Tags: collapse* + eroi* + renewables*

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  1. 10,000 years ago, a hunter-gatherer needed about 5,000 kcal per day to get by. A New Yorker today, once all the systems, networks and gadgets of modern life are factored in, needs about 300,000 kilocalories a day That’s a difference in energy needed for survival, between simple and complex lives, of 60 times – and rising. Does that sound like a resilient trend?

    The world is not in danger of running completely out of oil. A lot of oil and gas remain in the ground and under the sea. But those reserves cannot drive growth with the same gusto as before. Today’s thermo-industrial economy grew using oil that, if it did not literally gush out of the ground, was easily extracted using oil-powered machines. In 1930, for the investment of one barrel of oil in extraction efforts, 100 barrels of surplus or net energy were obtained for economic use. Since then, that happy ratio has declined ten-fold or more.

    The calamitous decline in net energy is one reason renewables are not the solution. Green energy strategies suffer from an existential flaw: They take ‘global energy needs’ as a given, calculate the quantity of renewable energy sources needed to meet them – and then ignore the fact that it takes energy to obtain energy. In Spain, for example, the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROI) of their huge solar photovoltaic intallations is a very low 2.45 despite that country’s ideal sunny climate.

    Our capacity to think clearly about energy is further handicapped by driving blind. In most economic activities, the energy that you can measure – such as the electricity used by buildings, or in an industrial process – is only one part of the picture. A new technique called Systems Energy Assessment (SEA) estimates the many energy uses, that businesses rely on, that are hidden. Phil Henshaw, who developed SEA, describes as “dark energy” the four fifths of actual energy useage that conventional metrics fail to count.

    Eighty percent at five percent

    When pressed, technical experts I have spoken to tell me that for our world to be ‘sustainable’ it needs to endure a ‘factor 20 reduction’ in its energy and resource metabolism – to five percent of present levels. At first I believed, doomily, that Factor 20 was beyond reach. Then, by looking outside the industrial world’s tent, I realised that for eighty per cent of the world’s population, five per cent energy is their lived reality today – and it does not always correspond to a worse life.

    Take as an example, healthcare. In Cuba, where food, petrol and oil have been scarce for of 50 years as a consequence of economic blockades, its citizens achieve the same level of health for only five per cent of the health care expenditure of Americans. In Cuba’s five percent system, health and wellbeing are the properties of social ecosystems in which relationships between people in a real-world local context are mutually supportive. Advanced medical treatments are beyond most people’s reach – but they do not suffer worse health outcomes.

    Another example of five per cent systems that sustain life is food. In the industrial world, the ratio of energy inputs to the food system, relative to calories ingested, is 12:1. In cities, up to 40 percent of their ecological impact can be attributed to their food and water systems – the transportation, packaging, storage, preparation and disposal of the things we eat and drink .

    In poor communities, where food is grown and eaten on the spot, the ratio is closer to 1:1.

    My favourite five percent example – a recent one – concerns urban freight. In modern cities, enormous amounts of energy are wasted shipping objects from place to place. An example from The Netherlands: Of the 1,900 vans and trucks that enter the city of Breda (pop: 320,000) each day, less than ten percent of the cargo being delivered really needs to be delivered in a van or truck; 40 percent of van-based deliveries involve just one package. An EU-funded project called CycleLogistics calculates that 50 percent of all parcels delivered in EU cities could be delivered by cargo bike.

    According to ExtraEnergy’s tests over several years, an average pedelec uses an average of 1kWh per 100km in electricity. Once all system costs are included, a cargo cycle can be up to 98 percent cheaper per km than four-wheeled, motorised alternatives. Some e-bikers reckon that electric bikes can have a smaller environmental footprint even than pedal-only bicycles when the energy costs of the food needed to power the rider are added.
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  2. There are three more reasons why I think an industrial economy like the present-day US-American one solely driven by so-called clean renewable energies– if the idea can at all be materialized –will be neither free from CO2 emission, nor generally pollutions-free, nor sustainable. I have in the past published several texts presenting my reasons for thinking so.8 There is therefore no need to fully repeat them. Here is only a very short gist of my argumentation:
    (1) The "clean energies" (mostly electricity, but also biofuels) may be a little cleaner than energy from fossil fuel sources, but they are not 100 percent emissions-and-pollution-free. For all equipments – solar panels, wind turbines, cables etc. etc. – used at any stage in the process of generating and distributing "clean energies", in fact any kind of energy, are manufactured by means of machines and factories that are driven mainly (though not solely) by either coal-based energy or nuclear energy, which emit CO2 and radioactive particles respectively.
    (2) All protagonists of 100 percent "clean energy" simply assume that solar and wind energy plants yield an amount of net energy – i.e. a surplus over the whole amount of energy that was consumed for manufacturing and building them) – that justifies their commercial deployment. In other words, their EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) is sufficiently positive. But there is considerable doubt about that.8 I shall take up this point once more below.
    (3) They simply ignore the difference, first pointed out in 1978 by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen9, between feasibility and viability. He maintained till 1994, the year he passed away, that solar-electricity technology was of course feasible, but not viable. Also TCM's Victory Plan2, despite its other merits, contains these last two errors. I shall come back to this point below.
    Tags: , , by M. Fioretti (2016-10-14)
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  3. It is true that you can find a few studies (very few) that look serious (perhaps) and that maintain that PV has a low EROI. However, in a recent study, Bhandari et al. (1)⁠ surveyed 231 articles on photovoltaic technologies, finding that, under average Southern European irradiation, the mean EROI of the most common PV technology (polycrystalline Si) is about 11-12. Other technologies (e.g. CdTe) were found to have even better EROIs. Maybe these values are still lower than those of some fossil fuels, but surely not much lower (if they are lower) and a far cry from the legend of the "EROI smaller than one" that's making the rounds on the Web.

    Then, if you are worried about another common legend, the one that says that PV cells degrade rapidly, think that those of the plant described at the beginning of this article were found to be still working after 30 years of operation, having lost just about 10% of their initial efficiency! In addition, consider that the most common kind of cells use only common elements of the earth's crust: silicon and aluminum (and a little silver, but that's not essential). What more can you ask from a technology that's efficient, sustainable, and long lasting?

    All that doesn't mean that a world powered by renewable energy will come for free. On the contrary, it will take a very large financial effort if we want to create it before it is too late to avoid a climate disaster (quantitative calculations here). But a better world is possible if we really want it.
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  4. Debt is a key factor in creating an economy that operates using energy.

    A generally overlooked problem of our current system is the fact that we do not receive the benefit of energy products until well after they are used. This is especially the case for energy used to make capital investments, such as buildings, roads, machines, and vehicles. Even education and health care represent energy investments that have benefits long after the investment is made.

    The reason debt (and close substitutes) are needed is because it is necessary to bring forward hoped-for future benefits of energy products to the current period if workers are to be paid. In addition, the use of debt makes it possible to pay for consumer products such as automobiles and houses over a period of years. It also allows factories and other capital goods to be financed over the period they provide their benefits. (See my post Debt: The Key Factor Connecting Energy and the Economy.)

    When debt is used to move forward hoped-for future benefits to the present, oil prices can be higher, as can be the prices of other commodities. In fact, the price of assets in general can be higher. With the higher price of oil, it is possible for businesses to use the hoped-for future benefits of oil to pay current workers. This system works, as long as the price set by this system doesn’t exceed the actual benefit to the economy of the added energy.

    The amount of benefits that oil products provide to the economy is determined by their physical characteristics–for example, how far oil can make a truck move. These benefits can increase a bit over time, with rising efficiency, but in general, physics sets an upper bound to this increase. Thus, the value of oil and other energy products cannot rise without limit.

    Research involving Energy Returned on Energy Investment (EROEI) ratios for fossil fuels is a frequently used approach for evaluating prospective energy substitutes, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Unfortunately, this ratio only tells part of the story. The real problem is declining return on human labor for the system as a whole–that is, falling inflation adjusted wages of non-elite workers. This could also be described as falling EROEI–falling return on human labor. Declining human labor EROEI represents the same problem that fish swimming upstream have, when pursuit of food starts requiring so much energy that further upstream trips are no longer worthwhile.

    If our problem is a shortage of fossil fuels, fossil fuel EROEI analysis is ideal for determining how to best leverage our small remaining fossil fuel supply. For each type of fossil fuel evaluated, the fossil fuel EROEI calculation determines the amount of energy output from a given quantity of fossil fuel inputs. If a decision is made to focus primarily on the energy products with the highest EROEI ratios, then our existing fossil fuel supply can be used as sparingly as possible.

    If our problem isn’t really a shortage of fossil fuels, EROEI is much less helpful. In fact, the EROEI calculation strips out the timing over which the energy return is made, even though this may vary greatly. The delay (and thus needed amount of debt) is likely to be greatest for those energy products where large front-end capital expenditures are r
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  5. In a finite world, we are reaching many limits besides fossil fuels:

    Soil quality–erosion of topsoil, depleted minerals, added salt
    Fresh water–depletion of aquifers that only replenish over thousands of years
    Deforestation–cutting down trees faster than they regrow
    Ore quality–depletion of high quality ores, leaving us with low quality ores
    Extinction of other species–as we build more structures and disturb more land, we remove habitat that other species use, or pollute it
    Pollution–many types: CO2, heavy metals, noise, smog, fine particles, radiation, etc.
    Arable land per person, as population continues to rise

    Green technology (including renewables) can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system.

    A major reason why green technology can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system relates to Pitfalls 1 through 3. New devices, such as wind turbines, solar PV, and electric cars aren’t very scalable because of high required subsidies, depletion issues, pollution issues, and other limits that we don’t often think about.

    A related reason is the fact that even if an energy product is “renewable,” it needs long-term maintenance. For example, a wind turbine needs replacement parts from around the world. These are not available without fossil fuels. Any electrical transmission system transporting wind or solar energy will need frequent repairs, also requiring fossil fuels, usually oil (for building roads and for operating repair trucks and helicopters).

    The problem we have is that statements about green energy are often overly optimistic. Cost comparisons are often just plain wrong–for example, the supposed near grid parity of solar panels is an “apples to oranges” comparison. An electric utility cannot possibility credit a user with the full retail cost of electricity for the intermittent period it is available, without going broke. Similarly, it is easy to overpay for wind energy, if payments are made based on time-of-day wholesale electricity costs. We will continue to need our fossil-fueled balancing system for the electric grid indefinitely, so we need to continue to financially support this system.
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  6. In short, the economy of Italy seem to be declining as a consequence of the increasing cost (or - equivalently - declining energy returns, EROEI) of primary energy sources, mainly natural gas and crude oil. If such is the case, decline is irreversible. The only possibility to avoid this outcome is to decouple the economy from non renewable resources, generating energy using renewable on
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  7. These downgrades are yet another example of the failure of mainstream economic models to keep up with the real nature and pace of global economic deterioration. Indeed, missing from the above analyses is recognition of a central factor: that the productivity gains driving industrial growth were enabled by the abundance of cheap fossil fuels and other resources.

    In his latest newsletter, legendary fund manager Jeremy Grantham - who made billions predicting every major stock market bubble of recent decades - warns that cheap resources are history:

    "Our global economy, reckless in its use of all resources and natural systems, shows many of the indicators of potential failure that brought down so many civilisations before ours."

    Industrial civilisation is currently "completely dependent on the availability of cheap energy." Therefore, resource depletion combined with "the wild cards of rising temperatures, slowly rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and, above all, destabilised weather for farming" could lead to "a rolling collapse of much of civilisation" - unless the world embarks on a "Manhattan project level of commitment" to transition to an alternative energy and agricultural system.
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  8. Fracking probably holds the global economy together long enough for cheap solar to take over by 2020
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