Monday, July 06, 2009

The Renewables Hump 7: Can We Transition?

Last week, I argued that the "true" EROEI of solar and wind power is far lower than that commonly advertised--closer to 1:1 for solar (photovoltaics) and 4:1 for wind power.  Additionally, these EROEI values don't account for the energy cost of the transmission, storage, and conversion to electric power that will be required in any large-scale transition to renewables.  Where does that leave us?  Does that mean the "transition" is dead in the water?  I don't think so?  But I also don't think this means that we can continue under the assumption that the EROEI of renewable technologies are high enough (if only we had political will, etc.) to facilitate the continuation of business as usual.

Simply put, we are presented with a series of unknowns.  People may (and will) continue to claim that the "true" EROEI of renewable X is 20:1, 40:1, 100:1.  We must recognize that we don't know these values to be true--they are probably sales pitches, and even if they are truly disinterested, they are guesses at best.  Until we have a verifiable methodology to calculate an unbounded EROEI value for a technology (and price-estimated EROEI does not claim to be such a solution), we will continue to only guess.  Others may argue that renewables are all less than 1:1, or less than some value higher than 1:1 required to keep our society afloat.  They mary argue that we should abandon renewables investment entirely on these grounds, but this is also just a guess.

In light of this uncertainty, I think it is clear that we must take a highly conservative approach, and focus immediately on efficiency and conservation.  One thing we can known for certain:  the EROEI of conservation is more than 1:1!  However, we must also recognize that efficiency and conservation alone cannot solve the root problem presented by a society and economic system predicated on perpetual growth.

I think this uncertainty is a compelling argument for shifting toward a non-hierarchal mode of civilization (as I suggested in The Problem of Growth) as a means to address this core problem of growth.  However, I do not expect humanity to voluntarily and proactively make such a switch.  I do, however think that there are tremendous opportunities for businesses, individuals, communities, and regions that successfully make such a switch (to what I have called "Rhizome," John Robb has called "Resilient Community," etc.).

Initially I had hoped to lay out an empirical analysis of our ability to transition to a renewables-driven society.  In some senses, the analysis of our ability to transition at a given EROEI is very interesting.  For example, at 3:1 EROEI returned over 30 years, what is timeline to transition 50% of our current energy use if we accept that it will be politically and economically impossible to divert more than 10% of global energy production into renewables investment?  It was my plan to conclude this series by answering (with pretty graphs, no less!) several questions like this.  However, I fear that such an exercise is largely meaningless:  I have been unable to come up with a verifiable proxy for EROEI measurement, and without that I would only be addressing hypotheticals.  Worse, questions that will be permanently hypothetical.  

Instead, I am left with only a confirmed sense of uncertainty.  Perhaps that uncertainty is itself valuable.  If I have poked holes in (what I believe to be) the widespread assumption that we can surely transition to a renewables-driven economy if only we make the decision to do so, then perhaps this series has been of value.  If I shift the discussion (even only in my own mind) toward what to do in light of this uncertainty, then I will feel that this has been worthwhile.  It is in answer to this last question that I am most excited:  I plan to focus more in the future on decentralized, networked, open-source, platform-based systems that we can use to simultaneously build resiliency, address this fundamental uncertainty, and address the problem of growth by reducing the hierarchal nature of our civilization.

It's also worth noting that there will be significant--though largely superficial--shift in the focus of this blog over the next several months.  Increasingly, I will work to write posts about law, legal systems, and legal processes.  While this will result in a reduced coverage of energy-related issues directly, it will still be the result of my core interest in systems, systems theory, and structural anthropology.  I've been writing about energy for some time now as a result of my view that our energy problems are the most significant and visible symptom of these deeper, structural systems.  I will write about law in the same light.  In part this is due to my (interim) conclusion that the uncertainty surrounding the kind of precise numbers that would be required to make definitive energy decisions is insurmountable.  In part, it is because law is my chosen profession, and I would like to increasingly merge this intellectual interest (systems theory and structural anthropology) into my vocation.


TH in SoC said...

I look forward to your discussion of building open-source, decentralized systems, as well as your discussion of law and legal systems. I must say, however, that I think you were on to something with your discussion of price as a proxy measure for EROEI. I think that measure still has a great deal of validity.

Jeremy said...

I also think that the "price" metric has possibility; for one thing it may tell us that if the market isn't trying to develop a technology then maybe that technology doesn't have a high enough EROI. And again this may not be proveable, but it at least shows that the market isn't convinced in the affirmative, and that may mean something.

But it's okay to conclude that something is beyond calculation. This is evidence that investing in a given technology due to a predicted EROI may be foolish and is at best a gamble. So we should focus our efforts on things like conservation and adaptation instead.


Rice Farmer said...

Let me add my voice to those saying that the price approach seemed the most promising.

Be that as it may, I am a firm believer that renewables cannot prop up what fossil fuels have built.

In your upcoming analyses, I hope you'll factor in (1) economic contraction and (2) chaos. I'm sure you've already thought of contraction. But it also seems obvious that we are in for a long and chaotic transition period as industrial civilization winds down societies seek a new level of stability.

ryan said...

well put rice farmer. things are spiraling out of control, fast.

and why would anyone want to prop up what fossil fuels have built: a culture so dehumanized it watches idly by as the world erupts into war, riots, and collapse?

"Can we Transition?"

i think it is important to reflect on who the "we" here is. most certainly, the rich and powerful can afford renewables. so "we" will have plenty of energy returned on our energy stolen.

but we are doing so in the same paradigm of former civilizations, which all fail: repression inside the city walls and exploitation outside. which works for a while.

now its time for the "elites" to take a glimpse of the world outside the wall - for even if they succeed in maintaining hierarchical control they inherit a smoldering, distraught, hellish planet. a brief glimpse of the near future:

"The report shows that 869 species are "Extinct" or "Extinct the Wild" (rising to 1,159 if the 290 "Critically Endangered" species listed as "Possibly Extinct" are included) and at least 16,928 species are threatened with extinction. While these numbers are substantial, they are likely "gross" underestimates since only 2.7 percent of 1.8 million described species have been assessed."

"According to the experts, ocean acidification may render most regions of the ocean inhospitable to coral reefs by 2050 if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to increase. It could lead to substantial changes in commercial fish stocks, threatening food security for millions of people as well as the multi-billion dollar fishing industry."

"The central point is that Arctic sea-ice is undergoing dramatic loss in summer, having lost 70-80% of its volume in the last 50 years, most since 2000. Without summer sea-ice, Greenland cannot escape a trajectory of ice-sheet loss leading to an eventual sea-level rise of 7 metres. Regional temperatures in the Arctic autumn are already up about 5C, and by mid-century an Arctic ice-free in summer, combined with more global warming, will be pushing Siberia close to the point where large-scale loss of carbon from melting permafrost would make further mitigation efforts futile. As Hansen told the US Congress in testimony last year, the “elements of a perfect storm, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

In short, if you don’t have a target that aims to cool the planet sufficiently to get the sea-ice back, the climate system may spiral out of control, past many “tipping points” to the final “point of no return”.

And that target is not 350ppm, it’s around 300 ppm."

deep breath.

it is the year 2009.

we are at 389 ppm and rising.
no appropriate political process has begun to address the issues of runaway climate change, species extinction, global deforestation, ocean acidification, and on and on. while former science reports (IGBP, IPCC) previously stated "the business is usual paradigm is not sustainable," they now write "radical is reasonable." the environmental and social issues we have relegated to another generation are now catching up with us. with all of us.

they are hunting and eating raccoons in Detroit. California is frying - farmers are without water, no work for the ghost of Tom Joad. In the neotropics, where i live, the rich buy big houses next to the ocean which will rise several meters this century. black shitwater from the big hotels festers beside their manicured lawns where their children play. the skin of the frogs falls off with the pesticides. you can walk across many of the largest tropical "reserves" in a day or two.

no one in their right mind wants this.

ryan said...

if those in power seek to stabilize the world and bring about an even remotely decent future for themselves they will have to confront these issues and learn to address resource conflict and transitioning out of the industrial era from those that already survive and prosper outside and beyond civilization.

rhizome is adaptive - it is emerging everywhere - from the global solidarity actions after this year's revolt in Greece to the viral spread of sustainable farms through Latin America.

"However, I do not expect humanity to voluntarily and proactively make such a switch."

humans switch based on the nature of the world they perceive in their reflective consciousness. each one of us has a narrative in mind in which "we" are the subject. the narrative regarding our self-image, place, and purpose in what we understand as "reality" of all individuals drives mass social behavior. it is based in language. consider the significance of the two statements: "i" think industrial civilization should be radically altered - or perhaps more representative of reality, since "I" is merely an analog of the "self" (interaction of genes and memes subjected to evolution) we commonly rely on for ease of communication - thinking that industrial civilization should be radically altered is occurring.

looking forward to your future blogs regarding the transition to decentralized,networked, open-source, platform-based systems is occurring. ;)

have you seen

seems to have some potential...

Rice Farmer said...

Ryan -- Just to clarify, I myself am not saying that we SHOULD prop up the current industrial system. It's what everyone is trying to do.

Jeff -- Indulge me on this matter of EROEI and the need for fossil fuels. This item from Oil Drum: Europe

looks very promising upon reading. There is supposedly an incredibly high EROEI. Let's assume for the sake of argument that they are right. The article says that the turbines could be reproduced using their own energy. For example, "the energy generated could be used to build 20 more turbines." This I find hard to believe. If I am reading the article correctly, each such installation comprises several hundred tons of steel. But smelting iron ore to obtain pig iron, and the subsequent making of castings and steel, require a great deal of coal and oil. Are they saying this can be done with the electricity generated by these wind machines? It seems to me that people are just tapping their calculators and figuring out energy equivalencies, then assuing that the rest will take care of itself.

In assessing what renewables can and can't do, we need to be brutally realistic, or else we're trying to build a golden future on false promises.

I hope you'll treat this matter head-on in a future post.

ryan said...

rice farmer - i understand. you obviously do to. as does jeff. the question format of my statement was not directed at you - its more of something we all have to ask and remind ourselves of.

i am not a luddite, nor do i think Kaczynski or D. Jensen's visions of "taking civilization and industrial society down" are appropriate.

i think the foremost problem of civilization is our adherence to authority, not techno development which is inherent and natural. we must combine the necessary behavioral and social innovations to our tech.

civilization is a process just as much as it is infrastructure and habits of life in city-states. that cultural process - being made "civilized" - is basically being forced into slavery for a system of values which concentrate wealth and power up the hierarchy.

"militarism, police, rule by fear, are all the desperate measures used to control a subjective conscious populace restless with identity crises and divided off into their multitudinous privacies of hopes and hates." - julian jaynes

as we become increasingly conscious of the severity of our global state of crisis all those "privacies of hopes and hates" fall apart. subjective consciousness is revealed as incomplete and gives way to systems consciousness. at the same time the authority of the rulers and industrial society (which has its own authority in social cues to maintain its structure) crumbles: why should we work for the system destroying our world when we can bail out and try something new on our own?

goal-orientation gives way to experience-orientation.

oh, and not everyone is out to prop up the industrial system. most of the young people i talk to (myself included, of course) recognize that the system is severely flawed and intolerable.

the bent jigsaw pieces which never fit into the puzzle can now find each other via the net and get to work...

Jeff Vail said...

Ryan, looks like something I need to spend some more time exploring (time, unfortunately, being my most limited resource at the moment).

I agree with your critique of primitivism--I've read Zerzan, Jensen, etc., and while I can appreciate their argument, I think their conclusions are fundamentally flawed (only partially because they are unrealistic). A better course is to work to direct a shift in our civilizational mode to something more sustainable. Not that that's a simple task!

Anyway, I'm hoping to tie up one of the points you've raised (the nexus of climate change and the renewables transition) in the next post... then perhaps on to focusing more on decentralization.

Jeff Vail said...

Rice Farmer-

I share your skepticism on these kinds of alternative energy systems. The simple fact of the matter is that there's no new engineering or technology used here--if this can really be done for the energy input described, then it would already be in operation with massive profits. Admittedly, this is not necessarily ALWAYS a truism, but it does force more pointed questions.

My guess is that the energy input they're calculating for the system is only that required to actually assemble it from many off-the shelf parts (e.g. existing steel, existing cable, existing turbines), or at least some very constrained measurement of energy-inputs one or two steps removed. If you incorporate the embodied energy in those many tons of steel alone, I think the EROEI will change drastically... the real problem, of course, is still that they aren't disclosing how they get at those EROEI numbers (like Xkwh/ton... ???).

ryan said...


i am a biologist, so while the primitivists' visions of returning to nature and bringing civilization to a screeching halt are seductive, i do not think they fit into evolution. this urge to tear the infrastructure down and blow the dams stems from pure feeling - that's why it is championed by the emotive writers and thinkers. but as our friend Huxley explains in Island, "Everything from dissected frogs to the spiral nebulae, it all gets looked at receptively as well as conceptually, as a fact of aesthetic or spiritual experience as well as in terms of science or history or economics. Training in receptivity is the complement and antidote to training in analysis and symbol manipulation. Both kinds of training are absolutely indispensable. If you neglect either of them you’ll never grow into a fully human being.”

the scientific method robbed us of our receptivity to the biosphere this is why the IUCN, etc can present powerpoint after powerpoint detailing the death of biodiversity without really reaching the audience. science alone conditions us away from feeling into pure empiricism. which works to understand the world but fails to preserve it.

Evolver has some great potential - its very new, and plagued with the "i wanna save the world but i did waaayyyy too many entheogens and am waiting/hoping for the mothership to come can fix it all" type.

definitely check out the short you tube clip on green housing that was just posted -

climate change and full ecosystem collapse will add a new dimension to the chaos... and soon. one of the best resources for climate info is

i will email you a copy of some of my publications and new stuff regarding the transition out of civilization. lemme know what you think when you get the chance to check it out.


fabio said...

Thanks for the great series, Jeff. What you show is really important. For me, the main things I take home:

1) EROEI is a tricky one
2) We can safely assume that the real EROEI is somewhere below the politicians and salesmen heralding.
3) It is improbable that we can keep up business as usual with renewables.

All this complements very well a scenario which I deem very possible. In fact, the real life approaches will define what happens. By that I mean that regionally, there will be huge differences.

Peak oil will not strike everyone at the same time and with the same power. Many countries, for example Brazil, will have reserves;if, like partly Brazil, such countries invest their resources in a transition, they will be ahead of others - regardless of EROEI, it depends on their choices.

In short: after a global shock I bet on rising "resilience cells"; after initial pushbacks they will be able to lead and connect, rhizome if you like, with decentralized energy, Internet, technology, P2P finance and economy, etc.

Jeremy said...

"Energy baron T. Boone Pickens scraps plans for the world's largest wind farm in Texas" - maybe this is an example of the price metric in action?

Kevin Carson said...

The good news is we don't need a 1:1 conversion from nonrenewable to renewable energy sources. Increased efficiency in the use of energy inputs, whatever their source, is the single most important investment for energy transition. If supply and distribution chains are radically shortened by relocalized industry and agriculture, the long-distance freight that remains is shifted from trucks to trains, we return to walkable communities in which most people live closer to where they work and shop, maximum use is made of passive solar design and waste heat recycling, etc., it doesn't matter what the source of remaining energy inputs is. Even if it were the dirtiest fossil fuel imaginable, it wouldn't matter if the actual units of energy consumed were only a tiny fraction of present levels.

Anonymous said...