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.

How an obscure Austrian philosopher saw through our empty rhetoric about ‘sustainability’

5 07 2017

Hot Mess

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

“Sustainability” is, ironically, a growth industry. Ever since the term “sustainable development” burst onto the scene in 1987 with the release of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland report), there has been a dizzying increase in rhetoric about humanity’s relationship with our planet’s resources. Glossy reports – often featuring blonde children in front of solar panels or wind turbines – abound, and are slapped down on desks as proof of responsibility and stewardship.

Every few years a new term is thrown into the mix – usually preceded by adjectives like “participatory” or “community-led”. The fashionability of “resilience” as a mot du jour seems to have peaked, while more recently the “circular economy” has become the trendy term to put on grant applications, conference notices and journal special editions. Over time journals are established, careers are built, and library shelves groan.

Meanwhile, the planetary “overshoot”, to borrow the title of a terrifying 1980 book, goes on – exemplified by rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, warmer oceans, Arctic melting, and other signs of the times.

With all this ink being spilled (or, more sustainably, electrons being pressed into service), is there anything new to say about sustainability? My colleagues and I think so.

Three of us (lead author Ulrike Ehgartner,
second author Patrick Gould
and myself) recently published an article called “On the obsolescence of human beings in sustainable development”.

In it we explore the big questions of sustainability, drawing on some of the work of an unjustly obscure Austrian political philosopher called Gunther Anders.

Who was Günther Anders?

He was born Günther Siegmund Stern in 1902. While he was working as a journalist in Berlin, an editor wanted to reduce the number of Jewish-sounding bylines. Stern plumped for “Anders” (meaning “other” or “different”) and used that nom de plume for the rest of his life.

Anders knew lots of the big philosophical names of the day. He studied under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He was briefly married to Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin was a cousin.

But despite his stellar list of friends and family, Anders himself was not well known. Harold Marcuse points out that the name “Stern” was pretty apt, writing:

His unsparingly critical pessimism may explain why his pathbreaking works have seldom sparked sustained public discussion.

While Hiroshima and the nuclear threat were the most obvious influences on Anders’ writing, he was also crucially influenced by the events at Auschwitz, the Vietnam War, and his periods in exile in France and the United States. But why should we care, and how can his ideas be applied to modern-day ideas about sustainability?

Space precludes a blow-by-blow account of what my colleagues and I wrote, but two ideas are worth exploring: the “Promethean gap” and “apocalyptic blindness”.

Anders suggested that the societal changes wrought by the industrial age – chief among them the division of labour – opened a gap between individuals’ capability to produce machines, and their capability to imagine and deal with the consequences.

So, riffing on the Greek myth of Prometheus (the chap who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans), Anders proposed the existence of a “Promethean gap” which manifests in academic and scientific thinking and leads to the extensive trivialisation of societal issues.

The second idea is that of “apocalyptic blindness” – which is, according to Anders, the mindset of humans in the Age of the Third Industrial Revolution. This, as we write in our paper:

…determines a notion of time and future that renders human beings incapable of facing the possibility of a bad end to their history. The belief in progress, persistently ingrained since the Industrial Revolution, causes the incapability of humans to understand that their existence is threatened, and that this could lead to the end of their history.

Put simply, we don’t want to look an apocalypse in the eye, even if it’s heading straight towards us.

The climate connection

“So what?” you might ask. Why listen to yet another obscure philosopher railing about technology, in the vein of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul? But I think a passing knowledge of Anders and his work reminds us of several important things.

This is nothing new. Recently, the very notion of ‘progress’ has come under renewed assault, with books questioning our assumptions about it. This is not new of course – in a 1967 short story collection about life at the United Nations, Shirley Hazzard had written:

About this development process there appeared to be no half-measures: once a country had admitted its backwardness, it could hope for no quarter in the matter of improvement. It could not accept a box of pills without accepting, in principle, an atomic reactor. Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop.

The time – if ever there was one – for tinkering around the edges is over. We need to take stronger action than simply pursuing our feelgood preoccupation with sustainability.

This begs the question of who is supposed to shift us from the current course (or rather, multiple collision courses. That’s a difficult one to answer.

The hope that techno-fixes (including 100% renewable energy) will sort out our problems is a dangerous delusion (please note, I’m not against 100% renewables – I’m just saying that green energy is “necessary but not sufficient” for repairing the planet).

Similarly, the “circular economy” has a rather circular feeling to it – in the sense that we’ve seen all this before. It seems (to me anyway) to be the last gasp of the “ecological modernist” belief that with a bit more efficiency, everything can simply keep on progressing.

The ConversationOur problems go far deeper. We are going to need a rapid and fundamental shift in our values, habits, behaviours, and outlooks. Put in Anders’ terms, we need to stop being blind to the possibility of apocalypse. But then again, people have been saying that for a century or more.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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.

EROI explained and defended by Charles Hall, Pedro Prieto, and others

29 05 2017

Yes, another post on ERoEI……  why do I bang on about this all the time…?  Because it is the defining issue of our time, the issue that will precipitate Limits to Growth to the forefront, and eventually collapse civilisation as we know it.

There are two ways to collapse civilisation:
1) don’t end the burning of oil
2) end burning oil

And if that wasn’t enough, read this from srsroccoreport.com 

While the U.S. oil and gas industry struggles to stay alive as it produces energy at low prices, there’s another huge problem just waiting around the corner.  Yes, it’s true… the worst is yet to come for an industry that was supposed to make the United States, energy independent.  So, grab your popcorn and watch as the U.S. oil and gas industry gets ready to hit the GREAT ENERGY DEBT WALL.

So, what is this “Debt Wall?”  It’s the ever-increasing amount of debt that the U.S. oil and gas industry will need to pay each year.  Unfortunately, many misguided Americans thought these energy companies were making money hand over fist when the price of oil was above $100 from 2011 to the middle of 2014.  They weren’t.  Instead, they racked up a great deal of debt as they spent more money drilling for oil than the cash they received from operations.


alice_friedemannAlice 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 ]

Questions about EROI at researchgate.net 2015-2017

Khalid Abdulla, University of Melbourne asks:  Why is quality of life limited by EROI with renewable Energy? There are many articles explaining that the Energy Return on (Energy) Invested (EROI, or EROEI) of the sources of energy which a society uses sets an upper limit on the quality of life (or complexity of a society) which can be enjoyed (for example this one).  I understand the arguments made, however I fail to understand why any energy extraction process which has an external EROI greater than 1.0 cannot be “stacked” to enable greater effective EROI.  For example if EROI for solar PV is 3.0, surely one can get an effective EROI of 9.0 by feeding all output energy produced from one solar project as the input energy of a second? There is obviously an initial energy investment required, but provided the EROI figure includes all installation and decommissioning energy requirements I don’t understand why this wouldn’t work. Also I realise there are various material constraints which would come into play; but why does this not work from an energy point of view?

Charles A. S. Hall replies:  As the person who came up with the term  EROI in the 1970scharles-hall (but not the concept: that belongs to Leslie White, Fred Cotrell, Nicolas Georgescu Roegan and Howard Odum) let me add my two cents to the existing mostly good posts.  The problem with the “stacked” idea is that if you do that you do not deliver energy to society with the first (or second or third) investment — it all has to go to the “food chain” with only the final delivering energy to society.  So stack two EROI 2:1 technologies and you get 4:2, or the same ratio when you are done.

The second problem is that you do not need just 1.1:1 EROI to operate society.  We (Hall, Balogh and Murphy 2009) studied how much oil would need to be extracted to drive a truck including the energy to USE the energy.  So we added in the energy to get, refine and deliver the oil (about 10% at each step) and then the energy to build and maintain the roads, bridges, vehicles and so on.  We found you needed to extract 3 liters at the well head to use 1 liter in the gas tank to drive the truck, i.e. an EROI of 3:1 was needed.

But even this did not include the energy to put something in the truck (say grow some grain)  and also, although we had accounted for the energy for the depreciation of the truck and roads,  but not the depreciation of the truck driver, mechanic, street mender, farmer etc.: i.e. to pay for domestic needs, schooling, health care etc. of their replacement.    Pretty soon it looked like we needed an EROI of at least 10:1 to take care of the minimum requirements of society, and maybe 15:1 (numbers are very approximate) for a modern civilization. You can see that plus implications in Lambert 2014.

I think this and incipient “peak oil” (Hallock et al.)  is behind what is causing most Western economies to slow or stop  their energy and economic growth.   Low EROI means more expensive oil (etc) and lower net energy means growth is harder as there is less left over after necessary “maintenance metabolism”. This is explored in more depth in Hall and Klitgaard book  “Energy and the wealth of Nations” (Springer).

Khalid Abdulla asks: I’m still struggling a little bit with gaining an intuition of why it is not possible to stack/compound EROI. If I understand your response correctly part of the problem is that while society is waiting around for energy from one project to be fed into a second project (etc.) society needs to continue to operate (otherwise it’d all be a bit pointless!) and this has a high energy overhead.  I understand that with oil it is possible to achieve higher external EROI by using some of the oil as the main source of energy for extraction/processing. Obviously this means less oil is delivered to the outside world, but it is delivered at a higher EROI which is more useful. I don’t understand why a similar gearing is not possible with renewables.  Is it something to do with the timing of the input energy required VS the timing of the energy which the project will deliver over its life?

Charles A. S. Hall replies: Indeed if you update the QUALITY of the energy you can come out “ahead”.  My PhD adviser Howard Odum wrote a lot about that, and I am deeply engaged in a discussion about the general meaning of Maximum Power (a related concept) with several others.  So you can willingly turn more coal into less electricity because the product is more valuable.   Probably pretty soon (if we are not already) we will be using coal to make electricity to pump out ever more difficult oil wells….

I have also been thinking about EROI a lot lately and about what should the boundaries of analysis be.  One of my analyses is available in the book “Spain’s PV revolution: EROI and.. available from Springer or Amazon.

To me the issue of boundaries remains critical. I think it is proper to have very wide boundaries. Let’s say we run an economy just on a big PV plant. If the EROI is 8:1 (which you might get, or higher, from examining just the modules) then it seems like you could make your society work. But let’s look closer. If you add in security systems, roads, and financial services and the EROI drops to 3:1 then it seems more problematic. But if you add in labor (i.e. the energy it takes to make the food, housing etc that labor buys with its salaries, calculated from national mean energy intensities times salaries for all necessary workers) it might drop to 1:1. Now what this means is that the energy from the PV system will support all the purchases of the workers that are building/maintaining the PV system, let’s say 10% will be taken care of, BUT THERE WILL BE NO PRODUCTION OF GOODS AND SERVICES for the rest of the population. To me this is why we should include salaries of the entire energy delivery system (although I do not because it remains so controversial). I think this concept, and the flat oil production in most of the world, is why we need to think about ALL the resources necessary to deliver energy from a project/ technology/nation.”

Khalid Abdulla: My main interest is whether the relatively low EROI of renewable energy sources fundamentally limits the complexity of a society that can be fueled by them.

Charles A. S. Hall replies: Perhaps the easiest way to think about this is historical: certainly we had lots of sunshine and clever minds in the past.  But we did not have a society with many affluent people until the industrial revolution, based on millions of years of accumulated net energy from sunshine. An affluent king, living a life of affluence less than most people in industrial societies now, was supported by the labor of thousands or millions of serfs harvesting solar energy.  The way to get rich was to exploit the stored solar energy of other societies through war (see Plutarch or Tainter’s the collapse of complex societies).

But most renewable energy (good hydropower is an exception) are low EROI or else seriously constrained by intermittency. Look at all the stuff required to support “free” solar energy. We (and Palmer and Weisbach independently) found EROIs of about 3:1 at best when all costs are accounted for.

The lower the EROI the larger the investment needed for the next generation: that is why fossil fuels with EROIs of 30 or 50 to one have led to such wealth: the other 29 or 49 have been deliverable to society to do economic work or that can be invested in getting more fossil fuels.  If the EROI is 2:1 obviously half has to go into the next generation for the growth and much less is delivered to society.   One can speculate or fantasize about what one can do with some future technology but having been in the energy business for 50 years I have seen many come and go.  Meanwhile we still get about 75-80% of our energy from fossil fuels (with their attendant high EROI).

Obviously we could have some kind of culture with labor intensive, low energy input systems if people were willing to take a large drop in their life style.  I fear the problem might be that people would rather go to war than accept a decline in life style.

Lee’s assessment of the traditional  Kung hunter gatherer life style implies an EROI of 10:1 and lots of leisure (except during droughts–which is the bottleneck).  Past agricultural societies obviously had a positive EROI based on human labor input — otherwise they would have gone extinct.  But it required something like a hectare per person.  According to Jared Diamond cultures became more complex with agriculture vs hunter gatherer.

The best assessment I have about EROI and quality of life possible is in:  Lambert, Jessica, Charles A.S. Hall, Stephen Balogh, Ajay Gupta, Michelle Arnold 2014 Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy Volume 64:153-167 http://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0301421513006447 — It is open access.  Also our book:  Hall and Klitgaard, Energy and the wealth of nations.   Springer

At the moment the EROI of contemporary agriculture is 2:1 at the farm gate but much less, perhaps one returned for 5 invested  by the time the food is processed, distributed and prepared (Hamilton 2013).

As you can see from these studies to get numbers with any kind of reliability requires a great deal of work.

Sourabh Jain asks: Would it be possible to meet the EROI goal of, say for example 10:1, in order to maintain our current life style by mixing wind, solar and hydro? Can we have an energy system various renewable energy sources of different EROI to give a net EROI of 10:1?

Charles A. S. Hall replies:  Good question.  First of all I am not sure that we can maintain our current life style on an EROI of 10:1, but let’s assume we can (Hall 2014, Lambert 2014).  We would need liquid fuels of course for tractors , airplanes and ships — I cannot quite envision running those machines on electricity.

The problem with wind is that it tends to blow only 30% of the time, so we would need massive storage.  To the degree that we can meet intermittency with hydro that is good, although it is tough on the fish and insects below the dam.  The energy cost of that would be huge, prohibitive with respect to batteries, huge with respect to pumped storage, and what happens when the wind does not blow for two weeks, as is often the case?

Solar PV may or may not have an EROI of 10:1 (I assume you know of the three studies that came up with about 3:1: Prieto and Hall, Graham Palmer, Weisbach — but there are others higher and certainly the price and hence presumed energy cost is coming down –but you should also know that many structures are lasting only 12, not 25 years) — — this needs to be sorted out ).  But again the storage issue will be important.   (Palmer’s rooftop study included storage).

These are all important issues.  So I would say the answer seems to be no, although it might work well for let’s say half of our energy use.   As time goes on that percentage might increase (or decrease).

Jethro Betcke writes: Charles Hall: You make some statements that are somewhat inaccurate and could easily mislead the less well informed: Wind turbines produce electricity during 70 to 90% of the time. You seems to have confused capacity factor with relative time of operation.  Using a single number for the capacity factor is also not so accurate. Depending on the location and design choices the capacity factor can vary from 20% to over 50%.  With the lifetime of PV systems you seem to have confused the inverter with the system as a whole. The practice has shown that PV modules last much longer than the 25 years guaranteed by the manufacturer. In Oldenburg we have a system from 1976 that is still producing electricity and shows little degradation loss [1]. Inverters are the weak point of the system and sometimes need to be replaced. Of course, this would need to be considered in an EROEI calculation. But this is something different than what you state. [1] http://www.presse.uni-oldenburg.de/download/einblicke/54/parisi-heinemann-juergens-knecht.pdf

Charles A. S. Hall replies: I resent your statement that I am misleading anyone.   I write as clearly, accurately and honestly as I can, almost entirely in peer reviewed publications, and always have. I include sensitivity analysis while acknowledging legitimate uncertainty (for example p. 115 in Prieto and Hall).  Some people do not like my conclusions. But no one has shown with explicit analysis that Prieto and Hall is in any important way incorrect.  At least three other peer reviewed papers) (Palmer 2013, 2014; Weisbach et al. 2012 and Ferroni and Hopkirk (2016) have come up with similar conclusions on solar PV.  I am working on the legitimate differences in technique with legitimate and credible solar analysts with whom I have some differences , e.g. Marco Raugei.  All of this will be detailed in a new book from Springer in January on EROI.

First I would like to say that the bountiful energy blog post is embarrassingly poor science and totally unacceptable. As one point the author does not back his (often erroneous) statements with references. The importance of peer review is obvious from this non peer-reviewed post.

Second I do not understand your statement about wind energy producing electricity 70-90 percent of the time.  In England, for example, it is less than 30 percent (Jefferson 2015).

Third your statement on the operational lifetime of actual operational PV systems is incorrect. Of course one can find PV systems still generating electricity after 30 years.  But actual operational systems requiring serious maintenance (and for which we do not yet have enough data) often do not last more than 18-20 years, For example Spain’s “Flagship ” PV plant (which was especially well maintained) is having all modules replaced and treated as “electronic trash” after 20 years : http://renewables.seenews.com/news/spains-ingeteam-replaces-modules-at-europes-oldest-pv-plant-538875    Ferroni and Hopkirk found an 18 year lifespan in Switzerland.

Pedro Prieto replies: The production of electricity of wind turbines the 70-90% of time is a very inaccurate quote. Every wind turbine has a nominal capacity in MW. The important factor is not how many hours they move the blades at any working regime, but how many EQUIVALENT peak hours they work at the end of the year. That is, to know how much real energy they generate within one year. This is what the industry uses as a general and accurate measurement and it is the load factor or capacity factor.

Of course, this factor may change from the location or the design choices, but there is an incontrovertible figure: when we take the total world installed wind power in MW (435 Gw as of 2015) from January 2004 up to December 2015 and the total energy generated in Twh (841 Twh as of 2015) in the same period and calculate the averaged capacity factor, the resulting figure slightly varies around 15% AT WORLD LEVEL. This is REAL LIFE, much more than your unsupported theoretical figures of 20 to over 50% capacity factor in privileged wind fields for privileged wind turbines.

Interesting enough, some countries like the US, United Kingdom or Spain have capacity factors reaching 20% in the last years, but the world total installed capacity has not really improved so much in the last ten years, despite of theoretically much more efficient wind turbines (i.e. multipole with permanent magnets), very likely for the reasons that good wind fields in some countries were already used up. Other countries like China, India or France show, on the contrary very poor capacity factors even in 2015.


With respect to the lifetime of the PV systems, nor Charles Hall neither myself have confused the inverter lifetime with the solar PV system as a whole. The practice has not shown that modules have lasted more than 25 years in general over the world installed base. The fact that one single system is still working after more than 30 years of operation, if it was carefully manufactured with high quality materials, and was well cared, cleaned and free from environmental pollutants, like several modules we have also in Spain, does not mean AT ALL that the massive deployments (about 250 GW as of 2015) are going to last over 25 years.

I have to clarify also a common mistake: almost all main world manufacturers guarantee a maximum of 25 years (NOT 30) to the modules, but this is the “power” guarantee. This means that they “guarantee” (assuming they will be still alive as companies in 25 years from the sales period, something which is rather difficult for many of the manufacturers that went out of business in shorter periods of time than the guarantee of their modules. Of course, this guarantee is given with the subsequent module degradation specs over time, which in many cases has been proved be higher than specified.

But not only that. Most of the module manufacturers have a second guarantee: the “material’s guarantee”. And this is offered for between 5 and 10 years. This is the one by which the manufacturer guarantees the module replacement if it fails. Beyond that date, if the module fails, the buyer has to buy a new one (if still being manufactured, with the same specs power and size), because the second guarantee SUPERSEDES the first one.

Last but not least, there is already quite a large experience in Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, etc.) of the number of faulty modules that have been decommissioned in the last years (i.e. period 2010-2015) as for instance, accounted by PV-Cycle, a company specialized in decommission and recycling modules in Europe. As the installed base is well known in volumes per year, it is relatively easy to calculate, in a very conservative (optimistic) mode the percentage over the total that failed and the number of years that lasted in this period and the average years for that sample that died before the theoretical 25-30 years lifetime and make the proportion on the total installed base.

The study conducted by Ferroni and Hopkirk gives an approximate lifetime for the installed base of lower than 20 years. And this is Europe, where the maintenance is supposed to be much better made than in the rest of the developing world. And the figures of failed modules given by PV-Cycle did not include the many potential plants that did not deliver their failed modules to this company for recycling

What it seems impossible for some academic people is to recognize that perhaps the “standards” they adhered to (namely IEA PVPS Task 12 in this case) and through which they published a big number of papers, should be revisited, because they lacked some essential measurements that could help to understand why renewables are not replacing fossils at the required speed, despite having claimed for years that they reached grid parity or that their Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) is cheaper than coal, nuclear or gas. 

I am afraid that peer reviewed authors are not immune to having preconceived ideas even more difficult to eradicate. Excessive pride, lack of humility, considerable distance between the academy (i.e. imagined solar production levels versus real data from actual solar PV plants and lack of a systemic vision due to an excess of specialization are the main hurdles. Of course in my humble opinion.


  • Hall, C.A.S., Balogh, S., Murphy, D.J.R. 2009. What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? Energies, 2: 25-47.
  • Hall, Charles  A.S., Jessica G.Lambert, Stephen B. Balogh. 2014.  EROI of different fuels  and the implications for society Energy Policy Energy Policy. Energy Policy, Vol 64 141-52
  • Hallock Jr., John L., Wei Wu, Charles A.S. Hall, Michael Jefferson. 2014. Forecasting the limits to the availability and diversity of global conventional oil supply: Validation. Energy 64: 130-153. (here)
  • Hamilton A , Balogh SB, Maxwell A, Hall CAS. 2013. Efficiency of edible agriculture in Canada and the U.S. over the past 3 and 4 decades. Energies 6:1764-1793.
  • Lambert, Jessica, Charles A.S. Hall, et al.  Energy, EROI and quality of life.  Energy Policy

Germany’s plan for 100% electric cars may actually increase carbon emissions

7 04 2017

Image 20170215 27402 ip046y

Bjoern Wylezich / shutterstock

Dénes Csala, Lancaster University

Germany has ambitious plans for both electric cars and renewable energy. But it can’t deliver both. As things stand, Germany’s well-meaning but contradictory ambitions would actually boost emissions by an amount comparable with the present-day emissions of the entire country of Uruguay or the state of Montana.

In October 2016 the Bundesrat, the country’s upper legislative chamber, called for Germany to support a phase-out of gasoline vehicles by 2030. The resolution isn’t official government policy, but even talk of such a ban sends a strong signal towards the country’s huge car industry. So what if Germany really did go 100% electric by 2030?

To environmentalists, such a change sounds perfect. After all, road transport is responsible for a big chunk of our emissions and replacing regular petrol vehicles with electric cars is a great way to cut the carbon footprint.

But it isn’t that simple. The basic problem is that an electric car running on power generated by dirty coal or gas actually creates more emissions than a car that burns petrol. For such a switch to actually reduce net emissions, the electricity that powers those cars must be renewable. And, unless things change, Germany is unlikely to have enough green energy in time.

After all, news of the potential petrol car ban came just after the chancellor, Angela Merkel, had announced she would slow the expansion in new wind farms as too much intermittent renewable power was making the grid unstable. Meanwhile, after Fukushima, Germany has pledged to retire its entire nuclear reactor fleet by 2022.

Germany’s grid is struggling to cope with all that intermittent power.
Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / shutterstock

In an analysis published in Nature, my colleague Harry Hoster and I have looked at how Germany’s electricity and transport policies are intertwined. They each serve the noble goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, when combined, they might actually lead to increased emissions.

We investigated what it would take for Germany to keep to its announcements and fully electrify its road transportation – and what that would mean for emissions. Our research shows that you can’t simply erase fossil fuels from both energy and transport in one go, as Germany may be about to find out.

Less energy, more electricity

It’s certainly true that replacing internal combustion vehicles with electric ones would overnight lead to a huge reduction in Germany’s energy needs. This is because electric cars are far more efficient. When petrol is burned, just 30% or less of the energy released is actually used to move the car forwards – the rest goes into exhaust heat, water pumps and other inefficiencies. Electric cars do lose some energy through recharging their batteries, but overall at least 75% goes into actual movement.

Each year, German vehicles burn around 572 terawatt-hour (TWh)‘s worth of liquid fuels. Based on the above efficiency savings, a fully electrified road transport sector would use around 229 TWh. So Germany would use less energy overall (as petrol is a source of energy) but it would need an astonishing amount of new renewable or nuclear generation.

And there is another issue: Germany also plans to phase out its nuclear power plants, ideally by 2022, but 2030 at the latest. This creates a further void of 92TWh to be filled.

Adding up the extra renewable electricity needed to power millions of cars, and that required to replace nuclear plants, gives us a total of 321 TWh of new generation required by 2030. That’s equivalent to dozens of massive new power stations.

Even if renewable energy expands at the maximum rate allowed by Germany’s latest plan, it will still only cover around 63 TWh of what’s required. Hydro, geothermal and biomass don’t suffer from the same intermittency problems as wind or solar, yet the country is already close to its potential in all three.

This therefore means the rest of the gap – an enormous 258 TWh – will have to be filled by coal or natural gas. That is the the current total electricity consumption of Spain, or ten Irelands.

Germany could choose to fill the gap entirely with coal or gas plants. However, relying entirely on coal would lead to further annual emissions of 260 million tonnes of carbon dioxide while gas alone would mean 131m tonnes.

By comparison, German road transport currently emits around 156m tonnes of CO2, largely from car exhausts. Therefore, unless the electricity shortfall is filled almost entirely with new natural gas plants, Germany could switch to 100% electric cars and it would still end up with a net increase in emissions.

The above chart shows a more realistic scenario where half of the necessary electricity for electric cars would come from new gas plants and half from new coal plants. We have assumed both coal and gas would become 25% more efficient. In this relatively likely scenario, the emissions of the road transportation sector actually increase by 20%, or 32 million tonnes of CO2 (comparable to Uruguay or Montana’s annual emissions).

If Germany really does want a substantial reduction in vehicle emissions, its energy and transport policies must work in sync. Instead of capping new solar plants or wind farms, it should delay the nuclear phase-out and focus on getting better at predicting electricity demand and storing renewable energy.

Dénes Csala, Lecturer in Energy Storage Systems Dynamics, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The End of the Oilocene

19 02 2017

The Oilocene, if that term ever catches on, will have only lasted 150 years. Which must be the quickest blink in terms of geological eras…… This article was lifted from feasta.org but unfortunately I can’t give writing credits as I could not find the author’s name anywhere. The data showing we’ll be quickly out of viable oil is stacking up at an increasing rate.

Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood (whose work I published here three years ago almost to the day) said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programs. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said”.

And if you don’t finish reading this admittedly long article, do not exit this blog without first taking THIS on board…….:

What people do not realise is that it takes oil to extract, refine, produce and deliver oil to the end user. The Hills Group calculates that in 2012, the average energy required by the oil production chain had risen so much that it was then equal to the energy contained in the oil delivered to the economy. In other words “In 2012 the oil industry production chain in total used 50% of all the energy contained in the oil delivered to the consumer”. This is trending rapidly to reach 100% early in the next decade.

So there you go…… as I posted earlier this year, do we have five years left…….?


End of the “Oilocene”: The Demise of the Global Oil Industry and of the Global Economic System as we know it.

(A pdf version of this paper is here. Please refer to my presentation for supporting images and comments. )

In 1981 I was sitting on an eroded barren hillside in India, where less than 100 years previously there had been dense forest with tigers. It was now effectively a desert and I was watching villagers scavenging for twigs for fuelwood and pondering their future, thinking about rapidly increasing human population and equally rapid degradation of the global environment. I had recently devoured a copy of The Limits to Growth (LTG) published in 1972, and here it was playing out in front of me. Their Business as Usual (BAU) scenario showed that global economic growth would be over between 2010 -2020; and today 45 years later, that prediction is inexorably becoming true. Since 2008 any semblance of growth has been fuelled by astronomically greater quantities of debt; and all other indicators of overshoot are flashing red.


One of the main factors limiting growth was regarded by the authors of LTG as energy; specifically oil. By mid 1970’s surprisingly, enough was known about accessible oil reserves that not a huge amount has since been added to what is known as reserves of conventional oil. Conventional oil is (or was) the high quality, high net energy, low water content, easy to get stuff. Its multi-decade increasing rate in production came to an end around 2005 (as predicted many years earlier by Campbell and Laherre in 1998). The rate of production peaked in 2011 and has since been in decline (IEA 2016).


The International Energy Agency (IEA) is the pre-eminent global forecaster of oil production and demand. Recently it admitted that its oil production forecasts were based on economic projections rather than geology or cost; ie on the assumption that supply will always meet projected demand.
In its latest annual forecast however (New Policies Scenario 2016) the IEA has also admitted for the first time a future in which total global “all liquids” oil production could start to fall within the next few years.


As Kjell Aklett of Upsala University Global Energy Research Group comments (06-12-16), “In figure 3.16 the IEA shows for the first time what will happen if its unrealistic wishful thinking does not become reality during the next 10 years. Peak Oil will occur even if oil from fracked tight sources, oil sands, and other (unconventional) sources are included”.

In fact – this IEA image clearly shows that the total global rate of production of “all hydrocarbon liquids” could start falling anytime from now on; and this should in itself raise a huge red flag for the Irish Government.

Furthermore, it raises a number of vital questions which are the core subject of this post.
Reserves of conventional “easy” oil have mostly been used up. How likely is it that remaining reserves will be produced at the rate projected? Rapidly diminishing reserves of conventional oil are now increasingly being supplemented by the difficult stuff that Kjell Aklett mentions; including conventional from deep water, polar and other inaccessible regions, very heavy bituminous and high sulphur oil; natural gas liquids and other xtl’s, plus other “unconventional oil” including tar sands and shale oil.

How much will it cost to produce all these various types? How much energy will be required, and crucially how much energy will be left over for use by the economy?

The global industrial economy runs on oil.

Oil is the vital and crucial link in virtually every production chain in the global industrial world economy partly because it supplies over 96% of global transport energy – with no significant non-oil dependent alternative in sight.


Our industrial food production system uses over 10 calories of oil energy to plough, plant, fertilise, harvest, transport, refine, package, store/refrigerate, and deliver 1 calorie of food to the consumer; and imagine trying to build infrastructure; roads, schools, hospitals, industrial facilities, cities, railways, airports without oil, let alone maintain them.

Surprisingly perhaps, oil is also crucial to production of all other forms of energy including renewables. We cannot mine and distribute coal or even drill for gas and install pipelines and gas distribution networks without lots of oil; and you certainly cannot make a nuclear power station or build a hydroelectric dam without oil. But even solar panels, wind and biomass energy are also totally dependent on oil to extract and produce the raw materials; oil is directly or indirectly used in their manufacture (steel, glass, copper, fibreglass/GRP, concrete) and finally to distribute the product to the end user, and install and maintain it.

So it’s not surprising that excluding hydro and nuclear (which mostly require phenomenal amounts of oil to implement), renewables still only constitute about 3% of world energy (BP Energy Outlook 2016). This figure speaks entirely for itself. I am a renewable energy consultant and promoter, but I am also a realist; in practice the world runs on oil.


The economy, Global GDP and oil are therefore mutually dependent and have enjoyed a tightly linked dance over the decades as shown in the following images. Note the connection between oil, total energy, oil price and GDP (clues for later).

Click on image to enlarge

Rising cost of oil production

Since 2005 when the rate of production of conventional oil slowed and peaked, production costs have been rising more rapidly. By 2013, oil industry costs were approaching the level of the global oil price which was more than $100/barrel at that time; and industry insiders were saying that the oil industry was finding it difficult to break even.

Click on image to enlarge

A good example of the time was the following article which is worth quoting in full in the light of the price of oil at the time (~$100/bbl), and the average 2016 sustained low oil price of ~$50/bbl.

Oil and gas company debt soars to danger levels to cover shortfall in cash By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Telegraph. 11 Aug 2014

“The world’s leading oil and gas companies are taking on debt and selling assets on an unprecedented scale to cover a shortfall in cash, calling into question the long-term viability of large parts of the industry. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said a review of 127 companies across the globe found that they had increased net debt by $106bn in the year to March, in order to cover the surging costs of machinery and exploration, while still paying generous dividends at the same time. They also sold off a net $73bn of assets.

The EIA said revenues from oil and gas sales have reached a plateau since 2011, stagnating at $568bn over the last year as oil hovers near $100 a barrel. Yet costs have continued to rise relentlessly. Companies have exhausted the low-hanging fruit and are being forced to explore fields in ever more difficult regions.

The EIA said the shortfall between cash earnings from operations and expenditure — mostly CAPEX and dividends — has widened from $18bn in 2010 to $110bn during the past three years. Companies appear to have been borrowing heavily both to keep dividends steady and to buy back their own shares, spending an average of $39bn on repurchases since 2011”.

In another article (my highlights) he wrote

“The major companies are struggling to find viable reserves, forcing them to take on ever more leverage to explore in marginal basins, often gambling that much higher prices in the future will come to the rescue. Global output of conventional oil peaked in 2005 despite huge investment. The cumulative blitz on exploration and production over the past six years has been $5.4 trillion, yet little has come of it. Not a single large project has come on stream at a break-even cost below $80 a barrel for almost three years.

Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programmes. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said”.

The following images give a good idea of the trend and breakdown in costs of oil production. Getting it out of the ground is just for starters. The images show just how expensive it is becoming to produce – and how far from breakeven the current oil price is.

Click on image to enlarge

It is important to note that the “breakeven cost” is much less than the oil price required to sustain the industry into the future (business as usual).

The following images show that the many different types of oil have (obviously) vastly different production costs. Note the relatively small proportion of conventional reserves (much of it already used), and the substantially higher production cost of all other types of oil. Note also the apt title and date of the Deutsche Bank analysis – production costs have risen substantially since then.



The global oil industry is in deep trouble

You do not need to be an economist to see that the average 2016 price of oil ~ $50/bbl was substantially lower than just the breakeven price of all but a small proportion of global oil reserves. Even before the oil price collapse of 2014-5, the global oil industry was in deep trouble. Debts are rising quickly, and balance sheets are increasingly RED. Earlier this year 2016, Deloitte warned that 35% of oil majors were in danger of bankruptcy, with another 30% to follow in 2017.


Click on image to enlarge

In addition to the oil majors, shrinking oil revenues in oil-producing countries are playing havoc with national economies. Virtually every oil producing country in the world requires a much higher oil price to balance its budget – some of them vastly so (eg Venezuela). Their economies have been designed around oil, which for many of them is their largest source of income. Even Saudi Arabia, the biggest global oil producer with the biggest conventional oil reserves is quickly using up its sovereign wealth fund.


It appears that not a single significant oil-producing country is balancing its budget. Their debts and deficits grow bigger by the day. Everyone is praying for higher oil prices. Who are they kidding? The average BAU oil price going forward for business as usual for the whole global oil industry probably needs to be well over $100/bbl; and the world economy is on its knees even at the present low oil price. Why is this? The indicators all spell huge trouble ahead. Could there be another fundamental oil/energy/financial mechanism operating here?

The Root Cause

The cause is not surprising. All the various new types of oil and a good deal of the conventional stuff that remains require far more energy to produce.

In 2015, The Hills Group (US Oil Engineers) published “Depletion – A Determination of the Worlds Petroleum Reserve”. It is meticulously researched and re-worked with trends double checked against published data. It follows on from the Hills Group 2013 work that accurately predicted the approaching oil price collapse after 2014 (which no-one else did) and calculated that the average oil price of 2016 would be ~$50/bbl. They claim theirs is the most accurate oil price indicator ever produced, with >96% accuracy with published past data. The Hills Group work has somewhat clarified my understanding of the core issues and I will try to summarise two crucial points as follows.

Oil can only be useful as an energy source if the energy contained in the product (ie transport fuel) is greater than the energy required to extract, refine and deliver the fuel to the end user.

If you electrolyse water, the hydrogen gas produced (when mixed with air and ignited), will explode with a bang (be careful doing this at home!). The hydrogen contained in the world’s water is an enormous potential energy source and contains infinitely more energy (as hydrogen) than humans could ever need. The problem is that it takes far more energy to produce a given amount of hydrogen from water than is available by combusting it. Oil is rapidly going the same way. Only a small proportion of what remains of conventional oil resources can provide an energy surplus for use as a fuel. All the other types of oil require more energy to produce and deliver as fuel to the end user (taking into account the whole oil production chain), than is contained in the fuel itself.

What people do not realise is that it takes oil to extract, refine, produce and deliver oil to the end user. The Hills Group calculates that in 2012, the average energy required by the oil production chain had risen so much that it was then equal to the energy contained in the oil delivered to the economy. In other words “In 2012 the oil industry production chain in total used 50% of all the energy contained in the oil delivered to the consumer”. This is trending rapidly to reach 100% early in the next decade.

At this point – no matter how much oil is left (a lot) and in whatever form (many), oil will be of no use as an energy source for transport fuels, since it will on average require more energy to extract, refine and deliver to the end-user, than the oil itself contains.

Because oil reserves are of decreasing quality and oil is getting more difficult and expensive to produce and transform into transport fuels; the amount of energy required by the whole oil production chain (the global oil industry) is rapidly increasing; leaving less and less left over for the rest of the economy.

In this context and relative to the IEA graph shown earlier, there is a big difference between annual gross oil production, and the amount of energy left in the product available for work as fuel. Whilst total global oil (all liquids) production currently appears to be still growing slowly, the energy required by the global oil industry is growing faster, and the net energy available for work by the end user is decreasing rapidly. This is illustrated by the following figure (Louis Arnoux 2016).


The price of oil cannot exceed the value of the economic activity generated from the amount of energy available to end-users per barrel.

The rapid decline in oil-energy available to the economy is one of the key reasons for the equally rapid rise in global debt.

The global industrial world economy depends on oil as its prime energy source. Increasing growth of the world economy during the oil age has been exactly matched by oil production and use, but as Louis’ image shows, over the last forty years the amount of net energy delivered by the oil industry to the economy has been decreasing.

As a result, the economic value of a barrel of oil is falling fast. “In 1975 one dollar could have bought, on average, 42,348 BTU; by 2010 a dollar would only have bought 6,946 BTU” (The Hills Group 2015).


This has caused a parallel reduction in real economic activity. I say “real” because today the financial world accounts for about 40% of global GDP, and I would like to remind economists and bankers that you cannot eat 0000’s on a computer screen, or use them to put food on the table, heat your house, or make something useful. GDP as an indicator of the global economy is an illusion. If you deduct financial services and account for debt, the real world economy is contracting fast.

To compensate, and continue the fallacy of endless economic growth, we have simply borrowed and borrowed, and borrowed. Huge amounts of additional debt are now required to sustain the “Growth Illusion”.


In 2012 the decreasing ability of oil to power the economy intersected with the increasing cost of oil production at a point The Hills Group refers to as the maximum affordable consumer price (just over $100/bbl) and they calculated that the price of oil must fall soon afterwards. In 2014 much to everyone’s surprise (IEA, EIA, World Bank, Wall St Oil futures etc) the price of oil fell to where it is now. This is clearly illustrated by The Hills Group’s petroleum price curve of 2013 which correctly calculated that the 2016 average price of oil would be ~$50/bbl (Depletion – The Fate of the Oil Age 2013).


In their detailed 2015 study The Hills Group writes (Depletion – A determination of the world’s petroleum reserve 2015);

“To determine the affordability range it is first observed that the price of a unit of petroleum cannot exceed the value of the economic activity (generated by the net energy) it supplies to the end consumer. (Since 2012) more of the energy from petroleum was being committed to the production of petroleum than was delivered to the consumer. This precipitated the 2014 price decline that reduced prices by 50%. The energy delivered to the end consumer will continue to decline and the end consumer maximum affordability will decline with it.

Dr Louis Arnoux explains this as follows: “In 1900 the Global Industrial World received 61% of the gross energy in a barrel of oil. In 2016 this is down to 7%. The global industrial world is being forced to contract because it is being starved of net energy from oil” (Louis Arnoux 2016).

This is reflected in the slowing down of global economic growth and the huge increase in total global debt.

Without noticing it, in 2012 the world entered “Emergency Red Alert”

In the following image, Dr Arnoux has reworked Hills Group petroleum price curve showing the impending collapse of thermodynamically driven oil prices – and the end of the oil age as we know it. This analysis is more than amply reinforced by the dire financial straits of the global oil industry, and the parlous state of the global economy and financial system.


Oil is a finite resource which is subject to the same physical laws as many other commodities. The debate about peak oil has been clouded by the fact that oil consists of many different kinds of hydrocarbons; each of which has its own extraction profile. But conventional oil is the only category of oil that can be extracted with a whole production chain energy surplus. Production of this commodity (conventional oil) has undoubtedly peaked and is now declining. The amount of energy (and cost) required by the global oil industry to produce and deliver much of the remainder of conventional reserves and the many alternative categories of oil to the consumer, is rapidly increasing; and we are equally rapidly heading toward the day when we have used up those reserves of oil which will deliver an energy surplus (taking into account the whole production chain from extraction to delivery of the end product as fuel to the consumer).

The Global Oil Industry is one of the most advanced and efficient in the world and further efficiency gains will be minor compared to the scale of the problem, which is essentially one of oil depletion thermodynamics.

Humans are very good at propping up the unsustainable and this often results in a fast and unexpected collapse (eg Joseph Tainter: The collapse of complex societies). An example of this is the Seneca Curve/Cliff which appears to me to be an often-repeated defining trait of humanity. Our oil/financial system is a perfect illustration.

Debt is being used to extend the unsustainable and it looks as though we are headed for the “Mother of all Seneca Curves” which I have illustrated below:



Because oil is the primary energy resource upon which all other energy sources depend, it is almost certain that a contraction in oil production would be reflected in a parallel reduction in other energy systems; as illustrated rather dramatically in this image by Gail Tverberg (the timing is slightly premature – but probably not by much).


Energy and Money

Fundamental to all energy and economic systems is money. Debt is being used to prop up a contracting oil energy system, and the scale of money created as debt over the last few decades to compensate is truly phenomenal; amounting to hundreds of trillions (excluding “extra-terrestrial” amounts of “financials”), rising exponentially faster. This amount of debt, can never ever be repaid. The on-going contraction of the oil/energy system will exacerbate this trend until the financial system collapses. There is nothing anyone can do about it no matter how much money is printed, NIRP, ZIRP you name it – all the indicators are flashing red. The panacea of indefinite money printing will soon hit the thermodynamic energy wall of reality.


The effects we currently observe such as exponential growth in debt (US Debt alone almost doubled from $10 trillion to nearly $20 trillion during Obama’s tenure), and the financial problems of oil majors and oil producing countries, are clear indicators of the imminent contraction in existing global energy and financial systems.

The coming failure of the global economic system will be a systemic failure. I say “systemic” because for the last 150 years up till now there has always been cheap and abundant oil to power recovery from previous busts. This era is over. Cheap and abundant oil will not be available for recovery from the next crunch, and the world will need to adopt a completely different economic and financial model.

The Economics “profession”

Economists would have us believe it’s just another turn of the credit cycle. This dismal non-science is in the main the lapdog of the establishment, the global financial and corporate interests. They have engineered the “science” to support the myth of perpetual growth to suit the needs of their pay-masters, the financial institutions, corporations and governments (who pay their salaries, fund the universities and research, etc). They have steadfastly ignored all ecological and resource issues and trends and warnings such as LTG, and portrayed themselves as the pre-eminent arbiters of human enterprise. By vehemently supporting the status quo, they of all groups, I hold primarily responsible for the appalling situation the planet faces; the destruction of the natural world, and many other threats to the global environment and its ability to sustain civilisation as we know it.

I have news for the “Economics Profession”. The perpetual growth fantasy financial system based on unlimited cheap energy is now coming to an end. From the planet’s point of view – it simply couldn’t be soon enough. This will mark the end of what I call the “Oilocene”. Human activities are having such an effect on the planet that the present age has been classified by geologists as a new geological era “The Anthropocene”. But although humans had already made a significant impact on natural systems, the Anthropocene has largely been defined by the relatively recent discovery and use of liquid fossil energy reserves amounting to millions of years of stored solar energy. Unlimited cheap oil has fuelled exponential growth in human systems to the point that many of these are now greater than natural planetary ones.
This cannot be sustained without huge amounts of cheap net oil energy, so we are inescapably headed for “the great deceleration”. The situation is very like the fate of the Titanic which I have outlined in my presentation. Of the few who had the courage to face the economic wind of perpetual growth, I salute the authors of LTG and the memory of Richard Douthwaite (The Growth Illusion 1992), and all at FEASTA who are working hard to warn a deaf Ireland of what is to come and why – and have very sensibly been preparing for it! We will all need a lot of courage and resilience to face what is coming down the line.

Ireland has a very short time available to prepare for hard times.

There are many things we could do here to soften the impact if the problem was understood for what it is. FEASTA publications such as the Before The Wells Run Dry and Fleeing Vesuvius; and David Korowicz’s works such as The Tipping Point and of course, The Hills Group 2015 publicationDepletion – a determination of the worlds petroleum reserve , and very many other references, provide background material and should be required urgent reading for all policy makers.

The pre-eminent challenge is energy for transport and agriculture. We could switch to use of compressed natural gas (CNG) as the urgent default transport/motive fuel in the short term since petrol and diesel engines can be converted to dual-fuel use with CNG; supplemented rapidly by biogas (since we are lucky enough to have plenty of agricultural land and water compared to many countries).

We could urgently switch to an organic high labour input agriculture concentrating on local self-sufficiency eliminating chemical inputs such as fertilisers pesticides and herbicides (as Cuba did after the fall of the Soviet Union). We could outlaw the use of oil for heating and switch to biomass.

We could penalise high electricity use and aim to massively cut consumption so that electricity can be supplied by completely renewable means – preserving our natural gas for transport fuel and the rapid transition from oil. The Grid could be urgently reconfigured to enable 100% use of renewable electricity within a few years. We could concentrate on local production of food, goods and services to reduce transport needs.

These measures would create a lot of jobs and improve the balance of payments. They have already been proposed in one form or another by FEASTA over the last 15 years.

Ireland has made a start, but it is insignificant compared to the scale and timescale of the challenge ahead as illustrated by the next image (SEAI: Energy in Ireland – Key Statistics 2015). We urgently need to shrink the oil portion to a small fraction of current use.


Current fossil energy use is very wasteful. By reducing waste and increasing efficiency we can use less. For instance, a large amount of the energy used as transport fuels and for electricity generation is lost to atmosphere as waste heat. New technological solutions include a global initiative to mount an affordable emergency response called nGeni that is solely based on well-known and proven technology components, integrated in a novel way, with a business and financial model enabling it to tap into over €5 trillion/year of funds currently wasted globally as waste heat. This has potential for Ireland, and will be outlined in a subsequent post.

To finance all the changes we need to implement, quickly (and hopefully before the full impact of the oil/financial catastrophe really kicks in), we could for instance create something like a massive multibillion “National Sustainability and Renewable Energy Bond”. Virtually all renewables provide a better (often substantially better) return on investment compared to bank savings, government bonds, etc; especially in the age of zero and negative interest rate policies ZIRP, NIRP etc.

We may need to think about managing this during a contraction in the economy and financial system which could occur at any time. We certainly could do with a new clever breed of “Ecological Economists” to plan for the end of the old system and its replacement by a sustainable new one. There is no shortage of ideas. The disappearance of trillions of fake money and the shrinking of national and local tax income which currently funds the existing system and its social programmes will be a huge challenge to social stability in Ireland and all over the world.

It’s now “Emergency Red Alert”. If we delay, we won’t have the energy or the money to implement even a portion of what is required. We need to drag our politicians and policy makers kicking and screaming to the table, to make them understand the dire nature of the predicament and challenge them to open their eyes to the increasingly obvious, and to take action. We can thank The Hills Group for elucidating so clearly the root causes of the problem, but the indicators of systemic collapse have for many years been frantically jumping up and down, waving at us and shouting LOOK AT ME! Meanwhile the majority of blinkered clueless economists that advise business and government and who plan our future, look the other way.

In 1972 “The Limits to Growth” warned of the consequences of growing reliance on the finite resource called “oil” and of the suicidal economics mantra of endless growth. The challenge Ireland will soon face is managing a fast economic and energy contraction and implementing sustainability on a massive scale whilst maintaining social cohesion. Whatever the outcome (managed or chaotic contraction), we will soon all have to live with a lot less energy and physical resources. That in itself might not necessarily be such a bad thing provided the burden is shared. “Modern citizens today use more energy and physical resources in a month than our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime” (John Thackera; “From Oil Age to Soil Age”, Doors to Perception; Dec 2016). Were they less happy than us?

PDF of this article
Powerpoint presentation

Featured image: used motor oil. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stain-1507366

Fossil fuels in deep trouble…..

19 08 2016

Recently, a handful of Germany’s top scientists argued that “controlled implosion of fossil industries and explosive renewables development” might be able to deliver on the targets in the Paris agreement on climate change.

Even if we accept this notion at face value, and ignoring that many other factors might also be in play, the recent course of events does not offer much hope that “controlled” is the correct word to apply to the predicaments currently battering the energy sector. And while the renewable energy sector might be continuing to make progress, it is clearly not “exploding” as fast as some might wish……. Could it be, by any chance, that the ongoing collapse of the fossil fuel industries will happen at a much faster pace than the wishful explosive transition to ‘solutions’?

Let’s start with coal. The future for this bankruptcy-riddled industry dramatically worsened in July 2016. It increasingly looks as though the Chinese government’s recent retreat from coal is biting hard, and that Chinese coal peak coal production occurred in 2014. Prof Nick Stern, among others, including Chinese collaborators, argued that we are witnessing “a turning point in the climate change battle”. The latest Chinese announcement is a ban on the development of coal projects, until 2018. The staggering air pollution driving this change is proving difficult to beat… and the same is true of India.  NASA data showed toxic air choking huge areas of the Indian subcontinent, most of which the obvious result of fossil fuel combustion. In the face of all this, even Deutsche Bank has stopped financing the coal mining sector.

Investment continues to wane from fossil fuels as a result of divestment campaigns. Swedish pension fund AP4 made the biggest divestment move of any institution to date. The $35billion scheme will decarbonise its $14.7billion global equity portfolio by 2020, switching to passive investment tracking low carbon benchmarks.

Furthermore, the oil and gas industry’s hopes for a return to high oil prices have yet to occur, and as a result its already teetering state is deteriorating. A study of 365 oil and gas megaprojects by Ernst and Young shows 64% with cost overruns, and 73% behind schedule. This dismal record is combining with low oil prices to create a mortal squeeze on profitability.

US drillers have hit an all time high with junk bond defaults: $28.8 billion so far this year, according to Fitch Ratings. With $500 billion+ outstanding,  more bankruptcies can be expected. Some of these companies are even trying to buy time by paying debt interest with more debt. Desperate times require desperate actions I guess…….

Global oil breakeven costs have fallen by $19 to a current average of $51 since the oil price began falling in 2014. Trouble is, the oil price is still hovering around $40 and most of the industry’s targets are totally uneconomic.

“Oil giants find there’s nowhere to hide from doomsday market”, read a Bloomberg headline. “The industry cannot survive on current oil prices,” veteran analyst Fadel Gheit declared. The bankruptcy count so far this year stands at more than 80 companies.

So will the oil price rise, and offer some relief…? Not according to analysts. Morgan Stanley expects oil to fall to $35. (The price is around $40 as I write). The main concern is excessive production of petrol/gasoline by refineries (= less crude imported). As always, some of course disagree. Core Laboratories point to the net worldwide annual crude oil production decline rate of ~3.3%, and expect US production to continue dropping, which they hope will bring tighter supply, and rising prices.

Even if the oil price does indeed rise again, problems are not going away…… The industry faces a huge shortage of workers. 350,000 have apparently been laid off since the oil price began falling in 2014. 60% of the fracking workforce has been laid off, 70% of fracking equipment has been idled. It will be nigh impossible to turn the taps back on, as even some of the industry’s own bosses now point out. And if the price rises back above $90, the global economy will tank……