Monday, October 3, 2016

E is for EROEI

Understanding EROEI - or Energy Return On Energy Invested - should be on every school curriculum, but isn't. Simply put, it's the amount of energy we as a species can play with. Back in the days when you could poke a hole in the ground and oil would gush out of it skywards, getting hold of plenty of energy was easy. In fact, for every blob of oil you used for locating, drilling and transporting the stuff, you got between 100 and 200 similarly-sized blobs of the same quality back. The way this energy value was expressed was by way of EROEI; thus, sweet onshore crude oil could be said to have an EROEI of 100 to 200. These were the low hanging fruit days that made the 20th century boom.

Once all the low hanging fruit was gone we had to move a bit further up the tree. Oil and coal and natural gas were still abundant but they needed more work to get at. They also needed more processing, transporting and all the rest of it. Because of this, the net energy (i.e. energy return minus energy expenditure) available to us was lower. We invested one blob and got considerably less than 100 back. In other words, the energy we invested in unlocking fossil fuels needed to be higher just to get the same amount back that we were used to, meaning the EROEI was falling.

Of course, fossil fuels aren't the only forms of energy. Nuclear was thought to have a high EROEI, but once you took into consideration the entire process of building the power stations, mining the uranium, decommissioning the plant and storing the waste, the EROEI shrivelled up like dead fish in the sun at Fukushima Beach.

Renewables also have relatively low EROEI values compared to early oil. Note, however, that EROEI has nothing to do with money. Getting EROEI mixed up with EROI (Energy Return on Investment) is a common mistake. One deals with the immutable laws of physics and the other deals with the infinitely manipulable world of finance - and only one of these sets of conditions is negotiable.

So what would be the average EROEI value of oil discovered today? Unfortunately nobody can seem to agree on an exact figure, but you can be sure that it's a lot lower than 200. 20 perhaps. In fact many insist that fracked shale gas and tight oil have such a low EROEI they are only viable as a commercial operation when financed by Wall Street Ponzi schemes. Biofuels, such as ethanol, have disastrously low EROEI numbers - in many cases they are less than 1. When you put more energy into something than you get out of it then it can no longer be regarded as a fuel source. Nevertheless, biofuel volumes are often added to 'total liquids' figures, implying they are an oil substitute when clearly they are not.

People will often say that 'the world is awash with oil' because they see it on the news all the time. They see no reason to think scarcity exists - everywhere they look they see abundance. However, there's a problem with this kind of thinking, and the problem is that our net energy levels are shrinking. Yes, shrinking! We can cover the world in wind turbines, solar panels and fracking wells, and we still can't escape the shrinkage problem. We might be producing, say, ten million barrels of oil per day - which looks great on spreadsheets and in news articles - but what good is that if we are then spending the bulk of it to do more drilling to get at more oil that will have an even lower EROEI value?

Which leads us to the crux of the problem. The modern world was set up to run on high EROEI energy. Take a look around. All those roads, airports, microproccesor factories, mechanised agricultural systems, globalised supply chains and space programmes require a huge throughput of energy. But we are running out of high EROEI energy, and will soon have only low EROEI energy to play with. Which begs the question: at what average level of net energy will the modern world cease to be a viable option? In the past, when high energy fossil fuels were abundant, you could always throw more money and energy at problems and expect them to go away - and usually they did. But this option itself is now going away. What will we do?

Here's a chart showing estimated EROEI values for different energy sources (source unknown).

Proponents of renewable energy will say that we can simply swap out the old system for a new 'clean and green' one. We'll all drive electric cars, live in solar cities and our lifestyles will not be much different to what they are today. This vision ignores many of the other limits to the system, and would still permit the continued destruction of the planet's life support systems, albeit in a more 'green' fashion. That's not to say that renewable energy isn't extremely useful - especially in a locally-distributed way - just to recognise some of its limits.

On the other hand, fossil fuel dinosaurs claim that we should just go all-out for oil and gas and coal. If there's such a thing as EROEI or global warming or acidifying oceans then they don't want to hear it. We should be fracking the living daylight out of the planet, building pipelines and fighting wars to get 'our' oil out of the Middle East. These people are a type of modern day cargo cult and as such, are quite dangerous. Many of them are politicians and leading businessmen.

There's a third category, too. The techno cornucopian optimists insist that a new technological breakthrough is just around the corner that will allow us to live like we do with no interruption to service. Haven't you heard there's a government conspiracy to cover up the availability of free energy? Or that if we can send robots up into space to mine comets for uranium we can have endless energy? Selling dreams is a profitable business, and the most successful of these people have MBAs and hire the best PR staffers. I myself once pretended to be one just for fun and have had several requests for an investment prospectus from people with money.

So what is likely to happen as these groups fight it out amongst each other while, all along, the needle on the global EROEI fuel tank moves into the orange zone? Perhaps it will be like the hand of God slowly turning down the dimmer switch on industrial civilisation. Because the more energy we USE simply to GET energy, the less energy is available for the rest of society to use. And this manifests itself in many different ways, but it all comes down to lower available net energy. Already we are seeing demand destruction and lower energy use as the former consumer classes struggle to be able to afford as many goods and the corresponding energy they use. Heavy goods vehicle traffic levels have fallen over 6% across the UK in the last decade, councils are turning off streetlights at night, and homeless levels in the US are spiking. Sweden is encouraging its citizens to refurbish goods instead of buying new ones, malnutrition in children is becoming common in the developed world and 30-something Britons possess half as much as 30-somethings did only 10 years ago [*See links below]. These are just some signs that the big squeeze is on, and it's getting tighter and tighter with each passing year.

Links to articles:

HGV traffic levels falling across UK
Councils turning off streetlights
Number of homeless people over 50 in US spiking
Sweden encourages goods refurbishing
Malnutrition in UK children
30 something Brits have less than half of 40 somethings at same age
UK hits "Peak stuff"
If you're under 30 - bad luck - you're screwed


  1. Jason

    I've been thinking about electric cars (very appropriate as you've reached E in the alphabet), particularly as a neighbour recently took delivery of a new Renault Zoe, I was very interested in, but sceptical about, the technology so did a bit of internet research and a few back of envelope calculations, the results shocked me somewhat, I hope that somebody can spot a flaw in my logic:

    It seems to recharge the battery on a Zoe takes roughly 24kwh (kilowatt hours) of electricity, let's assume the car is on charge for 12 hours at a rate of 2 kw (kilowatts) to give us 24 kwh. Let's also assume that each car will need recharging every two days. So effectively our 24kwh is spread over 48 hours, giving an average of 0.5 kw per hour per car.

    There are currently something like 32 million cars on the road in the UK, let's assume that over the next 20 years they are all replaced by electric cars, how much electricity would be required to charge these 32 million cars?
    Well, 32,000,000 x 0.5 kw = 16,000,000 kw which equals 16,000 megawatts (1 megawatt (mw) = 1000 kw)

    So where could we get that extra power? The new Hinkley Point C nuclear reactors will have an output of 32,000 mw (megawatts), so in theory they would easily power 32 million electric cars at an average of 0.5 kw. But if all 32 million cars were on charge at the same time the peak demand would be 32 million x 2 kw = 64,000 megawatts or two Hinkley Point Cs...

    However, there would be huge costs in upgrading the national grid to carry all this extra electricity (peak UK demand on a cold, dark January weekday is now around 42,000 megawatts), as well as the costs to individuals and/or local/national government  to provide the charging points. The future environmental costs of nuclear power are, of course, unknowable.

    I was very surprised by the results of my calculations as my gut feeling was that the power required would be an order of magnitude larger than anything which could be realistically imagined, and my original intention was to debunk the idea of an all electric happy motoring future.

    Either my calculations, assumptions, or possibly a decimal place are wrong, or perhaps electric cars may just have a role to play in the future...which goes against what I've believed for many years.

     I would be very interested to hear your, and other reader's, views on the above.

    1. An interesting point - and it's been a while since I worked in the electricity generating industry. First off - yes - there's a decimal point in the wrong place. Hinkley Point C - if it is ever built - would have an electrical output of 3,200 Mw - NOT 32,000 Mw. It's probably easier to express it in Gw (giga watts) as 3.2. The maximum UK peak demand, on cold days in the dark, is somewhere between 50 and 60 Gw.

      So, assuming we have 32 million electric cars and they are all used every day (not even considering the approx. half a million trucks) , then - yes - they would need about 16Gw. This would equate to up to 40% of total UK electricity generated, using current figures.

      As you're no doubt aware, there's already a growing energy gap, even without electric cars hogging the grid. Old fossil fuel plants are reaching the ends of their lives and there is much dithering about how to replace the lost capacity. At the same time, fossil fuel production is declining, with North Sea production dropping precipitously. Shale gas imports from the US so far make up about 1% of the fuel mix.

      So, assuming that we lose 50% of fossil fuel capacity in the next 20 years due to loss of production and plant decommissioning (a figure I just plucked out of the air) AND we had 32 million electric cars, then we would have an energy shortfall of between 40 and 50 Gw - i.e. about 100% of the current peak demand.

      To bridge that gap we'd need to build another sixteen large nuclear power stations like Hinckley C - almost one a year - for the next two decades. Or have 20,000 - 40,0000 extra wind turbines spinning continuously at full tilt.

      Of course, there's also peak uranium to consider, as well as renewable intermittency and looming lithium shortages. In other words, it would be something of a miracle if electric cars take off.

      BTW you might like this site, on which you can monitor the UK energy situation in real time:

      And for some really good energy calculations there is nothing better than Tom Murphy's site:

    2. Jason

      Cheers, I kept looking at those numbers and felt something wasn't quite right... somewhere between 5 and 10 Hinkley Points over 20 years does seem a bit closer to what I expected just for electric car charging. I don't think that battery electric HGVs would be practical, I suppose the hope would be to reserve the diminishing oil supplies for heavier applications than passenger cars.

      I've seen numerous reports over the last few years saying that peak UK generating capacity is only a few percent over peak UK demand, so there obviously isn't a lot of spare capacity in the system for large scale electric vehicle adoption, or anything else for that matter.

      You're probably not far off on the amount of replacement capacity needed, I suspect that the increasing supply/demand gap may be the real reason for the current push towards smart meters - heavy domestic users being temporarily disconnected at peak times perhaps?

      I've been looking at the grid watch website for a while now, interesting how much power we import from the EU. Also very interesting how different the French generating mix is from ours.

      I'm not really convinced by wind power, we've got a lot of capacity just offshore here on the Isle of Thanet, some of which I can see from my house, but it suprises me how often the turbines aren't turning. It does surprise me that we haven't done more with wave power, surely Tomorrow's World couldn't have been wrong back in the 1970s? :-)

    3. Yes, I was probably being a bit optimistic with the wind power. As with everything, diminishing returns set in once a certain level has been reached, and they tend to site them in the best spots first (i.e. ones with steady winds).

      It's really quite amazing when you look at the whole energy supply situation and realise how fragile it is. I used to work mainly with CCGT (combined cycle gas turbines). They are pretty impressive things but they are also very delicate. One mistake can shut down a turbine and it will take months to repair if it isn't slowed down properly before it stops spinning.

      As for large domestic customers getting interruptible contracts - I think that is already the case. Even 20 years ago, when I was working in the industry, you'd get your extremely wealthy types who used so much energy they fell into the category of 'industrial'. It was great fun phoning them at 4am and telling them to switch off their power or be hit with a massive fine ...

      The one natural event that would cripple the entire grid, IMO, is a sudden blast of unexpected icy air coming down from the Arctic overnight on a working day in the middle of winter. I've seen it happen once and I can tell you, the lights *almost* went out across the country. It was the night a week before Christmas when most companies hold their parties - so a lot of engineers were out of action, and most office staff could barely stand up ... there was a very long investigation into the after effects of that.

      I wrote a fictionalised story about how it could happen:

    4. Jason

      Enjoyed the story, but it did leave me feeling even more nervous about the vulnerabilities in our energy supply network...

  2. Just wanted to quickly pop in and say I am enjoying this 'alphabet' series. Also, I recently finished Path to Odins Lake and found it an enjoyable read. Did you ever end up making it to the far north on a subsequent visit?

    1. Thanks - it just came about as a way of getting back into writing on this blog again. It's a 'back to basics' series for newbies and oldies alike.

      Glad you enjoyed the book - I'd love to go up north if the opportunity ever arises but have not done so yet. I have two more books coming out shortly, though.

  3. We just published an article about the importance of renewable and fossil energy EROEI and the sustainable energy transition, it's open access:

    1. Thank you for that. I saw it on Ugo's blog last week but have not had a chance to read it yet. It seems we need a lot more political will to accomplish any great steps towards a non-chaotic energy transition - and I don't see many signs of that at present.

  4. Hi Jason,

    Much of this ERoEI stuff is just totally wrong, in my opinion. The ERoEI literature is filled with serious mathematical and logical errors which invalidate its conclusions. I have some more information about this on my blog.

    ERoEI is usually unimportant and is being used incorrectly:

    Renewables have higher ERoEI than fossil fuels:

    -Tom S

  5. Hi Jason,

    I'll respond to a few of the remarks from your article here.

    "Because of this, the net energy (i.e. energy return minus energy expenditure) available to us was lower."

    No, because that wrongly assumes that gross energy is constant. Net energy is the product of ERoEI AND gross energy. As a result, it's entirely plausible that net energy was increasing despite declining ERoEI. In fact, this is what happened. Metrics like vehicle miles travelled or kilowatt-hours delivered have increased tremendously since 1930 despite a significant decrease in ERoEI.

    "Renewables also have relatively low EROEI values compared to early oil."

    No, because the that's an apples-to-oranges comparison. The only way renewables have lower ERoEI than fossil fuels is if you compare electricity from renewables against HEAT from fossil fuels. Heat is a low-quality kind of energy which is far less capable of performing work. Some published ERoEI ratios of fossil fuels do not subtract waste heat losses from inefficient heat engines, which reduces the net energy obtained from fossil fuels by 2/3rds or sometimes greater. When an apples-to-apples comparison is made (electricity from renewables against electricity from fossil fuels), renewables have comparable or higher ERoEI than fossil fuels.

    "Because the more energy we USE simply to GET energy, the less energy is available for the rest of society to use."

    No, because that wrongly assumes that gross energy is constant. It's entirely possible for net energy to increase despite a decline in ERoEI. That has been happening for a century now.

    -Tom S

    1. Hi Tom,

      I don't disagree with you that many of the EROEI figures bandied around are wrong - they are very difficult figures to calculate, in any case. What I am less certain about however is your claim that renewables are higher up the scale than fossil fuels. You say heat loss is not factored in, but then neither is the energy cost of production and transport of renewables, as well as a host of other non tangible factors.

      But it's not just the amount of energy punch, there's also the minor consideration that 99% of the infrastructure in industrial society is set up to run on fossil fuels. For there to be a 100% shift to renewables we would need to redesign and rebuild much of this infrastructure.

      This might be possible if we had some kind of wonder fuel that could replace oil, but we don't. Fossil fuels can be used in concentrated form at centralised locations e.g. over stations - and the resultant energy be distributed from there across large distances.

      Renewables work on harvesting low intensity ambient energy from wind or solar or water, and therefore there needs to be a correspondingly large area covered in infrastructure to collect it. Round where I live they have started covering huge areas in solar panels, with a resultant loss of arable land for growing food or for nature. A buildout of an alternative energy infrastructure would "energy cannibalise" (to use a term from Denes Casala's paper above) fossil fuels.

      I'm all in favour of fossil fuels being phased out entirely and replaced by renewables. But I don't believe it can be done without a truly immense loss of complexity in our civilisation. That's simply a belief of mine based on what I've read, along with a dollop of intuition and two years spent living off grid.

    2. Hi Jason,

      Thanks for your thoughtful remarks.

      Much of the infrastructure we have could be used with either fossil fuels or electrified transport. The electricity grid can carry electricity from either source. Current roads are fine for EVs. In any case, much of that infrastructure is replaced anyway every 40 years or so, so we could gradually replace it with other infrastructure without having to throw away or abandon anything.

      In my opinion, there is no chance of a collapse of civilization, or a large reduction in complexity, during the next 40 years because of fossil fuel depletion. Coal and gas are simply nowhere near peaking. Furthermore, we have many alternatives for electricity production and have begun transitioning long before coal or gas have started to decline. With regard to oil, it looks unlikely that a terminal decline of all liquid fuels will begin before 2030. Even then, it would be many decades before the decline affected anything other than discretionary driving and airplane travel. The economy sacrifices the LEAST important uses of oil first and the downslope will be very gradual--longer than 100 years. I think it's implausible that fossil fuel declines would cause anything worse than high gasoline/petrol prices and restricted driving for the next 40 years. If EVs work out well, it could be much longer than that before fossil fuel depletion poses a serious problem. If artificial photosynthesis is developed, then fossil fuel depletion may never pose a problem for industrial civilization.

      I hope you're living off grid because of environmental concerns and because you prefer it, not because you expect an imminent collapse of civilization. I've known many people who moved off-grid for these reasons over the years, and civilization did not collapse as they expected. It would be awful if you felt sore when civilization doesn't collapse. In any case, best wishes!

      -Tom S

    3. Hi Tom,

      I don't believe that anyone here is arguing that there is an imminent collapse of civilization - as you've written. That is a big call and a massive assumption on your part.

      No, my take on this matter is that it will be far darker than that as we will be facing a future where we are a little bit poorer every year. And that is happening right now, if you had not noticed. That is what a gradual down-slope looks like.

      The main problem with replacing the infrastructure every 40 years or so is that realistically, if we are poorer in the future than we are now, then your claim that this will be an inevitability is like betting the farm on the next seasons output - when you know that output will be lower than expected. Just sayin... There are some serious logical fallacies in your comment.



  6. Hi Jason,

    A very excellent summary of the predicament. Renewable energy sources are great, they just don't work like people expect. People are so used to reliable base load power that they can't even see what it is anymore. And talk of 24kWh/day is ludicrous! You know, I've only used the generator here once in the past three years (for about five hours) - and with great guilt too! Last Wednesday, the entire state of South Australia was plunged into darkness due to a massive storm - truly epic. That is what the future looks like. You see, the grid as it operates works like a giant battery that has no storage facility and there is no getting around that.

    The average electric car uses about 170Wh to 250Wh per kilometre. Given that I get one reliable - and sometimes not even then - peak sun hour per day for three weeks either side of the winter solstice and I'm at latitude 37.5'S. It could not possibly be better up your way sorry to say. The numbers don't stack up. And I have tinkered with wind turbines and they are the equivalent of a mouse fart.



    1. Chris

      I think you're correct in suggesting that the only way forward is a drastic reduction in energy usage, ultimately I suspect the nudge that will push people in this direction will be big increases in power costs, perhaps combined with reduced reliability of the grid.

      I'm interested in your comments about solar, I'm at 51° North and there are a lot of panels around here, both in large arrays and domestic roof top installations. I'm going to see if I can determine what the peak and average real world outputs look like. Solar is not something I've seriously considered for my own house, not least because my largest roof area is north facing, not great for solar up here in the northern hemisphere! As for electric cars, I'll be sticking with my 14 year old petrol engined Toyota for the foreseeable future.


  7. My fathers's roommate at MIT ran the Brookhaven National Laboratory for a couple decades. This was years ago -- they stayed great friends. As you may know Brookhaven's raison d'ĂȘtre was to try to coral nuclear fusion in such a way that we could use it as a reliable energy source. Fusion is not to be confused with fission, which is the nuclear energy that we have used for the last ~7 decades.

    Controllable, dispatchable fusion-generated electrical energy would solve the world's energy problems for good.

    Unfortunately, we are really not much further along that quest now than we ever were all those years after we started blowing up thermonuclear fusion bombs. It's not for lack of trying. There are vast sums of money and effort that have been dedicated to that challenge, but we remain an order of magnitude away from success.

    It's too bad. Realistically it's the only energy source that could save us from ourselves and our civilization.

    All the horse poopie that Bill Gates yaps about, regarding energy miracles to be discovered and developed is just that -- horse poopie. The answer is FUSION.

    Maybe Gates and his cronies could put together a Manhattan Project for fusion. Like chicken soup, it couldn't hurt. Instead we have to watch and listen as he gazes off into black holes. The clock is ticking.

    But I digress.

  8. Jason: You may already know about this site, but Energy Matters is a good source for hard energy news and analysis. ( As if your regular news feed isn't already probably more than enough! ) While the author(s) and regular commenters skew toward conventional energy options and especially nuclear, they still have a lot of real world knowledge. This post from back in May is a good primer for EROEI.

  9. Any thought that business as usual continues for decades assumes the total debt globally will continue to rise faster than income. If it doesn't, there will be no renewables revolution.

  10. Just when I though all the great Collapse Writers had gone to the Great Beyond, HEPP rises from the ashes like a Phoenix! :)

    Gotta work on the tough letters...Let's see...X is for Xenophobe, Y is for Janet "Smellin" Yellin, Z is for Zero Hedge.

    I started a new Collapse Novel! 1st Chapter up Sunday on the Diner. Working title is "How I Survived Collapse". :)


    1. Yes - still here - just struggling to juggle writing with future planning.

      Actually, X will be for Xerosere:

      "Xerosere is a plant succession that is limited by water availability. It includes the different stages in a xerarch succession. Xerarch succession of ecological communities originated in extremely dry situation such as sand deserts, sand dunes, salt deserts, rock deserts etc."

      Pretty much what a lot of will have to adapt to. i.e. Dune

      We'll see about Z ... assuming I haven't been nuked before I reach then.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.