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.