Low Energy Return Will Not Cause a Collapse

A scenario where a modern society could collapse is if the energy returned from new energy sources drops below critical levels. Clearly, if you spend more energy to build a new reactor or solar farm than what the reactor produces overs its lift then your society will start a downward spiral and produce less and less energy. This is where energy out divided by energy in is less than one. Also, if the energy output divided by energy input drops below about 5-10 then a modern society would start to have pretty big problems.

The analogy is it takes more energy to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It is easy to scoop out the top of a full barrel or the top of a pot of food. Then at the bottom you are working harder to get less.

The Peak Oil people made a big deal about this around 1990-2005. They were extremely worried about the low energy return from the oil sands and from fracked oil.

EROI Varies Because of Calculation Methods and Actual Wide Ranges By Project

There is also concern that solar has a low EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested).

The EROI numbers from solar, shale oil and oil from the oilsands are debated in the scientific and technical literature. The claimed EROI numbers can vary by ten times. Someone anti-solar could use the 1.6 EROI number or pro-solar could use the 12 EROI number. There is also an actual wide range of EROI for each depending upon location in the world and actual projects. EROI for solar is better in a middle eastern desert than in marginally sunny places (Germany, Canada) where solar farms were built only because there were massive subsidies. The same is true for some oilsand and shale oil projects. Some very inefficient oil projects were built because the builder got a lot of someone else’s money to make it.

The doomsday scenarios are that we would go 100% solar with low EROI solar or that we run out of high EROI oil and gas or that because of climate change risk we have to stop using high EROI energy and are forced to go use only low energy return.

Global Low EROI Is Barely an Inconvenience

Economists have about eight main reasons and arguments why energy analyst pushing these Energy Return death spirals are wrong.

The oilsands EROI increased as technology and processes got better.

The energy efficiency of gasoline cars and trucks has been low. It take a lot of energy to convert oil into gasoline and then to transport the gasoline to gas stations and then the cars engines are less than 30% efficient and there is efficiency loss in the wheels.

Electric cars are about 4 times more energy input efficient than gasoline cars. The Tesla Model 3, containing a 75 kWh battery, provides a 325-mile range. This translates to an efficient 0.9 megajoules of energy required to travel one mile (over 75% less energy required than the average competing 35 MPG sedan).

This shows that the EROI numbers are not dropping one way. It is clear that for oil shale and solar power to have bigger positions in the world economy then vast inefficiencies and problems will have be resolved for them to continue to grow.

There is huge areas for the world to get vastly more efficient. However, the world tolerated low-efficiency gasoline cars and trucks for about one hundred years.

40-60 MPG cars were available for over twenty years but 50% of people were choosing 8-20 MPG trucks and SUVs. People are switching to more efficient electric cars because Elon Musk made high-performance and desirable cars that happened to be electric.

The oil price shock of the 1973-1985 temporarily shifted significant numbers of people into buying small fuel-efficient cars in North America and some country in Europe have stayed with tiny fuel-efficient cars. The higher oil prices of the 2005-2012 period had far less impact on SUV and truck purchases.

The world society wastes a lot of energy. The world could easily become twice or even hundreds of times as efficient but we are choosing not to bother. There are easy gains on the energy usage side.

All of the multi-decade world society will collapse because we globally “run out” of “high-quality” energy, food or water are wrong.

The run-down scenarios are like saying that gasoline prices will go to $500 per gallon over ten years and because you currently drive 30,000 miles every year with 15 MPG SUV now then you will go bankrupt and starve when you are paying $1 million per year for your SUV.

You would stop using the SUV before it became that expensive. You would share rides or look at other options. A globally low EROI world would cause shifts to a lot more telecommuting, carpooling, buses, bikes, electric scooters, lighter and smaller vehicles and solutions.

It is not just that we will make better technology that does not require sacrifice or discomfort, but we can easily do things that are already are available options. Those options are 10X or 100X more energy efficient. We all know what they are but prefer being the sole occupant of a 3-ton Lincoln Navigator or Lexus LX 570 or a four-ton Ford F-250 instead of calling up UBER or a riding a subway or bus.

People put solar panels on their roof without battery storage even though they only were home at from 9pm to 7am. The electric company let the panels generate electricity and ran the power meter backward and gave them 10-20 cents per kWh of credit. This is despite the electricity burning off unused as heat at the first distribution node. The homeowner got tax credits for putting up the panel and a lower electricity bill despite no one using the actual electricity that was produced.

The world would not work if all people and all companies in the world were maximizing inefficiency and getting the current subsidies or corporate welfare to support their habits.

When things slide down too far into subsidized stupidity then the subsidies get phased out and the true costs get passed through.

The solar power subsidies and electric car subsidies are being phased out as solar power and electric cars become more mature. The shale oil companies are being forced to make profits instead existing on bank financing and government support.

Other people’s money runs out eventually. However, things can get pretty bad nationally and regionally with mass stupidity enabled with other people’s money.

There is also the aspect of Other People’s Resources. Using the global share of other people’s resources, water, energy, etc…

38 thoughts on “Low Energy Return Will Not Cause a Collapse”

  1. Well, we needn’t worry about going below 10 so long as we have rational energy policy, which is to say we might be screwed.

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  2. Extra energy production might not be very dramatic if the energy source is abundant and the equipment needs are moderate. E.g. we could do oil sands extraction with in-situ burning of some oil to make the rest heated/viscous enough to easily extract. Or we could make nuclear-powered liquid fuels with moderate equipment.

    And an EROEI of 5 is still very adequate. You just need 25% extra energy beyond the net energy you want for society. And given nuclear being very high EROEI and practically endless, we need not worry about going below 10 anyway.

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  3. No, they both matter.

    Energy “sources” with EROEI below 1, (Or even above it, but low.) can still be useful as ways of moving energy around, like primary batteries or synthetic fuels. That’s what they are, ways of moving or storing energy, not producing it.

    BUT, somewhere at the base of all this moving around must be a source that’s above 1, or else the whole enterprise eventually runs down and grinds to a halt, no matter how the economics look.

    The laws of physics don’t become irrelevant just because the economic model looks good. ENERGY returned on ENERGY invested will always matter.

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  4. One of the ways I countered vibration – as well as elevating the turbines out of human reach – was to put them all on blocks at least 5′ high, off the roofdeck. I will leave to the final Engineers (my design partner is a licensed Engineer) the details beyond that, but I believe that technological advancement since the early days, just a few years ago, and when the building could be realistically built (as my co-developer partner said yesterday, we need more “heavy hitters” demanding this $20.4b project…as well as city/state/federal permission), will allow solutions to these demonstrated problems.
    There’s another reason to put wind turbine on the roof, over 1,000′ above the center of the East River. It WILL get very windy up there and anyone venturing out to the roof deck will need some kind of buffer against it. I could have surrounded the whole roofdeck in plexiglass, of course, and for safety reasons, that may be partly necessary, but why not turn a problem into a solution?

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  5. Note that all the vertical axis turbines in that test broke down. This is not an anomaly, nor is the fact that there are no commercial scale VAWT left. A wind turbine is in a challenging environment, and its worst enemy is vibration, which it has to be able to endure for years on end, at different rates depending on whatever the wind subjects it to. That’s why the most successful design, the basic Danish three-blader, has three blades – they balance more easily, with fewer damaging harmonics than a twin blade, even though it would be cheaper to make just two blades, and there would be one less tip creating extra drag. The Danes also have the blades in front of the tower, for the same reason. It means they have to put in a complicated steering mechanism, instead of just letting the nacelle weathervane, but it means the blades don’t get a jolt from turbulence at the bottom of every turn. The eggbeater and Darreius VAWT did get a jolt at every turn, and it meant they didn’t last. Newer versions have spiral blades, so the jolt isn’t so sharp, but it’s still there, plus the back blade goes through the wind shadow of the central hub. Vibration is also the reason turbines are not normally attached to a building – except in concept drawings. The kiddies at the school where I work have made a beautiful concept drawing of their school with wind turbines and solar panels all over it. It will remain a concept.

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  6. ERoI as a proxy has issues, but a notable aspect is the lack of heat numbers as well. How much heat energy are we dumping into the local environment now, that was previously locked up in chemical energies? With solar, at least some energy that was going to be deposited as heat anyways was converted to electricity, but the manufacturing of the PV panels, as well as the grid infrastructure, and the grid storage (plus heat from grid storage itself, if you are using a heat storage system connected to a thermal engine cycle) is nothing to laugh at either.

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  7. It’s true that, as long as the EROEI is above one, in theory you can run an entire civilization on an energy source. But, as EROEI drops, an ever increasing fraction of the energy produced has to be reinvested in producing energy, rather than in all the things you actually wanted to produce energy FOR.

    At an EROEI of 50, you only need to feed 2% back into energy production. At an EROEI of 5, you need to feed 20% of the energy you’re producing back! As the return declines, simply producing energy starts consuming an ever increasing fraction of the entire economy, driving up the cost of everything else.

    It’s rather like, back when the FROFI (FOOD returned on FOOD invested) was only 2-5, almost everybody had to be occupied as a farmer, and only a small fraction of the population could be employed doing anything else.

    We only escaped almost universal poverty due to advances that rendered food and energy production the job of a small fraction of the population, freeing up people to do all sorts of other things.

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  8. So, it’s just a scale and technology issue. Economies of scale helps drive down production cost and more efficient technology creates higher energy returns. It’s been the same for every energy technology we use.

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  9. What about a modern nuclear reactor that get 70 times (BN-800) to 100 times the energy from waste than the waste producing reactors?

    Not only cheaper than alternative in mass producing though it is bureaucracy that cost not to build (complete in factories) and operate (some can be fully autonomous).

    Best of all is that with high temperature they can produce alla energy forms the society demand not just electricity that maximum can be 50% with very high costs.

    My favorit is a version of FS-MSR with out circulation pumps (vertical construction) with out control rods (as the first MSR from 1954).

    https://info.ornl.gov/sites/publications/files/Pub29596.pdf

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  10. My reply isn’t really related to the subject of solar energy and whatnot, *but* it might be relevant to your post.

    Right now, money does not = energy, but it could in the future.
    If money is peoples time or effort, then our society(which is based on money), will collapse within 100 years as robots take over most tasks for humans, meaning that humans will no longer work.

    A system where money = energy might work. Where you could say that $1 is = to 3600J of energy or the like.

    This can work indefinitely, because robots need energy to run, our houses need energy, our cars need energy, and there will always be people who own power plants or other methods of extracting energy.

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  11. If it really came down to only being able to use solar PV for all our electricity production, the better EROEI on solar heat production could save us. Less energy required to make concentrating mirrors than PV panels, and more sunlight converted to process heat than with PV conversion to electricity followed by conversion back to heat.

    And using solar heat for material processing – or at least to pre-heat materials before final electrical heating – could lower the energy input to making PV panels, boosting their EROEI as well.

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  12. I think the key is that from the physics, energy is all around, unlike money(attention?). How much energy we release or *use* is often close to the money to do it, but not always. Just following the energy around will not give a picture of how things are going, esp as we succeed in finding cheaper energy. This is not going to make much practical difference, but wrong theory can come by too much extension of a flawed argument.
    I have no expertise on the long term financing of these things, but firmly believe in Space Solar Power as a clear priority for the whole of humanity, ASAP!

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  13. I like your perspective; it seems closer to reality than my internal notion that high EROI or simply “not wasting energy” is a good thing. You are basically saying that the value of money is not joules (money is not energy); money is people’s effort or time (time is money). Ok. Still, the current nuke plant break even of maybe $0.05/kwh-e is indeed cheaper per megajoule than the cost of refined petroleum for the mining. There is about 41kwh/gal of diesel sold for $2.50, which is at least $0.06/kwh thermal, or $0.18/kwh-e.

    I still imagine that EROI for a solar panel on a telephone pole here in South Jersey takes years, and that ‘feels’ wrong to me.

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  14. I didn’t know my California-home installed PV system was an unworkable mirage boardering on a scam of some sort. My wallet has been quite happy with this roofmounted ‘scam’ since 2013.

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  15. For most Americans, not being able to afford to drive a car, or air condition their home constitutes the collapse of civilization. It’s all a matter of perspective.

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  16. The article cited says “The machines face two fundamental problems: there is not enough wind at low altitudes in a built-up environment, and the energy production of a wind turbine declines more than proportionately to the rotor diameter. Wind power rules, but small wind turbines are a swindle.”
    There are three problems in relating this analysis to the RiverArch.

    1. Our wind turbines would only be on the 100,000sf roof perimeter. This is ~1,000′ above sea level (depending on tides), so not exactly “low altitude” relative to the surrounding cityscape/riverscape.
    2. The wind turbines would be in middle of the building/river, so as unobstructed as possible by NYC’s tall buildings, including a cluster of 5 50-story plus buildings within 5 blocks on the Manhattan side, but nothing over 30 stories within 10 blocks on the Brooklyn side…for now. The Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges are mainly passthroughs for wind, and less than 1/3 the overall height of the building anyway, so non-issues windwise.
    3. The vertical turbines we are planning to use could have a larger surface area to capture wind per sq. ft. than the small rotor wind turbines mentioned in the article.
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  17. Do you get points for liking your own comment ? Your forest of vertical axis windmills are all sending turbulence on down to each other, in addition to the turbulence coming off the front blade and hitting the back one on every revolution. At a guess, your other power sources are also given far too much credit.http://theoildrum.com/node/6954

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  18. I wish I could get an energy analysis on our project building, the RiverArch, the world’s only building to straddle a major river (the East River in NYC). Video & details here: http://bit.ly/Riverarch
    It will have solar windows, perovskite materials coating the upper walls where the sun is best collected on near horizontal surfaces & less obstructed; 186 vertical wind turbines on the roofdeck; water turbines along the 1,000′ seawalls (both sides); geothermal (see: St. Patrick’s Cathedral); and 4 indoor dams producing energy from gray water from the top 10 floors where the legs are joined (really, done to ensure effluence is pushed out as well as done the pipes). We believe but can’t prove, it will be energy neutral/positive.
    Our consortium is working with the city/state/federal agencies to get approval, and the DOE on the layout of the FREE school. $20.4b –> ROI of $28b when all 7,630 units sold, including 30% (2300 units) @ 50% affordable housing discount (required by NYC). $434m/year from commercial leases incl. $150m/year from observation decks. Architect onboard. Partners present & sought.

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  19. I’m making a 5.8% compounded after tax return on my California solar install and and it’s actually producing more than the installer promised. It also raised the value of my home. I’ve been scammed? Yeah if I had a big chunk of debt on a 20% interest credit card it would have been a bad idea, but I didn’t, so it wasn’t. Also my bill doesn’t go up with inflation, so the return gets better and better as years go by.

    EDIT: Forgot to mention my personal discount rate was 4%, so actual is 9.8% return, then normally subtract inflation for real rate of return.

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  20. Most solar is utility scale, not residential or commercial.
    I had solar installed on my roof in San Jose CA (net metering 2.0) and I am happy. If you as a solar installer are not able to explain the spreadsheet analysis and the concept of a discount rate, yes there will more likely be disappointment. Many times downsizing the original solar plan size and upgrading/replacing the AC and heat efficiency and insulation is the best cost way to go.
    A good solar company has good finance people, and I did pick a company with a gold plated reputation and tons of happy referrals. And I have written contractual obligations of performance and warranties out to 25 years. I’m sure some installers just suck or are ok but only don’t have a solid grasp of finance – but that’s like anything. Caveat emptor and shop around.

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  21. Low grade energy such as the heat to run the engines to mine and sep the U, etc, is very cheap per energy unit compared to the elect that eventually comes from that nuke near a city. Now, the price and energy flows will tend to be the same, but my point is that we don’t use energy, we transform it. We make and destroy money, but energy is just there. The Sun’s energy is free to us, for example. How much effort we put into making the cells in terms of energy to melt the glass etc is only approx to the cost in money, or human activity. There is no requirement that the amount of energy must balance like money needs to make a profit. So, for example, using a volcano vent to melt glass would cost very little, but *use* a lot of energy. But who cares?

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  22. It isn’t and he knows it already. He’s been corrected on it at least a half a dozen times.

    It is called a step up transformer. All new ones utilities install can do both down and up. Yes if yours is ancient and nobody has enough solar yet to meet all nearby house’s demand it may need to be upgraded. They’re not any more expensive.

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  23. It’s pretty hard to imagine a scenario where a power reactor took more energyto build than it ever produced – unless it’s one shut down early by radiophobes. Like Zwentendorf in Austria, Shoreham on Long Island, Bataan in the Philippines, Creys-Malville in France … I could go on.

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  24. Home solar installation business in California is a total scam. Promise the moon but deliver the stinking landfill. Starry eyed solar investors are in for the shock of their lives.

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  25. “This is despite the electricity burning off unused as heat at the first distribution node.”

    that can’t be true.

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  26. Did someone tell him 20 panels + Tesla Power wall = fully charge Tesla?
    If that is how you did capacity calculations no wonder your customers were disappointed.

    Natural gas and efficient petroleum resources still produces CO₂, and CO₂ still traps heat in the atmosphere and cause acidification of the oceans. You may believe that’s a good or bad thing, but published research still shows a large laundry list of negative consequences.

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  27. Of course, solar is a form a fusion. The trick is collecting it and distributing it. Eventually H economy will eliminate need to distribute live volts, but until then and for collection check out above Criswell paper. As you run an electric *energy*, not *space* company, see the proposal as a big *energy* project, that happens to have a 20% or so Space component, by cost. Tip me if you win!

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  28. “Clearly, if you spend more energy to build a new reactor or solar farm than what the reactor produces overs its lift then your society will start a downward spiral and produce less and less energy.”
    That is true of money, but not energy. There is abundant energy, just transforming it into a useful form is hard. That is called *producing* energy, but it is not. I’m thinking of the physics here. Think for ex: You could waste a bunch of cheap coal energy to build a fancy nuke and still come out ahead if the nuke had a special economic use, on a sub or such. Yet the coal energy could be greater than the nuke output, as a thought experiment.

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  29. Well, hmmm what is evil is the people tricked into having expensive solar panel arrays installed on their roofs when they never considered all the hidden costs and unpleasant clauses in their contracts. Leasing is worse, and my nephew in Oakland has 20 panels and a Tesla Power wall and he can’t even fully charge his Tesla overnight. Sorry, but solar is not ready and probably never will be. I am the CEO of a large electrical contracting company, and we got out of the solar business because the disappointed customers were ruining our reputation. There are great applications for solar, but solar will always be a speciality, and merely an energy subsidy for state and private run power and light enterprises. The developing world needs solid, consistent power. Fusion is our one true great hope, but until then we have nearly unlimited natural gas and petroleum resources that are efficient and do not require government subsidies…

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  30. Just Evil nonsense that people who have a problem with renewable energy use. The cost of installing net metering in old houses is a bit high, but not so for new ones and that can also change with innovation. Anyway most of solar energy is not coming from roof top.

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