How Solar PV Can NOT Power A Carbon-Free Energy Revolution, In 4 Charts

30 10 2014

Once again, the internet proves how nobody understands NETT ENERGY.  A friend pointed me to this article titled “How Solar PV Can Power A Carbon-Free Energy Revolution, In 4 Charts” which I quickly glanced at (I’m busy making cheese right now!) and thought ‘is this for real?’  I then emailed the link to our resident professor, Dave Kimble who cobbled a response together that I will attempt to parse here correctly…….

Dave first pointed out that the “Inputs and outputs for a whole industry” ‘chart’ is not a chart at all, it is a diagram.  it is also not a chart resulting from calculations.  It has the right shape, but its timeframe is all wrong.

inputs~outputs-for-PVsIt should actually look more like this:

real-inputs~outputs-for-PVsThe article also states “the EPBT for PV systems in regions with high amounts of sunlight (high solar insolation), such as the U.S. Southwest, is now under one year.” EPBT stands for Energy Pay Back Time.  I’d missed that one, and when Dave pointed it out to me, I was gobsmacked……  because such a short energy return implies an ERoEI of 25:1, when in fact Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall recently calculated that it was more like 2.5:1, but what’s one order of magnitude among friends….?

.To me it makes absolute sense that as the ERoEI of the fossil fuels used to make PVs drops, the ERoEI of PVs should also drop……  there is no free lunch here, this is the energy trap we are looking at…..

Then Dave pointed out that the ERoEI is critical to how long the EPBT actually is.  Here is a chart from his own website:

“If the industry grows faster than a critical amount” says Dave, “then the fossil energy subsidy grows bigger and bigger:  The limit is given by (ERoEI/Lifetime)*100 % per year, so if the ERoEI is 25, you can grow at 100%, but if it is 2.5 you can only grow the industry at 10% – anything above that can never be energy positive.”

The article then states:

They projected that “the payback year has a 50 percent likelihood of occurring between 2012 and 2015.” In other words, there’s a good chance the cumulative solar energy generated by every PV system in use as of today equals the cumulative electricity consumed in producing those system to date.

This is “largely due to steadily declining energy inputs required to manufacture and install PV systems.”

How can there be steadily declining energy inputs when all the ore grades for the materials involved are getting worse, and the ERoEI of the fossil fuels is going down too, and may not be available within 10 years?  As usual, it’s what you leave out of the EI part of ERoEI that matters, and I doubt Pedro would have left anything out, because he’s run solar farms in Spain, and knows full well what goes IN to make them work…..  For instance, the article gloats over the fact that the cost of PVs has dropped 99% over the past 25 years (from $10/W to $1/W now), but that’s mostly because robots are now making them instead of people.  How much energy went into build the robots and the factories where they are being built?  ALL made with low ERoEI fossil fuels?  And their numbers must grow to keep up with production growth too…..

Can you tell I’m still sceptical?

Julian Cribb replies

30 10 2014

Dr Julian Cribb

If you haven’t read it yet or viewed the video, I recently posted an item about Dr Julian Cribb’s recent (October 2013) presentation to the Wheatbelt NRM Annual General Meeting.  It’s difficult when running a blog such as this to give someone you don’t know the right of reply, but this time Julian has taken the time to leave a reply, and as a mark of respect to him and in fairness to all opinions, I’ve decided to post it here as a proper article rather than see it lost in the thousands of comments which pepper this site.  I’m glad Julian has done this, and I fully understand his point about the difficulty of solving the world’s problem in a 30 minute talk; I haven’t managed it myself yet either!

Anyhow, some of you frequent readers might like to enter into a conversation with Julian, if he so desires here…. I personally cannot see how Julian’s assertion that ” it is going to take another 100 years or so to get the population (smoothly) back to 4-5 billion” can ever happen…  this particular subject is one I’m passionate about, so let’s hear it from you…

I also thought I had given Julian some credit for thinking about the issues we face when I wrote “I have come across more and more ‘experts’ who appear to be very well informed on the state of the multifaceted predicaments we face”.  Maybe a bit ambiguous, but…….

Over to Julian.


I think you are unfair Mike. It’s not possible to solve all the world’s problems in a 30 min talk, especially one that is specifically directed at a farming audience. But give me some credit for thinking about them, at least. As to population, read my book: the women of the world are already solving it – reducing their fertility in all regions globally. However it is going to take another 100 years or so to get the population (smoothly) back to 4-5 billion. The simple reason – that never seems to occur to rich western people who scream about population – is that part of the upward pressure is due to them living longer lives, not just to birth rates. If you want to control it, you are not only going to have to enforce family planning at gunpoint – but also impose euthanasia on the over-50s. See how much popular support you get for that.

Of course I know about the energy cliff and have heard Ian Dunlop speak wisely on the issue, as regards oil especially. But there are innumerable forms of energy available. You may have noticed my observation that the entire world’s transport fuel could be produced from an area of algae farms about a tenth the size of the Pilbara. That’s just one option. So I don’t buy the ” ‘We’ll all be rooned’ said Hanrahan” philosophy. There are viable options, especially for those who don’t simply give up.

If you want to know what I really think, here it is: humanity has the brains and the technical skills to carry us through the population and demand ‘hump’ and into a measured decline to a sustainable number. But we don’t have the governments, the economic structures or the educated society needed to achieve it.

Worst case is the Schnellnhuber scenario, or about 9-10 billion dead and a billion survivors, mainly in north Russia and Canada, by the end of the present century as a result of climate, resource and religious wars, famines, migratory conflict and disease. That’s also pretty much the CSIS worst case scenario too. Both presuppose limited use of nuclear weapons.

Personally I think there will be a few big wake-up calls well before we get to that. Like Bob Rich I think we’ll see a couple of megacities fall over, right on our iPhones. Mass killing, cannibalism, suicide, explosive emigration. If that doesn’t wake people up, then Homo don’t deserve the ‘sapiens’.

So rather than just grumble from your armchair, Hanrahan, lets start hearing some practical solutions.

Paradise Lost and Future Pending

29 10 2014

well worth a look…

Collapse of Industrial Civilization


The following video message is from Dr. Erik Pianka, an esteemed American biologist, one of the world’s most accomplished field ecologists, and author of the classic 1983 book Evolutionary Ecology. This video was made roughly four years ago. Not much has changed in the interim other than everything getting progressively worse —more people, more cars, more garbage landfills, more greenhouse gas emissions, more ocean acidification, more extinctions, etc…

To save the habitability of the Earth, many enlightened environmentalists and thinkers have proposed a radical but simple solution which calls for a reconfiguration of modern society into a much lower energy-intensive way of life with food production localized and resources socialized —just the opposite of what is now happening in our no-holds-barred global capitalist system. However, the time for a transition was decades ago before we had gone so far into overshoot that world powers are now scrambling to lay claim…

View original post 400 more words

On Senders of Mixed Messages…..

26 10 2014

Dr Julian Cribb

Lately, I have come across more and more ‘experts’ who appear to be very well informed on the state of the multifaceted predicaments we face.  yet they seem unable to tell it like it really is, and send mixed messages about how ‘we’ll be saved’ if only we apply such and such a technology. Even Nate Hagens in the last video I published here surprised me with a few of the things he says at the end of his presentation.  I have just come across another… his name is Dr Julian Cribb.  The video below starts off discussing all the things you’d expect to find here.  He even mentions the Egyptian revolution being caused by food shortages and rising prices, and that alone makes him almost unique among ‘media operators’.  He praises Permaculture principles, and makes much about the state of our soils and how degraded they are and how the produce therefrom are very low in actual nutrients.

Plantagon project in Sweden

Julian Cribb, however, seems unaware of the Energy Cliff.  He mentions Peak Oil and Peak Phosphorus, water table depletion, and the way agriculture utterly relies on oil for food production, but then goes off at a tangent predicting cities will grow to 30, 40, even 50 million, and could become so green they could be designed to produce 30% to 50% of their food.  Yet, at an earlier stage of his presentation, he tells us that each person on Earth, at current agricultural efficiency levels, require 1.5 hA of land to produce the food they eat.  So a city of 30 million (like Tokyo today – which is actually 37.8 million, but let’s stick to round numbers here…) requires 45 million hectares of land to feed it.  Even 30% of its food requirement would therefore demand the use of 10 million hectares, yet Tokyo has an area of 218,800 hectares…..  something does not add up.

Cribb deploys images of ‘green cities’, including a dome under development in Stockholm, Sweden.  I’m frankly underwhelmed by such projects.  The surface area under food production doesn’t seem that great, and I can’t help wondering how many dwindling resources obtained with ever shrinking amounts of ever lower ERoEI energy is needed to feed what is simply just another unsustainable city.

And no mention of taking control of population growth either.  It’s a given that we will hit 10 billion within 25 years, and that’s that.

This youtube clip has only had 352 views, even though it’s been on the interweb for almost a year.  Just goes to show how interested people are in Peak Farming…..


For most people, growth is already over……

24 10 2014

I know I often post videos here that I describe as brilliant or other terms to that effect.  THIS one clearly outshines them all, notwithstanding a slightly unsastifying end and question time…..  THIS video should be compulsory viewing.  This video also told me my brain is wired differently to almost everyone else on the planet!

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens is a well-known speaker on the big picture issues facing human society. Before watching this, I had no idea he had done the whole “wolf of Wall Street” thing in his early 20’s… that he was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice President at the investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers. If you need a shining light on how to reform yourself, Nate is the one..!

Until recently he was lead editor of The Oil Drum, one of the most popular and highly-respected websites for analysis and discussion of global energy supplies and the future implications of energy decline. Nate is currently on the Boards of Post Carbon Institute, Bottleneck Foundation, IIER and Institute for the Study of Energy and the Future.

Nate’s presentations address the opportunities and constraints we face after the coming end of economic growth. On the supply side, Nate focuses on the interrelationship between debt-based financial markets and natural resources, particularly energy. On the demand side, Nate addresses the evolutionarily-derived underpinnings to status, addiction, and our aversion to acting about the future and offers suggestions on how individuals and society might better adapt to what’s ahead. Ultimately, Nate’s talks cover the issues relevant to propelling our species (and others) into deep time.

He has appeared on PBS, BBC, ABC and NPR, and has lectured around the world. He holds a Masters Degree in Finance from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont.

This presentation, Limits to Growth: Where We Are and What to Do About It” goes for an hour and a half……  but it’s the ride of a lifetime.


Degrowth: Getting to the Root of the Climate Crisis

23 10 2014

This is part 4 of a 4 part series of article from my friend the Overthinker.  I am reblogging this without parts 1 to 3 because they have been discussed to death already here on DTM…….  by all means read the rest of it if you want (this is the best part in my opinion…), all 4 parts available here. 


i'm here to live
The following is part 4 of a four-part series titled Degrowth: Getting to the Root of the Climate Crisis, and is adapted from my presentation at the Australian Climate Action Summit, 20th September, 2014.
This article was first published here.  
Parts 1, 2 & 3 can be accessed as follows:

The climate crisis, correctly diagnosed, is the overshoot of one of the nine planetary boundaries that safeguard the health of the biosphere that supports the human enterprise. The cause of this overshoot is correctly identified as the extraction and processing of natural resources and dumping of waste at a rate beyond our planet’s natural rate of renewal and recycling – all in pursuit of endless economic growth.

With the root cause of the crisis identified as our relentless pursuit of infinite growth on our inconveniently finite planet, it makes sense for the climate movement to engage with the concept of degrowth in order to properly address our complex predicament.

Seppo_FinitePlanetTackling growth

There are two key factors in economic growth, and its counterpart, degrowth:

  1. Population
  2. Consumption

Our economy grows thanks to increases in both population and consumption. To address one of these factors without also addressing the other would be an exercise in futility: curbing consumption while allowing population to grow results in no net reduction in emissions; similarly, stabilizing population while allowing consumption to increase in order to service our debt-based economy results in no net reduction in emissions.

We’re going to have to tackle both population and consumption, and, as it is, we don’t exactly make ourselves popular at dinner parties when we talk about scaling either of them back.

But, contrary to popular propaganda, neither decreasing consumption or gradually lowering our population is actually a threat to human rights – or even to our quality of life. Quite the contrary, in fact.

If you’ve been sold the notion that a Big Australia is good for us, you’ve been conned. If you’ve been sold the notion that increased consumer spending is good for us, again, you’ve been conned – most likely conned into buying a lot of crap you don’t need, and a heap of buyer’s remorse. Never trust a salesperson.

Population: a human rights & healthcare issue

Contrary to popular myth, stabilizing population does not require coercive or draconian policies – such as China’s one-child policy (which, again, contrary to popular myth, doesn’t apply to all of China’s provinces – folks in most of the countryside are exempt, and it also doesn’t apply to families whose first-born is a girl). Many countries have adopted sound policies that have been effective in stabilizing and gradually lowering birth rates. These policies revolve mainly around access to contraception and family planning, sound sex education, women’s economic emancipation, access to education, and sovereign reproductive rights.

population growth women's rights

The reality is that when human rights are prioritized, birth rates drop. In countries where women have economic rights, the right to education, good healthcare, and reproductive rights, they choose to have fewer children on average. Most women in the developed world – where there is universal healthcare – choose to have just one or two children on average. This leads, in turn, to a better standard of living for the whole family, better educational opportunities, better employment opportunities, and better opportunities all round for the next generation. Really, what’s not to love?

Consumption – much easier to rein in

What my own work really focuses on, however, is consumption – how we can consume significantly less without sacrificing quality of life. I choose this focus because it is arguably more feasible to rapidly curb consumption than it is to rapidly stabilize and lower population, and many of the tools of degrowth are accessible outside the realm of politics and policy, hence available to everyone.

But there are a few ways we can tackle consumption with policy measures – a few examples would be:

  • Shifting from an income tax to a consumption tax – this way downshifters like myself would be rewarded for living lightly on the planet and other people would be incentivized to do join the movement to power down our way of life.
  • Rationing household and business use of energy according to means testing – an unpopular measure for sure, but not as unpopular as runaway climate change. Ideally this would be coupled with emissions caps and production quotas for the energy industry, favouring cleaner, renewable sources.
  • And, of course, as mentioned before, an end to debt-based finance would enable a steady-state economy to emerge via the elimination of the profit motive from business.

it's not me who consumes too much

Mentioning these policy points is just an academic exercise, however, while there isn’t a politician on the planet capable of getting elected who would consider implementing such policies. The empowering aspect of degrowth needs to be emphasized, as there is a great deal we can all be doing to curb our consumption in the meantime while we wait for a shift in public opinion to usher in a government intent on addressing our crisis at its core. No naïveté intended, of course; this change in government may well not happen until it is too late to make a difference. We cannot afford to wait. We need to downshift now.

Shifting down a gear

Downshifting – otherwise known as opting for voluntary simplicity – is really all about re-imagining the good life. About not buying into the stories we are sold by a materialistic and competitive pro-growth culture.

Downshifters don’t buy into the notion that money equals success, that you have to earn status, that you need to accumulate material wealth. We don’t buy into the cycle of planned obsolescence that forces us to upgrade our gadgets constantly as last season’s model ends up in a toxic e-waste dump in the third world. We’re not interested in keeping up with the Joneses – we don’t live next door to them anyway.

So we don’t sacrifice ourselves to the treadmill of profit to service endless economic growth. We’re happy to work less and play more. We live tiny – a modest home is a cheap one. Our energy requirements are low – again, nice and cheap. And we’re not into shopping – there are more fun things you can do without having to get your credit card out. Simply put, we aim for a one-planet lifestyle, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the developing world who live light upon this planet.

kahlil gibran

Now, I’ve been called a Luddite – as though I’m anti-technology – in response to my stance on the misapplication of technological fixes. While I admit techy stuff isn’t what floats my boat, I certainly appreciate my computer, the internet that enables me to share my thoughts with like and unlike minds, and my car that facilitates my travel to faraway places and events, such as Climate Action Summits.

While I don’t necessarily think all of the technologies I enjoy are sustainable, I don’t think we should all go back to the Stone Age either – and neither do we have to. But we do have to rein in our consumption to what Mother Nature allows, to accept the limits to growth of the human enterprise. The consequences of overshooting our limits have become painfully obvious: if we do not change direction soon, we will end up were we are going. It will only be a question of whether resource constraints or climate chaos strike first, and one will undoubtedly exacerbate the other.

But not everyone is keen on the idea of degrowth, and some are repulsed by it. Some get pretty defensive. I’ve had it suggested to me that I’m an ingrate – that it was technological developments such as the invention of the washing machine that enabled me, a mere woman, to get an education. This, of course, was parroted at me by someone who had swallowed Hans Rosling’s TED talk on why technology is the saviour of all that is good and worthy without question.

As a woman, of course, I know better. I’m quite sure it wasn’t some kind gentleman donating my gender his clever labour-saving device that secured my liberty from the drudgery of what is obviously and rightfully women’s work. And I can’t quite imagine the women’s lib movement protesting in the streets with chants of “What do we want? White goods! When do we want them? After we’ve finished the ironing!” Wins for women were, sadly for the proponents of vicarious salvation through technology, achieved by women, not men, and via political action, not white goods.

Having said all that, I don’t own a washing machine, and my other half does his share of the laundry – by hand.

Walking your talk and eat your cake

Preaching degrowth without practising it through downshifting is not a credible approach to stirring momentum for the movement. Integrity matters.

So, as an advocate of degrowth, what have I done to downshift my own consumption and lifestyle? Well, I live in a small unit, a cabin really – with my partner and two cats – and we have very little stuff. We eat low on the food chain, organic where possible, locally-produced where possible, and always seasonally. We don’t exactly live to shop – my clothes are op-shopped – mostly chez Salvos (do a twirl), and our furniture is all pre-loved. But I must admit we still have our gas-guzzling beast of a car – a four wheel drive we bought second (or third or fourth?) hand for a lengthy road trip a couple of years ago and lived in for a while. I promise we’re planning to sell it off soon and replace it with a couple of bikes. So we’re not perfect, and we’re not purists.

To many middle-class folks we look like we live in poverty – a shocking choice for many of our demographic, whose parents or grandparents didn’t claw their way up from lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder for their progeny to throw it all back in their faces with an ungrateful sneer.

But what does living in poverty mean? Do we lack anything we might need? Do we work hard for little reward? Well, no. We don’t have jobs. We run our own little consulting business – consulting only for the clients whose work we really respect and value – non-profit organizations – and we do it for a pittance really. It keeps a roof over our heads and the wolf from the door, and frees us up to put time into things that really matter – like family and friends, putting time into Sustainability Showcase, the grass roots non-profit we both volunteer for, and SHIFT magazine, the magazine of the degrowth and resilience movement.

And of course it means we have time for events like this – the Climate Action Summit, and for front-line activism, and for spending time out in the sunshine, in the green calm of nature, under the big sky (I love that this country’s sky is so big and boundless), enjoying it all before it’s all destroyed.

Perhaps if you join us on the degrowth journey, it won’t get destroyed after all. I don’t know that much about many things, but I do know this: you can’t have your cake and eat it – so I’m just going to enjoy eating mine.

wanting less is a better blessing than having more


The Energy Cliff Revisited

22 10 2014

Gough Whitlam died yesterday.  The whole country seems to have paused for thought, many media outlets are even saying things like “where to from here”, and the cluelessness abounds.  Where to from here indeed……  Today, our politicians are elected to office based on false promises.  They promise things they can’t deliver, and we continue to be perpetually shocked when they don’t deliver.  We never seem to get tired of this game, we always lose.

I have spent little time posting here, mainly for fear of simply repeating myself.  As I am doing now, really…. but once you ‘get it’, what else is there to say?  As the price of oil fell to $80 last week, much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth occurred on the subject of how long the unconventional oil drillers of oil would last….  while some commentators were despairing at the thought that cheaper fossil fuels would mean the end of the current push for renewables, if you can still call it that.

When I pointed out to these people that the fossil fuel companies were actually going broke, I was met with the derision I am now accustomed to.  I’m getting quite immune to that now, if you don’t believe me, it’s your problem, not mine…  mind you, as we approach ‘the knee’ of the energy cliff curve, it is baffling as to why the price of oil dropped so much, when it should have in fact risen, and risen substantially.  The answer of course is that the global economy is on its knees.  Growth is fetid at best, and in Europe, things are going from bad to worse, even prompting some people to predict that ‘the big one’ was going to occur on the 27th anniversary of the Black Monday crash.  Didn’t happen, unfortunately…..  but the ducks have all lined up in waiting.

Most of us here have surely heard of the seven stages of grief…. Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Guilt, Depression, Acceptance. Where are we in our journey through these stages when it come to the financial crisis, and to growth? There’s only one stage that even remotely sounds right: Denial. We’re not even close to Anger yet, not when it comes to the larger population.  Me, I’d like to add another stage:  REACTION….!

justwalkawayIf enough people just walked away, the whole mess would end.  Any time people post whinges on FB these days, I reply with that picture.

Apart from denial, there is of course ignorance.  The concept of the energy cliff is foreign to just about anyone who doesn’t follow blogs such as this one.  It occurred to me that we have been sliding down the edges of the energy cliff for a very long time.  At the beginning of the oil era, when the ERoEI was 100:1, everything was easy.  We just had to invent it, and we had so much surplus energy that we could fumble our way around and build outrageous cars and airplanes, steel skyscrapers, huge ships, growth was easy…..  and when the ERoEI of oil dropped to 50:1, who noticed?  We still had 100:1 oil to make the equipment needed to get that oil (which, let’s face it, was still amazing value…)

As the easy pickings were exploited, it was still easy to burn 25:1 and even 15:1 energy sources…. but it is at this stage that we approach ‘the knee’ of the nett energy curve, and start falling off its cliff.

Building 5:1 solar energy gizmos with 15:1 oil, let alone with more 5:1 PVs or those appallingly inefficient tar sands and shale oil suddenly becomes a struggle.  This is what people who argue that we don’t need fossil fuels to make renewables do not understand.  Bad ERoEI compounds when you use one low source to get another.  Social complexity utterly relies on surplus energy.  It was with surplus energy that Europe’s cathedrals were build during the middle ages, and the same applies to building wind and solar farms.

If you are new to these concepts, I urge you to watch the video below from Chris Martenson’s excellent crash course series, a must watch program of videos for anyone who doesn’t yet know why the world is going to hell in a handbasket……  NOTE:  This video shows solar as having an ERoEI somewhere around 20:1.  This is because it was made in 2009, and in the intervening 5 years, it has been established that it is fact less than 5…. maybe even less than 3!  This is displayed more accurately in the more recent chart above……