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Friday, June 30, 2006


Over the past several weeks I have been rather focussed on ideas regarding Energy Return On Energy Invested, aka EROEI. I prefer the math version, ER/EI, as it is more to the point - it's a ratio created by a simple division - Take your energy return and divide it by the energy invested. ER divided by EI.

My posts have been sporadic lately as I have moved back across the country, and between the jetlag and exhaustion of re-fitting myself into a more domestic existence, I've been keeping a lower profile than usual.

In my thinking, I am wondering if the entire ER/EI question is itself something of a red herring, and that perhaps there needs to be a better understanding of how we use energy in total.

Example: Nuclear power. A limited analysis would say that nuclear power is an extremely energetic system, far in excess per pound of fuel than any other, as (X) tons of plutonium or uranium fuel = (P) watts of power, and that this ratio P/X is rather astounding, hence: Nuclear power is a good value from the understanding of that ratio.

However, as many are quick to point out, there's a lot more to nuclear power than (X) tons of fuel making (P) watts of energy, as there is the mining and processing of uranium and plutonium - an extremely energetic process. Then there is the building of a nuclear power plant; again, an energetic process. Then there is the amount of energy needed to keep the plant itself running, and the amount of energy needed to remove the fuel and dispose of it, and then, eventually dismantle the radioactive bits of plant itself. This significantly pulls a lot of value out of the X side of the X/P equation...

Then, there is what I've been looking at, which significantly impacts that X value as well, and it is what I call "secondary energy costs". What are these? In the case of Nuclear Power, there's a bunch of them. Let's look at a nuke plant in terms of: Construction, Fuel, Maintenance, Fuel Disposal, and Decomissioning. Each of these are fraught with secondary costs.

The concrete doesn't appear from nowhere. It has to be mined. The mining equipment requires energy. There are people who need to do the mining, and they have homes and families and these also require energy. The school where the kids go requires energy. The clothing the miners wear is made in factories thatrun on energy, and are shipped to stores in trucks thatuse energy, and the truck itself is made from metals that are mined by other miners who also have energy requirements. And the mining machines are made in factories that use energy and by people who also have energy needs and schools and hospitals and TV sets. And then there is the construction itself - exotic metals, concrete, rebar, all of these things require energy in their mining, processing, and construction, and each step of the way is a factory using energy, and people using energy to go to work in and live near those factories.

The development of nuclear fuels is a hazardous and toxic process, and one that is highly energetic. It takes thousands of tons of unranium, and thousands of centrifuges running flat out for days, and huge factories full of raw and waste materials to make, process, and form the fuel for a nuclear power plant. These factories have thousands of workers, and each of them has families and homes and towns and cars and TV sets all needing energy. Then there is the fuel needed to transport the fuel to the plant, and the energy needed to build the machines that
transport and store the fuel.

The nuclear power plant has a crew of people - people who are engineers that keep the place running, grounds keepers keeping it nice looking, management personnel to keep things organised and running, and of course, Mr Burns who owns the plant must be kept in the lifestyle to which he has become eminently accustomed, a cleaning crew that takes out the trash and sweeps up, security personnel, and at least one guy named Homer to nap on the job as the core goes critical...

Still, all these people have homes - Homer has Marge, Lisa, Bart, and Maggie. Homer has to drive to work, and that takes energy. He sucks down a foaming frosty mug of Duff Beer at Moe's Bar and the beer is transported to the bar, the bar requires energy to be built and maintained and power the neon lights, and Homer needs energy to get to Moe's, wash his clothes, get his kids to school, perm Marge's hair, etc.

This is all just part of Homer's life as a worker at the nuke plant, and each plant has many many Homers, and they all need energy as do all of Homer's friend's and acquaintances.

Fuel Disposal
Once the fuel is used up, it must be removed and disposed of, requiring no small amount of energy and effort by Homers who are hired to do this sort of thing, and who also have families and homes and cars.

When the plant is done, it needs to be dismantled and disposed of, and that is also a highly energetic effort...

This deeper analysis points to an odd conclusion - that ER/EI is a relevant equation, but in a mixed fuel economy, it is functionally impossible to tease out accurate numbers, and even when these numbers are teased out, they may be of limited use. Hence ER/EI may not be the important question.

No matter what we do, we use all the energy we've got.

(Just as I typed that line, "Corsair" by Boards of Canada came on the random choice of iTunes... man is that creepy...)

I am not certain, but I am fairly well convinced that true ER/EI is not as crazy as an NP-hard problem, but due to the total inter-relatedness and dynamics of society and energy, I am fairly well convinced that an accurate ER/EI analysis is not practically possible.

This is a BIG problem. Pimentel et al have staked their authority on such analysis, and while my extension of the ER/EI analysis only serves their points that alternative energy systems sch as ethanol have very low ER/EI (and my view punches it well below 1:1) it also points out the deep and impenetrable fog at the edges of such analysis, which can be used by all sorts of people to both credit and discredit any given technology.

While symbolic system can be developed to represent these analyses (Odum et al) even these symbolic systems cave under the complexity of dynamic energy allocations and sourcings.

Example: let's say Homer drives a 1988 Chrysler Imperial to work, and it gets 15 mpg. Sure, his energy source for driving doesn't require energy from the nuclear plant, and so that energy input is not counted against X, but the pumping of the gas is, as is the electricity the gas station uses. The food may be delivered to the Springfield Safeway by truck, but the Safeway runs on electricity, and Marge's time spent shopping there uses some portion of that, and that does count against X, as the food she bys there mostly goes into Homer's gut. And the Dunkin Donuts cooks its donuts using natgas, but the rest of it operates on electricity, and Homer's donut consumption is some part of that, and that also counts against X. And then, one day, Homer replaces his gas guzzling Imperial with a plug in Hybrid, and now THAT cuts into X.

I don't see how these dynamic fluctuations can be properly accounted for in any symbolic quantitative system, especially as these dynamic systems influence each other's behaviour and output. So, Homer and a jillion other Homers get plug in hybrids. These hybrids are more efficient per watt per mile than a gas engine, so it uses fewer watts per mile travelled. Then one day, Homer figures out that he can lose some weight by riding a bike, but he's too old and fat to get over some of the hills, so he opts for an electric assist bike, which is even MORE efficient with watts per mile travelled, but is slower.

One plug-in Prius equals dozens, if not hundreds, of electric bikes, so the energy embodied and used by one plug-in Prius is radically less than the energy and material that went into building a 1986 Imperial, and the electric bikes (or even trikes) are even more radically efficient, and embody and use even less than a Prius. However, if Homer sells his Imperial and buys a 1996 Geo Metro, he will double (if not triple) his fuel mileage and rather than demand more minerals from the earth to build a new Prius, he will be re-using the minerals someone else demanded from the earth ten years previously, and, in so doing, will be doubling the use of those materials, rather than have them go to the crusher and be recycled at some future date.

The Metro aside, all these electric bikes being pedalled by the Homers at the Burns Nuclear Power Plant and all the electric bikes pedalled by the friends of all the Homers, and all the electric bikes that get the service employees for all the Homers (Moe at the bar, Apu at the QuickieMart, etc.) are powered by the nuke plant, so it affects the ER/EI of the nuke plant, but certainly less than if they had plug-in Priuses.

You get the picture - calculating the ER/EI of a given energy technology is not an exact science, and that is why I wonder if it isn't something of a red herring.

Basically, I think the question of ER/EI is critical in a general sense, but I do not believe ER/EI can ever get beyond a general or vague number, due to the dynamism and vagaries of its component structures and subsystems.

I may be an artist, and I may be insane, but I am enough of a scientist to appreciate being wrong. Please prove me so.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A post to a post

I found an interesting blog that I am going to add to my list at right. The writer discusses an article by Smil, and how he misses the point of Peak Oil awareness. Smil does have a point in that there are a number of people who approach this issue like a doomsday cult, but many people approach many valuable ideas in a less than optimal fashion. I posted the following as my response. To see the original post, go here:


Interesting blog, and interesting article. The continuing arguments between cornucopians like Smil, and nihilists like Hanson is, in my not so humble opinion, a significant problem for both sides of the argument.

Smil et al suggest that there will be some kind of an "energy fairy" that will save the day. Hanson et al suggest that not only will there be no "energy fairy", but we are actually looking at an imminent die-off of catastrophic proportions.

What I have been advocating is a more balanced, middle pillar approach, where neither side of the coin is ignored, but neither side is accepted in total. I do think that technology will provide significant innovations that will help pull the right hand side of the resource depletion curve out a bit. At the same time, I think it is disingenuous to think that we can continue this industrial process of massive over-consumption of resources at the demand of massive over-population indefinitely.

As a consequence, there is a distinctive ideological component to the peak-oil discussion, and these ideological conclusions have very real and far-reaching results in terms of energy policy development and socio-cultural evolution.

Example - a society that is completely dependent on a form of energy that is of a limited variety will die off if they don't shift to a renewable energy system coupled with social and cultural mores, ethics, values, and preferences that encourages the preservation of the resource base. A society that goes skipping down the lane of cornucopia disregarding the warnings will, eventually, run into a wall and fail. A society that looks at the resources available and then develops systems that can be used for millennia, and sets about developing the social and cultural preferences to enable such a permanent culture, will survive while the other dies off.

The problem is the loss of cheap petroleum energy is a global issue, and will require global solutions, as will the problems of resource depletion, climate change, and over-population in general. And this is where the likes of Smil are actually equally destructive to the likes of Hanson, et al., because following the lead of the nihilists results in paralysis, while the cornucopians advocate the unsustainable status quo.

I've also pointed out in my othher writings that both sides are necessary - we need the concerned cornucopians to develop the new technologies, just as we need the nihilists to goad society into continuous re-examination of our directions and practices. Good Cop, Bad Cop. The problem is the citizenry of the industrial nations, both older and the newly industrialised, are used to cheap and plentiful energy and have built their expectations and infrastructure around it. These expectations and infrastructure lead to the cultural and social decisions that reinforce those expectations and infrastructure, creating a feedback of reaction and brutality.

The other problem is this: Smil et al are focussed on too short a term, while the nihilists are demanding too short a term. The Cornucopians will come up with technologies to mask the problem, but the fundamentals of expectations and infrastructure will still become increasingly manifest. In the meantime, the cornucopians get to discredit the Nihilists, while the Nihilists become increasingly distressed at the blinkered vision of the Cornucopians. Eventually, it will come to a head, and given the fact that petroleum is a limited resource, and industrial civilisation is structured around it and the society and culture it has produced is also dependent on it, it is, again, disingenuous for the cornucopians to argue for continued expansion of the human project over the back of petroleum.

Therefore, from my perspective, the only rational position is a middle position, one wher ethe dire warnings of the Nihilists are heeded, but immense investment and work should be devoted to the necessary technologies to achieve a smooth transition to a post-carbon society.

It is the cultural and infrastructural character of that society that I believe will prove most critical to the future of civilisation. It is that "criticality" that gives the nihilist position its strength, but it is the optomistic resourcefulness of the technologists and thinkers often found among concerned cornucopians that will manage the transition, as a nihilist position is no better than an unconcerned cornucopian position.

I discuss a lot of these ideas (in fact, I'll be publishing this post there) on my blog, which is listed as my website. Let me know what you think.


Stuart Studebaker

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