Thursday, March 15, 2012

Energy Return on Energy Invested


It’s an election year and politicians are talking about oil as usual. I even heard the term “peak-oil” on the morning news today. A well-known politician (who will remain nameless) was talking about how we have lots of domestic oil and he’s going to reduce our gas prices by using it. As we all probably know in theory, but don’t think much about, creating energy costs energy. When you’re in the business of creating energy the less existing energy costs to create new energy the better. This ratio is called the Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI).  Unfortunately all of the oil we have may not be worth the investment.
We’ve been using up the easy to reach oil and now it’s dwindling. I read an article on Forbes website saying that ERoEI and peak-oil aren’t meaningful as our science is advancing and the sun is a huge source of energy. (Tim Worstall was kind enough to comment below to clarify his position.) Yes, the sun is huge source of energy. The problem I see, is that to capture that energy in a meaningful way, we need to have solar panels and equipment to convert it. Right now, we don’t have enough infrastructure in place to capture the sun power it would take to power our grid efficiently.  The problem is similar to that of the chicken and the egg. If we had a vast solar infrastructure it would be possible to maintain that infrastructure by creating new parts and equipment with the solar energy we captured. If we don’t have the infrastructure in place to harness a meaningful amount of solar energy, how will we create the infrastructure when we’ve run out of oil?
Another problem I had while reading Worstall’s argument is with his dependence on scientific advancement. Granted, we don’t know what we will learn. I'll quote James Hunter Kunstler here as I've been reading his book lately and likely that's why I'm writing this. "What would Ben Franklin have thought of Adobe Photoshop?" There must be things we can't even conceive of now waiting to be discovered. I’m not willing to risk the future prosperity of our world on the assumption that we will find more oil or new ways to harvest oil on this planet or another. Similar to the problem with solar energy, if we run out of oil before we find the oil supply or new technology – how will we get to it or use it? Perhaps we will come up with a way to get there, but we will need to manufacture parts in factories that require traditional power and oil to run. We will need to transport the equipment or materials possibly across long distances, in trucks that require oil.
I think we can overcome our obstacles, but I worry we’ll wait until its too late.  We don’t have the wind, solar or nuclear infrastructure in place to replace our dependence on oil. As our easy sources of energy are drained, the ratio of the energy we receive for the energy we invest becomes less favorable. We seem to be spending our time as a nation concerned with how we will power our cars and really the question we should be asking is how we will manufacture them. Is there even a place for individual passenger cars in a world with less oil? If not, why are we giving tax credits and spending development time on symptoms rather than the root issue? Perhaps we should invest in science to advance our technology, or infrastructure that will soften the impact as we run out of this precious resource.


  1. I'm afraid you've misunderstood my argument about a new planet. I'm not saying there's another planet out there full of oil that we can go get it from.

    Rather, technological advances in oil extraction continually provide us with this new planet we're standing on to explore for oil.

    Take, for example, drilling to five miles down for the first time (not that Macondo is really a perfect example, all things considered). This does not mean that we've found just one oil field. Rather, this means that we've now got the whole of the Earth to look at again, between 3 miles (roughly how deep we were drilling before) and 5 miles down.

    If we ever learn how to drill 10 miles down, then we've another planet, The Earth, at depths of 5 to 10 miles down to explore.

    It's an old and sadly misunderstood economic argument. The truth is that we create mineral resources by inventing the technology that allows us to make use of them.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I will modify the post to clarify your position.