Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of industrial society

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switters's picture
switters
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Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of industrial society

Richard Heinberg has just released a report entitled "Searching for a Miracle: Net Energy Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society", with a forward by Gerry Mander.  Introduction below.  It's long (70 pages), but I highly recommend reading it - especially if you still suffer from the delusion that renewable energy is going to replace oil.

THIS REPORT IS INTENDED as a non-technical examination of a basic question: Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society’s energy needs at least up to the year 2100? In the end, we are left with the disturbing conclusion that all known energy sources are subject to strict limits of one kind or another. Conventional energy sources such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear are either at or nearing the limits of their ability to grow in annual supply, and will dwindle as the decades proceed—but in any case they are unacceptably hazardous to the environment. And contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations. To achieve such a transition would require (1) a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, (2) a very long time—too long in practical terms—for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.

Perhaps the most significant limit to future energy supplies is the “net energy” factor—the requirement that energy systems yield more energy than is invested in their construction and operation. There is a strong likelihood that future energy systems, both conventional and alternative, will have higher energy input costs than those that powered industrial societies during the last century.We will come back to this point repeatedly.

The report explores some of the presently proposed energy transition scenarios, showing why, up to this time, most are overly optimistic, as they do not address all of the relevant limiting factors to the expansion of alternative energy sources. Finally, it shows why energy conservation (using less energy, and also less resource materials) combined with humane, gradual population decline must become primary strategies for achieving sustainability.

***

The world’s current energy regime is unsustainable. This is the recent, explicit conclusion of the International Energy Agency1, and it is also the substance of a wide and growing public consensus ranging across the political spectrum. One broad segment of this consensus is concerned about the climate and the other environmental impacts of society’s reliance on fossil fuels.The other is mainly troubled by questions regarding the security of future supplies of these fuels—which, as they deplete, are increasingly concentrated in only a few countries.

To say that our current energy regime is unsustainable means that it cannot continue and must therefore be replaced with something else.However, replacing the energy infrastructure of modern industrial societies will be no trivial matter. Decades have been spent building the current oil-coal-gas infrastructure, and trillions of dollars invested. Moreover, if the transition from current energy sources to alternatives is wrongly managed, the consequences could be severe: there is an undeniable connection between per-capita levels of energy consumption and economic well-being.2 A failure to supply sufficient energy, or energy of sufficient quality, could undermine the future welfare of humanity, while a failure to quickly make the transition away from fossil fuels could imperil the Earth’s vital ecosystems.

Nonetheless, it remains a commonly held assumption that alternative energy sources capable of substituting for conventional fossil fuels are readily available—whether fossil (tar sands or oil shale), nuclear, or a long list of renewables—and ready to come on-line in a bigger way. All that is necessary, according to this view, is to invest sufficiently in them, and life will go on essentially as it is.

But is this really the case? Each energy source has highly specific characteristics. In fact, it has been the characteristics of our present energy sources (principally oil, coal, and natural gas) that have enabled the building of a modern society with high mobility, large population, and high economic growth rates. Can alternative energy sources perpetuate this kind of society? Alas, we think not.

While it is possible to point to innumerable successful alternative energy production installations within modern societies (ranging from small homescale photovoltaic systems to large “farms” of threemegawatt wind turbines), it is not possible to point to more than a very few examples of an entire modern industrial nation obtaining the bulk of its energy from sources other than oil, coal, and natural gas. One such rare example is Sweden, which gets most of its energy from nuclear and hydropower. Another is Iceland, which benefits from unusually large domestic geothermal resources, not found in most other countries. Even in these two cases, the situation is more complex than it appears.The construction of the infrastructure for these power plants mostly relied on fossil fuels for the mining of the ores and raw materials, materials processing, transportation, manufacturing of components, the mining of uranium, construction energy, and so on. Thus for most of the world, a meaningful energy transition is still more theory than reality. But if current primary energy sources are unsustainable, this implies a daunting problem. The transition to alternative sources mustoccur, or the world will lack sufficient energy to maintain basic services for its 6.8 billion people (and counting).

Thus it is vitally important that energy alternatives be evaluated thoroughly according to relevant criteria, and that a staged plan be formulated and funded for a systemic societal transition away from oil, coal, and natural gas and toward the alternative energy sources deemed most fully capable of supplying the kind of economic benefits we have been accustomed to from conventional fossil fuels.

By now, it is possible to assemble a bookshelf filled with reports from nonprofit environmental organizations and books from energy analysts, dating from the early 1970s to the present, all attempting to illuminate alternative energy transition pathways for the United States and the world as a whole.These plans and proposals vary in breadth and quality, and especially in their success at clearly identifying the factors that are limiting specific alternative energy sources from being able to adequately replace conventional fossil fuels.

It is a central purpose of this document to systematically review key limiting factors that are often left out of such analyses.We will begin that process in the next section. Following that, we will go further into depth on one key criterion: net energy, or energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).This measure focuses on the key question: All things considered, how much more energy does a system produce than is required to develop and operate that system? What is the ratio of energy in versus energy out? Some energy “sources” can be shown to produce little or no net energy. Others are only minimally positive.

Unfortunately, as we shall see in more detail below, research on EROEI continues to suffer from lack of standard measurement practices, and its use and implications remain widely misunderstood. Nevertheless, for the purposes of large-scale and long-range planning, net energy may be the most vital criterion for evaluating energy sources, as it so clearly reveals the tradeoffs involved in any shift to new energy sources.

This report is not intended to serve as a final authoritative, comprehensive analysis of available energy options, nor as a plan for a nation-wide or global transition from fossil fuels to alternatives. While such analyses and plans are needed, they will require institutional resources and ongoing reassessment to be of value.The goal here is simply to identify and explain the primary criteria that should be used in such analyses and plans, with special emphasis on net energy, and to offer a cursory evaluation of currently available energy sources, using those criteria.This will provide a general, preliminary sense of whether alternative sources are up to the job of replacing fossil fuels; and if they are not, we can begin to explore what might be the fall-back strategy of governments and the other responsible institutions of modern society.

As we will see, the fundamental disturbing conclusion of the report is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can reliably be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of the current century.

This preliminary conclusion in turn suggests that a sensible transition energy plan will have to emphasize energy conservation above all. It also raises questions about the sustainability of growth per se, both in terms of human population numbers and economic activity. 

 

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Re: Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of ...

Thanks Switters.  I think I have been in denial about peak oil/energy, just because it was too much to deal with on top of the unravelling economy.  But between recent poignant posts by Chris, and your post here, i think it is time for me to face the music on this aspect of the 3 E's as well (sigh!)  It's a whole picture, and we either deal with it now, or we deal with it later...

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switters
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Re: Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of ...

I know what you mean, pinecarr.  Our attention has been diverted in a big way towards the economy over the past several months.  Meanwhile, we're moving full speed ahead into an energy crisis that will make the last economic downturn look like a tiny bump in the road.  And just as that energy crisis becomes fully apparent, we're likely to be mired in the deepest global depressions the world has ever faced...which will severely limit our ability to adapt, which in turn further slows down the economy... and so on.  

Not hard to understand why we go into denial.  Human beings aren't evolutionarily suited for this kind of challenge.  Unfortunately.

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I'll start to worry, when I see the US Military ...

I'll start to worry about the dwindling of energy supplies when I see the US Military start to build 50 year stockpiles of energy materials. To date, I see them doing nothing of the sort. One has to wonder why the most effective military machine in world history seems unworried about the commodities that power their vehicles.

When I see the US Military:
- signing 50 year supply contracts for gasoline
- building nuclear stations on military bases
- etc
only then will I start to worry about future energy supplies.

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Re: I'll start to worry, when I see the US Military ...
RailRoad wrote:

I'll start to worry about the dwindling of energy supplies when I see the US Military start to build 50 year stockpiles of energy materials. To date, I see them doing nothing of the sort. One has to wonder why the most effective military machine in world history seems unworried about the commodities that power their vehicles.

When I see the US Military:
- signing 50 year supply contracts for gasoline
- building nuclear stations on military bases
- etc
only then will I start to worry about future energy supplies.

Well the US military is considering the difficulties in continuing operations in a conventional energy limited environment:

http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/energy/2009/03/16/how-the-us-militar...

So some in the US military do recognize the potential threat to their capabilities that conventional energy shortages pose and are attempting to minimize such threats, even if many in the civilian government are oblivious.  The military tends to have fixed budgets in many of their various programs, where Congress can borrow more money to make up for increased energy costs and ignore the problem a little longer.  Take that however you will.

-Nickbert

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Re: Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of ...
RailRoad wrote:

"I'll start to worry about the dwindling of energy supplies when I see the US Military start to build 50 year stockpiles of energy materials."

The Military are way ahead of you......

US Army: Peak Oil and the Army's future

by Adam Fenderson and Bart Anderson

“The days of inexpensive, convenient, abundant energy sources are quickly drawing to a close,” according to a recently released US Army strategic report. The report posits that a peak in global oil production looks likely to be imminent, with wide reaching implications for the US Army and society in general.

The report was sent to Energy Bulletin by a reader, and does not appear to be available elsewhere on the internet. However it is marked as unclassified and approved for public release.

[ UPDATE: Since we wrote those words several hours ago we've been informed that a reference to the document now appears on a Google search, including a link to the full PDF on a .mil server. "Somebody must be watching you guys!" writes reader SG. See notes below. -AF]

The report, Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations (PDF &ndash 1.2mb), was conducted by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is dated September 2005.

Author Eileen Westervelt, PE, CEM, is a mechanical engineer at the Engineer Research and Development Center (US Army Corps of Engineers) in Champaign, Ill. Author Donald Fournier is a senior research specialist at the University of Illinois’ Building Research Council and has worked with the Corps in the past.

Westervelt and Fournier give special credence to the work of independent energy experts, such as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) and the Oil Depletion Analysis Center (ODAC). They seem to place very little credibility on the more optimistic oil production forecasts of the international energy agencies. They reproduce ASPO graphs and quote ASPO member Jean Laherrere on why the US Geological Survey (USGS) future oil availability estimates are clearly overly optimistic:

The USGS estimate implies a five-fold increase in discovery rate and reserve addition, for which no evidence is presented. Such an improvement in performance is in fact utterly implausible, given the great technological achievements of the industry over the past twenty years, the worldwide search, and the deliberate effort to find the largest remaining prospects.

The authors warn that in order to sustain its mission, “the Army must insulate itself from the economic and logistical energy-related problems coming in the near to mid future. This requires a transition to modern, secure, and efficient energy systems, and to building technologies that are safe and environmental friendly.” The best energy options they conclude are “energy efficiency and renewable sources.” However, "currently, there is no viable substitute for petroleum."

They do not expect that any transition will be easy: “energy consumption is indispensable to our standard of living and a necessity for the Army to carry out its mission. However, current trends are not sustainable. The impact of excessive, unsustainable energy consumption may undermine the very culture and activities it supports. There is no perfect energy source; all are used at a cost.”

The report includes what looks like a solid overview of the pros and cons of all major renewable and non-renewable energy options. They consider problems associated with hydrogen, shale oil, biofuels and tar sands. On nuclear energy they note that "our current throw-away nuclear cycle uses up the world reserve of low-cost uranium in about 20 years." They hold more hope for certain solar technologies and wind turbines, however, "renewables tend to be a more local or regional commodity and except for a few instances, not necessarily a global resource that is traded between nations."

Overall this is surprisingly green sounding advice, and one might think out of left field for one of the most environmentally destructive and energy consuming institutions on the planet. And yet the report does not seem to be at odds with the Army's new Energy Strategy which sets out five major initiatives:

  1. Eliminate energy waste in existing facilities
  2. Increase energy efficiency in new construction and renovations
  3. Reduce dependence on fossil fuels
  4. Conserve water resources
  5. Improve energy security

(See: hqda-energypolicy.pnl.gov/programs/plan.asp)

Westervelt and Fournier assert that changes must be made with urgency. However they express concerns that "we have a large and robust energy system with tremendous inertia, both from a policy perspective and a great resistance to change." In light of this, “the Army needs to present its perspective to higher authorities and be prepared to proceed regardless of the national measures that are taken.”

Westervelt and Fournier suggest "it is time to think strategically about energy and how the Army
should respond to the global and national energy picture. A path of enlightened self-interest is encouraged." As we approach Peak Oil, what is ecologically sound and what is perceived to be to in an institution's practical benefit might tend to converge, at least in some respects - even those of an institution such as the US Army.

Links:

switters's picture
switters
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Re: Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of ...

Oops!  Looks like it's time to start worrying RailRoad!  

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Re: Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of ...

Switters

Great post -- thanks

Jim

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Re: Heinberg's latest: Net energy limits & the fate of ...

Matthew Simmons seems to be pretty optimistic about this new energy source:

 

 

 

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