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Energy & sustainability - Nov 29

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The End of Ingenuity

Thomas Homer-Dixon, NY Times (op-ed)
MAYBE Malthus was on to something, after all.

...The debate about limits to growth is coming back with a vengeance. The world’s supply of cheap energy is tightening, and humankind’s enormous output of greenhouse gases is disrupting the earth’s climate. Together, these two constraints could eventually hobble global economic growth and cap the size of the global economy.

The most important resource to consider in this situation is energy, because it is our economy’s “master resource” - the one ingredient essential for every economic activity. Sure, the price of a barrel of oil has dropped sharply from its peak of $78 last summer, but that’s probably just a fluctuation in a longer upward trend in the cost of oil - and of energy more generally. In any case, the day-to-day price of oil isn’t a particularly good indicator of changes in energy’s underlying cost, because it’s influenced by everything from Middle East politics to fears of hurricanes.

A better measure of the cost of oil, or any energy source, is the amount of energy required to produce it. Just as we evaluate a financial investment by comparing the size of the return with the size of the original expenditure, we can evaluate any project that generates energy by dividing the amount of energy the project produces by the amount it consumes.

Economists and physicists call this quantity the “energy return on investment” or E.R.O.I.

...Cutler Cleveland, an energy scientist at Boston University who helped developed the concept of E.R.O.I. two decades ago, calculates that from the early 1970s to today the return on investment of oil and natural gas extraction in the United States fell from about 25 to 1 to about 15 to 1.

This basic trend can be seen around the globe with many energy sources. We’ve most likely already found and tapped the biggest, most accessible and highest-E.R.O.I. oil and gas fields, just as we’ve already exploited the best rivers for hydropower. Now, as we’re extracting new oil and gas in more extreme environments - in deep water far offshore, for example - and as we’re turning to energy alternatives like nuclear power and converting tar sands to gasoline, we’re spending steadily more energy to get energy.

For example, the tar sands of Alberta, likely to be a prime energy source for the United States in the future, have an E.R.O.I. of around 4 to 1, because a huge amount of energy (mainly from natural gas) is needed to convert the sands’ raw bitumen into useable oil.

...As the price of energy rises and as the planet gets hotter, we need significantly higher investment in innovation throughout society, from governments and corporations to universities. Perhaps the most urgent step, if humankind is going to return to coal as its major energy source, is to figure out ways of safely disposing of coal’s harmful carbon dioxide - probably underground.

But in the larger sense, we really need to start thinking hard about how our societies - especially those that are already very rich - can maintain their social and political stability, and satisfy the aspirations of their citizens, when we can no longer count on endless economic growth.

Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Trudeau Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, is the author of “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization.”
(29 Nov 2006)
Surprisingly outspoken op-ed for the New York Times. The concept of peak oil is endorsed in a roundabout way; the discussion of EROEI points to the falling EROEI of energy sources. -BA


What is Energy Worth?

Richard T. Stuebi, Clean Tech Blog
Everyone pays attention to -- and often whines about -- the price or cost of energy. I would like to pose a different question: what is the value of energy? What is energy really worth?

It turns out to be a more interesting question than it might first appear. Let me present a few illustrative calculations.

A healthy adult can exert about 100 watts of effort for a reasonably sustained period. (Have you ever worked out strenuously on an exercycle with an output display? If so, have you ever pushed it to over 200 watts for very long?) Thus, over the course of a 10-hour day, a human might produce 1000 watt-hours -- or 1 kilowatt-hour. From your local utility, you probably pay about a dime for a kilowatt-hour. On the other hand, if you were to pay that adult a (low) wage of $5/hour for that degree of effort, that kilowatt-hour would cost $50.
(27 Nov 2006)


Global Warming and Energy Policy on Collision Course

Jerome a Paris, Daily Kos
For those of us that care about energy policy, it is clear that there are two approaches to grab political attention on the topic these days: the dependence-on-nasty-strangers scaremongering ("they're responsible for these high prices" - don't bother with resource depletion, that just draws a blank), and the global climate change we'll-all-drown-or-burn angle.

Both could be solved at the same time by focusing first on the demand side of the energy balance (conservation, efficiency, public transport, ...), and second by switching energy generation from fossil fuel burning to renewables and, to some extent, nuclear.

While global climate change is recognised as a political reality (i.e. voters care, and one must show that one cares as well), it is clearly less sexy than the other option: blaming evil foreigners (whether Iran, Russia, Venezuela or even China on the consumer side) with the accompanying macho populist posturing and the more substantive support for the corporate friends that provide an easy out: the military-industrial complex on the one hand, and the coal burning industry on the other.
(28 Nov 2006)


Clueless in America: Feeding the Tape Worms of Desire

Charles Sullivan, Information Clearinghouse
It may well be that there is no hope for the American republic, that we are by choice beyond reclamation. Much of the world sees the average American as detached from reality, isolated from the suffering of others. They see us as self-absorbed, over indulgent, willfully ignorant, and imbued with enormous hubris--characterizations that are difficult to argue against. Unfortunately, I am well acquainted with the type.

Most Americans somehow believe that we are an exceptional people--God's chosen few. It would not be the first time in history this has occurred. The world is our oyster and it is our's to use as we see fit, even if it does not belong to us. To the physically strongest and morally depraved, to the wealthiest, go the spoils.

Deep down, Americans may reason that if we are to continue our lives of excess, if we are to carry on driving our Hummers and other inefficient motorized polluting obscenities, we need an inexhaustible supply of oil. As keepers of the world's strongest military, we have the means of procuring oil anywhere in the world, and that makes it ours. Might makes right in capitalist America and we have the weaponry to get whatever we want. That is exactly how the west was won--it was stolen at gun point and driven by religious fervor. We must feed the insatiable tape worms of our desires right up to the moment of the Apocalypse.
(28 Nov 2006)

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