Friday, September 30, 2016



See the second essay below for more on this.

The Energy Return of Solar PV
Posted on May 9, 2016 by Euan Mearns

A new study by Ferroni and Hopkirk [1] estimates the ERoEI of temperate latitude solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to be 0.83. If correct, that means more energy is used to make the PV panels than will ever be recovered from them during their 25 year lifetime. A PV panel will produce more CO2 than if coal were simply used directly to make electricity. Worse than that, all the CO2 from PV production is in the atmosphere today, while burning coal to make electricity, the emissions would be spread over the 25 year period. The image shows the true green credentials of solar PV where industrial wastelands have been created in China so that Europeans can make believe they are reducing CO2 emissions (image credit Business Insider).

I have been asked to write a post reviewing the concept of energy return on energy invested (ER0EI) and as a first step in that direction I sent an email to my State-side friends Charlie Hall, Nate Hagens and David Murphy asking that they send me recent literature. The first paper I read was by Ferruccio Ferroni and Robert J. Hopkirk titled Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation [1] and the findings are so stunning that I felt compelled to write this post immediately.

So what is ERoEI? It is simply the ratio of energy gathered to the amount of energy used to gather the energy (the energy invested):
ERoEI = energy gathered / energy invested

Simple, isn’t it? Well it’s not quite so simple as it appears at first sight. For example, using PV to illustrate the point, the energy gathered will depend on latitude, the amount of sunshine, the orientation of the panels and also on the lifetime of the panels themselves. And how do you record or measure the energy invested? Do you simply measure the electricity used at the PV factory, or do you include the energy consumed by the workers and the miners who mined the silicon and the coal that is used to make the electricity? Ferroni and Hopkirk go into all of these details and come up with an ERoEI for temperate latitude solar PV of 0.83. At this level, solar PV is not an energy source but is an energy sink. That is for Switzerland and Germany. It will be much worse in Aberdeen!

Why is ERoEI important? It is a concept that is alien to most individuals, including many engineers, energy sector employees, academics and policy makers. The related concept of net energy is defined as:
Net Energy = ERoEI – 1 (where 1 is the energy invested)
Net energy is the surplus energy left over from our energy gathering activities that is used to power society – build hospitals, schools, aircraft carriers and to grow food. In the past the ERoEI of our primary energy sources – oil, gas and coal – was so high, probably over 50, that there was bucket loads of cheap energy left over to build all the infrastructure and to feed all the people that now inhabit The Earth. But with the net energy equation for solar PV looking like this:
0.83-1 = -0.17

….. Brussels we have a problem!

So how can it be possible that we are managing to deploy devices that evidently consume rather than produce energy? The simple answer is that our finance system, laws and subsidies are able to bend the laws of physics and thermodynamics for so long as we have enough high ERoEI energy available to maintain the whole system and to subsidise parasitic renewables. Try mining and purifying silicon using an electric mining machine powered by The Sun and the laws of physics will re-establish themselves quite quickly.

In very simple terms, solar PV deployed in northern Europe can be viewed as coal burned in China used to generate electricity over here. All of the CO2 emissions, that underpin the motive for PV, are made in China. Only in the event of high energy gain in the PV device would solar PV reduce CO2 emissions. More on that later.

Energy Return
The calculations are all based on the energy produced by 1 m^2 of PV.
Theoretical calculations of what PV modules should generate made by manufacturers do not take into account operational degradation due to surface dirt. Nor do they take into account poor orientation, unit failure or breakage, all of which are quite common.

The actual energy produced using Swiss statistics works out at 106kWe/m^2 yr
We then also need to know how long the panels last. Manufacturers claim 30 years while empirical evidence suggests a mean scrapage age of only 17 years in Germany. Ferroni and Hopkirk use a generous 25 year unit life.
Combining all these factors leads to a number of 2203kWe/m^2 for the life of a unit.

Energy Invested
The energy invested calculation is also based on 1 m^2 of panel and uses mass of materials as a proxy for energy consumed and GDP energy intensity as a proxy for the labour part of the equation.

Two different methods for measuring energy invested are described:
  • ERoEI(IEA)
  • ERoEI(Ext)
Where IEA = methodology employed by the International Energy Agency and Ext = extended boundary as described by Murphy and Hall, 2010 [2,3]. The difference between the two is that the IEA is tending to focus on the energy used in the factory process while the extended methodology of Murphy and Hall, 2010 includes activities such as mining, purifying and transporting the silicon raw material.

In my opinion, Ferroni and Hopkirk correctly follow the extended ERoEI methodology of Murphy and Hall and include the following in their calculations:
  • Materials to make panels but also to erect and install panels
  • Labour at every stage of the process from mining manufacture and disposal
  • Manufacturing process i.e. the energy used in the various factories
  • Faulty panels that are discarded
  • Capital which is viewed as the utilisation of pre-existing infrastructure and energy investment
  • Integration of intermittent PV onto the grid

And that gives us the result of ERoEI:
2203 / 2664 kW he/m^2 = 0.83

The only point I would question is the inclusion of the energy cost of capital. All energy produced can be divided into energy used to gather energy and energy for society and I would question whether the cost of capital does not fall into the latter category?

But there appears to be one major omission and that is the energy cost of distribution. In Europe, about 50% of the cost of electricity (excluding taxes) falls to the grid construction and maintenance. If that was to be included it would make another serious dent in the ERoEI.

This value for ERoEI is lower than the value of 2 reported by Prieto and Hall [4] and substantially lower that the values of 5 to 6 reported by the IEA [5]. One reason for this is that the current paper [1] is specifically for temperate latitude solar. But Ferroni and Hopkirk also detail omissions by the IEA as summarised below.

IEA energy input omissions and errors
a) The energy flux across the system boundaries and invested for the labour is not included.
b) The energy flux across the system boundaries and invested for the capital is not included.
c) The energy invested for integration of the PV-generated electricity into a complex and flexible electricity supply and distribution system is not included (energy production does not follow the needs of the customer).
d) The IEA guidelines specify the use of “primary energy equivalent” as a basis. However, since the energy returned is measured as secondary electrical energy, the energy carrier itself, and since some 64% to 67% of the energy invested for the production of solar-silicon and PV modules is also in the form of electricity (Weissbach et al., 2013) and since moreover, the rules for the conversion from carrier or secondary energy back to primary energy are not scientifically perfect (Giampietro and Sorman, 2013), it is both easier and more appropriate to express the energy invested as electrical energy. The direct contribution of fossil fuel, for instance in providing energy for process heating, also has to be converted into secondary energy. The conversion from a fossil fuel’s internal chemical energy to electricity is achieved in modern power plants with an efficiency of 38% according to the BP statistic protocol (BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2015). In the present paper, in order to avoid conversion errors, we shall continue to use electrical (i.e. secondary) energy in kW he/m2 as our basic energy unit.
e) The recommended plant lifetime of 30 years, based on the experiences to date, must be regarded as unrealistic.
f) The energy returned can and should be based on actual experimental data measured in the field. Use of this procedure will yield values in general much lower than the electricity production expected by investors and politicians.

Of those I’d agree straight off with “a”, “c” and “f”. I’m not sure about “b” and “e” I’m sure this will be subject to debate. “d” is a complex issue and is in fact the same one described in my recent post EU and BP Renewable Electricity Accounting Methodologies. I agree with Ferroni and Hopkirk that units of electricity should be used throughout but if the IEA have grossed up the electricity used to account for thermal losses in power stations then this would increase their energy invested and suppress not inflate their estimates of ERoEI. Hence this is a point that needs to be clarified.

Environmental impacts
The main reason for deploying solar PV in Europe is to lower CO2 emissions. The European Commission and most European governments have been living in cloud cuckoo land allowing CO2 intensive industries to move to China, lowering emissions in Europe while raising emissions in China and making believe that importing steel from China somehow is emissions free.

And it gets even worse than that! The manufacture of PV panels involves lots of nasty chemicals too:
Many potentially hazardous chemicals are used during the production of solar modules. To be mentioned here is, for instance, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), (Arnold et al., 2013), a gas used for the cleaning of the remaining silicon-containing contaminants in process chambers. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) this gas has a global warming potential of approximately 16600 times that of CO2. Two other similarly undesirable “greenhouse” gases appearing are hexafluoroethane (C2F6) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).


The average weight of a photovoltaic module is 16 kg/m2 and the weight of the support system, inverter and the balance of the system is at least 25 kg/m2 (Myrans, 2009), whereby the weight of concrete is not included. Also, most chemicals used, such as acids/ bases, etchants, elemental gases, dopants, photolithographic chemicals etc. are not included, since quantities are small. But, we must add hydrochloric acid (HCl): the production of the solar- grade silicon for one square meter of panel area requires 3.5 kg of concentrated hydrochloric acid.

Comparison with nuclear
The paper offers some interesting comparisons with nuclear power. Looking first at materials used per unit of electricity produced:
  • PV uses 20.2 g per kW he (mainly steel aluminium and copper)
  • A nuclear power station uses 0.31 g per kW he (mainly steel) for a load factor of 85%
kW he = kilowatt hours electrical
Looking at labour, the authors observe:
The suppliers involved in the renewable energies industry advertise their capability to create many new jobs.
While of course the best forms of energy use as little labour as possible. At the point where ERoEI reaches 1, everyone is engaged in gathering energy and society as we know it collapses!
  • Solar PV creates 94.4 jobs per MW installed, adjusted for capacity factor.
  • Nuclear creates 13 jobs per MW installed covering construction, operation and decommissioning.
This may seem great to the politicians but it’s this inefficiency that makes solar PV expensive and kills the ERoEI. And looking at capital costs:
  • Solar PV needs CHF 6000 per kW installed (CHF = Swiss Franc)
  • Nuclear power CHF 5500 per kW installed
But normalising for capacity factors of 9% for solar and 85% for nuclear we get for effective capacity:
66,667 / 6471 = 10.3
Solar PV is 10 times more capital intensive than nuclear.

Energy transformation
When ERoEI approaches or goes below 1 we enter the realm of energy transformation which is quite common in our energy system. For example, converting coal to electricity we lose approximately 62% of the thermal energy. Converting coal and other raw materials into a PV panel may in certain circumstances make some sense. For example PV and a battery system may provide African villages with some electricity where there is little hope of ever getting a grid connection. Likewise for a mountain cabin. Individuals concerned about blackouts may also consider a PV battery system as a backup contingency.
But as a means of reducing CO2 emissions PV fails the test badly at temperate latitudes. It simply adds cost and noise to the system. In sunnier climates the situation will improve.

Concluding comments
The findings of this single study suggest that deploying solar PV at high latitudes in countries like Germany and the UK is a total waste of time, energy and money. All that is achieved is to raise the price of electricity and destabilise the grid. Defenders of RE and solar will point out that this is a single paper and there are certainly some of the inputs to Ferroni and Hopkirk that are open to debate. But there are reasons to believe that the findings are zeroing in on reality. For example Prieto and Hall found ERoEI for solar PV = 2. Looking only at cloudy, high temperate latitudes will substantially degrade that number.

And you just need to look at the outputs as shown below. Solar PV produces a dribble in winter and absolutely nothing at the 18:00 peak demand. There is a large financial cost and energy cost to compensate for this that RE enthusiasts dismiss with a wave of the arm.

Figure 1 From UK Grid Graphed. The distribution of solar production in the UK has grown 7 fold in 4 years. But 7 times a dribble in winter is still a dribble.  The large amount of embodied energy in these expensive devices does no work for us at all when we need it most.

Energy Matters has a good search facility top right. Insert solar pv and I was surprised to find how many articles Roger and I have written and they all more or less reach the same conclusions. I have added these links at the end of the post.

Figure 2 A typical solar installation in Aberdeen where the panels are on an east facing roof leaving the ideal south facing roof empty. This is a symbol of ignorance and stupidity that also pervades academia. Has anyone seen a University that does not have solar PV deployed? I’ve heard academics argue that orientation does not matter in Scotland, and they could be right. I dare say leaving the panels in their box would make little difference to their output. Academics, of course, are increasingly keen to support government policies. Note that sunny days like this one are extremely rare in Aberdeen. And in winter time, the sun rises about 10:00 and sets around 15:00.

Two years ago I fulminated about the random orientation of solar panels in Aberdeen in a post called Solar Scotland. And this random orientation will undoubtedly lead to serious degradation of the ERoEI. PV enthusiasts will no doubt assume that all solar PV panels are optimally orientated in their net energy analysis while in the real world of Ferroni and Hopkirk, they are not. A good remedy here would be to remove the feed in tariffs of systems not optimally deployed while ending future solar PV feed in tariffs all together.

But how to get this message heard at the political level? David MacKay’s final interview was very revealing:

The only reason solar got on the table was democracy. The MPs wanted to have a solar feed-in-tariff. So in spite of the civil servants advising ministers, ‘no, we shouldn’t subsidise solar’, we ended up having this policy. There was very successful lobbying by the solar lobbyists as well. So now there’s this widespread belief that solar is a wonderful thing, even though … Britain is one of the darkest countries in the world.

If the politicians do not now listen to the advice of one of the World’s most famous and respected energy analysts then I guess they will not listen to anyone. But they will with time become increasingly aware of the consequences of leading their electorate off the net energy cliff.

[1] Ferruccio Ferroni and Robert J. Hopkirk 2016: Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation: Energy Policy 94 (2016) 336–344
[2] Murphy, D.J.R., Hall, C.A.S., 2010. Year in review-EROI or energy return on (energy) invested. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. Spec. Issue Ecol. Econ. Rev. 1185, 102–118.
[3] Murphy, D.J.R., Hall, C.A.S., 2011. Energy return on investment, peak oil and the end of economic growth. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. Spec. Issue Ecol. Econ. 1219, 52–72.
[4] Prieto, P.A., Hall, C.A.S., 2013. Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution – The Energy Return on Investment. By Pedro A. Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall, Springer.
[5] IEA-PVPS T12, Methodology Guidelines on the Life Cycle Assessment of Photovoltaic Electricity – Report IEA-PVPS T12-03:2011.

Energy Matters solar posts
Solar PV – an irresistible disruptive technology?
Net metering and the death of US rooftop solar
Hinkley Point C or solar; which is cheaper?
A review of concentrated solar power (CSP) in Spain
Rooftop PV Panels Point Where the Roof Points
A Potential Solution to the Problem of Storing Solar Energy – Don’t Store It.
The German Grid and the Recent Solar Eclipse
Large scale grid integration of solar power – many problems, few solutions
Solar Scotland
The efficiency of solar photovoltaics


Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age (part III)

in Resource Crisis by Louis Arnoux July 21, 2016
Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff
Part I
Part II
The Tooth Fairy Syndrome that I discussed in Part 2 is, in my view, the fundamental reason why those holding onto BAU will grab every piece of information that can possibly, superficially, back up their ideology and twist it to suit their viewa, generating much confusion in the process.  It is also probably fair to say that the advocates of various versions of “energy transition” are not immune to this kind of syndrome when they remain oblivious to the issues explored in Parts 1 and 2.  Is it possible to go beyond such confusion?

The need to move away from ideology

The impact of the Tooth Fairy Syndrome is all the more felt in the main media and among politicians – with the end result that so many lay people (and many experts) end up highly confused about what to think and do about energy matters.  Notably, we often encounter articles advocating, even sensationalising, various energy transition technologies or instead seeking to rubbish them by highlighting what they present as problematic issues without any depth of analysis.  For example, a 2013 article from the Daily Mail was highlighted in recent discussions among energy experts as a case in point.[1]  The UK is indeed installing large numbers of subsidized, costly diesel generators to be used as back-up at times of low electricity supplies from wind turbines. This article presented this policy as very problematic but failed to set things in perspective about what such issues say about the challenges of any energy transition.

In New Zealand, where I lived close to half of my life before a return to my dear Provence (De reditu suo mode, as a wink to anearlier post by Ugo) about 73% of electricity is deemed renewable (with hydro 60%, geothermal 10%, wind 3%, PVs about 0.1%); the balance being generated from gas and coal.  There is a policy to achieve 90% renewables by 2025. Now, with that mix we have had for many years something like what the UK is building, with a number of distributed generators for emergency back-up without this being a major issue.  The main differences I see with the UK are that (1) in NZ we have only about 5M people living in an area about half that of France (i.e. the chief issue is a matter of renewable production per head of population) and (2) the system is mostly hydro, hence embodying a large amount of energy storage, that Kiwi “sparkies” have learned to manage very well.  It ensues that a few diesel or gas generators are not a big deal there.  By contrast, the UK in my view faces a very big challenge to go “green”.

The above example illustrates the need to extricate ourselves from ideology and look carefully into systems specifics when considering such matters as the potential of various technologies, like wind turbine, PVs, EVs, and so on, as well as capacity factors and EROI levels in the context of going 100% renewable.  All too often, vital issues keep being sidestepped by both BAU and non-BAU parties; while ignoring them often leads to erroneous “solutions” and even dangerous ones.  So as a conclusion of this three-part series focused on “enquiring into the appropriateness of the question”, here are some of the fundamental issues that I see in front of us (the list is not exhaustive):

“Apocalypse now”

At least since the early 1970s and the Meadows’ work, we have known that the globalised industrial world (GIW) is on a self-destructive path, aka BAU (Business as usual). We now know that we are living through the tail end of this process, the end of the Oil Age, precipitating what I have called the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King, Seneca style, that is, after a slow, relatively smooth climb (aka “economic growth”) we are at the beginning of an abrupt fall down a thermodynamic cliff.

The chief issue is whole system change. This means thinking in whole systems terms where the thermodynamics of complex systems operating far from equilibrium is the key.  In terms of epistemology and methods, this requires what in anthropology is called the “hermeneutic circle”: moving repeatedly from the particulars, the details, to the whole system, improving our understanding of the whole and from this going back to the particulars, improving our understanding of them, going back to considering the whole, and so on.  Whole system replacement, i.e. going 100% renewable, requires a huge energy embodiment, a kind of “primitive accumulation” (as a wink to Marx) that presently, under the prevailing paradigm and technology set, is not feasible.  Having the “Energy Hand” in mind (Figure 5), where does this required energy may come from in a context of sharp decline of net energy from oil and Red Queen effect, and concerning renewable, inverse Red Queen/cannibalisation effects?  As another example of the importance of whole system thinking, Axel Kleidon has raised the question of the viability of very large-scale wind versus direct solar.[2]

Solely considering the performances and cost of this or that alternative energy technology won’t suffice.  Short of addressing the complexities of whole system replacement, the situation we are in is some kind of “Apocalypse now”.  The chief challenge I see is thus how to shift safely, with minimal loss of life (substantial loss of life there will be; this has become unavoidable), from fossil-BAU (and thus accessorily nuclear) to 100% sustainable, which means essentially, in one form or another, a direct solar-based society.

We currently have some 17 TW of power installed globally (mostly fossil with some nuclear), i.e. about 2.3kW/head, but with some 4 billion people who at best are grossly energy stressed, many who have no access to electricity at all and only limited transport, in a context of an efficiency of global energy systems in the order of 12%.[3]  To address the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King and the Perfect Storm that it is in the process of whipping up, I consider that we need to move to 4kW/head for the whole population (assuming it levels off at some 8 billion people instead of the currently expected 11 billions), plus some 10TW additional to address climate change and other ecological energy related issues, hence about 50TW, 100% direct solar based, for the whole spectrum of energy uses including transport; preferably over 20 years.  Standing where we now are, slightly past the edge of the thermodynamic cliff, this is my understanding of what’s required.

In other words, going “green” and surviving it (i.e. avoiding the inverse Red Queen effect) means increasing our Energy Hand from 17 TW to 50 TW (as a rough order of magnitude), with efficiencies shifting from 12% to over 80%.
To elaborate this further, I stress it again, currently the 17 TW do not even suffice to cater for the whole 7.3G global population and by a wide margin.  Going “green” with the current “renewable” technology mix and related paradigm would mean devoting a substantial amount of those 17 TW to the “primitive accumulation” of the “green” system.  It should be clear that under this predicament something would have to give, i.e. some of us would get even more energy stressed, and die, or as the Chinese and Indians have been doing for a while we would use much more of remaining fossil resources but then this would accelerate global warming and many other nasties. Alternatively we may face up to changing paradigm so as to rapidly steer away from global EROIs below 10:1 and global energy efficiency around 12%.  This is the usual “can’t have one’s cake and eat it” situation writ large.

Put in an other way, when looking at whole societal system replacement one must look at the whole of what’s required to make the system work, including people and their own energy requirements – this is fundamentally a matter of system boundary definitions related to problem definition (in David Bhom’s sense).   We can illustrate this by considering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).  As a thought experiment, remove oil (the media have reported that KSA’s Crown Prince has seen the writing on some wall re the near end of the oil bonanza).  This brings the KSA population from some 27M down to some 2M, i.e. some 25M people are currently required to keep oil flowing at some 10M bbl/day (including numerous Filipino domestics, medics, lawyers, and son on) plus about three times that population overseas to supply what the 25M require to keep the oil flowing…

Globally, I estimate very roughly that some 1.5G people, directly related to oil production, processing distribution and transport matters did require oil at above $100/bbl for their livelihood (including the Filipino domestics).  I call them the Oil People. [4]  Most of them currently are unhappy and struggle; their “demand” for goods and services has dropped considerably since 2014.
So all in all, whole system replacement (on a “do or die” mode) requires considering whole production chain networks from mining the ores, through making the metals, cement, etc., to making the machines, to using them to produce the stuff we require to go 100% sustainable, as well as the energy requirements of not only the Oil People but the full compendium of the Energy People involved, both the “fossil” ones and the “green” ones; while meanwhile we need to keep existing fossil-based energy systems going as much as possible.  Very roughly the Energy People are probably in the order of 3 billion people (and it is not easy to convert a substantial proportion of the “fossil” ones to “green”, including their own related energy requirements – this too has a significant energy cost).  This is where Figure 2, with the interplay of Red Queen and the inverse Red Queen, comes in.

Figure 2

In my view at this whole system level we do have a major problem.  Given the very short time window constraint, we can’t afford to get it wrong in terms of how to possibly getting out of there – we have hardly enough time to have one go at it.

Remaining time frame

Indeed, under the sway of the Tooth Fairy (see Part 2) and an increasingly asthmatic Red Queen, we no longer have 35 years, (say up to around 2050).  We have at best 10 years, not to debate and agonise but to actually do, with the next three years being key.  The thermodynamics on this, summarised in Part 1, is rock hard.  This timeframe, combined with the Oil Pearl Harbor challenge and the inverse Red Queen constraints, means in my view that none of the current “doings” renewable-wise can cut it.  In fact much of these stand to make matters worse – I refer here to current interactions between efforts at going green largely within the prevailing paradigm and die hard BAU efforts at keeping fossils going, as perhaps exemplified in the current UK policies discussed earlier.

Weak links

Notwithstanding its apparent power, the GIW is in fact extremely fragile.  It embodies a number of very weak links in its networks.  I have highlighted the oil issue, an issue that defines the overall time frame for dealing with “Apocalypse now”.  In addition to that and to climate change, there are a few other challenges that have been variously put forward by a range of researchers in recent years, such as fresh water availability, massive soil degradation, trace pollutants, degradation of life in oceans (about 99% of life is aquatic), staple food threats (e.g. black stem rust, wheat blast, ground level ozone, etc.), loss of biodiversity and 6th mass extinction, all the way to Joseph Tainter’s work concerning the links between energy flows, power (in TW), complexity and overshoot to collapse.[5]

These weak links are currently in the process of breaking or are about to break, the breaks forming a self-reinforcing avalanche (SOC) or Perfect Storm.  All have the same key timeframe of about 10 years as an order of magnitude for acting.  All require a fair “whack” of energy as a prerequisite to handling them (the “whack” being a flexible and elastic unit of something substantial that usually one does not have).

It’s all burnt up

Figure 6 – Carbon all burnt

Recent research shows that sensitivity to climate forcing has been substantially underestimated, meaning that we must expect much more warming in the longer term than touted so far.[6]  This further exacerbates what we already knew, namely that there is no such thing as a “carbon budget” of fossils the GIW could still burn, and no way of staying below the highly political and misleading 2oC COP21 objective (Figure 6).[7]

The 350ppm CO2 equivalent advocated by Hansen et al. is a safe estimate – a boundary crossed in the late 1980s, some 28 years ago.  So the reality is that we can’t escape actually extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, somehow, if we want to avoid trying to survive in a few mosquito infested areas of the far north and south, while some 80% of the planet becomes non-habitable in the longer run.  Direct Air Capture of atmospheric CO2 (DAC) is something that also requires a fair “whack” of energy, hence the additional 10TW I consider is required to get out of trouble.

Cognitive failure

Figure 7 – EROI cognitive failure

The “Brexit” saga is perhaps the latest large-scale demonstration of cognitive failure in a very long series.  That is to say, the failure on the part of decision-making elites to make use of available knowledge, experience, and expertise to tackle effectively challenges within the timeframe required to do so.
Cognitive failure is probably most blatant, but largely remaining unseen, concerning energy, the Oil Fizzle DK and matters of energy returns on energy investments (EROI or EROEI).  What we can observe is a triple failure of BAU, but also of most current “green” alternatives (Figure 7): (1) the BAU development trajectory since the 1950s failed; (2) there has been a failure to take heed of over 40 years of warnings; and (3) there has been a failure to develop viable alternatives.

However, although I am critical of aspects of recent evaluations of the feasibility of going 100% renewable,[8] I do think it remains feasible with existing knowledge, no “blue sky” required, i.e. to reach in the order of 50TW 100% solar I outlined earlier, but I also think that a crash on the cliff side of the Seneca is no longer avoidable.  In other words I consider that it remains possible to partly retrieve the situation while the GIW crashes so long as enough people do realise that one can’t change paradigm on the down side as one may do on the upside of a Seneca, which presently our elites, in full blown cognitive failure mode, don’t understand.
To illustrate this matter further and highlight why I consider that production EROIs well above 30:1 are necessary to get us out of trouble consider Figure 8.

Figure 8 – The necessity of very high EROIs

This is expanded from similar attempts by Jessica Lambert et al., to perhaps highlights what sliding down the thermodynamic cliff entails.  Charles Hall has shown that a production EROI of 10:1 corresponds roughly to an end-user EROI of 3.3:1 and is the bare minimum for an industrial society to function.[9]  In sociological terms, for 10:1 think of North Korea.  As shown on Figure 7, currently I know of no alternative, either unconventional fossils based, nuclear or “green” technologies with production EROIs (i.e. equivalent to the well head EROI for oil) above 20:1; most remain below 10:1.  I do think it feasible to go back above 30:1, in 100% sustainable fashion, but not along prevalent modes of technology development, social organisation, and decision-making.

The hard questions

So prevailing cognitive failure brings us back to Bohm’s “enquiry into the appropriateness of the question”.  In conclusion of a 2011 paper, Joseph Tainter raised four questions that, in my view, squarely address such an enquiry (Figure 9).[10]  To date those four questions remain unanswered by both tenants of BAU and advocates of going 100% renewable.

We are in an unprecedented situation.  As stressed by Tainter, no previous civilisation has ever managed to survive the kind of predicament we are in.  However, the people living in those civilisations were mostly rural and had a safety net, in that their energy source was 100% solar, photosynthesis for food, fibre and timber – they always could keep going even though it may have been under harsh conditions.  We no longer have such a safety net; our entire food systems are almost completely dependent on that net energy from oil that is in the process of dropping to the floor and our food supply systems cannot cope without it.

Figure 9 – Four questions

Figure 10 summarises how, in my view, Tainter’s four questions, his analyses and mine combine to define the unique situation we are in.  If we are to avoid sliding all the way down the thermodynamic cliff, we must shift to a new “energy pool”.  In this respect, dealing with the SOC-like Perfect Storm while carrying out such a shift both excludes “shrinking” our energy base (as many “greens” would have it) and necessitates abandoning the present highly wasteful energy use paradigm – hence the shift from 17TW fossil to 50TW 100% solar-based and with over 80% useful uses of energy that I advocated earlier, over a 20 to 30 years timeframe.

Figure 10 – Ready to jumping into a new energy pool?

Figure 10 highlights that humankind has been through a number of such shifts over the last 6 million years or so.  Each shift has entailed:
(1) a nexus of revolutionary innovations encompassing thermodynamics and related techniques,
(2) social innovation (à la Cornelius Castoriadis’ imaginary institution of society) and
(3) innovations concerning the human psyche, i.e. how we think, decide and act.

Our predicament, as we have just begun to slide down the fossil fuels thermodynamic cliff, similarly requires such a nexus if we are to succeed at a new “energy pool shift”.  Just focusing on thermodynamics and technology won’t suffice.  The kind of paradigm change I keep referring to integrates technology, social innovations and innovation concerning the human psyche about ways of avoiding cognitive failure.  This is a lot to ask, however it is necessary to address Tainter’s questions.

This challenge is a measure of the huge selection pressure humankind managed to place itself under.  Presently, I see a lot going on very creatively in all these three intimately related domains.  Maybe we will succeed in making the jump over the cliff?

Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+ at:

[1] Dellingpole, James, 2013, “The dirty secret of Britain’s power madness: Polluting diesel generators built in secret by foreign companies to kick in when there’s no wind for turbines – and other insane but true eco-scandals”, in The Daily Mail, 13 July.

[2] As another example, Axel Kleidon has shown that extracting energy from wind (as well as from waves and ocean currents) on any large scale would have the effect of reducing overall free energy usable by humankind (free in the thermodynamic sense, due to the high entropy levels that these technologies do generate, and as opposed to the direct harvesting of solar energy through photosynthesis, photovoltaics and thermal solar, that instead do increase the total free energy available to humankind) – see Kleidon, Axel, 2012, How does the earth system generate and maintain thermodynamic disequilibrium and what does it imply for the future of the planet?, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, published in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A,  370, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0316.

[3] E.g. Murray and King, Nature, 2012.

[4] This label is a wink to the Sea People who got embroiled in the abrupt end of the Bronze Age some 3,200 years ago, in that same part of the world currently bitterly embroiled in atrocious fighting and terrorism, aka MENA.

[5] Tainter, Joseph, 1988, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press; Tainter, Joseph A., 1996, “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies”, in Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, and Tainter, Joseph A. and Crumley, Carole, “Climate, Complexity and Problem Solving in the Roman Empire” (p. 63), in Costanza, Robert, Graumlich, Lisa J., and Steffen, Will, editors, 2007, Sustainability or Collapse, an Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, U.K., in cooperation with Dahlem University Press.

[6] See for example Armour, Kyle, 2016, “Climate sensitivity on the rise”,, 27 June.

[7] For a good overview, see Spratt, David, 2016, Climate Reality Check, March.

[8] For example, Jacobson, Mark M. and Delucchi, Mark A., 2009, “A path to Sustainability by 2030”, in Scientific American, November.

[9] Hall, Charles A. S. and Klitgaard, Kent A., 2012, Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Springer; Hall, Charles A. S., Balogh, Stephen, and Murphy, David J. R., 2009, “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?” in Energies, 2, 25-47; doi:10.3390/en20100025. See also Murphy, David J., 2014, “The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production” in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A, 372: 20130126,

[10] Joseph Tainter, 2011, “Energy, complexity, and sustainability: A historical perspective”, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, Elsevier
This article was first published in Cassandra’s Legacy


Will Fossil Fuels Be Able to Maintain Economic
Growth? A Q&A with Charles Hall
Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 4 » Web Exclusives

What happens when the EROI gets too low? What’s achievable at different EROIs?
If you've got an EROI of 1.1:1, you can pump the oil out of the ground and look at it. If you've got 1.2:1, you can refine it and look at it. At 1.3:1, you can move it to where you want it and look at it. We looked at the minimum EROI you need to drive a truck, and you need at least 3:1 at the wellhead. Now, if you want to put anything in the truck, like grain, you need to have an EROI of 5:1. And that includes the depreciation for the truck. But if you want to include the depreciation for the truck driver and the oil worker and the farmer, then you've got to support the families. And then you need an EROI of 7:1. And if you want education, you need 8:1 or 9:1. And if you want health care, you need 10:1 or 11:1.