Big Picture Peak Energy Social Change

The Energy Cliff

We all know we need Renewable Energy, by now, I think. It’s entering public consciousness. It’s no longer gun-toting woods-and-mountains survivalists and deep greens who are asking : “how will you ride the slide ?” :-

The Oil Drum, whose mission is “to facilitate civil, evidence-based discussions about energy and its impact on our future”, is running a short series about transition to Renewable Energy, written by Jeff Vail :-

This is condensed from a series he published on his own webspace about the issues, calling it the “Renewables Hump” :-

Now, I think you won’t be really excited about this unless you are an engineer of some kind, but even if you’re not, it’s important to try to get your head around the basic problem.

It takes energy to make energy. If you want to grow food to eat to power your body, you have to dig and sow and tend and harvest. Or just sow, tend, harvest if you are a no-till Perma-agriculturalist.

But all the same, you must do some work, expend some energy, to get some food that gives you energy.

But just think : if the physical energy it took to grow potatoes (for example), was more than the food energy you got from eating the final product (mmm, wedges), then you would starve.

I mean, you’d still be eating, but you wouldn’t be replenishing your liver’s store of glycogen or your body fat by an amount that compensated for your hard labour.

So, over time, you’d waste away.

This, my readers, is called the “energy return” of any process involving energy. It can either be positive, and (in the potatoes example) you get love handles, or negative and you emaciate.

This return on energy investment is often called Energy Return (On) Energy Invested – EROI or EROEI. People pronounce this as “eee roy” when I have face time with them on this subject.

On another The Oil Drum article discussing underground methods of mining Tar Sands for bitumen, a commentator claims that the energy return is 30 to 1, in other words you get 30 times the food energy back from the amount you put in as work energy :-

“…root vegetables have an EROI of about 30:1 but we can’t get 86 mbpd of potatoes…”

Just to explain, “mbpd” means “million barrels (of oil equivalent) per day”, and 86 mbpd is roughly the world’s consumption of liquid transport oil from all sources.

What has this all got to do with wind turbines ? And what is a Renewables “Hump” or “Cliff” ? Simply put, not only does it take energy to make energy, it also takes energy to make energy equipment.

If I were to go out tomorrow and build a wind turbine, I’d have to reclaim, buy, find or borrow some stuff with which to make it. And all those raw materials take energy to make them. So, even before I started generating, I’d be in “energy debt”.

Until the point at which the wind turbine starts spinning and making lovely humming juice, I will have used more energy than I have generated. Not only do I have to invest money, time and labour to make my wind turbine, I have to spend energy.

There is a roadblock in between me and green power, an “investment hump” before the smooth path of green energy production.

Now imagine that on a grand, global scale. Oil production is dropping around the world. All these panicked countries with governments that can read charts of oil depletion have woken up and realised that sweating and worritting is not going to help.

We need to move to renewable, sustainable energy as fast as possible. But since it takes energy to make energy plant, are we going to have enough Non-Renewable Energy to invest in the Renewable Energy future ?

This is the “hump” that Jeff Vail is talking about – something that others call the “cliff” in energy transition – from non-renewable to renewable.

He brings something else to the table besides energy calculations : money – that thing of flexible value – unrelated to the true value of economy and energy :-

“The trouble with transition begins with the issue that (present) renewable energy sources such as solar and wind require an investment of energy up-front, after which these technologies proceed to return energy over a period of time…”

“While this is all quite straightforward, there is at least one important implication that seems to be generally overlooked: at some rate of investment in renewable energy infrastructure, the economic burden of this up-front energy investment will make the program politically impossible.”

“What do I mean by that? If you want to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable sources (and thereby help to ameliorate energy scarcity), you need to first exacerbate that scarcity by using an increasing share of our currently available energy as an up-front investment in these new renewables.”

“If the EROEI of the renewables towards which we’re transitioning is sufficiently high, if our timeline for meeting some transition target is sufficiently long, or if the transition target is sufficiently low, then this “burden” will be minimized as we will be able to meet our target with a small up-front investment of fossil fuels (minor exacerbation of scarcity) and then bootstrap the energy production of the first wave of renewables to finance the energy demands of the remainder of the transition.”

“However, if some or all of these conditions are not met, then the transition target will not be possible because the level of up-front fossil fuel investment will exacerbate current energy scarcity to a politically unacceptable or economically infeasible degree.”

“Imagine: if the EROEI is only 2:1, or if we want to transition all fossil fuels to renewables within 5 years (via some kind of WWII-style economic mobilization), then a huge portion of our current fossil fuel use will need to be diverted to this renewables transition.”

“The result, due to underlying supply and demand inelasticity, will be massive price spikes, rationing, or other politically and economically devastating events.”

“Of course, if EROEI is 100:1 on a generating life of 20 years, or if our target is only to maintain current rates of renewables transition, then these problems won’t arise. As I will argue later in this series, EROEI is likely far lower than 100:1. And I am working on the assumption that, independently due to peak oil and climate change, a status quo transition rate is unacceptable…”

Jeff Vail is arguing for a vastly ramped up transition to renewable sources of energy, to avoid the trap that there is not enough non-renewable resources to continue with the current economy and do the transition at the same time.

Somebody needs to be managing this, clearly. Either managing a much larger energy transition plan, or managing energy demand, keeping it lower than it is now.

There is not really a direct correlation between oil value and oil price. Money is an inexact and changing currency, and does not reflect the true value of energy. However, there is a general truth about oil prices : the higher they are, the less oil people use to do industry and transport.

At the moment there is a play off between those who want to keep the oil prices low and stable, to protect the failing economy; and those who want the oil prices to rise for a whole bag of reasons, such as profit-making on trading.

If oil prices rise relative to the rest of the economy, and stay high, suddenly the vision will be turned towards renewables. One way that can happen is by pricing Carbon, but only if Renewables are underpriced, by subsidy, at the same time.

The reason Renewable Energy needs a subsidy is to pay for the investment in its development and deployment.

Carbon Trading, or Carbon Taxation, or even Carbon Rationing, or a combination, on their own are not going to facilitate the Renewable Energy Transition.

There needs to be a deliberate funding of the transition to Renewable Energy, or we could well fall off the Energy Cliff.

“November 02, 2008 : Doing the numbers: what you need to know about oil depletion : by Sharon Astyk : Earlier this week, the Financial Times leaked the International Energy Agency’s figures that show the rate of decline in production of the 400 largest oilfields in the world – and they concluded that without large scale, above normal investment, the annual decline will be 9.1%. It is hard to understand how important that number is, particularly given the situation we are in right now….We’re not replacing the oil we’re extracting with new discoveries, mostly becauses we pretty well know where the oil is. Oh, we find new barrels – but only one for every six we consume.”

This article from the original print edtion of The Guardian is blutacked to the cupboard in my kitchen :-

Just the other day, I watched a twenty second splice on BBC TV, a guy, presumably from the Nissan factory where they are making car batteries, arguing for new Nuclear power to feed a whole new network of electric cars.

My reaction was : you can’t build new Nuclear fast enough for the speed of the changes we need.

“Carmaker Nissan has pledged to invest more than £200m in a new rechargeable battery factory in Sunderland boosting the north-east of England’s drive to become a leading centre for green technology. The region hopes to swap a legacy of shipbuilding, steam engines and coalmining for a pioneering role in the manufacture of electric cars and lorries…But others are more sceptical that electric cars are worthy of such “green” government investment. Stephen Glaister director of the RAC Foundation points out the power to charge batteries will most likely be generated from coal or gas. “I think it is entirely unclear whether electric cars have anything to offer.””–of-the-green-car-revolution-1754428.html

“The Big Question: Is Britain going to be at the centre of the ‘green car’ revolution? : By Sean O’Grady : Tuesday, 21 July 2009 : Why are we asking this now? : Because Nissan has said that production of electric car batteries will begin at its Sunderland plant, with the creation of 350 jobs. Some £200m will be invested over the next five years. Through the Regional Development Agency, millions more of taxpayers’ money will be spent on all manner of green infrastructure projects to boost the North East as a “low-carbon economic area”, including electricity charging points, a test track, an R&D facility linked to local universities, and a training centre for electric cars. It looks as if the British motor industry is just refusing to lie down and die…What about emissions at the power station? : Even electricity generated by the dirtiest coal would arguably still be cleaner than the cleanest petrol models. That claim is still disputed by some, but what is clear is that electricity generated from renewables and, again arguably, nuclear power, is far more clean than anything the internal combustion engine can yet match, though the margins may not be quite as large as people think…”

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