EV transition…. what EV transition…?

15 08 2017

It’s raining again, and all work outside has been temporarily suspended. Well that’s my excuse for hitting the keyboard again. And the more I delve into the future of this supposed transition to EVs techno utopians continually go on about, the less I believe it will occur. No one gets limits to growth, and therein lies the problem. I also found this neat document my readers might like to download. If you’ve been hanging out on this blog for some time. you probably already know what’s in it, but there are a lot of newbies joining DTM these days, this is for you…


I have already exposed how limits to Lithium and Cobalt and other resources needed to implement a transition away from oil powered happy motoring is going to give manufacurers (and share holders) headaches in the future; but obviously the fans of electric motoring do not understand the disruptive effects of such an industry nor how it will decimate the oil industry, which itself will kill off the EV sector….

At first glance, getting rid of polluting cars sounds like a great idea.  The billions of such vehicles around the world that pump out noxious gases and CO2 are, we know, are major contributors to climate change.  Banning them at the earliest opportunity, then, must surely be a good idea. But, there’s always a but………

If the world is going to make the switch to electric vehicles, we are going to need a massive infrastructure spend to create the fast charging systems without which the country is going to grind to a halt.

For most journeys – those of less than 10km – charging up at home overnight will do the trick.  But, Australia in particular.  is a nation of commuters who average around 1500km a month.  I know people who commute even further from where we used to live in Queensland….. Anyone driving more than about 70km to get to work is going to need somewhere to charge up before going home; and anyone driving more than 160km is going to need a fast charging station somewhere along their commute.  On the few times a year that many of us make far longer journeys (such as on long weekends) we would have to be able to stop several times to recharge – Australia is a big country. It’s either that, or we won’t be going away…..

And all of those other holiday drivers will all want to use the same “fast” (they currently take 20-30 minutes) chargers. I see melting circuit breakers…….

Add to this the fact that new oil discoveries have been plummeting and, without prices north of $200 per barrel, unlikely to bounce back, and it tells us one highly unpleasant thing… petrol and diesel prices are going to bounce back a few years from now, once the current glut is over.

That is great news if you work for an oil company or if you are a government that depends upon the taxes from oil exports to pay your debts.  But if you are a country whose oil industry is in terminal decline – like Australia that will have almost certainly totally run out of oil by 2020 – then you are about to find yourself competing for dwindling oil supplies against far richer countries like the USA and China.

Back in the real world, coal plants are shutting down, nuclear companies are going bust, the so-called ‘shale revolution’ is teetering on the cliff edge of collapse, and there is simply no way given the current state of technology for renewables to take up the slack.  What we are facing today is figuring out how to maintain the current supply of electricity, and the last thing anyone needs is the massive increase in demand that will inevitably accompany the mass consumption electric cars.

Electricity shortages may, however, prove to be the least of our worries.  Too many electric cars could trigger a global economic collapse.

Few pundits now doubt the benefits to consumers of electric cars compared to petrol (gasoline) powered ones.  A recent article in The Economist observes:

“Compared with existing vehicles, electric cars are much simpler and have fewer parts; they are more like computers on wheels. That means they need fewer people to assemble them and fewer subsidiary systems from specialist suppliers…

“With less to go wrong, the market for maintenance and spare parts will shrink. While today’s carmakers grapple with their costly legacy of old factories and swollen workforces, new entrants will be unencumbered. Premium brands may be able to stand out through styling and handling, but low-margin, mass-market carmakers will have to compete chiefly on cost.”

Sounds like job losses to me….. and who will buy EVs if they don’t have a job?

What would mass ownership of EVs do to the already struggling global oil industry?

The existential threat posed by electric cars is simply that they might force the price of petrol (gasoline) to zero.

In 2014, the world burned 41,235,000 barrels of petrol (gasoline) every day!  If no one wants the stuff,  and as there is no obvious alternative use for it with maybe the exception of some power tools and hobby engines, cars and light vans are the only place where petrol is consumed, why would the industry make petrol?

“Great,” I hear the greenies shout, “just stop producing the filthy, environment-destroying stuff.”  If only it were that simple.  The trouble is, as Michael Schirber at Live Science reminds us, oil is a chemical potpourri:

“Petroleum is not a single molecule but a mix of thousands of molecules, the most important of which are hydrocarbons. These are chains or rings of carbons atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms.

“Although gasoline comprises nearly half of all petroleum production in the United States, a wide range of fuels and specialty oils come out of a modern-day oil refinery. The petroleum is first heated in a boiler to separate the smaller hydrocarbons with low boiling points from the larger hydrocarbons with high boiling points.”

Oil refineries can’t simply stop producing petrol (gasoline) without also ceasing production of all of those other far more useful products…. like those used to manufacture tyres, and bitumen roads..!  Both required by the EV revolution…. Lighter gases are used in such things as paints, cleaning agents and as chemical feedstock.  Heavier products include the kerosene that fuels jet aircraft; diesel for our heavy machinery and trucks; lubricating oils and greases for industry; and solids like the aforementioned bitumen.  One assumes that, like the rest of us, the greenwashers would quite like all of these other petroleum products – and the things they do for us – to be available after petrol has gone away.

And therein lies the conundrum; because petrol effectively subsidises the price of all those other products.  Even the pro-electric car Economist article concedes that:

“The internal combustion engine has had a good run—and could still dominate shipping and aviation for decades to come…”

Except of course, the oil industry is on its knees, and once it goes, so does the dream of happy electric car motoring……

Environmentalists didn’t kill the nuclear power industry, economics did.

10 08 2017

One of Nicole Foss’ standout statements for me when I last saw her speak all those years ago now, was that an economic collapse can and will occur much fater than the other crises humanity is facing, like peak oil and climate change…..  and I see signs of economic collapse every day now; not least this one.

Our friend Eclipse Now will probably blow his top and would probably post his usual rubbish here, but I saw the sense of Alice Friedemann’s blocking him from her site, I have done the same now too. After all, how can you take seriously anyone who believes in terra forming Mars and even giving that planet a flag…..?

An interesting article turned up on my feed today.

South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. and partner Santee Cooper abandoned work on two new nuclear reactors this week, not because of public protests, but because the only way to pay for them was to overcharge customers or bankrupt both companies.

The decision comes after the main contractor, Westinghouse, has completed a third of the work at the V.C. Sumner Nuclear Station. Of course, the project has already bankrupted Westinghouse due to missed deadlines and costs spiraling out of control. Westinghouse parent Toshiba Corp. had to pay $2.7 billion to get out of its contract.

Electricité de France too is in trouble. EDF could be heading towards bankruptcy, as it faces the perfect storm of under-estimated costs for decommissioning and waste disposal. Hinkley C power station (in Somerset, England) has just bumped up £1.5bn, and its completion date slipped 15 months.. Meanwhile income from power sales is lagging behind costs, and 17 of EDF’s reactors are off-line for safety tests. Yet French and UK governments are turning a blind eye to the looming financial crisis.

What the nuclear industry really needs is the new technology Eclipse is always banging on about. Scientists are working on these smaller reactors that are less dangerous, but none of them are ready for commercial deployment…..  starting to sound like fusion.

There could be a future for nuclear power in the United States, but only if the technology can compete on cost with renewable sources and natural gas. That is the real challenge for the nuclear power industry.

In any case, I firmly believe that the cost of decommissioning the 400 odd reactors that are now well beyond their use by date will finish off the industry before anything worthwhile happens on this front. The energy cliff is still on its way.


Since publishing this, Alice Fridemann pointed out she has written this article on her own website…….

Nuclear power too expensive. In 2013, 37 reactors predicted to shut down, 16 already have

[ Since this article was published in 2013, 10 of the 37 at risk plants Cooper listed have been or are scheduled to close down (in red) : Diablo CanyonClintonFitzpatrickFt. CalhounIndian PointOyster CreekPilgrimQuad CitiesThree Mile IslandVermont Yankee.  Plus four plants he didn’t list are scheduled to shut down as well: San Onofre 2 & San Onofre 3, Diablo Canyon 1 & Diablo Canyon 2. In addition, not long before this article was written, Kewaunee (2012) and Crystal River (2009) closed for financial reasons.

Here are the remaining plants Cooper listed that have yet to close: Browns Ferry, Callaway, Calvert Cliff, Commanche Peak, Cook, Cooper, Davis-Besse, Dresden, Duane Arnold, Fermi,  Ginna, Hope Creek, LaSalle, Limerick, Millstone, Monticello, Nine Mile Point, Palisades, Perry, Point Beach, Prairie Island, Robinson, Seabrook, Sequoyah, South Texas, Susquehanna, Turkey Point, Wolf Creek

After spending $9 billion dollars on the two reactors of the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station, with only 40% completion, and expected final price tag of $25 billion, it was shut down in 2017 (Plumer).  The only new nuclear plant being built in the U.S. now is in Georgia.

Cooper leaves out the cost of nuclear waste storage, which makes the economics of nuclear plants even worse than in the article below (see his testimony before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

One of the costs Cooper mentions are Post-Fukushima updates. Five years after the accident at Fukushima in Japan resulted in three reactor meltdowns, the global nuclear industry is spending $47 billion on safety enhancements mandated after the accident revealed weaknesses in plant protection from earthquakes and flooding. The median cost per nuclear power reactor is $46.7 million (Platts).

“New reactors at Georgia Power’s Vogtle plant were initially estimated to cost $14 billion to build; the latest estimate is $21 billion. The first reactors at the plant, in the 1970s, took a decade longer to build than planned, and cost 10 times more than expected. In France, a new plant is running around six years behind scheduled and likely to cost around $8 billion more than planned. Even keeping old reactors running may not make financial sense. In California, for example, extending the life of the Diablo Canyon plant will require new cooling towers that cost around $8 billion. It may also need billions in earthquake retrofits, because engineers realized after the project was built that it’s on a fault line” (Peters).  2016 update: this is one of the reasons they’re going to be shut down.

There are only 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants left (of 90) in the United States

MORE @ http://energyskeptic.com/2017/nuclear-power-never-econ-viable-never-will-be/

Lithium’s limits to growth

7 08 2017

The ecological challenges of Tesla’s Gigafactory and the Model 3

From the eclectic brain of Amos B. Batto

A long but well researched article on the limitations of the materials needed for a transition to EVs…..


Many electric car advocates are heralding the advent of Tesla’s enormous battery factory, known as the “Gigafactory,” and its new Model 3 electric sedan as great advances for the environment.  What they are overlooking are the large quantities of energy and resources that are consumed in lithium-ion battery manufacturing and how these quantities might increase in the future as the production of electric vehicles (EVs) and battery storage ramps up.

Most of the credible life cycle assessment (LCA) studies for different lithium-ion chemistries find large large greenhouse gas emissions per kWh of battery. Here are the CO2-eq emissions per kWh with the battery chemistry listed in parentheses:
Hao et al. (2017): 110 kg (LFP), 104 kg (NMC), 97 kg (LMO)
Ellingsen et al. (2014): 170 kg (NMC)
Dunn et al. (2012): 40 kg (LMO)
Majeau-Bettez et al. (2011): 200 kg (NMC), 240 kg (LFP)
Ou et al (2010): 290 kg (NMC)
Zackrisson et al (2010): 440 kg (LFP)

Dunn et al. and Hao et al. are based on the GREET model developed by Argonne National Laboratory, which sums up the steps in the process and is based on the estimated energy consumption for each step. In contrast, Ellingsen et al. and Zackrisson et al. are based on the total energy consumption used by a working battery factory, which better captures all the energy in the processing steps, but the data is old and the battery factory was not very energy efficient, nor was it operating at full capacity. Battery manufacturing is getting more energy efficient over time and the energy density of the batteries is increasing by roughly 7% a year, so less materials are needed per kWh of battery. It is also worth noting that no LCA studies have been conducted on the NCA chemistry used by Tesla. NCA has very high emissions per kg due to the large amount of nickel in the cathode, but is very energy dense, so less total material is needed per kWh, so it is probably similar in emissions to NMC.

The big debate in the LCA studies of battery manufacturing is how much energy is consumed per kWh of battery in the battery factory. In terms of MJ per kWh of battery, Ellingsen et al. estimate 586 MJ, Zachrisson et al. estimate 451 MJ and Majeu-Bettez et al. estimate 371-473 MJ. However, the energy for the drying rooms and factory equipment is generally fixed, regardless of the throughput. Ellingsen et al (2014) found that the energy expended to manufacture a kWh of battery could vary as much as 4 times, depending on whether the factory is operating at full capacity or partial capacity. Since the Gigafactory will probably be operating a full capacity and energy efficiency is improving, let’s assume between 100 MJ and 150 MJ per kWh of battery in the Gigafactory (which converts to 28 – 42 kWh per kWh of battery). It is unlikely to be significantly less, because it is more energy efficient to burn natural gas for the drying rooms than use electric heaters, but the Gigafactory will have to use electric heaters to meet Musk’s goal of 100% renewable energy.

If producing 105 GWh of batteries per year at 100 – 150 MJ per kWh, plus another 45 GWh of packs with batteries from other factories at 25 MJ per kWh, the Gigafactory will consume between 3,229 and 4,688 GWh per year, which is between 8.3% and 12.0% of the total electrical generation in Nevada in 2016. I calculate that 285 MW of solar panels can be placed on the roof of the Gigafactory and they will only generate 600 GWh per year, assuming a yearly average of 7.16 kWh/m2/day of solar radiation, 85% (1.3 million m2) of the roof will be covered, 20% efficiency in the panels and a 10% system loss.

Solar panels in dusty locations such as Nevada loose roughly 25% of their output if they are not regularly cleaned. Although robots have been developed to clean panels with brushes, water will most likely be used to clean the Gigafactory’s panels. A study by Sandia National Laboratory found that photovoltaic energy plants in Nevada consume 0.0520 acre-feet of water per MW of nameplate capacity per year. The solar panels at the Gigafactory will probably have 25% less area per MW than the solar panels in the Sandia study, so we can guesstimate that the solar panels on the Gigafactory roof will consume 11.1 acre-feet or 13,700 cubic meters of water per year.

Solar panels can also be placed on the ground around the factory, and but consider the fact that the Gigafactory will only receive 4.23 kWh/m2/day in December, compared to 9.81 kWh/m2/day in July. With less than half the energy from the panels during the winter, the Gigafactory will need other sources of energy during the times when it is cloudy and the sun’s rays are more indirect. Even during the summer, the Gigafactory will probably have to use temporary battery storage to smooth out the solar output or get additional energy with electric utilities which use gas peaking, battery storage or buy energy from the regional grid to give the Gigafactory a stable supply of electricity.

The original mockup of the Gigafactory showed wind turbines on the hillsides around the plant, but wind energy will not work onsite, because the area has such low wind speed. A weather station in the Truckee River valley along I-80, near the Gigafactory, measures an average wind speed of 3.3 m/s at a height of 6 meters, although the wind speed is probably higher at the site of the Gigafactory. Between 4 to 5 m/s is the minimum wind speed to start generating any energy, and between 5 and 6 m/s is generally considered the minimum for wind turbines to be economically viable. It might be possible to erect viable wind turbines onsite with 150 m towers to capture better wind, but the high costs make it likely that Tesla will forgo that option.

The region has good geothermal energy at depths of 4000 to 6000 feet and this energy is not variable like solar and wind. However, there is a great deal of risk in geothermal exploration which costs $10 million to drill a test well. It is more likely that Tesla will try to buy geothermal energy from nearby producers, but geothermal energy in the region is already in heavy demand, due to the clean energy mandates from California, so it won’t be cheap.

Despite Musk’s rhetoric about producing 100% of the Gigafactory’s energy onsite from renewable sources, Tesla knows that it is highly unrealistic, which is why it negotiated to get $8 million in electricity rebates from the state of Nevada over an 8 year period. It is possible that the Gigafactory will buy hydroelectric energy from Washington or Oregon, but California already competes for that electricity. If Tesla wants a diversified supply of renewable energy to balance out the variability of its solar panels, it will probably have to provide guaranteed returns for third parties to build new geothermal plants or wind farms in the region.

I would guesstimate that between 2/3 of the electricity consumed by the Gigafactory will come from the standard Nevada grid, whereas 1/3 will be generated onsite or be bought from clean sources. In 2016, utility-scale electricity generation in Nevada was 72.8% natural gas, 5.5% coal, 4.5% hydroelectric, 0.9% wind, 5.7% PV solar, 0.6% concentrated solar, 9.8% geothermal, 0.14% biomass and 0.03% petroleum coke. If we use the grams of CO2-eq per kWh estimated by IPCC AR5 WGIII and Bruckner et al (2014), then natural gas emits 595 g, coal emits 1027 g, petroleum emits 880 g, hydroelectric emits 24 g, terrestrial wind emits 11 g, utility PV solar emits 48 g, residential PV solar emits 41 g, concentrated solar emits 27 g, geothermal emits 38 g and biomass emits 230 g. Based on those emission rates, grid electricity in Nevada emits 499 g CO2-eq per kWh. If 2/3 comes from the grid and 1/3 comes from rooftop PV solar or a similar clean source, then the electricity used in the Gigafactory will emit 346 g CO2 per kWh. If consuming between 3,229 and 4,688 GWh per year, the Gigafactory will emit between 1.12 and 1.62 megatonnes of CO2-eq per year, which represents between 3.1% and 4.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions that the state of Nevada produced in 2014 according to the World Resources Institute.

Aside from the GHG emissions from the Gigafactory, it is necessary to consider the greenhouse gas emissions from mining, refining and processing the materials used in the Gigafactory. The materials used in batteries consume a tremendous amount of energy and resources to produce. The various estimates of the energy to produce the materials in batteries and their greenhouse gas emissions shows the high impact that battery manufacturing has on the planet.


To get some idea of how much materials will be used in the NCA cells produced by the Gigafactory, I attempted to do a rough calculation of the weight of materials in 1 kWh of cells. Taking the weight breakdown of an NMC battery cell in Olofsson and Romare (2013), I used the same weight percentages for the cathode, electrolyte, anode and packaging, but scaled the energy density up from 233 kW per kg in the NCA cells in 2014 to 263 kW per kg, which is a 13% increase, since Telsa claims a 10% to 15% increase in energy density in the Gigafactory’s cells. Then, I estimated the weight of the components in the cathode, using 76% nickel, 14% cobalt, and 10% aluminum and some stochiometry to calculate the lithium and oxygen compared to the rest of the cathode materials. The 2170 cells produced by the Gigafactory will probably have different weight ratios between their components, and they will have more packaging materials than the pouch cells studied by Olofsson and Romare, but this provides a basic idea how much material will be consumed in the Tesla cells.


The estimates of the energy, the emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent, sulfur dioxide equivalent, phosphorous equivalent and human toxicity to produce the metals are taken from Nuss and Eckelman (2014), which are process-sum estimates based on the EcoInvent database. These are estimates to produce generic metals, not the highly purified metals used in batteries, and the process-sum methodology generally underestimates the emissions, so the estimates should be taken with a grain of salt but they do give some idea about the relative impact of the different components in battery cells since they use the same methodology in their calculations.

At this point we still don’t know how large the battery will be in the forthcoming Model 3, but it has been estimated to have a capacity of 55 kWh based on a range of 215 miles for the base model and a 20% reduction in the size of the car compared to the Model S. At that battery size, the cells in the Model 3 will contain 6.3 kg of lithium, 26.4 kg of nickel, 4.9 kg of cobalt, 27.9 kg of aluminum, 56.6 kg of copper and 21.0 kg of graphite.

Even more concerning is the total impact of the Gigafactory when it ramps up to its planned capacity of 150 GWh per year. Originally, the Gigafactory was scheduled to produce 35 GWh of lithium ion batteries by 2020, plus package an additional 15 GWh of cells produced in other factories. After Tesla received 325,000 preorders for the Model 3 within a week of being announced on March 31, 2016, the company ambitiously announced that it would triple its planned battery production and be able to produce 500,000 cars a year by 2018–two years earlier than initially planned. Now Elon Musk is talking about building 2 to 4 additional Gigafactories and one is rumored to have signed a deal to build one of them in Shanghai.

If the components for 1 kWh of Gigafactory batteries is correct and the Nevada plant manages to produce as much as Musk predicts, then the Gigafactory and the cells it packages from other battery factories will consume 17,119 tonnes of lithium, 71,860 tonnes of nickel, 13,292 tonnes of cobalt, 154,468 tonnes of copper and 75,961 tonnes of aluminum. All of these metals except aluminum have limited global reserves, and North America doesn’t have enough production capacity to hope to supply all the demand of the Gigafactory, except in the case of aluminum and possibly copper.


When the Gigafactory was originally announced, Telsa made statements about sourcing the battery materials from North America which would both reduce its costs and lower the environmental impact of its batteries. These claims should be treated with skepticism. The Gigafactory will reduce the transportation emissions in battery manufacturing, since it will be shipping directly from the refineries and processors, but the transportation emissions will still be very high because North America simply doesn’t produce enough of the metals needed by the Gigafactory. If the Gigafactory manufacturers 150 GWh of batteries per year, then it will consume almost 200 times more lithium than North America produced in 2013. In addition, it will also consume 166% of the cobalt, 133% of the natural graphite, 25.7% of the nickel, and 5.6% of the copper produced by North American mines in 2016. Presumably synthetic graphite will be used instead of natural graphite because it has a higher purity level of carbon and more uniform spheroid flakes which allow for the easier flow of electrons in the cathode, but most synthetic graphite comes from Asia. Only in the case of aluminum does it seem likely that the metal will come entirely from North America, since Gigafactory will consume 1.9% of North American mine production and the US has excess aluminum refining capacity and no shortage of bauxite. Even when considering that roughly 45 GWh of the battery cells will come from external battery factories which are presumably located in Asia, the Gigafactory will overwhelm the lithium and cobalt markets in North America, and strain the local supplies of nickel and copper.


Shipping from overseas contributes to greenhouse gases, but shipping over water is very energy efficient. The Gigafactory is located at a nexus of railroad lines, so it can efficiently ship the battery materials coming from Asia through the port of Oakland. The bigger problem is that most ships on international waters use dirty bunker fuels that contain 2.7% sulfur on average, so they release large quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that cause acid rain and respiratory diseases.

A larger concern than the emissions from shipping is the fact that the production of most of these battery materials is an energy intensive process that consumes between 100 and 200 mejajoules per kg. The aluminum, copper, nickel and cobalt produced by North America is likely to come from places powered by hydroelectric dams in Canada and natural gas in the US, so they are comparatively cleaner.  Most of the metal refining and graphite production in Asia and Australia, however, is done by burning coal. Most of the places that produce battery materials either lack strong pollution controls, as is the case in Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia, Philippines or New Caledonia, or they use dirty sources of energy, as is the case in China, India, Australia, the DRC, Zambia, Brazil and Madagascar.


Most of the world’s lithium traditionally came from pumping lithium rich subsurface water out of the salt flats of Tibet, northeast Chile, northwest Argentina and Nevada, but the places with concentrated lithium brines are rapidly being exhausted. The US Geological Survey estimates that China’s annual production of lithium which mostly comes from salt flats in Tibet has fallen from 4500 tonnes in 2012 to just 2000 tonnes in 2016. Silver Peak, Nevada, which is the only place in North America where lithium is currently extracted, may be experiencing similar production problems due to the exhaustion of its lithium, but its annual production numbers are confidential.

Since 1966 when brine extraction began in Silver Peak, the concentration of lithium in the water has fallen from 360 to 230 ppm (parts per million), and it is probably around 200 ppm today. At that concentration of lithium, 14,300 liters of water need to be extracted to produce 1 kg of battery-grade lithium metal. This subsurface water is critical in a state that only receives an average of 9 inches of rain per year. Parts of Nevada are already suffering from water rationing, so a massive expansion of lithium extraction is an added stress, but the biggest risk is that brine operations may contaminate the ground water. 30% of Nevada’s water is pumped from underground aquifers, so protecting this resource is vitally important. Lithium-rich water is passed through a series of 4 or 5 evaporation pools over a series of 12 to 18 months, where it is converted to lithium chloride, which is toxic to plants and aquatic life and can contaminate the ground water. Adams-Kszos and Stewart (2003) measured the effect of lithium chloride contamination in aquatic species 150 miles away from brine operations in Nevada.

As the lithium concentrations fall in the water, more energy is expended in pumping water and evaporating it to concentrate the lithium for processing. Argonne National Laboratory estimates that it takes 3 times as much energy to extract a tonne of lithium in Silver Peak, Nevada as in the Atacama Salt Flats of Chile, where the lithium is 7 times more concentrated.  Most of the lithium in Chile and Argentina is produced with electricity from diesel generators, but in China and Australia it comes from burning coal, which is even worse.

For every kg of battery-grade lithium, 4.4 kg of slaked lime is consumed to remove magnesium and calcium from the brine in Silver Peak. The process of producing this lime from limestone releases 0.713 kg of COfor every kg of lime. In addition, 5 kg of soda ash (Na2CO3) is added for each kilo of battery-grade lithium to precipitate it as lithium carbonate. Production of soda ash is also an energy intensive process which produces greenhouse gases.

Although lithium is an abundant element and can be found in ocean water and salty lakes, there are only 4 places on the planet where it is concentrated enough without contaminants to be economically extracted from the water and the few places with concentrated lithium water are rapidly being exploited. In 2008, Meridian International estimated that 2 decades of mining had extracted 20% of the lithium from the epicenter of the Atacama Salt Flats where lithium concentrations are above 3000 ppm. According to Meridian’s calculations, the world only had 4 million tonnes of high-concentration lithium brine reserves remaining in 2008.

As the best concentrations of lithium brine are being exhausted, extraction is increasingly moving to mining pegmatites, such as spodumene. North Carolina, Russia and Canada shut down their pegmatite operations because they couldn’t compete with the cheap cost of lithium from the salt flats of Chile and Argentine, but Australia and Zimbabwe have dramatically increased their production of lithium from pegmatites in recent years. Between 2004 and 2016, the percentage of global lithium from pegmatites increased from 39% to 44%.


In 2016, Australia produced 40.9% of the global lithium supply by processing spodumene, which is an extremely energy-intensive process. It takes 125 MJ of energy to extract a kilo of lithium from Chile’s salt flats, whereas 850 MJ is consumed to extract the same amount of lithium from spodumene in Australia. The spodumene is crushed, so it can be passed through a flotation beneficiation process to produce a concentrate. That concentrate is then heated to 1100ºC to change the crystal structure of the mineral. Then, the spodumene is ground and mixed with sulfuric acid and heated to 250ºC to form lithium sulfate. Water is added to dissolve the lithium sulfate and it is filtered before adding soda ash which causes it to precipitate as lithium carbonate. As lithium extraction increasingly moves to pegmatites and salt flats with lower lithium concentrations, the energy consumption will dramatically increase to produce lithium in the future.

Likewise, the energy to extract nickel and cobalt will also increase in future. The nickel and cobalt from Canada and the copper from the United States, generally comes from sulfide ores, which require much less energy to refine, but these sulfide reserves are limited. The majority of nickel and cobalt, and a sizable proportion of the copper used by the Gigafactory will likely come from places which present ethical challenges. Nickel from sulfide ores generally consumes less than 100 MJ of energy per kg, whereas nickel produced from laterite ores consumes between 252 and 572 MJ per kg. All the sulfide sources emit less than 10 kg of CO2 per kg of nickel, whereas the greenhouse gas emissions from laterite sources range from 25 to 46 kg  CO2 per kg of nickel. It is generally better to acquire metals from sulfide ores, since they emit fewer greenhouse gases and they generally come from deeper in the ground, whereas laterite ores generally are produced by open pit and strip mining which causes greater disruption of the local ecology. Between 2004 and 2016, the percentage of global primary production of nickel from laterite ores increase from 40% to 60% and that percentage will continue to grow in the future, since 72% of global nickel “resources” are laterites according to the US Geological Survey.


Cobalt is a byproduct of copper or nickel mining. The majority of the sulfide ores containing copper/cobalt are located in places like Norilsk, Russia, Zambia and the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are no pollution controls to capture the large amounts of sulfur dioxide and heavy metals released by smelting. The refineries in Norilsk, Russia, which produce 11% of the world’s nickel and 5% of its cobalt, are so polluting, that nothing grows within a 20 kilometer radius of the refineries and it is reported that Norilsk has the highest rates of lung cancer in the world.

The Democratic Republic of Congo currently produces 54% of the world’s cobalt and 5% of its copper. Buying cobalt from the DRC helps fuel a civil war in the Katanga Province where the use of children soldiers and systematic rape are commonplace. Zambia, which is located right over the border from Katanga Province, produces 4% of the world’s cobalt and copper and it also has very lax pollution controls for metal refining.

Most of the cobalt and nickel produced by the DRC and Zambia is shipped to China for refining by burning coal. China has cracked down on sulfur dioxide and heavy metal emissions in recent years, and now the DRC is attempting to do more of the refining within its own borders. The problem is that the DRC produces most of its energy from hydroelectric dams in tropical rainforests, which is the dirtiest energy on the planet. According to the IPCC (AR5 WGIII 2014), hydroelectric dams typically emit a medium of 24 g of  CO2-eq per kWh, but tropical dams accumulate large amounts of vegetation which collect at the bottom of the dam where bacteria feeding on the decaying matter release methane (CH4) in the absence of oxygen. There have been no measurements of the methane released by dams in the DRC, but studies of 3 Amazonian hydroelectric dams found that they emit an average of 2556 g CO2-eq per kWh. Presumably the CO2 from these dams would have been emitted regardless of whether the vegetation falls on the forest floor or in a dam, but rainforest dams are unique environments without oxygen that produces methane. If we only count the methane emissions, then Amazonian hydroelectric dams emit an average of 2044 g CO2-eq per kWh. Any refining of copper/cobalt in the DRC and Zambia or nickel/cobalt in Brazil will likely use this type of energy which emits twice as much greenhouse gases as coal.

To avoid the ethical problems with obtaining nickel and cobalt from Russia and cobalt and copper from the DRC and Zambia, the Gigafactory will have to consume metals from laterite ores in places like Cuba, New Caledonia, Philippines, Indonesia and Madagascar, which dramatically increases the greenhouse gas emissions of these metals. The nickel/cobalt ore from Moa, Cuba is shipped to Sherritts’ refineries in Canada, so presumably it will be produced with pollution controls in Cuba and Canada and relatively clean sources of energy. In contrast, the nickel/cobalt mining in the Philippines and New Caledonia has generated protracted protests by the local population who are effected by the contamination of their water, soil and air. When Vale’s $6 billion high pressure acid leaching plant in Goro, New Caledonia leaked 100,000 liters of acid-tainted effluent leaked into a local river in May 2014, protesters frustrated by the unaccountability of the mining giant burned a third of its trucks and one of its buildings, causing between $20 and $30 million in damages. The mining companies extracting nickel and cobalt in the Philippines have shown so little regard for the health of the local people, that the public outcry induced the Duterte administration to recently announce that it will prohibit all open pit mining of nickel. If this pronouncement is enforced, the operations of 28 of the 41 companies mining nickel/cobalt in the country will be shut down and the global supply of nickel will be reduced between 8% and 10%.

Most refining of laterite ores in the world is done with dirty energy, which is problematic because these ores require so much more energy than sulfide ores. Much of the copper/cobalt from the DRC and Zambia and the nickel/cobalt from the Philippines is shipped to China where it is refined with coal. The largest nickel/cobalt laterite mine and refinery in the world is the Ambatovy Project in Madagascar. Although the majority of the electricity on the island comes from hydroelectric dams, the supply is so limited that Ambatovy constructed three 30 MW coal-powered generators, plus 30 MW diesel powered generators.

It is highly likely that many of the LCA studies of lithium-ion batteries have underestimated the energy and greenhouse gas emissions to produce their metals, because they assume that the lithium comes from brine operations and the copper, nickel and cobalt come from sulfide ores with high metal concentrations. As lithium extraction increasingly shifts to spodumene mining and nickel and cobalt mining shifts to laterite ores, the greenhouse gas emissions to produce these metals will dramatically increase.

As the global production of lithium-ion batteries ramps up, the most concentrated ores for these metals will become exhausted, so that mining will move to less-concentrated sources, which require more energy and resources in the extraction and processing.  In 1910, copper ore in the US contained 1.9% copper. By 1950, this percentage had fallen to 0.9% copper, and by 1980 it was at 0.5% copper. As the concentration of copper in the ore has fallen, the environmental impact of extraction has risen. In a study of the smelting and refining of copper and nickel, Norgate and Rankin (2000) found that the energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and sulfur dioxide emissions per kg of metal rose gradually when changing from ore with 3% or 2% metal to 1% metal, but below 1% the environmental impacts increased dramatically. MJ/kg, CO2/kg and SO2/kg doubled when moving from ore with 1% metal to ore with 0.5% metal, and they doubled again when moving to 0.25% metal. Producing a kilo of copper today in the US has double the environmental impact of a kg of copper half a century ago and it will probably have 4 times the impact in the future.

The enormous demand for metals by battery manufacturers will force the mining companies to switch to less and less concentrated ores and consume more energy in their extraction. If the Nevada Gigafactory produces 150 GWh of batteries per year, then it will dramatically reduce the current global reserves listed by the US Geological survey. The Nevada Gigafatory will cut the current global lithium reserves from 400 to 270 years, assuming that current global consumption in other sectors does not change (which is highly unlikely). If the Gigafactory consumes metals whose recycled content is the US average recycling rate, then the current global copper reserves will be reduced from 37.1 to 36.9 years, the nickel reserves from 34.7 to 33.9 years, and the cobalt reserves from 56.9 to 52.5 years.

Recycling at the Gigafactory will not dramatically reduce its demand for metals. If we assume that 80% of the metal consumed by the Gigafactory will come from recycled content starting in 15 years when batteries start to be returned for recycling, then current global reserves will be extended 0.04 years for copper, 0.09 years for nickel, 0.9 years for cobalt. Only in the case of lithium will recycling make a dramatic difference, extending the current reserves 82 years for lithium.

The prospects for global shortages of these metals will become even more dire if the 95.0 million vehicles that the world produced in 2016 were all long-range electrics as Elon Musk advocates for “sustainable transport.” If the average vehicle (including all trucks and buses) has a 50 kWh battery, then the world would need to produce 4750 GWh of batteries per year just for electric vehicles. With energy storage for the electrical grid, that total will probably double, so 64 Gigafactories will be needed. Even that might not enough. In Leonardo de Caprio’s documentary Before the Flood, Elon Musk states, “We actually did the calculations to figure out what it would take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy… and you’d need 100 Gigafactories.”

Lithium-ion batteries will get more energy dense in the future, but they are unlikely to reach the high energy density of the NCA cells produced in the Gigafactory, if using the LMO or LFP chemistries. For that kind of energy density, they will probably need either an NCA or an altered NMC chemistry which is 70%-80% nickel, so the proportion of lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper in most future EV batteries is likely to be similar to the Gigafactory’s NCA cells. If 4750 GWh of these batteries are produced every year at an energy density of 263 Wh/kg, then the current global reserves will be used up in 24.5 years for lithium, 31.2 years for copper, 20.2 years for nickel, and 15.4 years for cobalt. Even if those batteries are produced with 80% recycled metals, starting in 15 years time, the current global lithium reserves would be extended 6.6 years, or 7.4 years if all sectors switch to using 80% recycled lithium. Using 80% recycled metal in the batteries would extend current copper, nickel and cobalt reserves by 0.7, 0.5 and 0.1 years, respectively. An 80% recycling rate in all sectors would make a difference for copper, extending its reserves by 11.5 years, but only 2.8 years for nickel and 0.2 years for cobalt. In other words, recycling will not significantly reduce the enormous stresses that lithium-ion batteries will place on global metal supplies, because they represent so much new demand for metals.

As the demand for these metals increases, the prices will increase and new sources of these metals will be found, but they will either be in places like the DRC with ethical challenges or in places with lower quality ores which require more energy and resources to extract and refine. We can expect more energy-intensive mining of spodumene and  more strip mining of laterite ores which cause more ecological disruption. The ocean floor has enormous quantities of manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt, but the energy and resources to scrap the bottom of the ocean will dramatically increase the economic and ecological costs. If battery manufacturing dramatically raises the prices of lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper (and manganese for NMC cells), then it will be doubly difficult to transition to a sustainable civilization in other areas. For example, nickel and cobalt are essential to making carbide blades, tool dies and high-temperature turbine blades and copper is a vital for wiring, electronics and electrical motors. It is hard to imagine how the whole world will transition to a low-carbon economy if these metals are made prohibitively expensive by manufacturing over a billion lithium-ion batteries for EVs.

Future batteries will probably be able to halve their weight by switching to a solid electrolyte and using an anode made of lithium metal, lithiated silicon or carbon nanotubes (graphene), but that will only eliminate the copper, while doing little to reduce the demand for the other metals. Switching the anode to spongy silicon or graphene will allow batteries to hold more charge per kilogram, but those materials also dramatically increase the cost and the energy and resources that are consumed in battery manufacturing.

In the near future, lithium-ion batteries are likely to continue to follow their historical trend of using 7% less materials each year to hold the same amount of charge. That rate of improvement, however, is unlikely to last. An NCA cathode currently holds a maximum of 200 mAh of energy per gram, but its theoretical maximum is 279 mAh/g. It has already achieved 72% of what is theoretically possible, so there is little scope to keep improving. NMC at 170 mAh/g is currently farther from its theoretical limit of 280 mAh/g, but the rate of improvement is likely to slow as these battery chemistries bump against their theoretical limits.

Clearly the planet doesn’t have the resources to build 95 million long-range electric vehicles each year that run on lithium-ion batteries. Possibly a new type of battery will be invented that only uses common materials, such as aluminum, zinc, sodium and sulfur, but all the batteries that have been conceived with these sorts of material still have significant drawbacks. Maybe a new type of battery will be invented that is suitable for vehicles or the membranes in fuel cells will become cheap enough to make hydrogen a viable competitor, but at this point, lithium-ion batteries appear likely to dominate electric vehicles for the foreseeable future. The only way EVs based on lithium-ion can become a sustainable solution for transport is if the world learns to live with far fewer vehicles.

Currently 3% more vehicles are being built each year, and there is huge demand for vehicles in the developing world. While demand for cars has plateaued in the developed world, vehicle manufacturing since 1999 has grown 17.4% and 10.5% per year in China and India, respectively. If the developing world follows the unsustainable model of vehicle ownership found in the developed world, then the transition to electrified transport will cause severe metal shortages. Based on current trends, Navigant Research predicts that 129.9 million vehicles will be built in the year 2035, when there will be 2 billion vehicles on the road.


On the other hand, James Arbib and Tony Seba believe that autonomous vehicles and Transport as a Service (TaaS) such as Uber and Lyft will dramatically reduce demand for vehicles, lowering the number of passenger vehicles on American roads from 247 to 44 million by 2030. If 95% of passenger miles are autonomous TaaS by 2030 and the lifespan of electric vehicles grows to 500,000 miles as Arbib and Seba predict, then far fewer vehicles will be needed. Manufacturing fewer electric vehicles reduces the pressure to extract metals from laterite ores, pegmatites, the ocean floor, and lower-grade ores in general with higher ecological costs.

Ellingsen et al (2016) estimate that the energy consumed by battery factories per kWh of batteries has halved since 2012, however, that has to be balanced by the growing use lithium from spodumene and nickel and cobalt from laterite ores, and ores with lower metal concentrations that require more energy and produce more pollution. Given the increased energy efficiency in battery manufacturing plants and the growing efficiencies of scale, I would guesstimate that lithium-ion battery emissions are currently at roughly 150 kg  CO2-eq per kWh of battery and that the Gigafactory will lower those emissions by a third to roughly 100 kg  CO2-eq / kWh. If the Model 3, uses a 55 kWh battery, then its battery emissions would be roughly 5500 kg  CO2-eq.

Manufacturing a medium-sized EV without the battery emits 6.5 tonnes of  CO2-eq according to Ellingsen et al (2016). Electric cars don’t have the huge engine block of an ICE car, but they have large amounts of copper in the motor’s rotor and the windings and the Model 3 will have far more electronics than a standard EV. The Model S has 23 kg of electronics and I would guesstimate that the Model 3 will have roughly 15 lbs of electronics if it contains nVidia’s Drive PX or a custom processor based on the K-1 graphics processor. If the GHG emissions are roughly 150 kg  CO2-eq per kg of electronics, we can guesstimate that 2.2 tonnes of  CO2-eq will be emitted to manufacture the electronics in the Model 3. Given the large amount of copper, electronics and sensors in the Model 3, add an additional tonne, plus 5.5 tonnes for its 50 kWh battery, so a total of 13 tonnes of  CO2-eq will be emitted to manufacture the entire car.

Manufacturing a medium-sized ICE car emits between 5 and 6 tonnes, so there is roughly a 7.5 tonne difference in GHG emissions between manufacturing the Model 3 and a comparable ICE car. A new ICE car the size of the Model 3 will get roughly 30 mpg. In the US, a gallon of gasoline emits 19.64 lbs of CO2, but it emits 24.3 lbs of  CO2e when the methane and nitrous oxide are included, plus the emissions from extraction, refining and transportation, according to the Argonne National Laboratory. Therefore, we will need to burn 680 gallons of gasoline or drive 20,413 miles at 30 mpg to equal those 7.5 extra tonnes in manufacturing the Model 3.

At this point, the decision whether the Model 3 makes ecological sense depends on where the electricity is coming from. Let’s assume that the Model 3 will consume 0.30 kWh of electricity per mile, which is what the EPA estimates the Nissan Leaf to consume. The Model S will be a smaller and more aerodynamic car than the Leaf, but it will also weigh significantly more due to its larger battery. If we also include the US national average of 4.7% transmission losses in the grid, then the Model 3 will consume 0.315 kWh per mile. After driving the Model 3 100,000 miles, the total greenhouse gas emissions (including the production emissions) will range between 14.1 and 45.3 tonnes, depending on its energy source to charge the battery.


In comparison, driving a 30 mpg ICE car (with 5.5 tonnes in production emissions) will emit 42.2 tonnes of  CO2-eq after 100,000 miles. If we guesstimate that manufacturing a Toyota Prius will emit 7 tonnes, then driving it 100,000 miles at 52 mpg will emit 28.2 tonnes. Only in places like Kentucky which get almost all their electricity from coal is an ICE car the better environmental choice. The Model 3, however, will have worse emissions than most of its competitors in the green car market, if it is running on average US electricity, which emits 528 grams of CO2-eq per kWh. It will emit slightly more than a plugin hybrid like the Chevy Volt and an efficient hybrid like the Toyota Prius and substantially more than a short-range electric, like the Nissan Leaf.

Most previous comparisons between electric cars and ICE cars were based on short-range electrics with smaller batteries, such as the Nissan Leaf, which is why environmental advocates are so enthusiastic about EVs. However, comparing the Model S and Model 3 to the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius hybrid shows that the environmental benefits of long-range EVs are questionable when compared to short-range EVs, plugin hybrids and hybrids. Only when running the Model 3 on cleaner sources of electricity does it emit less greenhouse gases than hybrids and plugin hybrids, but in the majority of the United States it will emit slightly more. Many of the early adopters of EVs also owned solar panels, so buying a Model 3 will reduce their carbon footprint, but the proportion of EV owners with solar panels on their roofs is falling. According to CleanTechnica’s PlugInsights annual survey, 25% of EV buyers before 2012 had solar panels on their roofs, compared to just 12% in 2014-2015. Most people who own solar panels do not have a home battery system so they can not use their clean energy all day, and most EV charging will happen at night using dirtier grid electricity.

Another factor to consider is the effect of methane leakage in the extraction and transport of natural gas. There is a raging scientific debate about what percentage of natural gas leaks into the atmosphere without being burned. A number of studies have concluded that the leakage of methane causes electricity from natural gas to have GHG emissions similar to coal, but there is still no consensus on the matter.  If the leakage rate is as high as some researchers believe, then EVs will emit more greenhouse gases than hybrids and efficient ICE cars in places like California which burn large amounts of natural gas.

On the other hand, many people believe that EVs will last 300,000 miles or even 500,000 miles since they have so few moving parts, so their high emissions in manufacturing will be justified. However, the EV battery will probably have to be replaced, and the manufacturing emissions for a long range EV battery can be as high as building a whole new ICE car. Another factor that could inhibit the long life of Telsa’s cars is the fact that the company builds cars described as “computers on wheels,” which are extremely difficult for third parties to fix and upgrade over time. Telsa only sells its parts to authorized repair shops and much of the functionality of car is locked up with proprietary code and secret security measures, as many do-it-yourselfers have discovered to their chagrin. When Tesla cars are damaged and sold as salvage, Tesla remotely disables its cars, so that they will no longer work even if repaired. The $600 inspection fee to reactivate the car plus the towing fees discourage Teslas from being fixed by third parties. These policies make it less likely that old Teslas will be fixed and their lifespans extended to counterbalance the high environmental costs of producing the cars.

Although the Model 3 has high greenhouse gas emissions in its production and driving it is also problematic in parts of the world that currently use dirty energy, those emissions could be significantly reduced in the future if they are accompanied by a shift to renewable energy, more recycling and the electrification of mining equipment, refining and transport. The car’s ecological benefits will increase if the emissions can be decreased in producing battery materials and the greater energy density of batteries is used to decrease the total materials in batteries rather than keep extending the range of EVs. Producing millions of Model 3s will strain the supply of vital metals and shift extraction to reserves which have higher ecological costs. However, the Model 3 could become a more sustainable option if millions of them are deployed in autonomous Transport as a Service fleets, which Arbib and Seba predict will be widespread by 2030, since TaaS will cost a tenth of the price of owning a private vehicle. If the Model 3 and future autonomous EVs become a means to drop the global demand for private vehicles and that helps reduce the demand for lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper down to sustainable levels, then the high environmental costs of manufacturing the Model 3 would be justified.

Nonetheless, the Model 3 and the NCA 2170 batteries currently being produced by Tesla offer few of those possible future ecological benefits. Most of the metal and graphite in the battery is being produced with energy from fossil fuels. In the short term at least, Telsa batteries will keep growing in capacity to offer more range, rather than reducing the total consumption of metals per battery. The extra sensors, processing power and electronics in the current Model 3 will increase its ecological costs without providing the Level 4 or 5 autonomy that would make it possible to convince people to give up their private vehicles. In the here and now, the Model 3 is generally not the best ecological choice, but it might become a better choice in the future.

The Model 3 promises to transform the market not only for EVs, but cars in general. If the unprecedented 500,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 are any indication of future demand, then long-range electrics with some degree of autonomous driving like the Model 3 will capture most of the EV market. Telsa’s stunning success will induce the rest of auto-makers to also start making long-range EVs with large batteries, advanced sensors, powerful image processors, advanced AI, cellular networking, driving data collection and large multimedia touchscreens. These features will dramatically increase the environmental costs of car manufacturing. Whether these features will be balanced by other factors which reduce their environmental costs remains to be seen.

Much of this analysis is guess work, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but it points out the problems with automatically assuming that EVs are always better for the environment. If we consider sulfate emissions, EVs are significantly worse for the environment. Also, when we consider the depletion of critical metal reserves, EVs are significantly worse than ICE vehicles.

The conclusion should be that switching to long-range EVs with large batteries and advanced electronics bears significant environmental challenges. The high manufacturing emissions of these types of EVs make their ecological benefits questionable for private vehicles which are only used on average 4% of the time. However, they are a very good option for vehicles which are used a higher percentage of the time such as taxis, buses and heavy trucks, because they will be driven many miles to counterbalance their high manufacturing emissions. Companies such as BYD and Proterra provide a model of the kinds of electric vehicles that Tesla should be designing to promote “sustainable transport.” Tesla has a few ideas on the drawing board that are promising from an ecological perspective, such as its long-haul semi, the renting out of Teslas to an autonomous TaaS fleet, and a new vehicle that sounds like a crossover between a sedan and a minibus for public transport. The current Model 3, however, is still a vehicle which promotes private vehicle ownership and bears the high ecological costs of long-range lithium batteries and contributes to the growing shortage of critical metals.

Clearly, EVs alone are not enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or attain sustainable transport in general. The first step is to work on switching the electric grid to cleaner renewable energy and installing more residential solar, so that driving an EV emits less CO2. However, another important step is redesigning cities and changing policies so that people aren’t induced to drive so many private vehicles. Instead of millions of private vehicles on the road, we should be aiming for walkable cities and millions of bikes and electric buses, which are far better not only for human health, but also for the environment.

A further step where future Model 3s may help is in providing autonomous TaaS that helps convince people to give up their private vehicles. However, autonomous EVs need to be matched by public policies that disincentivize the kind of needless driving that will likely occur in the future. The total number of miles will likely increase in the future due to autonomous electric cars driving around looking for passengers to pick up and people who spend more time in the car because they can surf the web, watch movies, and enjoy the scenery without doing the steering. Plus, the cost of the electricity to charge the battery is so cheap compared to burning gasoline that people will be induced to drive more, not less.

What’s really driving the global economic crisis is net energy decline

3 08 2017

And there’s no going back. So let’s step into the future.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Source: Doug Menuez

Published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

In the fifth contribution to our symposium, ‘Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy’, Jonathan Rutherford explores the fundamental driver of global economic malaise: not debt; not banks; but a protracted, slow-burn crisis of ‘net energy decline.’

Cutting through the somewhat stale debate between advocates and critics of ‘peak oil’, Rutherford highlights some of the most interesting and yet little-known scientific literature on the intimate relationship between the global economy and energy.

Whatever happens with the shift to renewables, he argues, we are moving into an era in which fossil fuels will become increasingly defunct, especially after mid-century.

The implications for the future of the global economy will not be pretty — but if we face up to it, the transition to more sustainable societies will be all the better for facing reality, rather than continuing with our heads in the sand (or, as per the image above, stuck up the bull’s behind).

As argued in more detail by Ted Trainer in this symposium the best hope for transition to a ‘post carbon’ — or, better, a sustainable society (a much broader goal) — lies in a process of radical societal reconstruction, focused on the building, in the here and now, of self-governing and self-reliant settlements, starting at the micro-local level.

The ‘Simpler Way’ vision we promote, in my view, is an inspiring alternative that we can and should work for. The hope is that these local movements — which have already begun to emerge — will network, educate and scale up, as the global crisis intensifies.

In what follows, I want to complement this view, by sketching why I think the global economy will inevitably face a terminal crisis of net energy in coming years. In making this prediction, I am assuming that global transnational elites (i.e. G7 elites), as well as subordinate national elites — who manage the globalised neoliberal economy — will pursue economic growth at all costs, as elites have done since the birth of the capitalist system in Britain 300+ years ago.

That is, they will not voluntarily pursue a process of organised ‘degrowth’. In my view, at best, they will vigorously pursue ‘green’ growth, i.e. via the rapid scaling up of renewable energy and promoting efficiency etc., but with no intention of actively reducing the overall level of energy consumption — indeed, most of the mainstream ‘green growth’ scenarios assume a doubling of global energy demand by 2050 (for a critical review of one report, see here).

I am focusing on energy but, of course we can, and should, add to this picture the wider multidimensional ecological crisis (climate change impacts, soil depletion, water stress, biodiversity loss etc) which, among other things, means that an ever increasing proportion GDP growth takes the form of “compensatory and defensive costs” (See i.e Sarkar, The Crisis of Capitalism, p.267–275) to deal with past and expected future ecological damage.

Energy and GDP Growth

Axiom 1: As the biophysical economists have shown global economic growth is closely correlated with growth in energy consumption.

Professor Minqi Li of Utah University’s Department of Economics, for example, shows that between 2005 and 2016:

‘an increase in economic growth rate by one percentage point is associated with an increase in primary energy consumption by 0.96 percent.’

GDP growth also depends on improvements in energy efficiency — Li reports that over the last decade energy efficiency improved by an average of 1.7% per annum.

One of the future uncertainties is how rapidly we are likely to improve energy efficiency — future supply constraints are likely to incentivise this strongly, and there will be scope for significant efficiency improvements, but there is also to be diminishing returns once the low hanging fruit has been picked.

Axiom 2: Economic growth depends not just on increases in gross energy consumption and energy efficiency, but the availability of net energy. Net energy can be defined as the energy left over after subtracting the energy used to attain energy — i.e. the energy used during the process of extraction, harvesting and transportation of energy. Net energy is critical because it alone powers the non-energy sectors of the global economy.

Without net energy all non-energy related economic activity would cease to function.

Insight: An important implication is that net energy can be in decline, even while gross primary energy supply is constant or even increasing.

Below I will make my case for a probably intensifying global net energy contraction by discussing, first, broad factors shaping the probable trajectory of global primary energy growth, followed by a discussion of overall net energy. Most of the statistics are drawn from Minqi Li’s latest report which, in turn, draws on the latest BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

Prospects for Gross Energy Consumption

Over the last decade, world primary energy consumption grew at an average annual rate of 1.8 percent. It’s important to note, however, as Jean- Jancovici shows, that in per-capita terms the rate of energy growth has significantly slowed since the 1980s, increasing at an average annual rate of 0.4% since that time, compared to 1.2% in the century prior. This is mainly due to the slowing growth in world oil supply, since the two oil shocks in the 1970s.

There are strong reasons for thinking that the rate of increase in gross energy availability will slow further in coming decades. Recently a peer reviewed paper estimated the maximum rate at which humanity could exploit all ultimately recoverable fossil fuel resources. It found that depending on assumptions, the peak in all fossil fuels would be reached somewhere between 2025–2050 (a finding that aligns with several other studies see i.e Maggio and Cacciola 2012; Laherrere, 2015).

This is highly significant because today fossil fuels make up about 86% of global primary energy use — a figure that, notwithstanding all global efforts to date, has barely changed in three decades. This surprising early peak estimate is substantially associated with the recent radical down-scaling of estimated economically and technically recoverable coal reserves.

The situation for oil is particularly critical, especially given that it is by far the world’s major source of liquid fuel, powering 95% of all transport. A recent HSBC report found that, already today, somewhere between 60–80% of conventional oil fields are in terminal decline. It estimated that by 2040 the world would need to find four Saudi Arabia’s (the largest oil supplier) worth of additional oil just to maintain current rates of supply and more than double that to meet 2040 projected demand.

And yet, as the same report showed, new oil discoveries have been in long term decline — lately reaching record lows notwithstanding record investments between 2001–2014. Moreover, new discoveries are invariably smaller fields with more rapid peak and decline rates. The recent boom in US tight oil — a bubble fueled by low interest rates and record oil industry debts — has been responsible for most additional supply since the peak in conventional oil in 2005, but is likely to be in terminal decline within the next 5–10 years, if it has not already peaked.

All this, as Nafeez Ahmed has argued, is generating the conditions within the next few years (once the current oil glut has been drawn down) for an oil supply crunch and price spike that has the potential to send the debt-ridden global economy into a bigger and better global financial crisis tailspin. It may well be a seminal event that future historians look back as marking the beginning of the end for the oil age.

An alternative currently fashionable view is that peak oil will be effectively trumped by a near-term voluntary decline in oil demand (so called ‘peak demand’), mainly due to the predicted rise of electric vehicles. One reason (among several), however, to be skeptical of such forecasts is that currently there is absolutely no evidence that oil demand is in decline — on the contrary, it continues to increase every year, and since the oil price drop in 2014, at an accelerating rate.

When peak oil does arrive, there are likely to be powerful incentives to implement coal-to-liquids or gas-to-liquids but, apart from the huge logistical and infrastructure problems involved, a move in this direction will only accelerate the near-term peaking of coal and gas supply, especially given the energetic inefficiencies involved in fuel conversion. Peak oil will also likely incentivise the acceleration towards electrification of transport and renewable energy, to which I will now turn.

Given peak fossil fuels, the prospects for increasing, or even just maintaining, gross energy depends heavily on how fast renewable energy and nuclear power can be scaled up. Nuclear energy currently accounts for 4.5% of energy supply, but globally is in decline and there are good reasons for thinking that it will not — and should not —play a major role in the future energy mix (see i.e Our Renewable Future, Heinberg & Findlay, 2016, p132–135).

In 2016, all forms of renewable electricity (i.e. excluding bio-fuel) accounted for about 10% of global energy consumption in 2016, but a large portion of this was hydroelectricity, which has limited potential for expansion. Wind, Solar PV and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) are generally agreed to be the major renewable technologies capable of a large increase in capacity but, notwithstanding rapid growth in recent years, in 2016 they still accounted for just 2.2% of world primary energy consumption.

Insight: In recent years many ‘green-growth’ reports have been published with optimistic renewable energy forecasts — one even claiming that renewables could supply all world energy (not just electricity) by 2050. But, it should be recognised that this would require a very dramatic increase in the rate of growth in renewable capacity.

In the last six years, new investment (including government, private sector etc) in all forms of renewable energy has leveled off at around the $300 billion a year. Heinberg and Finlay (p.123) estimate that this rate of investment would have to multiplied by more than a factor of ten and continued each year for several decades, if renewable energy was to meet current global energy demand, let alone the projected doubling of demand in most mainstream energy scenarios.

In other words, it would require an upfront annual investment of US$3 trillion a year (and more over the entire life cycle). By comparison, in 2014 the IEA estimated that global investment for all energy supply (i.e fossil fuels and renewables etc) in 2035 would be US $2 trillion per year. In addition, if fossil fuel capacity is to be phased out entirely by 2050, it would require much premature scrapping of existing capital — depriving investors of making full returns on their capital — which can be expected to trigger fierce resistance from large sections, if not the entire, transnational capitalist class.

Currently both oil and gas supply, if not coal, are growing much faster than all renewables, at least in absolute if not percentage terms. No wonder that the most ambitious IPCC emission reduction scenarios assume continued large scale use of fossil fuels through to 2050, and rely instead on highly uncertain and problematic ‘net emission’ technologies (i.e Carbon Capture and Storage, massive planting of trees etc).

Based on current trends, Minqi Li’s recent energy forecast predicts that the growth of renewable energy will, at best, offset the inevitable decline in fossil fuel energy over coming decades. He forecasts that a peak in gross global energy supply (including fossil fuels and renewables) will be reached by about 2050.

This of course does not include the very real possibility of serious energy ‘bottlenecks,’ resulting, for example, from the peak in oil — for which no government is adequately preparing — and with no alternative liquid fuel source, on the scale required, readily available.

The Net Energy Equation

The foregoing has just been about gross energy, but as mentioned above, the real prospects for the growth-industrial economy depend on net energy, which alone fuels the non-energy sectors of the economy. This is where the picture gets really challenging.

With regards to fossil fuels, EROI is on a downward trajectory. The current estimate (in 2014) for global oil & gas is that EROI is about 18:1. And while it’s true that technological innovation can improve the efficiency of oil extraction, in general this is being overwhelmed by the increasing global reliance on lower EROI unconventional oil & gas sources — a trend which will continue from now until the end of the fossil fuel age.

Axiom 3: What is often overlooked, is that declining EROI will exacerbate the problem of peak fossil fuels.

As Charles Hall explains, declining EROI will accelerate the advent of peak fossil fuels, because more energy is needed just to maintain the ratio of net energy needed to fuel the economy. And when, inevitably, we begin to move down the other side of Hubbert’s peak, things will get even more challenging. At this point, decreasing gross supply will be combined with ever greater reliance on lower EROI supplies, rapidly reducing the amount of net energy available to society.

The situation would be improved if the main renewables could provide an additional source of high net energy (i.e EROI). But, while this question is the subject of much current scholarly debate, and is quite unsettled, it seems highly likely that any future 100% renewable energy system (as opposed to individual technology) will provide far less net-energy than humanity — or at least, the minority of us in the energy rich affluent regions — has enjoyed during the fossil fuel epoch. This is for the following theoretical reasons outlined by energy experts Moriarty and Honnery in a recent paper:

  • Due to the more energy diffuse nature of renewable energy flows (sun and wind), harvesting this energy to produce electricity, requires the construction of complex industrial technologies. Currently, this requires the ‘hidden subsidy’ of fossil fuels, which are involved in the entire process of resource extraction, manufacturing and maintenance of these industrial technologies. As fossil fuels deplete, this subsidy will become costlier in both financial and energy terms, reducing the net-energy of renewable technologies.
  • The non-renewable resources (often rare) needed for construction of renewable technologies will deplete over time, and will thus take more energy to extract, again, reducing net energy.
  • Due to the intermittency of solar and wind, a 100% renewable energy system (or even a large portion of renewable energy within the overall mix) requires investment in either large amounts of redundant capacity (to ensure there is security of supply during calm and cloudy weather) or, alternatively, large amounts of (currently unforeseen on the scale needed) storage capacity — or both. Ultimately, either option will require energy investment for the total system.
  • Because the main renewable technologies generate electricity, there will be a large amount of energy lost through conversion (i.e. via hydrogen) to the many current energy functions that cannot easily be electrified (i.e. trucks, industrial heating processors etc). In fairness, the conversion of fossil fuels to electricity also involves substantial energy loss (i.e. about 2/3 on average), but given that about 80% of global primary energy is currently in a non-electrical form, this appears to be a far bigger problem for a future 100% renewable system.
  • As renewable energy capacity expands, it will inevitably have to be built in less ideal locations, reducing gross energy yield.

Axiom 4: Regardless of the net energy that a future 100% renewable energy system would provide, it is important to recognize that attempts to ramp up renewable energy at very fast rates — far from adding to the overall energy output of the global economy — will inevitably come at a net energy cost.

This is because there would need to be a dramatic increase in energy demand associated with the transitional process itself.

Modelling done by Josh Floyd has found that in their ‘baseline scenario’ (described here) — which looks to phase out fossil fuels in 50 years — net energy services for the global economy would decline during that transition period by more than 15% before recovering.

This would be true of any rapid energy transition, but the problem is particularly acute for a transition to renewable technologies due to their much higher upfront capital (and therefore energy) costs, compared to fossil fuel technologies.


The implication of the above arguments is that over the coming decades, the global economy will very likely face an increasing deterioration in net energy supply that will increasingly choke off economic growth. What will this look like for people in real life?

Economically, it will likely be revealed in terms of stagnating (or falling) real wages, rising costs of living, decreasing discretionary income and decreasing employment opportunities — symptoms, as Tim Morgan argues, we are already beginning to see, albeit, to varying extents across the globe — but which will intensify in coming years.

How slow or fast this happens nobody knows. But given capitalism is a system which absolutely depends on endless capital accumulation for its effective economic functioning and social legitimacy, this will prove to be a terminal crisis, from which the system cannot ultimately escape.

We therefore have no choice but to prepare for a future economy in which net energy is far lower than what we have been used to in the industrial era.

Insight: To be clear, crisis by itself, will not lead to desirable outcomes — far from it. Our collective fate, as Trainer explains, depends largely on the rapid emergence of currently small scale new society movements — building examples of the sane alternative in the shell of the old — and rapidly multiplying and scaling up, as the legitimacy of the system declines.

Jonathan Rutherford is coordinator of the new international bookshop, Melbourne Australia. He is involved in various local sustainability projects where he lives in Belgrave.

The green car myth

28 06 2017

How government subsidies make the white elephant on your driveway look sustainable

And this comes on top of this article that describes how just making electric cars’ battery packs is equivalent to eight years worth of driving conventional happy motoring.

I have written before about the problems with bright green environmentalism. Bright greens suggest that various technological innovations will serve to reduce carbon dioxide emissions enough to avoid catastrophic global warming and other environmental problems. There are a variety of practical problems that I outlined there, including the fact that most of our economic activities are hitting physical limits to energy efficiency.

The solution lies in accepting that we can not continue to expand our economies indefinitely, without catastrophic consequences. In fact, catastrophic consequences are in all likelihood already unavoidable, if we believe the warnings of prominent climatologists who claim that a two degree temperature increase is sufficient to cause significant global problems.

It’s easy to be deceived however and assume that we are in the process of a transition towards sustainable green technologies. The problem with most green technologies is that although their implementation on a limited scale is affordable, they have insufficient scalability to enable a transition away from fossil fuels.

Part of the reason for this limited scalability is because users of “green” technology receive subsidies and do not pay certain costs which users of “grey” technology have to shoulder as a result. As an example, the Netherlands, Norway and many other nations waive a variety of taxes for green cars, taxes that are used to maintain the network of roads that these cars use. As the share of green cars rises, grey cars will be forced to shoulder increasingly higher costs to pay for the maintenance of road networks.

It’s inevitable that these subsidies will be phased out. The idea of course is that after providing an initial gentle push, the transition towards more green driving will have reached critical mass and prove itself sustainable without any further government subsidies. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to occur. We’ve seen a case study of what happens when subsidies for green technologies are phased out in Germany. After 2011, the exponential growth in solar capacity rapidly came to a stop, as new installs started to drop. By 2014, solar capacity in Germany had effectively stabilized.1 Peak capacity of solar is now impressively high, but the amount of solar energy produced varies significantly from day to day. On bad days, solar and wind hardly contribute anything to the electricity grid.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s essay: The green car. The green car has managed to hide its enormous price tag behind a variety of subsidies, dodged taxes and externalities it has imposed upon the rest of society. Let us start with the externalities. Plug-in cars put significant strain on the electrical grid. These are costs that owners of such cars don’t pay themselves. Rather, power companies become forced to make costs to improve their grid, to avoid the risk of blackouts, costs that are then passed on to all of us.

When it comes to the subsidies that companies receive to develop green cars, it’s important not just to look at the companies that are around today. This is what is called survivorship bias. We focus on people who have succeeded and decide that their actions were a good decision to take. Everyone knows about the man who became a billionare by developing Minecraft. As a result, there are droves of indie developers out there hoping to produce the next big game. In reality, most of them earn less than $500 a year from sales.2

Everyone has heard of Tesla or of Toyota’s Prius. Nobody hears of the manufacturers who failed and went bankrupt. They had to make costs too, costs that were often passed on to investors or to governments. Who remembers Vehicle Production Group, or Fisker automotive? These are companies that were handed 193 million and 50 million dollar in loans respectively by the US Federal government, money the government won’t see again because the companies went bankrupt.3 This brings the total of surviving car manufacturers who received loans from the government to three.

To make matters worse, we don’t just subsidize green car manufacturers. We subsidize just about the entire production chain that ultimately leads to a green car on your driveway. Part of the reason Fisker automotive got in trouble was because its battery manufacturer, A123 Systems, declared bankruptcy. A123 Systems went bankrupt in 2012, but not before raising 380 million dollar from investors in 2009 and receiving a 249 million dollar grant from the U. S. department of energy back in 2010.

Which brings us to a de facto subsidy that affects not just green cars, but other unsustainable projects as well: Central bank policies. When interest rates are low, investors have to start searching for yield. They tend to find themselves investing in risky ventures, that may or may not pay off. Examples are the many shale companies that are on the edge of bankruptcy today. This could have been anticipated, but the current financial climate leaves investors with little choice but to invest in such risky ventures. This doesn’t just enable the growth of a phenomenon like the shale oil industry affects green car companies as well. Would investors have poured their money into A123 Systems, if it weren’t for central bank policies? Many might have looked at safer alternatives.

One company that has benefited enormously from these policies is Tesla. In 2008, Tesla applied for a 465 million dollar loan from the Federal government. This allowed Tesla to produce its car, which then allows Tesla to raise 226 million in an IPO in June 2010, where Tesla receives cash from investors willing to invest in risky ventures as a result of central bank policies. A $7,500 tax credit then encourages sales of Tesla’s Model S, which in combination with the money raised from the IPO allows Tesla to pay off its loan early.

In 2013, Tesla then announces that it has made an 11 million dollar profit. Stock prices go through the roof, as apparently they have succeeded at the task of the daunting task of making green cars economically viable. In reality, Tesla made 68 million dollar that year selling its emission credits to other car companies, without which, Tesla would have made a loss.

Tesla in fact receives $35,000 dollar in clean air credits for every Model S that it sells to customers, which in total was estimated to amount to 250 million dollar in 2013.4 To put these numbers in perspective, buying a Model S can cost anywhere around $70,000, so if the 35,000 dollar cost was passed on to the customer, prices would rise by about 50%, not including whatever sales tax applies when purchasing a car.

We can add to all of this the 1.2 billion of subsidy in the form of tax exemptions and reduced electricity rates that Tesla receives for its battery factory in Nevada.5 The story gets even better when we arrive at green cars sold to Europe, where we find the practice of “subsidy stacking”. The Netherlands exempts green cars from a variety of taxes normally paid upon purchase. These cars are then exported to countries like Norway, where green cars don’t have to pay toll and are allowed to drive on bus lanes.6

For freelancers in the Netherlands, subsidies for electrical cars have reached an extraordinarily high level. Without the various subsidies the Dutch government created to increase the incentive to drive an electrical car, a Tesla S would cost 94.010 Euro. This is a figure that would be even higher of course, if Dutch consumers had to pay for the various subsidies that Tesla receives in the United States. After the various subsidies provided by the Dutch government for freelance workers, Dutch consumers can acquire a Tesla S at a price of just 25,059 Euro.7

The various subsidies our governments provide are subsidies we all end up paying for in one form or another. What’s clear from all these numbers however is that an electric car is currently nowhere near a state where it could compete with a gasoline powered car in a free unregulated market, on the basis of its own merit.

The image that emerges here is not one of a technology that receives a gentle nudge to help it replace the outdated but culturally entrenched technology we currently use, but rather, of a number of private companies that compete for a variety of subsidies handed out by governments who seek to plan in advance how future technology will have to look, willfully ignorant of whatever effect physical limits might have on determining which technologies are economically viable to sustain and which aren’t.

After all, if government were willing to throw enough subsidies at it, we could see NGO’s attempt to solve world hunger using caviar and truffles. It wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run, but in the short term, it would prove to be a viable solution to hunger for a significant minority of the world’s poorest. There are no physical laws that render such a solution impossible on a small scale, rather, there are economic laws related to scalability that render it impossible.

Similarly, inventing an electrical car was never the problem. In 1900, 38% of American cars ran on electricity. The reason the electrical car died out back then was because it could not compete with gasoline. Today the problem consists of how to render it economically viable and able to replace our fossil fuel based transportation system, without detrimentally affecting our standard of living.

This brings us to the other elephant, the one in our room rather than our driveway. The real problem here is that we wish to sustain a standard of living that was built with cheap natural resources that are no longer here today. Coping with looming oil shortages will mean having to take a step back. The era where every middle class family could afford to have a car is over. Governments would be better off investing in public transport and safe bicycle lanes.

The problem America faces however, is that there are cultural factors that prohibit such a transition. Ownership of a car is seen as a marker of adulthood and the type of car tells us something about a man’s social status. This is an image car manufacturers are of course all too happy to reinforce through advertising. Hence, we find a tragic example of a society that wastes its remaining resources on false solutions to the crisis it faces.

1 – http://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/publications/veroeffentlichungen-pdf-dateien-en/studien-und-konzeptpapiere/recent-facts-about-photovoltaics-in-germany.pdf Page 12

2 – http://www.gameskinny.com/364n3/report-most-indie-game-devs-made-less-than-500-in-game-sales-in-2013

3 – http://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2013/05/11/the-real-reason-tesla-is-still-alive-and-other-green-car-companies-arent/

4 – http://evworld.com/news.cfm?newsid=30195

5 – http://www.rgj.com/story/news/2014/09/04/nevada-strikes-billion-tax-break-deal-tesla/15096777/

6 – http://www.elsevier.nl/Economie/achtergrond/2015/4/-1742131W/

7 – https://www.cda.nl/mensen/omtzigt/blog/toon/auto-rijden-op-subsidie/

The Dynamics of Depletion

27 06 2017

Originally published on the Automatic Earth, this further article on ERoEI and resource depletion ties all the things you need to understand about Limits to Growth in one neat package. 

Over the years, I have written many articles on the topic of EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested); there’s a whole chapter on it in the Automatic Earth Primer Guide 2017 that Nicole Foss assembled recently, which contains 17 well worth reading articles.

Since EROEI is still the most important energy issue there is, and not the price of oil or some new gas find or a set of windmills or solar panels or thorium as the media will lead you to believe, it can’t hurt to repeat it once again. Brian Davey wrote this item on his site CredoEconomics, it is part of his book “Credo”.

The reason I believe it can’t hurt to repeat this is because not nearly enough people understand that in the end, everything, the survival of our world, our way of life, is all about the ‘quality’ of energy, and about what we get in return when we drill and pump and build infrastructure; what remains when we subtract all the energy used to ‘generate’ energy, from (or at) the bottom line is all that’s left…….


Nicole Foss

Nicole Foss: Energy is the master resource – the capacity to do work. Our modern society is the result of the enormous energy subsidy we have enjoyed in the form of fossil fuels, specifically fossil fuels with a very high energy profit ratio (EROEI). Energy surplus drove expansion, intensification, and the development of socioeconomic complexity, but now we stand on the edge of the net energy cliff. The surplus energy, beyond that which has to be reinvested in future energy production, is rapidly diminishing.

We would have to greatly increase gross production to make up for reduced energy profit ratio, but production is flat to falling so this is no longer an option. As both gross production and the energy profit ratio fall, the net energy available for all society’s other purposes will fall even more quickly than gross production declines would suggest. Every society rests on a minimum energy profit ratio. The implication of falling below that minimum for industrial society, as we are now poised to do, is that society will be forced to simplify.

A plethora of energy fantasies is making the rounds at the moment. Whether based on unconventional oil and gas or renewables (that are not actually renewable), these are stories we tell ourselves in order to deny that we are facing any kind of future energy scarcity, or that supply could be in any way a concern. They are an attempt to maintain the fiction that our society can continue in its current form, or even increase in complexity. This is a vain attempt to deny the existence of non-negotiable limits to growth. The touted alternatives are not energy sources for our current society, because low EROEI energy sources cannot sustain a society complex enough to produce them.



Using Energy to Extract Energy – The Dynamics of Depletion



Brian Davey

Brian Davey: The “Limits to Growth Study” of 1972 was deeply controversial and criticised by many economists. Over 40 years later, it seems remarkably prophetic and on track in its predictions. The crucial concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested is explained and the flaws in neoclassical reasoning which EROI highlights.

The continued functioning of the energy system is a “hub interdependency” that has become essential to the management of the increasing complexity of our society. The energy input into the UK economy is about 50 to 70 times as great as what the labour force could generate if working full time only with the power of their muscles, fuelled up with food. It is fossil fuels, refined to be used in vehicles and motors or converted into electricity that have created power inputs that makes possible the multiple round- about arrangements in a high complex economy. The other “hub interdependency” is a money and transaction system for exchange which has to continue to function to make vast production and trade networks viable. Without payment systems nothing functions.

Yet, as I will show, both types of hub interdependencies could conceivably fail. The smooth running of the energy system is dependent on ample supplies of cheaply available fossil fuels. However, there has been a rising cost of extracting and refining oil, gas and coal. Quite soon there is likely to be an absolute decline in their availability. To this should be added the climatic consequences of burning more carbon based fuels. To make the situation even worse, if the economy gets into difficulty because of rising energy costs then so too will the financial system – which can then have a knock-on consequence for the money system. The two hub interdependencies could break down together.

“Solutions” put forward by the techno optimists almost always assume growing complexity and new uses for energy with an increased energy cost. But this begs the question- because the problem is the growing cost of energy and its polluting and climate changing consequences.


The “Limits to Growth” study of 1972 – and its 40 year after evaluation

It was a view similar to this that underpinned the methodology of a famous study from the early 1970s. A group called the Club of Rome decided to commission a group of system scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore how far economic growth would continue to be possible. Their research used a series of computer model runs based on various scenarios of the future. It was published in 1972 and produced an instant storm. Most economists were up in arms that their shibboleth, economic growth, had been challenged. (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & BehrensIII, 1972)

This was because its message was that growth could continue for some time by running down “natural capital” (depletion) and degrading “ecological system services” (pollution) but that it could not go on forever. An analogy would be spending more than one earns. This is possible as long as one has savings to run down, or by running up debts payable in the future. However, a day of reckoning inevitably occurs. The MIT scientists ran a number of computer generated scenarios of the future including a “business as usual” projection, called the “standard run” which hit a global crisis in 2030.

It is now over 40 years since the original Limits to Growth study was published so it is legitimate to compare what was predicted in 1972 against what actually happened. This has now been done twice by Graham Turner who works at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Turner did this with data for the rst 30 years and then for 40 years of data. His conclusion is as follows:

The Limits to Growth standard run scenario produced 40 years ago continues to align well with historical data that has been updated in this paper following a 30-year comparison by the author. The scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment and subsequently, the population. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030 – with death rates reversing contemporary trends and rising from 2020 onward – the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. (Turner, 2012)

So what brings about the collapse? In the Limits to Growth model there are essentially two kinds of limiting restraints. On the one hand, limitations on resource inputs (materials and energy). On the other hand, waste/pollution restraints which degrade the ecological system and human society (particularly climate change).

Turner finds that, so far it, is the former rather than the latter that is the more important. What happens is that, as resources like fossil fuels deplete, they become more expensive to extract. More industrial output has to be set aside for the extraction process and less industrial output is available for other purposes.

With signficant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run (figure 1 to figure 3) shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century. (Turner, 2012, p. 121)


Energy Return on Energy Invested

A similar analysis has been made by Hall and Klitgaard. They argue that to run a modern society it is necessary that the energy return on energy invested must be at least 15 to 1. To understand why this should be so consider the following diagram from a lecture by Hall. (Hall, 2012)


The diagram illustrates the idea of the energy return on energy invested. For every 100 Mega Joules of energy tapped in an oil flow from a well, 10 MJ are needed to tap the well, leaving 90 MJ. A narrow measure of energy returned on energy invested at the wellhead in this example would therefore be 100 to 10 or 10 to 1.

However, to get a fuller picture we have to extend this kind of analysis. Of the net energy at the wellhead, 90 MJ, some energy has to be used to refine the oil and produce the by-products, leaving only 63 MJ.

Then, to transport the refined product to its point of use takes another 5 MJ leaving 58MJ. But of course, the infrastructure of roads and transport also requires energy for construction and maintenance before any of the refined oil can be used to power a vehicle to go from A to B. By this final stage there is only 20.5 MJ of the original 100MJ left.

We now have to take into account that depletion means that, at well heads around the world, the energy to produce energy is increasing. It takes energy to prospect for oil and gas and if the wells are smaller and more difficult to tap because, for example, they are out at sea under a huge amount of rock. Then it will take more energy to get the oil out in the first place.

So, instead of requiring 10MJ to produce the 100 MJ, let us imagine that it now takes 20 MJ. At the other end of the chain there would thus, only be 10.5MJ – a dramatic reduction in petroleum available to society.

The concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested is a ratio in physical quantities and it helps us to understand the flaw in neoclassical economic reasoning that draws on the idea of “the invisible hand” and the price mechanism. In simplistic economic thinking, markets should have no problems coping with depletion because a depleting resource will become more expensive. As its price rises, so the argument goes, the search for new sources of energy and substitutes will be incentivised while people and companies will adapt their purchases to rising prices. For example, if it is the price of energy that is rising then this will incentivise greater energy efficiency. Basta! Problem solved…

Except the problem is not solved… there are two flaws in the reasoning. Firstly, if the price of energy rises then so too does the cost of extracting energy – because energy is needed to extract energy. There will be gas and oil wells in favourable locations which are relatively cheap to tap, and the rising energy price will mean that the companies that own these wells will make a lot of money. This is what economists call “rent”. However, there will be some wells that are “marginal” because the underlying geology and location are not so favourable. If energy prices rise at these locations then rising energy prices will also put up the energy costs of production. Indeed, when the energy returned on energy invested falls as low as 1 to 1, the increase in the costs of energy inputs will cancel out any gains in revenues from higher priced energy outputs. As is clear when the EROI is less than one, energy extraction will not be profitable at any price.

Secondly, energy prices cannot in any case rise beyond a certain point without crashing the economy. The market for energy is not like the market for cans of baked beans. Energy is necessary for virtually every activity in the economy, for all production and all services. The price of energy is a big deal – energy prices going up and down have a similar significance to interest rates going up or down. There are “macro-economic” consequences for the level of activity in the economy. Thus, in the words of one analyst, Chris Skrebowski, there is a rise in the price of oil, gas and coal at which:

the cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth at a given point in time.(Skrebowski, 2011)

This kind of analysis has been further developed by Steven Kopits of the Douglas-Westwood consultancy. In a lecture to the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy in February of 2014, he explained how conventional “legacy” oil production peaked in 2005 and has not increased since. All the increase in oil production since that date has been from unconventional sources like the Alberta Tar sands, from shale oil or natural gas liquids that are a by-product of shale gas production. This is despite a massive increase in investment by the oil industry that has not yielded any increase in “conventional oil” production but has merely served to slow what would otherwise have been a faster decline.

More specifically, the total spend on upstream oil and gas exploration and production from 2005 to 2013 was $4 trillion. Of that amount, $3.5 trillion was spent on the “legacy” oil and gas system. This is a sum of money equal to the GDP of Germany. Despite all that investment in conventional oil production, it fell by 1 million barrels a day. By way of comparison, investment of $1.5 trillion between 1998 and 2005 yielded an increase in oil production of 8.6 million barrels a day.

Further to this, unfortunately for the oil industry, it has not been possible for oil prices to rise high enough to cover the increasing capital expenditure and operating costs. This is because high oil prices lead to recessionary conditions and slow or no growth in the economy. Because prices are not rising fast enough and costs are increasing, the costs of the independent oil majors are rising at 2 to 3% a year more than their revenues. Overall profitability is falling and some oil majors have had to borrow and sell assets to pay dividends. The next stage in this crisis has then been that investment projects are being cancelled – which suggests that oil production will soon begin to fall more rapidly.

The situation can be understood by reference to the nursery story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks tries three kinds of porridge – some that is too hot, some that is too cold and some where the temperature is somewhere in the middle and therefore just right. The working assumption of mainstream economists is that there is an oil price that is not too high to undermine economic growth but also not too low so that the oil companies cannot cover their extraction costs – a price that is just right. The problem is that the Goldilocks situation no longer describes what is happening. Another story provides a better metaphor – that story is “Catch 22”. According to Kopits, the vast majority of the publically quoted oil majors require oil prices of over $100 a barrel to achieve positive cash flow and nearly a half need more than $120 a barrel.

But it is these oil prices that drag down the economies of the OECD economies. For several years, however, there have been some countries that have been able to afford the higher prices. The countries that have coped with the high energy prices best are the so called “emerging non OECD countries” and above all China. China has been bidding away an increasing part of the oil production and continuing to grow while higher energy prices have led to stagnation in the OECD economies. (Kopits, 2014)

Since the oil price is never “just right” it follows that it must oscillate between a price that is too high for macro-economic stability or too low to make it a paying proposition for high cost producers of oil (or gas) to invest in expanding production. In late 2014 we can see this drama at work. The faltering global economy has a lower demand for oil but OPEC, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, have decided not to reduce oil production in order to keep oil prices from falling. On the contrary they want prices to fall. This is because they want to drive US shale oil and gas producers out of business.

The shale industry is described elsewhere in this book – suffice it here to refer to the claim of many commentators that the shale oil and gas boom in the United States is a bubble. A lot of money borrowed from Wall Street has been invested in the industry in anticipation of high profits but given the speed at which wells deplete it is doubtful whether many of the companies will be able to cover their debts. What has been possible so far has been largely because quantitative easing means capital for this industry has been made available with very low interest rates. There is a range of extraction production costs for different oil and gas wells and fields depending on the differing geology in different places. In some “sweet spots” the yield compared to cost is high but in a large number of cases the costs of production have been high and it is being said that it will be impossible to make money at the price to which oil has fallen ($65 in late 2014). This in turn could mean that companies funding their operations with junk bonds could find it difficult to service their debt. If interest rates rise the difficulty would become greater. Because the shale oil and gas sector has been so crucial to expansion in the USA then a large number of bankruptcies could have wider repercussions throughout the wider US and world economy.


Renewable Energy systems to the rescue?

Although it seems obvious that the depletion of fossil fuels can and should lead to the expansion of renewable energy systems like wind and solar power, we should beware of believing that renewable energy systems are a panacea that can rescue consumer society and its continued growth path. A very similar net energy analysis can, and ought to be done for the potential of renewable energy to match that already done for fossil fuels.


Before we get over-enthusiastic about the potential for renewable energy, we have to be aware of the need to subtract the energy costs particular to renewable energy systems from the gross energy that renewable energy systems generate. Not only must energy be used to manufacture and install the wind turbines, the solar panels and so on, but for a renewable based economy to be able to function, it must also devote energy to the creation of energy storage. This would allow for the fact that, when the wind and the sun are generating energy, is not necessarily the time when it is wanted.

Furthermore, the places where, for example, solar and wind potential are at this best – offshore for wind or in deserts without dust storms near the equator for solar – are usually a long distance from centres of use. Once again, a great deal of energy, materials and money must be spent getting the energy from where it is generated to where it will be used. For example, the “Energie Wende” (Energy Transformation) in Germany is involving huge effort, financial and energy costs, creating a transmission corridor to carry electricity from North Sea wind turbines down to Bavaria where the demand is greatest. Similarly, plans to develop concentrated solar power in North Africa for use in northern Europe which, if they ever come to anything, will require major investments in energy transmission. A further issue, connected to the requirement for energy storage, is the need for energy carriers which are not based on electricity. As before, conversions to put a current energy flux into a stored form, involve an energy cost.

Just as with fossil fuels, sources of renewable energy are of variable yield depending on local conditions: offshore wind is better than onshore for wind speed and wind reliability; there is more solar energy nearer the equator; some areas have less cloud cover; wave energy on the Atlantic coasts of the UK are much better than on other coastlines like those of the Irish Sea or North Sea. If we make a Ricardian assumption that best net yielding resources are developed first, then subsequent yields will be progressively inferior. In more conventional jargon – just as there are diminishing returns for fossil energy as fossil energy resources deplete, so there will eventually be diminishing returns for renewable energy systems. No doubt new technologies will partly buck this trend but the trend is there nonetheless. It is for reasons such as these that some energy experts are sceptical about the global potential of renewable energy to meet the energy demand of a growing economy. For example, two Australian academics at Monash University argue that world energy demand would grow to 1,000 EJ (EJ = 10 18 J) or more by 2050 if growth continued on the course of recent decades. Their analysis then looks at each renewable energy resource in turn, bearing in mind the energy costs of developing wind, solar, hydropower, biomass etc., taking into account diminishing returns, and bearing in mind too that climate change may limit the potential of renewable energy. (For example, river flow rates may change affecting hydropower). Their conclusion: “We nd that when the energy costs of energy are considered, it is unlikely that renewable energy can provide anywhere near a 1000 EJ by 2050.” (Moriarty & Honnery, 2012)

Now let’s put these insights back into a bigger picture of the future of the economy. In a presentation to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, Charles Hall showed a number of diagrams to express the consequences of depletion and rising energy costs of energy. I have taken just two of these diagrams here – comparing 1970 with what might be the case in 2030. (Hall C. , 2012) What they show is how the economy produces different sorts of stuff. Some of the production is consumer goods, either staples (essentials) or discretionary (luxury) goods. The rest of production is devoted to goods that are used in production i.e. investment goods in the form of machinery, equipment, buildings, roads, infrastracture and their maintenance. Some of these investment goods must take the form of energy acquisition equipment. As a society runs up against energy depletion and other problems, more and more production must go into energy acquisition, infrastructure and maintenance. Less and less is available for consumption, and particularly for discretionary consumption.


Whether the economy would evolve in this way can be questioned. As we have seen, the increasing needs of the oil and gas sector implies a transfer of resources from elsewhere through rising prices. However, the rest of the economy cannot actually pay this extra without crashing. That is what the above diagrams show – a transfer of resources from discretionary consumption to investment in energy infrastructure. But such a transfer would be crushing for the other sectors and their decline would likely drag down the whole economy.

Over the last few years, central banks have had a policy of quantitative easing to try to keep interest rates low. The economy cannot pay high energy prices AND high interest rates so, in effect, the policy has been to try to bring down interest rates as low as possible to counter the stagnation. However, this has not really created production growth, it has instead created a succession of asset price bubbles. The underlying trend continues to be one of stagnation, decline and crisis and it will get a lot worse when oil production starts to fall more rapidly as a result of investment cut backs. The severity of the recessions may be variable in different countries because competitive strength in this model goes to those countries where energy is used most efficiently and which can afford to pay somewhat higher prices for energy. Such countries are likely to do better but will not escape the general decline if they stay wedded to the conventional growth model. Whatever the variability, this is still a dead end and, at some point, people will see that entirely different ways of thinking about economy and ecology are needed – unless they get drawn into conflicts and wars over energy by psychopathic policy idiots. There is no way out of the Catch 22 within the growth economy model. That’s why degrowth is needed.

Further ideas can be extrapolated from Hall’s way of presenting the end of the road for the growth economy. The only real option as a source for extra resources to be ploughed into changing the energy sector is from what Hall calls “discretionary consumption” aka luxury consumption. It would not be possible to take from “staples” without undermining the ability of ordinary people to survive day to day. Implicit here is a social justice agenda for the post growth – post carbon economy. Transferring resources out of the luxury consumption of the rich is a necessary part of the process of finding the wherewithal for energy conservation work and for developing renewable energy resources. These will be expensive and the resources cannot come from anywhere else than out of the consumption of the rich. It should be remembered too that the problems of depletion do not just apply to fossil energy extraction coal, oil and gas) but apply across all forms of mineral extraction. All minerals are depleted by use and that means the grade or ore declines over time. Projecting the consequences into the future ought to frighten the growth enthusiasts. To take in how industrial production can hit a brick wall of steeply rising costs, consider the following graph which shows the declining quality of ore grades mined in Australia.


As ores deplete there is a deterioration of ore grades. That means that more rock has to be shifted and processed to refine and extract the desired raw material, requiring more energy and leaving more wastes. This is occurring in parallel to the depletion in energy sources which means that more energy has to be used to extract a given quantity of energy and therefore, in turn, to extract from a given quantity of ore. Thus, the energy requirements to extract energy are rising at the very same time as the amount of energy required to extract given quantities of minerals are rising. More energy is needed just at the time that energy is itself becoming more expensive.

Now, on top of that, add to the picture the growing demand for minerals and materials if the economy is to grow.

At least there has been a recognition and acknowledgement in recent years that environmental problems exist. The problem is now somewhat different – the problem is the incredibly naive faith that markets and technology can solve all problems and keep on going. The main criticism of the limits to growth study was the claim that problems would be anticipated in forward markets and would then be made the subject of high tech innovation. In the next chapter, the destructive effects of these innovations are examined in more depth.

Book review of Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence by Nafeez Ahmed

6 06 2017

I have written at length about the collapse of Egypt over the years, and Syria too. I’ve also discussed Nafeez Ahmed’s views on the unraveling now happening in the Middle East, and my most recent item here from the Doomstead Diner has attracted a lot of attention….. including from Alice Friedemann who pointed out to me that she has published an extensive review of Ahmed’s new book “Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence”. It’s a long read (the references alone are almost as long as the article and would keep you busy for weeks!), but I was totally riveted by it and felt the compulsion to republish it here as it needs to be read as widely as possible. In fact, this review is so good, you may not need to buy the book……. as I’ve been saying for a very long time now, 2020 is when things start to get really ugly, all the way to 2030, by which time it’s likely the state of the world will be unrecognisable.

The overview of biophysical factors table below is alone really telling……

If after reading this latest piece you are not convinced collapse is indeed underway, then there’s no hope for you….!


alice_friedemann[ In this post I summarize the sections of Nafeez’s book about the biophysical factors that bring nations down (i.e. climate change drought & water scarcity, declining revenues after peak oil, etc.) The Media tend to focus exclusively on economic and political factors.

My book review is divided into 3 parts: 

  • Why states collapse for reasons other than economic and political
  • How BioPhysical factors contribute to systemic collapse in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Egypt, Nigeria
  • Predictions of when collapse will begin in Middle East, India, China, Europe, Russia, North America

In my opinion, war is inevitable in the Middle East where over half of oil reserves exist.  Oil is life itself.  If war happens,  collapse of the Middle East, India, and China could happen well before 2030.  If nuclear weapons are used, most nations collapse from the nuclear winter and ozone depletion that would follow.   Indonesia blew up their oil refineries to keep Japan from getting oil in WWII. If Middle Eastern governments or terrorists do the same after they’re attacked, that brings on the energy crisis sooner.  Although this would leave some high EROI oil in the ground, the energy to rebuild refineries, pipelines, oil rigs, roads, and other infrastructure would lower the EROI considerably.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Ahmed, Nafeez. 2017. Failing States, Collapsing Systems BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence. Springer.

1) Why states collapse for reasons other than economic and political

Since the 2008 financial crash, there’s been an unprecedented outbreak of social protest: Occupy in the US and Western Europe, the Arab Spring, and civil unrest from Greece to Ukraine, China to Thailand, Brazil to Turkey, and elsewhere. Sometimes civil unrest has resulted in government collapse or even wars, as in Iraq-Syria and Ukraine- Crimea. The media and experts blame it on poor government, usually ignoring the real reasons because all they know is politics and economics.

In the Middle East, experts should also talk about geology.  Oil-producing nations like Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Nigeria, and Iraq have all reached peak oil and declining government revenues after that force rulers to raise the prices of food and oil.  This region was already short on water, and now climate change (from fossil fuels) is making matters much worse with drought and heat waves causing even greater water scarcity, which in turn lowers agricultural production.  Many of these nations have some of the highest rates of population growth on earth at a time when resources essential to life itself are declining.

The few nations still producing much of the oil – Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are about to join the club and stop exporting oil so they can provide for their domestic population.

Ahmed points out that “because these and other factors are so nested and interconnected, even small perturbations and random occurrences in one can amplify effects on other parts of the system, sometimes in a feedback process that continues.  If thresholds are reached, these tipping points can re-order the whole system”.  These ecological and geological factors result in social disorder, which makes it even harder for government to do anything, such as putting more money into water and food production infrastructure, which accelerates climate change and energy decline impacts, which leads to even more violence at an accelerating rate until state failure.

2) How BioPhysical factors contribute to systemic collapse in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Egypt, Nigeria


Table 1. Overview of biophysical factors (water scarcity, peak oil, population) for nations Ahmed discusses in this book

The UN defines a region as not having water scarcity above 1700 cubic meters per capita (green).  Water stressed nations have 1000 to 1700 cubic meters per capita (yellow).  Water scarcity is 500-1000 per capita (orange) and absolute water scarcity 0-500 (red).  Countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States. Many, though not all, of these countries are experiencing protracted conflicts or civil unrest (Patrick 2015).


The media portray warfare in Syria as due to the extreme repression of President Bashar al-Assad and the support he receives from Russia.  Although there has been awareness that climate change drought played a role in causing conflict, there is no recognition that peak oil was one of the main factors.

Here’s a quick summary of how peak oil and consequent declining revenues from oil production, rising energy and food prices, drought, water scarcity, and population growth led to social unrest, violence, terrorism and war.

It shouldn’t be surprising that peak oil in 1996 triggered the tragic events we see today.  After all, the main source of Syrian revenue came from their production of 610,000 barrels per day (bpd).  By 2010 oil production had declined by half. Falling revenues caused Syria to seek help from the IMF by 2001, and the onerous market reform policies required resulted in higher unemployment and poverty, especially in rural Sunni regions, while at the same time enriching and corrupting ruling minority Alawite private and military elites.

In 2008 the government had to triple oil prices resulting in higher food prices. Food prices rose even more due to the global price of wheat doubling in 2010-2011. On top of that, the 2007-2010 drought was the worst on record, causing widespread crop failures. This forced mass migrations of farming families to cities (Agrimoney 2012; Kelley et al. 2015). The drought wouldn’t have been so bad if half the water hadn’t been wasted and overused previously from 2002 to 2008 (Worth 2010). All of these violence-creating events were worsened by one of the highest birth rates growth on earth, 2.4%.  Most of the additional 80,000 people added in 2011 were born in the hardest-hit drought areas (Sands 2011).

Rinse and repeat.  Social unrest and violence led to war, oil production dropped further, so there is even less money to end unrest with subsidized food and energy or more employment, aid farmers, and build desalination plants.

Syria, once able to feed its people, now depends on 4 million tonnes of grain imports at a time when revenues continue to drop.  Syrian oil production didn’t really take off until 1968 when there were 6.4 million people.  Since oil revenues allowed their population to explode, another 13.6 million have been born.


Like Syria, Iraq’s agricultural production has been reduced by heat, drought, heavy rain, water scarcity, rapid population growth, and the inability of government to import food and provide goods and services as oil revenues decline.  ISIS has worsened matters and filled in the gaps of state-level failure.  Peak oil is likely by 2025.  Or sooner given the ongoing war, lack of investment to keep existing production flowing, and low oil prices (Dipaola 2016).


Like Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Yemen has long faced serious water scarcity issues. The country is consuming water far faster than it is being replenished, an issue that has been identified by numerous experts as playing a key background role in driving local inter-tribal and sectarian conflicts (Patrick 2015).

Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. In 2012, the average Yemeni had access to just 140 cubic meters of water a year for all uses and just three years later a catastrophic 86 m3, far below the 1000 m3 level minimum requirement standards.    Cities often only have sporadic access to running water— every other week or so.  Sanaa could become the first capital in the world to run out of water (IRIN 2012).

Yemen reached peak oil production in 2001, declining from 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 100,000 bpd in 2014, and will be zero by 2017 (Boucek 2009).   This has led to a drastic decline in Yemen’s oil exports, which has eaten into government revenues, 75% of which had depended on oil exports. Oil revenues also account for 90% of the government’s foreign exchange reserves. The decline in post-peak Yemen state revenues has reduced the government’s capacity to sustain even basic social investments. When the oil runs out … the capacity to sustain a viable state-structure will completely collapse.

Yemen has 25 million people and an exorbitantly high growth rate and predicted to double by 2050. In 2014 experts warned that within the next decade, these demographic trends would demolish the government’s ability to meet the population’s basic needs in education, health and other essential public services. This is already happening to over 15 million people (Qaed 2014).  Over half the Yemeni population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment is at 40% (60% of young people).

To cope, too many people have turned to growing qat (a mild narcotic) on 40% of Yemen’s irrigated land, increasing water use to 3.9 billion cubic meters (bcm), but the renewable water supply is just 2.5 bcm. The 1.4 bcm shortfall is made up by pumping water from underground water reserves that are starting to run dry.

Energy, overpopulation, drought, water scarcity, poverty, and a government unable to do much of anything without oil revenue is in a downward loop of social tensions, local conflicts and even mass displacements.  This in turn adds to the dynamics of the wider sectarian and political conflicts between the government, the Houthis, southern separatists and al-Qaeda affiliated militants.

Violence undermines food security, feeding back into the downward spiraling loop.  Making matters worse is that rain-fed agriculture has dropped by about 30% since 1970, making Yemen ever more food import dependent at a time when revenues are shrinking. The country now imports over 85% of its food, including 90% of its wheat and all of its rice (World Bank 2014). Most Yemenis are hungry because they can’t afford to buy food, which also rises in price when global prices rise.  The rate of chronic malnutrition as high as 58%, second only to Afghanistan (Arashi 2013).

Epidemic levels of government corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, have meant that what little revenue the government receives ends up in Swiss bank accounts.  With revenues plummeting in the wake of the collapse of its oil industry, the government has been forced to slash subsidies while cranking up fuel and diesel prices. This has, in turn, cranked up prices of water, meat, fruits, vegetables and spices, leading to fuel and food riots (Mawry 2015).

Is Saudi Arabia Next?

Summary: Within the next decade, Saudi Arabia will become especially vulnerable to the downward feedback loop of peak oil.  The most likely date for peak oil is 2028 (Ebrahimi 2015). But because the Saudi exports have been going down since 2005 at 1.4% a year as their own population rises and consumes more and more, world exports could end as soon as 2031 (Brown and Foucher 2008).

Saudi revenues will decline to zero, so the Saudis will be less able to buy their way out of food shortages.  Their own food production will drop as well from drought and water scarcity — the kingdom is one of the most water scarce in the world, at 98 m³ per inhabitant per year.

Most water comes from groundwater, 57% of which is non-renewable, and 88% of it goes to agriculture. Desalination plants produce 70% of the kingdom’s domestic water supplies. But desalination is very energy intensive, accounting for more than half of domestic oil consumption. As oil exports run down, along with state revenues, while domestic consumption increases, the kingdom’s ability to use desalination to meet its water needs will decrease (Patrick 2015; Odhiambo 2016).

According to the Export Land Model (ELM) created by Texas petroleum geologist Jeffrey J Brown and Dr. Sam Foucher, the key issue is the timing of when there will be no more exports because the domestic population of oil producing nations is using it all for domestic consumption.   Brown and Foucher showed that the tipping point to watch out for is when an oil producer can no longer increase the quantity of oil sales abroad because of the need to meet rising domestic energy demand.

Saudi Arabia is the region’s largest energy consumer. Domestic demand has increased 7.5% over the last 5 years, mainly due to population growth. Saudi population may grow from 29 million people now to 37 million by 2030, using ever more oil and therefore less available for export.

Declining Saudi peak oil exports will affect every nation on earth that imports Saudi oil, especially top customers China, Japan, the United States, South Korea, and India.  As Saudi oil declines, there will be few other places oil for importing nations to turn to, since other exporting nations will also be using their oil domestically.

A report by Citigroup predicted net exports would plummet to zero in the next 15 years. This means that 80% of money from oil sales the Saudi state depends on are trending downward, eventually terminally (Daya 2016). In this case, the peak oil production date could happen well before 2028, as well as violent social unrest, since so far, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, and its unique ability to maintain generous subsidies for oil, housing, food and other consumer items, has kept civil unrest at bay. Energy subsidies alone make up about a fifth of Saudi’s gross domestic product. But as revenues are increasingly strained by decreasing exports after peak oil, the kingdom will need to slash subsidies (Peel 2013).  Even now a quarter of the Saudi’s live in poverty, and unemployment is 12%, especially young people who have a 30% unemployment level. [Saudi Arabia recently started taxing fuel at the bowsers]

Saudi Arabia is experiencing climate change as temperatures rise in the interior and far less rainfall occurs in the north.  By 2040, local average temperatures are expected to increase by as much as 4 °C at the same time rain levels are falling, resulting in more extreme weather events like the 2010 Jeddah flooding when a year of rain fell in 4 hours.  The combination could dramatically impact agricultural productivity, which is already facing challenges from overgrazing and unsustainable industrial agricultural practices leading to accelerated desertification (Chowdhury 2013).

80% of Saudi Arabia’s food requirements are purchased through heavily subsidized imports.  Without the protection of oil revenue subsidies, and potential rises in the global prices of food (Taha 2014), the Saudi population would be heavily impacted. But with net oil revenues declining to zero—potentially within just 15 years—Saudi Arabia’s capacity to finance continued food imports will be in question.


Like Syria, Egypt has had increasing problems paying for food, goods, and services after peak oil in 1993 while at the same time population keeps growing.   Worse yet, there are no oil revenues at all, because since 2010 the population has been using more oil than what is produced and has had to import oil, with no oil revenues to pay for food, goods, and services.  Two-thirds of Egypt’s oil reserves have likely been depleted and oil produced now is declining at 3.4% a year.

Nor are there revenues coming from natural gas sales made up for the loss of oil revenues.  Over the past decade domestic use nearly doubled to consumption of nearly all the production (Kirkpatrick 2013a).

The Egyptian population since 2000 has grown 21% to 88 million people and isn’t slowing down, with 20 million more expected over the next 10 years.  A quarter are children half of them living in poverty and unemployed  (EI 2012) at the same time the elites have grown wealthier from IMF and World Bank policies.

In the 1960s there were 2800 cubic meters of water per capita, now just 660 – well below the international standard of water poverty of 1000 per person (Sarant 2013).   Water scarcity and population growth lave led to tens of thousands of hectares of farmland to be abandoned.  There is some water that can be obtained, but most farmers can’t afford the price of diesel fuel to power pumps  (Kirkpatrick 2013b)

Egypt was self-sufficient in food production in the 1960s but now imports 70% of its food (Saleh 2013). One of the many reasons Mubarak fell was the doubling of wheat prices in 2011 since half of Egypt’s people depend on food rations.  But the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood party and their leader Morsi couldn’t alleviate declining government revenues due to the biophysical realities of food, water, and energy shortages either.  Morsi desperately tried to get a $4.8 billion IMF loan by slashing energy subsidies and raising sales taxes, but the economic crisis made it hard to make the payments and wheat imports dropped to a third of what was imported a year ago.

This led to Morsi being ousted by army chief Abdul Fateh el-Sisi in a coup.  Like his predecessors, El-Sisi has also been unable to meet IMF demands for increased hydrocarbon production and has resorted to unprecedented levels of brutal force to crush protests. He has also rationed electricity, which led to key industries cutting production, leading to further economic losses, declining exports and foreign reserves.  Without more money, energy companies can’t be paid, so energy production continues to drop, and debt goes up, reducing the value of Egyptian currency and higher costs for imports and shortages of energy for industrial production. Egypt’s energy and economy find themselves caught in an amplifying feedback loop (Barron 2016).

How Boko Haram arose in Nigeria

Nigeria’s climate change has led to water and land shortages from desertification, which in turn has led to illness, hunger, and unemployment followed by conflict (Sayne 2011).

Perhaps the Boko Haram wouldn’t have arisen, if the Maitatsine sect in northern Nigeria hadn’t been hit so hard by ecological disasters.  To survive they fanned out to search for food, water, shelter, and work (Sanders 2013).  Niger and Chad refugees from drought and floods also became Boko Haram foot soldiers, some 200,000 displaced farmers and herdsmen.

In northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is from, about 70% of the population subsists on less than a dollar a day. As noted by David Francis, one of the first western reporters to cover Boko Haram: “Most of the foot soldiers of Boko Haram aren’t Muslim fanatics; they’re poor kids who were turned against their corrupt country by a charismatic leader” (Francis 2014)

The Nigerian military sees a correlation between regional climatic events, and an upsurge in extremist violence: “It has become a pattern; we saw it happen in 2006; it happened again in 2008 and in 2010. President Obasanjo had to deploy the military in 2006 to Yobe State, Borno State and Katsina State. These are some of the states bordering Niger Republic and today they are the hotbeds of the Boko Haram” (Mayah 201).

Drought caused desertification is decreasing food production, in turn leading to “economic decline; population displacement and disruption of legitimized authoritative institutions and social relations.” The net effect was an acceleration of the attractiveness of groups like “Boko Haram and other forms of Jihadi ideology,” resulting in escalating “herder-farmer clashes emanating from the north since 1980s” (Onyia 2015).

The rapid spread of Boko Haram also coincided with Lake Chad’s shrinking from 25,000 square km in 1963 to less than 2500 square km today, mainly due to climate change. At this rate, Lake Chad is will dry up in 20 years, and has already caused millions of people to lose their livelihoods.

The government has exacerbated problems by cutting fuel subsidies, which led to fuel shortages, angering the public who engaged in civil unrest  (Omisore 2014).

A senior Shell official said that crude oil production decline rates are as high as 15–20%.  But Nigeria doesn’t have the money to explore to find more oil to offset this high decline rate. Nigeria’s petroleum resources department said that Nigeria had reached a plateau of production in the Niger Delta and were already going down (Ahmed 2014).

About $15 billion of investment is required just to maintain current production levels and compensate for a natural decline in production of about 250,000 b/d each year. A 2011 study by two Nigerian scholars concluded that “there is an imminent decline in Nigeria’s oil reserve since peaking could have occurred or just about to occur (Akuru and Okoro 2011). A 2013 report backs this up, finding that Nigeria’s crude oil production has decreased since its peak in 2005, largely due to the impact of internal conflicts, leading to the withdrawal of oil companies and lack of investments. Since then production has fluctuated along a plateau. The UK Department for International Development report noted that new offshore fields might bring additional oil on-stream, surpassing the 2005 peak—but also noted that rising domestic demand “at some point in the future may cut into the amount of oil available for export” (Hall et al. 2014).

POPULATION. With Nigeria’s population expected to rise from 160 to 250 million by 2025 and oil accounting for some 96% of export revenue as well as 75% of government revenue, the state has resorted to harsh austerity measures. Sharp reductions in public spending, power cuts, fuel shortages and conditional new loans will probably widen economic inequalities and further stoke the grievances that feed groups like Boko Haram in the North. With domestic oil production decline undermining Nigeria’s oil export revenues and consequent fuel subsidy cuts, the public grows poorer and increases the number of young men more likely to join Islamist terrorist groups.

3) Predictions of when collapse will begin in Middle East, India, China, Europe, Russia, North America

When will  Middle-East oil producing nations fail?

Ahmed says that so far after peak oil production, Middle-Eastern economies have declined as revenues declined, leading to systemic state-failure in roughly 15 years, more or less, depending on how hard hit a nation was by additional (climate-change) factors such as drought, water scarcity, food prices, and overpopulation.

Saudi Arabia, and much of the rest of Arabian Gulf peninsula, may experience state-failure well within 10 to 20 years. If forecasts of Saudi oil depletion are remotely accurate, then by 2030 the country will simply not exist as we know it. Coupled with the accelerating impacts of climate-induced water scarcity, the Kingdom is bound to begin experiencing systemic state-failure at most within 20 years, and probably much earlier.

Marin Katusa, chief energy strategist at Casey Research, reports that “many Middle Eastern countries may stop exporting oil and gas altogether within the next few years, while some already have” (Katusa 2016). Oil analysts at Lux Research estimate that OPEC oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 70%. True OPEC reserves could be as low as 429 billion barrels, which could mean a global net export crunch as early as 2020 (Lazenby 2016).

The period from 2020 to 2030 will see Middle East oil exporters experiencing a systemic convergence of energy and food crises.

When will India & China collapse?

India and China are widely assumed to be the next superpowers, but at this stage of energy and resource depletion, can’t possibly mimic the exponential growth of the Western world.

India, South Asia, and China face enormous ecological challenges Irregularities in the pattern of monsoon rains and drought are likely to lower food production and increase water scarcity, while higher temperatures will increase the range of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and become prevalent year-round (DCDC 2013). As sea levels rise, millions of people will be displaced permanently.

These impacts will unravel regional political and economic order well within 20 years and manifest at first as civil unrest.  Depending on how the Indian and Chinese states respond, it is likely that these outbreaks of domestic disorder will become more organized, and will eventually undermine state territorial integrity before 2030.  Near-term growth will further undermine environmental health and deplete resources, making these nations even more vulnerable to climate and food crises.

European and Russian collapse timeframe

Within Europe, resource depletion has meant that the European Union as a whole has become increasingly dependent on energy imports from Russia, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Yet exports from these regions will become tighter as major oil producers approach production limits.

The geopolitical turmoil that has unfolded in Ukraine provides a compelling indication that such processes are rapidly moving from the periphery of the global system into the core. For the most part, the Euro-Atlantic core—traditionally representing the most powerful sections of the world system—has insulated itself from global crisis convergence impacts by diversifying energy supply sources. However, there is only so much that diversification can achieve when the total energetic and economic quality of global hydrocarbon resource production is declining.


Faced with these converging crises, the Euro-Atlantic core will continue to see the creation of cheap debt-money through quantitative easing as an immediate solution to generate emergency funds to stabilize the financial system and shore-up ailing industries. This will likely play out in one of these business-as-usual scenarios:

  1. The lower resource quality (EROI) of the global energy system may act as a fundamental geophysical ceiling on the capacity of the economy to grow. It may act as an invisible brake on growth in demand, so fossil fuel prices would remain at chronically low levels, endangering the profitability of the fossil fuel industries. This would lead to an acceleration of the demise of the fossil fuel industries, which could lead to debt-defaults across industries in the financial system. Declining hydrocarbon energy production would cause a self-reinforcing recessionary economic process. This would escalate vulnerability to water, food and energy crises and hugely strain the capacity of European and American states to deliver goods and services to even their own populations, and other nations dependent as much on importing food as they are oil.
  2. Scarcity of net exports on the world market may raise oil prices and provide some sectors of ailing fossil fuel industries to be profitable again. But previous slashing of investments and cutbacks in exploration will mean that only the most powerful sections of the industry would be able to capitalize on this, which means production is unlikely to return to former high levels. Price spikes would trigger economic recession, causing a drop in demand, while lower production levels would exacerbate the economy’s inability to grow substantially, if at all. In effect, the global economy would likely still experience a self-reinforcing recessionary economic process.

In both scenarios, escalating economic crises are likely to invite the Euro-Atlantic core to respond by using debt-money to shore-up as much of the existing core financial and energy industries as possible. Prices spikes and shortages in water, food and energy would be experienced by general populations as a dramatic lowering of purchasing power, leading to an overall decrease in quality of life, an increase in poverty, and a heightening of inequality. This would undermine their internal cohesion, giving rise to new divisive, nationalist and xenophobic movements, and lead states into a tightening spiral of militarization to police domestic order. As instability in the Middle East and elsewhere intensifies, manifesting in further unrest, political violence and terrorist activity, states will also be drawn increasingly into short- sighted military solutions. In particular, scarcity of net oil exports on the world market will heighten geopolitical and military competition to control and/or access the world’s remaining hydrocarbon energy resources. With the Middle East still holding the vast bulk of the world’s reserves, the region will remain a central flashpoint for such competition, even as major producers such as Saudi Arabia approach systemic state-failure due to reaching inevitable production declines.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their internal territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure. Likewise, after 2030, Europe, India, China (and other Asian nations) will begin to experience symptoms of systemic state-failure.


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