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Peak Oil and the Importance of EROI (review of Fleeing Vesuvius, Part 2)

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Fleeing Vesuvius, New Zealand Edition

(2011, Feasta and Living Economies)

Book Review-Part II

Obviously getting by without fossil fuels (owing to impending shortages of oil, natural gas and coal) will be an incredibly rude shock for all of us. Our current telecommunication, transportation and retail infrastructure, as well as our current system of industrial agriculture, are based on the abundant availability of cheap fossil fuels. On the plus side, Fleeing Vesuvius is full of a number of specific strategies, currently being tried in Ireland and elsewhere, for building resilient communities to withstand this transition to a non-fossil energy society. In his introduction, the late Richard Douthwaite lays out a kind of road map by identifying nine ways in which fossil energy use has perverted our economies and lives:

  1. It has transformed manufacturing methods by displacing human labor.
  2. It has transformed agricultural methods, replacing human labor, animal power and sunlight.
  3. It has enabled the world population to grow to a level that may well be unsupportable without its use.
  4. It has devalued human labour and led to widespread unemployment.
  5. It has made the economy reliant on economic growth to avoid collapse.
  6. It has enabled extremes of wealth and poverty to develop.
  7. It has led to the development of industrial capitalism.
  8. It has produced profits that had to be recycles. This led to the growth of the banking system and debt-based money.
  9. By fueling powered transport, it has destroyed self-reliant local economies and the nature of local relationships.

I find this approach extremely valuable. It moves away from blaming capitalism, rich people and banksters for the problems of contemporary society. By treating them as a natural outgrowth of fossil fuel dependence, Douthwaite inspires optimism that these “perversions” will be easy to undo once we cease to rely on oil, gas and coal to provide for our basic needs.

Layout of Fleeing Vesuvius

Fleeing Vesuvius is divided into seven parts:

Part 1 – looks at energy and water availability in a post-carbon world, with a detailed discussion of our diminished capacity to produce food.

Part 2 – looks at models for new non-debt based monetary systems that will greatly facilitate our transition to a fossil energy-free economy, as well as alternative, non-corporate methods for financing land and business development.

Part 3 – looks at alternative land management strategies that will improve energy efficiency by promoting the “proximity” of complementary enterprises (for example, building factories near each other that use each other’s waste products), and specific techniques that increase and maintain soil carbon and mineral content.

Part 4 – looks at a novel “Cap and Share” regulatory scheme to rapidly reduce corporate carbon emissions. It would cap the emissions each company (and country) are allowed, while sharing the cost of running the scheme among the entire population.

Part 5 – looks at the immense lifestyle changes we all need to make to survive in a post-carbon world and how the Transition and similar movements are helping communities prepare themselves to make these changes.

Part 6 – looks at specific approaches for breaking through widespread apathy and denial about the imminence of economic and ecological collapse.

Part 7 – is a collection of specific suggestions of what people can do on the individual, community, national and international level.

The final section of the New Zealand edition contains a number a brief essays of the Transition and other sustainability initiatives currently being undertaken in this country.

Part I – “Energy Availability”

I have already discussed the connections made in Part I (i.e. capitalism ends when the oil runs out) in my last blog. However I want to share graphs that summarize the points made about EROI (Energy Return on Investment, aka EROEI Energy Returned on Energy Investment). Although there’s still a lot of oil, gas and coal in the ground, we have most likely passed the point where the “sweet” stuff, the reserves that are easy and cheap to extract, has been used up. Even more importantly, owing to low EROI, renewable energy sources will never replace fossil fuels. Thus we have no choice but to downsize our energy intensive lifestyles.

EROI

Illustration 2: An energy source can rarely be used directly. An energy extraction process is required to discover, extract and process the resource before its energy is available to society. This process consumes energy itself, a deduction from the energy otherwise available. The energy return on invested is the ratio of surplus energy to energy required to drive the process.

***

Offshore wind and tidal barrages give good energy returns

EROEI-vs.-Carbon-Inten_opt-e1308777452262

llustration 1: The world does not need just energy – it needs energy that is delivered with very low levels of carbon dioxide emissions (that is, a low-carbon intensity) while still giving a lot more energy back than it took to produce it. This chart, by Evan Robinson, shows the most promising technologies and those to ignore. The half dots indicate where a technology is beyond the limits of the chart. Source: http://evanrobinson.typepad.com/ramblings/science_nature/

It took me awhile to figure this one out – there’s a lot going on here. You read EROI (or EROEI) from left to right. Energy sources with an EROI of zero (at the far left) use up as much energy in extraction/production as they release. Solar thermal and geothermal have a very low EROI, while tidal energy has an EROI even higher than 1970s oil reserves. The EROI of Middle East oil isn’t listed (Saudia Arabia, Iran, etc aren’t very transparent about their production costs). Different Peak Oil websites estimate that Middle East oil has an EROI of between 20 and 30. This gives it an EROI somewhere between 1970s and 2000s US oil (it costs a lot more to extract US oil now than 30 years ago because it’s harder to get at). This doesn’t include the cost of transporting oil to the US, cleaning up oil spills, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya (Iran?), etc – costs that keep going up and up. The vertical axis is the carbon emissions produced by each energy source.

***

bubbles

The area of each bubble represents the energy return on energy invested — EROI. The most valuable energy resources are those with large bubbles – a high EROI – at the top of the chart because this shows that they also have a high Energy Internal Rate of Return – EIRR. In other words, they pay back the energy invested in developing them rather quickly. Photovoltaic, nuclear and hydropower have low rates of energy return. Graph compiled and redrawn specially for Feasta by Jamie Bull, oco-carbon.com

To be continued, with a discussion of Parts II-VII. No more graphs, I promise.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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