Our energy predicament

My blog today is based on this meme, which showed up on my FB feed. 

idiot power

It was first put out in 2015 by an anti-AGW ‘skeptic’ group. Snopes actually did an overview of the arguments and found it was a ‘mixture’ of truth. Thomas Homer-Dixon was misquoted in  his statement above, because though he wrote this in his book, he went on to write the following (quoting from Snopes, a risky proposition):

The question is: how long must a windmill generate energy before it creates more energy than it took to build it? At a good wind site, the energy payback day could be in three years or less; in a poor location, energy payback may be never. That is, a windmill could spin until it falls apart and never generate as much energy as was invested in building it.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to energy over the past few years, though I had written extensively about both peak oil and the relationship between cheap oil and economic growth since beginning this blog in 2012. Long story short, humans would be in great peril even if it weren’t for the near certainty that the environment would push back on everything we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution. I’ve read up on the issue of ‘energy return on investment’ (EROI, sometimes EROEI) since the oil price run-up and crash in 2008. 

Shorthand–EROI is what you get after you invest energy and the ratio therein. For most of the Industrial age, we’ve gotten returns of as much as 100×1 on investments in oil–a barrel of oil, invested in pumping and exploration and production, was returning the equivalent energy of 100 barrels at some point, and oilfields in Texas and Saudi Arabia were returning upwards of 100×1 as recently as the 1960’s. Oil EROI has fallen almost exponentially since the 70’s because  we found and pumped out the ‘easy’ oil and it takes prodigious effort to get more. Deepwater Horizon (the oil well that blew up on BP) would have provided oil orders of magnitude more expensive than what used to fall out of the dirt in Pennsylvania. And as Charles Hall (the man who popularized the math of EROI) has noted, there’s a tipping point on energy–once worldwide energy costs enough that we get a return of less than 30×1 EROI, that may well be the end of modern capitalism and economic expansion as we’ve known it since the days of the first factories. 

Modern wind turbines are an amazing application of ingenuity to get energy that flows freely. But (as the above meme points out) wind power isn’t ‘free’. The website OilDrum (which closed down a few years ago after they realized they were repeating themselves), had tabulated the EROI of all energy sources, and wind from modern turbines came in at 18×1 once you calculated costs of materials. That’s better than solar PV, which might be as high as 10×1 now. Biomass (including hemp and corn-based ethanol) is a borderline break-even proposition–at best it’s 1.6×1, and probably is closer to a net energy loss (because you have to transport hundreds of tons of biomass to processing plants in order to come up with a couple gallons of fuel). 

(BTW, nuclear scores about 5×1 EROI. The expense of creating safe plants with zero error tolerance is a big part of it, as is the expense of finding enough U235 to run them. Once you factor in the as-yet unsolved problem of where to put the waste for a couple million years, you’ve got a net energy loser. Not willing to argue this. Start your own blog).

And many such ‘solutions’ to climate collapse and global warming have the same issues. It’s nice that your Prius doesn’t burn oil (though if it’s plugged into an electrical outlet, the power plant is burning fossil fuels including coal or ‘bunker oil’). But the manufacture of a car takes a couple dozen barrels of oil once you factor in the mining of the iron and steel and aluminum and the creation of the plastic and rubber. And that’s less than half what it takes to put a car on the road, since you need thousands of miles of roadway (much of it out of oil derivative asphalt) to make owning a car practical. There’s no such thing as a ‘green’ car.

Back to the point I wanted to make at the beginning. The meme I posted above isn’t correct, but it isn’t far off the mark, either. The humans on this planet don’t have a problem, they have a PREDICAMENT. Predicaments can’t be solved. We absolutely have to stop putting extra carbon in the atmosphere (although a certain scientist I frequently cite named Guy McPherson would point out that shutting down industrial civilization also shuts off global dimming, which would cause temperatures to go up at least 1 C in a matter of a few days).  And absent the recent call by Dr. James Anderson to develop technology to stop AGW regardless of cost, most of the people in my little fraternity of doom don’t see us escaping extinction. And technology fixes always cause new problems–the city planners of the late 19th and early 20th century hailed the introduction of automobiles because big cities were up to their eyeballs in horse shit, which wasn’t a problem for the Tin Lizzy. Trashing the people who are trying to save the planet doesn’t save us, but we need to know that the things we wish were true may not be.


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