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Colin Campbell on embedded energy


Colin Campbell is the originator of the concept of "peak oil" with the article that he wrote in 1998 in "Scientific American", together with Jean Laherrere. He is also the founder and honorary chairman of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). He lives in Ireland, in the village of Ballydehob with his wife, Bobbins. Last month, he wrote me a letter that contains several interesting observations on embedded energy and on people's life. With his permission, I am reprinting it - slightly edited - together with my answer.

On Embedded Energy
by Colin Campbell (07 July 2011)

I recall doing my thesis, mapping the geology of Connemara in the 1950s, when I stayed for a while with Jimmy and Bridie Mulroe up in the hills. Perhaps his father or grandfather had built the little cottage out of local stone, but Jimmy, his wife and daughter lived there without electricity or running water, relying on two cows, a few chickens and a potato patch, but they did use a little fossil energy from a peat bog up the hill to cook on an open fire.

Their use of energy was negligible but they laughed and smiled all day long. There was not much in the way of social services, and I remember another family I stayed with who had two old maiden aunts who they looked after and sat on either side of the fireplace. There was no television. In those days you were not supposed to get married unless you could support a family, and there were many old bachelors around.

In short, it was a sustainable society that could survive indefinitely on their local resources.

Now compare that with our house in Ballydehob sixty years later. I count about 80 panes of glass in the windows and pictures on the wall, as well as curtains, cupboards full of manufactured items, bookshelves, all of which contain embedded energy. There is also a fridge, microwave and stove using energy, and this computer is on most of the day as is Bobbins' TV as she watches tennis. We have a Renault Clio and use it to go shopping not to mention holidays. So not only do we have a lot of embedded energy in all these possessions but use a lot of electricity with a monthly bill of about 250 euros a month. I don't earn anything, but get various pensions related to my past overpaid career in the oil-bizz.

So we are not at all sustainable, having a lot of embedded energy in the household as well as consumption of oil for the car and gas from which Irish electricity is generated. (We do admittedly have a solar panel that allows an occasional shower when the sun shines, but itself probably has a lot of embedded energy in the panel, pump, piping and its transport to Ballydehob.)

Looking at a national situation such as Britain, one finds a devastating picture. Its oil supply is declining at about 5% a year and will be about gone by 2050. Its gas is declining at 7.5% a year and will be gone even sooner. There is a bit of coal left although the peak of production was in 1914. It has some nuclear power, but I just got a paper from Michael Dittmar in Switzerland showing that world uranium supplies cannot be maintained for long. You can see it at http://xxx.lanl.gov/pdf/1106.3617v1

But the country has a population of 62 million, and no doubt each household has a mass of embedded energy. Manufacturing simply embeds energy, and transport consumes it. So it would seem to suggest that by the end of the Century the country can support no more than a few million living in the style of Jimmy Mulroe of Connemara.

Then we come to money. Jimmy barely used it, but might have occasionally sold a few eggs or done some manual work for which he was paid. In short, in his case money was no more than to facilitate barter. But in Britain everyone receives wages or salaries (in some cases to grossly excessive levels). In addition there is the whole tax edifice, the deductions allowable against it being a form of subsidy. I can tell you of the chairman of a major oil company who paid himself £5 million a year, it was treated as an operating expense, deductible from taxable income, unknowingly paid for by someone else. But I doubt if this person smiled as often as did Jimmy.

Looking at oil, about 30% of the world supply comes from a few Middle East countries, where it costs say $20 a barrel to produce, and much less than that in terms of actual direct cost of feeding the oil workers. So when it is sold for, say, $100 a barrel that represents about 15 million dollars a day of unearned revenue. It in turn makes its way into the world financial system debasing it. Production in other countries is a bit more costly, although again the actual cost of feeding the workers is small.

This all strikes me as a grossly unsustainable situation. I think it confirms the view that when oil prices surged to $147 in 2008 it basically blew the fuse on the entire financial edifice. It was in other words grossly inflationary as at the end of the day money has to represent energy. Inflation soon gives way to deflation when people have less to spend.

Looked at another way: it was not so much that oil prices surged to 147 dollars but the dollar devalued by a corresponding amount, and the dollar devaluation then permeated the other currencies under the global system.

So in other words, this is the collapse of the world we have known. Ireland enjoyed a few years of artificial financial prosperity known as the Celtic Tiger, but has gone bankrupt now with 15% unemployed. It can't do much about it as it is locked into the euro and unable to adjust exchange rates. The EU and IMF are offering bale outs to repay the speculators at the expense of the ordinary people who are now condemned to poverty for years. But ironically it might be a blessing prompting a reversion to the sustainable life of Jimmy Mulroe. The situation in Greece seems even worse, but they may find a solution in default, which in turn may torpedo the euro. That would be no bad thing, prompting a reversion to local currencies and eventually returning to a system of barter avoiding all the financial manipulation.

The wider geopolitical situation is also fascinating. America is evidently also going bankrupt and can no longer afford wasting money on "defence". The country itself has not been remotely threatened since the Mexican-American war of 1836, but the military-industrial complex was highly profitable. Perhaps they need wars to justify it and engaged in them to somehow make money. But it looks as if that game is over. Iraq was a fiasco, killing millions of civilians but failing to get its oil. Afghanistan was an entirely pointless exercise as those poppy farmers were of no threat to anyone: but it was convenient to justify the imagery of world power and hence financial domination.

Then we have the strange attack on Libya by France and Britain. They can't really have cared if Gaddafi was putting down a revolution, the normal behaviour of governments. They don't bother with Syria or genocide in Rwanda. So what was special about Libya ? Guess what ? good old oil. Perhaps Gaddafi was planning to sell it to the Chinese rather than Britain and France. He was also proposing that Africa should revert to the gold standard, which might indirectly undermine the euro and the dollar.

But I digress, what I thought would be interesting to know is how much energy - and specifically oil-base energy - is embedded in a normal household. Every door knob and every pane of glass has embedded energy, which if there were no oil, would have taken many slaves to manufacture.

What do you think ?

best regards



Ugo Bardi's answer to Colin Campbell on embedded energy  (10 July 2011)

Well, Colin, what you wrote is, more or less, the core of the question. I am spending much of my time working on this subject: energy and how energy flows through our industrial system. You see, chemical energy is stored in crude oil and in other fossil fuels as the result of ancient geological processes mainly driven by solar energy as, of course, you know very well. Oil is a lot of embedded energy. Now, what is happening is that this energy collected long ago is being gradually dissipated; we extract oil, we burn it, and the final result is heat lost to space (and some nasty greenhouse gases that will give us lots of troubles in the near future).

But the process extracting oil and burning it is more complex than just dissipating thermal energy to interstellar space. That's not a single step process. Energy flows and it is embedded for a while in that thing we call "civilization". To make a long story short, chemical potentials are gradually dissipated in systems which are out of equilibrium - it is an effect of the second law of thermodynamics. The higher is the potential difference between source and sink, the faster the potential is dissipated, creating in the process some dissipative structures; "eddies" in the flow of matter and time. These eddies are where embedded energy is stored: civilization described from a thermodynamical viewpoint. The window panes of your house are such dissipative structures, just as your books, your house and yourself (and Bobbins as well!).

As we gradually run out of fossil fuels, we are reducing the chemical potentials out of which we can drive an energy flux. That means we have to adapt to dissipative structures that embed smaller amounts of energy. This is the problem we are facing with such highly energy embedding structures as cars, air conditioning equipment, refrigerators and McMansions. Some people may be able to gather for themselves a larger share of this embedded energy, just like the oil company chairman you mention, the one who makes £5 million per year. But, on the whole, we cannot trick thermodynamics. Eventually,  we'll have to go back to something more similar to the life of Irish farmers of 50 years ago, whose embedded energy was compatible with the available chemical potentials of that time.

Is it a sad destiny? Perhaps not, as you say in your message; life in a low energy flux, in the old times, may not have been so bad and perhaps people smiled more than they do nowadays. Last week, I was at a conference on energy and during the lunch pause I was sitting near a nice looking lady, not a scientist. In the conversation I said something like, "... and, in the end, a beautiful woman is nothing but a dissipative structure generated for a short time by a difference in chemical potentials...." As I was uttering these words, I told myself that it was not the right line to say. Actually, however, she laughed: she was impressed; go figure! So we may run out of oil and we'll have to adapt to a simpler life. But we won't run out of laughs and of nice looking ladies.


Editorial Notes: I would have thought that M. King Hubbert was the originator of the concept of peak oil. I am not sure whether he used the term "peak oil" or not. In any case, both he and Dr. Campbell have done critical work to bring it to the attention of the public. -BA

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