ERoEI misses fact that not all energy is created equal

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icanbob's picture
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ERoEI misses fact that not all energy is created equal

There is a great book by David Scott called Smelling Land.     In that book the author talks about energy in terms of a concept called exergy:  which effectively measures the maximum thermodynamic potential in that pool of energy or in other words the usefulness or quality of that energy.

This is admittedly a very complex subject and this author doesn't simplify it enough for common folks to understand, in my opinion ... but you should take a stab at that simplification.

I believe that if we use fuzzy numbers like ERoEI instead of the more exact exergy calculations we'll make wrong decisions about how to allocate our energy budget.   Same arguements as you so eloquently made with the fuzzy GDP and inflation numbers apply equally here.

Exergy calculations are behind the reason it makes sense to toss out 2/3 of the energy in coal as waste heat in order to convert the remaining 1/3 into electricity.  On an ERoEI basis making electricity is an absurd concept.     Any manufactured fuel (alcohols, ammonia, hydrogen) are more like electricity than they are like primary fuels such as oil or natural gas.   In fact if you go back far enough and ask what the ERoEI for making crude oil from ancient sunlight it is a very low value.   If one looks at algae -> fuel scenerios from the ERoEI lens based on solar in vs. fuel out it is similarly poor.   ERoEI is a fuzzy concept and leads to fuzzy choices.

I loved your crash course.    As we make post peak oil energy choices we need to be armed with the accurate facts,  not the fuzzy ones.


gyrogearloose's picture
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Re: ERoEI misses fact that not all energy is created equal

In fact if you go back far enough and ask what the ERoEI for making crude oil from ancient sunlight it is a very low value.   If one looks at algae -> fuel scenerios from the ERoEI lens based on solar in vs. fuel out it is similarly poor.   ERoEI is a fuzzy concept and leads to fuzzy choices.[/quote]


Take your line of thinking even further, ERoEI lens based on the nuclear energy produced in the core of the sun, it is WAY worse.

However that is not a useful measurement. 

For the purpose of running a complex society what maters is the energy the society has to put in in relation to how much the society gets out.

The fuzzy numbers really only creep in when people calculating for example, the ERoEI of a solar panel 'conviently' exclude  some aspects of the energy required to get the panels into production to make the ERoEI look better than it really is.



wortschmerz's picture
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Re: ERoEI misses fact that not all energy is created equal

For the purpose of running a complex society what maters is the energy the society has to put in in relation to how much the society gets out.

Quite correct; with this rather obvious, and yet stunningly novel, perspective (for that's what it is, like all great relevations, a matter of looking at the world from unaccustomed points of view), we some perilously close to standing naked in front of the mirror, but we're still wearing some of the emperor's new clothes, racy little items that cover our naughtiest bits. Before I encourage further full frontal nudity, however, I have to issue a disclaimer as rare as the thermodynamic model of society: what I'm about to say is a model, a metaphor, a hopeful attempt at "seeing" and understanding that which cannot (ever) be seen, much less fully explained or understood.  

What I'm getting at is not mere semantics. It is a quite literal fact of our existence--the most basic condition of our existence and our relationship to the world--a condition of which the great majority of us are either completely unaware, instinctively dread ("don't go there!") or, in some cases, willfully ignore. Iain Banks, one of the handful of writers who've been able to conceive of a world without money, a society that has saved itself and in the process (re)discovered how to defeat the "entropy" inherent in all scarcity-based systems, once revisited Hamlet's famous graveyard epiphany in order to dig up this forgotten bone:

     The hand's grasp near fits the skull, the covering bone by bone enclosed. And saying this, we grasp that.

     We each contain the universe inside our selves, the totality of existence encompassed by all that we have to make sense of it; a grey, ridged mushroom mass ladled into a bony bowl the size of a smallish cooking pot...In my more solipsistic moments, I have conjectured that we do not simply experience everything within that squashed sphere, but create it there too. Perhaps we think up our own destinies, and so in a sense deserve whatever happens to us for not having the wit to imagine something better. (A Song of Stone, p.165)

The reason that we actually experience everything--"the outside world, objective reality"--within the friendly confines of our thick-pated skulls is blessedly simple: we are dependent upon and limited by our perceptions, that narrow band of frequencies & textures that we can pick up with the equipment we have. Further removing us from the action "out there" is the fact that even this tiny sampling is so bewildering in its complexity that it has to be mediated by our conceptual framework, that accretion of beliefs and preconceptions which tells us what we're looking at.

For most of our long history, the brief span of recorded events going back 6,000 years or so, as well as the much, much longer period we call "pre-historical," this was an entirely unconscious process. Even now, for most of us, it remains a dark doorway that only leads to madness or solipsism. In fact, with the advent of science and scientism we have become even more convinced of our objectivity and of the discreteness of objects, ideas and events...despite all evidence to the contrary!

And so, we view the world through an imperfect lens, unaware of both the lens and its flaws. A great example is the bipedal, bicameral bias that informs our notions of symmetry. When asked to compare two telling patterns, we always see "more" symmetry in the simple, familiar matched (or opposite) pair than we do in a five-fold symmetry, even though the latter has many more symmetrical lattices.

Likewise, our notions of societal organization contain an awful lot of unexamined baggage, a load of presuppositions & downright superstitions that we've carried with us from our barbarous (if relatively recent) past. The entire edifice of social Darwinist thinking that informs so much of not just evolutionary science, biology and anthropology but also our political economies predates Mr. Darwin by some 300 generations. Sure, it's been codified many times, as we can see in Hobbes' revision of the medieval/Elizabethan Great Chain of Being, and it's been fortified with the extreme reductionism of linear equations, such as the nasty strain of Malthusianism infecting the worldviews of both "Left" and "Right," but here again it's become a nearly unconscious process.

Which brings us, finally, to the "energy equations" view of society. While it's certainly helpful to learn that 2/3rds of the energy we use/produce is simply wasted through incredibly, unnaturally inefficient technologies and design theory, the great danger is that we'll either accept this as somehow "natural," the customary working or result of the entropic law of the universe, or we'll adopt an historicist perspective and just sit back, confident that our bright boys in the laboratory will one day increase the efficiency quota in the unstoppable March of Progress. (Closely related to the Great Uplift of Capitalism, btw.)

How easily we forget that:

  • entropy is an artificial construct that only occurs, or is created, in the laboratory-specifically, in a closed system and/or one in which equilibrium has not been reached, and that
  • the "discovery" of entropy is a partial, even partisan, understanding of the energy cycle in Nature, where energy can never be annihilated but is instead constantly translating itself into matter and then back again, far more accurately portrayed by Hindu cosmology than by Western thermodynamics, and that
  • all environmental and economic upheaval is the result of social dislocations, the dominance of one group over another

We have to forget these truths because the foundation myths of the modern world are riddled with assumptions very much like these-how can an arbitrary & cruel system set up for the benefit of a tiny ruling class be defended when the slogans of egalitarianism have been used by that elite to disguise their machinations?

Freedom and justice for all, anyone? Well, sure, but money is power now, isn't it, and everyone knows what power does...

All the economies of our nation states have been economies of scarcity. "History" as we know it is little more than the story of the manipulation (and oftentimes the creation) of scarcity. Money is quite simply an elaborate rationing system; the world of international finance is, when seen from this perspective, a scam that obfuscates the real social dynamic through a ritualization of the arbitrary & unreal that borders on fetishism.

Consider, as my physicist friend likes to say, the physics of the tree. Take a seed, add sunlight, freely available for the next few billion years, a little water, some trace minerals from the soil, some "waste" gases from the atmosphere and voilà! You've got an engine of incredible strength, efficiency, and increasing complexity. Or is a forest just a certain number of board feet of lumber? A resource?

Lastly, consider the role of architecture in the ongoing suppression of abundance, for that is what we have today. (Scarcity and its red-toothed competition is reckless & wasteful; a natural abundance by contrast is highly efficient. There is no "garbage" in Nature.) What would the social & political ramifications be of a built environment that was not a drain on the world's ecosystems but instead made them richer? If we rebuilt man's habitat so that each household and each community produced more energy & water than it consumed, we could achieve something that's been missing in human society since the advent of dominator cultures: homeostasis.

Autonomy → Synergy → Infinity

Damnthematrix's picture
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Re: ERoEI misses fact that not all energy is created equal

Super fuel or super hype?\

Super fuel or super hype? Ever since the US made an “aquatic species program” one of its biggest priority areas in 2005, algae harvesting has become one of the hottest technologies in the world.

One of the oldest and simplest organisms is now the focus of billions of dollars of investment in research and development, commercialisation and business plans.

And if its promoters are right, there’s not much it can’t do: It captures greenhouse emissions from power plants, creates biofuels for transport, jet fuel for planes, feedstock for animals, protein for humans and animals, acts as a fertiliser, a key bonding agent for plastics, and a key ingredient for cosmetics and foodstuffs. And it can clean up water ways and sewage ponds as well. In short, it seems it can power us, feed us, pamper us, and then clean up the mess we leave behind.

Is it all too good to be true? Time will tell. Scientists and researchers have been struggling with the challenge of turning algae into fuels for decades, although algae is already used as a bonding agent in some foodstuffs, toothpastes and cosmetics as part of a $7 billion industry.

But the impetus provided by the US funding boost, a rush to find solutions to the challenges of greenhouse emissions, fuel security in western economies such as the US, and food security in developing nations, along with interest from oil majors such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, has created something of a boom as new algae technologies move out of the lab and into commercial scale production.

A series of high profile fundraisings in the US has added to the excitement, with Solazyme – which has a contract to deliver shipping and jet fuel to the US Navy – raising $US52 million, and one company, PetroAlgae, fuelling the boom mentality by proposing to raise $50 million despite having no revenue. It’s estimated there are more than 300 companies pursuing commercialisation opportunities, although few are actually producing.

At least a handful of these companies are located in Australia and New Zealand, with three of them – MBD Energy, Algae.Tec and Aquaflow Bionomic – in fundraising mode, but taking three very different approaches to the technology.

In scale of projects and breadth of opportunity, MBD – backed by Anglo American – ranks itself among the top 10 in the world, and is rolling out demonstration projects of its greenhouse reduction process at the Loy Yang, Eraring and Tarong coal fired power stations. The company says carbon dioxide can be successfully trapped and piped into a series of algae ponds, with the produce then used for a range of other valuable products – around one third for plastics or fuel, and about two thirds for low-methane feedstock.

MBD CEO Andrew Lawson says there has been a non-stop procession of international government and business delegations visiting his company’s test facility at James Cook University. Last month, a 16-strong delegation from Thailand included the head of the country’s largest listed company, the head of the national fuel company and the director general of the energy and renewable energy departments. Other delegations have come in from China, Japan, India, the Middle East, Europe and north America.

He says all delegations are interested in the technology’s ability to sequester carbon dioxide, although the interest in bi-products is mostly focused on food in Asia countries, and fuel in developed countries. “Everyone wants to take it to their country and they are all really keen on the value add,” he says. “In Australia all the focus has been on putting carbon underground and treating it as an expensive trade waste – but this offers a solution to so many things, you have to look at recycling opportunities and the valuable products they create.”

Algae.Tec is the only Australian algae company currently attempting a stock market listing, raising money to help fund the roll-out of its algae bio-reactors, which will be boosted by a solar array to speed algae growth and reduce the area needed to produce fuels. It proposes to install a pilot plant at the Manildra ethanol facility in Nowra.

“There is no doubt that as the price of oil rises, there have to be alternatives,” says Algae.Tec chairman Roger Stroud. Algae.Tec proposes to raise $7.5 million and sees four principal revenue streams from its products: Carbohydrates for ethanol, pelletised proteins for feedstock, vegetable oil for biodiesel, and a combination of carbohydrates and protein for jet fuels. He says that is without factoring revenue from emissions abatement. “The carbon price will be a bonus,” he says.

The biggest issue for so called algaepreneurs comes from identifying which of the 30,000 or so known species of algae is the best suited for their business plans, and how to grow them without contamination and the associated difficulties of dewatering and oil extraction on a large scale.

Aquaflow, which is raising $500,000 as a precursor to an IPO, is taking a different approach, looking at ways of harvesting wild algae that grows in municipal sewage ponds as a way of recycling water and creating biofuels, and applying the same technology to clean up waterways. It has several test facilities in New Zealand and argues that using wild algae avoids the problem of contamination of a monoculture.

Some of the claims about yields are extraordinary. It is claimed that algae can produce more than 10,000 gallons an acre, more than vegetable crops such as corn by a considerable factor. One new company claimed it could produce more than 15,000 gallons of fuel per acre from what it calls “direct solar fuels”, because they don’t necessarily need carbon dioxide as a feedstock.

“There are a whole number of new companies starting out, venture capital coming in … there’s a bit of a boom scenario happening,” says Aquaflow director Nick Gerritsen. But he is wary of some of the new technology, particularly those that promise high yields from GM products, which has attracted the attention of authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration, because of similar concerns raised by products such as nano-particles. “We question the logic of a number of these projects,” Gerritsen says.


Jim H's picture
Jim H
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Re: ERoEI misses fact that not all energy is created equal

Wortschmerz,  Let me first say welcome .. Thank you for joining and gracing us with your deep thoughts and the obvious energy that went into this post. 

I have always wondered about those processes in nature that seem... well.. anti-entropic.  Indeed... if there were not some natural predilection for the nonentropic, then there would not be life.  Indeed.. the classical view of entropy comes from a closed system view.  I have to think about this more. 

Secondly, your discussion touches on the very limited means by which we sense the world around us..... indeed... we really do only feel parts of the elephant.  This point became very clear to me in the early 1990's when I dabbled in power frequency (60 Hz) electromagnetic field measurement and mitigation in homes and businesses....  If we had the ability to "see" the electric and magnetic fields that saturate most of our living environments... we might think differently about how we through energy around.  

Finally, I love your build up to the idea of homeostasis.  I was an ardent follower of the original Biosphere experiments in 1991... which proved that perfect homeostasis, at least in a relatively small closed system, is no easy goal... but, this does not mean homeostatis should not be the goal.  The NY Times has an article today about a couple building a super efficient passive energy home in Southern VT... does not need a furnace!  90% more efficient than most houses... so approaching homeostatis with regard to energy.

Keep the thoughts coming... great to have you onboard.       


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