together, and including loads of voices coming from varying backgrounds and positions on energy – many of those with vested interests in fossils/nukes talking of intermittency, base loads, reliability and so on – with a smaller cohort who are actually concerned with EROEI and specifically renewables EROEI.
The voices in that EROEI field are certainly not in an echo chamber as by definition internal controversy in the field rules that out. Here is one controversy of import:
Over the last 20 years concerning EROEI for various renewables there are the long term professional realists (possibly those denigrated as pessimists), and the late term optimists connected with exponential growth of vested industrial, financial, and political interests. The latter give rise to misleading numbers like those linked by the OP.
Those old fossils spin and inflate the number of jobs in coal and coal-fired electricity generation. But as the EROEI for coal is in excess of 30 society has in fact gotten by with relatively few involved in coal associated energy gathering work. Something rather similar has been the case for oil. This cannot be the case for PV renewables with an EROEI <7 partially supplemented by wind with EROEI <20.
BM – "It is very hard to sustain the claim that renewables are not massively energy positive when they are the lowest cost form of new electricity generation (even just capital-cost-wise they are competitive)."
Ben, it's apples and oranges you have there: the physical measure counted with funny money. Counted in energy terms, including the money converted to honest energy terms, renewables are not positive enough to sustain the requirements of even a contemporary developed industrial society let alone high hopes for its improvement and extension in future.
Will we suffer sensibly and smartly winding society down to much simpler requirements under a lower net available energy regime, or will we suffer the consequences of maintaining the current regime set on producing ghg well beyond 2050 or so and what that choice implies no matter the rosy spin put on net zero talk fest emissions targets?
The "Renewable Energy cheaper than Coal" (RE<C) Google.org project run from 2007 to 2011 and targeting a 55% emission cut by 2050 found that without some genius utterly new out-of-the-box totally carbon free technologies, for both energy generation and atmospheric carbon capture and sequestration, current RE technologies cannot prevent the coming climate crunch no matter how well they may be projected to radically improve and be rapidly implemented. Google pulled the plug on the research project after digesting Hansen et al's 2008 paper, notably the included graph: spectrum.ieee.org/img/googleIllo01b300px-1416000738701.jpg
Perhaps radically simpler living could avoid much of that coming climate crunch. The rub is, whether by falling further down the EROEI energy cliff or being run down by the global climate crunch, radically simpler living for
mostall people is what is coming at current and commonly projected future population sizes.
It seems Andrew Forrest sees the urgency. AFR article published yesterday afternoon (Mar 15) by Brad Thompson headlined “Forrest to turn Fortescue green by 2030” includes:
“Australia’s richest man said on Monday that Fortescue revised target was operational carbon neutrality by 2030, brought forward by 10 years, and well ahead of the 2050 targets set by iron ore mining rivals Rio Tinto and BHP.
To achieve the target Fortescue will develop green electricity, green hydrogen and green ammonia projects in Australia through its wholly owned subsidiary Fortescue Future Industries.”
Bruce Robertson (IEEFA) was discussing yesterday’s announcement with Brooke Corte on Money News yesterday evening, total duration 7:27 (including 30 sec advert at beginning and more at end).
Svante: the problems of rapidly winding down our use of energy services appear considerably greater than those of increasing energy efficiency and replacing carbon with renewables. I haven’t seen any plan relying primarily on reduced energy use that amounts to more than handwaving. Is there one?
As regards the 2007 to 2011 study you mention, it ought to be easy enough to check its estimated time path against actual outcomes from 2011 to 2021. Has this been done?
JQ’s argument in the original post really nails it explaining why EROEI isn’t interesting by itself as long as it is greater than one.
If all you have to do to turn one unit of fuel into two is wave a wand (i.e., the process otherwise requires few inputs) you have a process that can power the world, but has an EROEI of 2. You just keep waving that wand.
The basic mistake is thinking that you can understand the economics of energy while only talking about energy; the binding constraints are actually the other resources.
JQ, unfortunately at the upper levels of society where it could matter, other than in some military quarters, the power of the myth of infinite growth apparently renders it unthinkable. At the grass roots level some make their own small plans for living well on less available energy just as certain individuals apprehensive of the coming climate crunch pull up stumps and move themselves to locations that may be initially affected less severely.
The links concerning the Google study I placed at the bottom of that comment did not go through. I’ll try again. Mind, it is not the actual study, but a 2014 article about it by the principles who ran the project. I think their reasons for ending it still hold. Some things of course have changed for the better, such as wind and solar but not by much and as likely less than they projected, The target they set was high but less than the current net zero put it off to the future talk fest. Atmospheric CO2 has jumped likely more than they projected up to now and will continue to rise likely more than they projected. And the shocking import of Hansen et al’s findings for the long term levels of Atmospheric CO2 have not changed.
Three links! Again they did not go through. I’ve no idea why. WordPress vs Google? I’ll try just one and without the prefix..
What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change
Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us. So what will?
“…Google officially ended the initiative and shut down the related internal R&D projects. Ultimately, the two of us were given a new challenge. Alfred Spector, Google’s vice president of research, asked us to reflect on the project, examine its underlying assumptions, and learn from its failures.
…We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.”
Hansen, J., M. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D.L. Royer, and J.C. Zachos, 2008: Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J., 2, 217-231, doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217.
Aha, this was the blocker. I’ll break up the url. In any case the link is in the Spectrum article.
Google’s Goal: Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal
googlepress. blogspot. com/2007/11/ googles-goal-renewable-energy-cheaper_27.html
Ben, Rome had an EROEI of 2.7. Good luck in that future.
The basic mistake is in conceiving the other resource inputs, including the financial, as some kind of thing altogether separate from energy inputs. All input measures are convertible to an energy measure and for EROEI are calculated in energy terms.