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How Fish Use Energy Teaches True Oil Economics

Andrew Nikiforuk, The Tyee (Canada)
Charlie Hall, the outspoken ecologist who charges that neoclassical economists largely write fairy tales, is having a good day in Puerto Rico. The sun is shining and girls in bikinis are walking down the beach.

But Hall, as usual, is thinking about how surplus energy makes the world go around and why the U.S. economy is faltering.

Now Hall, a 68-year-old New England born professor with a gift for plain speaking, has made a name for himself by championing a revolutionary idea known as energy return on energy invested (EROI). Every plant, animal and human civilization lives by EROI.

The law isn’t rocket science. Whenever a salmon, bear, lodgepole or Dow Jones company spends more energy on an activity than they get back, death follows. Or in corporate terms, debt builds and things fall apart.

While studying migrating fish in the U.S. eastern seaboard and juvenile salmon in Nanaimo, B.C., 40 years ago, Hall derived and got obsessed with the idea.

At the time he discovered that 27 species of fish in North Carolina’s New Hope Creek would spend a considerable amount of energy to migrate upstream. This great swim guaranteed their offspring a rich nursery where the young wouldn’t have to spend so many calories trying to find food. In fact parents of all species behave much like these temperate fish.

The biologist then studied why tiny Pacific salmon smolts would bother migrating all the way to Alaska and the Aleutians instead of hanging around at the mouth of the Fraser River for a free meal. Energy gains once again figured in the answer. Higher densities of zooplankton that moved up the coast toward Alaska during the season just insured higher energy returns and faster growth.

These novel fish studies convinced Hall that the world revolves around surplus energy: “Everything in life is about energy costs and energy gains.” (In Hall’s line of thinking, the best advice a parent can ever give a child is strictly fishy: invest your energy wisely.)
(3 June 2011)
The latest in Nikiforuk’s excellent series: “Energy and Equity” in the Tyee -BA

When energy-saving does not mean saving energy

Adam Corner, Guardian
The ‘rebound effects’ of carbon-saving measures can undermine savings – or worse, backfire completely

… a newly published paper in the journal Energy Policy shows that even straightforward carbon-saving activities such as home insulation are not always quite what they seem. The problem is that making one change around the house leaves the door open for other changes – which might include “rebound effects” that undermine the carbon savings. If a driver who replaces their car with a fuel-efficient model takes advantage of the cheaper running costs and drives further and more often, then the amount of carbon saved is clearly reduced.

Even worse, there are some circumstances where seemingly carbon-saving measures actually increase overall emissions – where the change backfires completely.

… The message is simply that when you look across a range of actions – rather than just focusing in on one in particular – the reduction in energy consumption is often less than initial calculations suggest.

Although the authors are cautious in drawing their conclusions, the research has an obvious implication – there is no point focusing obsessively on single behavioural changes if subsequent actions undo the carbon savings initially achieved. Current government strategy is to nudge people into specific behavioural changes – but much more effective would be to engage with people at a deeper level, focusing on their personal values and social identities , which impact on a range of behaviours.

People can be nudged into making a specific change, but to adopt a low-carbon lifestyle, they need to think about it for themselves.

It is tempting to go for the quick wins – but without an opportunity for more meaningful engagement with the issue, the danger is that people will unwittingly crank up the carbon in other areas of their lives.
(3 June 2011)

David MacKay interview

David Strahan, blog
First published in the Sustainable Business, 4 June 2011.

My interview with David MacKay has the feel of a university tutorial. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since the chief scientific advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change is a professor of physics at Cambridge. But the impression is reinforced in his cramped office on the sixth floor of DECC, where I negotiate piles of paperwork and shuffle furniture so we both can see his computer screen.

I have come to quiz him about DECC’s 2050 Pathway Calculator, an online tool designed to illustrate different ways to achieve Britain’s legally-binding commitment to cut emissions 80 per cent by mid-century, while keeping the lights on. I’ve done my homework, but start with a quip, what’s the right answer? The professor laughs, and says any answer you like, so long as it’s numerate.

“I’m really absolutely happy with any plan that adds up”, he explains, “but any plan that adds up is really challenging, so the goal of the exercise isn’t to pick a particular one that I have in mind, it’s to move the entire conversation from plans that don’t actually add up, or a bit of wishful thinking there’s been in the last decade or so, to move the conversation into the place that does add up, and there are choices”.

The choices in the 2050 Pathway Calculator cover which sources of energy we use – coal, gas, nuclear, renewables, biofuels – and in what proportions, along with demand-side measures, such as insulation, heating technologies and transport behaviour. It’s a multiple choice exam, with four options in each case, in rising order of effort. Under ‘electrification of transport’, for instance, level 1 is a business as usual scenario, whereas in level 4 all cars and vans are electric by 2050. A DECC official had described the option 4 assumptions to me as “heroic”, and MacKay agrees. “In some sectors, 4 is absolutely an Apollo programme’s worth of effort”, he says, “a really hard push requiring very strong public engagement and transformation of government policy”.

MacKay is well versed in the dilemmas and trade-offs inherent in our energy predicament, having written a widely-praised book, ‘Sustainable Energy – without the hot air’, published in 2008, which analysed energy supply and consumption on a per capita basis – cleverly reducing the numbers to a comprehensible human scale. You might even say the book got him the job; he was encouraged to apply for the post after DECC’s top civil servant, Permanent Secretary Moira Wallace, came across it while browsing in Heffers.

While he insists there is no single ‘right’ answer, MacKay points me to a ‘hedging scenario’, with maximum effort on all the demand-side measures, along with a strong emphasis on wind, coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and nuclear.
(4 June 2011)