Abridged version of a paper published in 2016 in “Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality”

The history of the earth system is normally described in terms of a series of time subdivisions defined by discrete (or “punctuated”) stratigraphic changes in the geological record, mainly in terms of biotic composition (Aunger 2007ab). The most recent of these subdivisions is the proposed “Anthropocene,” a term related to the strong perturbation of the ecosystem created by human activity. The starting date of the Anthropocene is not yet officially established, but it is normally identified with the start of the large-scale combustion of fossil carbon compounds stored in the earth’s crust (“fossil fuels”) on the part of the human industrial system. In this case, it could be located at some moment during the eighteenth century CE (Crutzen 2002; Lewis and Maslin 2015). So, we may ask the question of what the evolution of the Anthropocene could be as a function of the decreasing availability of fossil carbon compounds. Will the Anthropocene decline and the earth system return to conditions similar to the previous geologic subdivision, the Holocene?

The earth system is a nonequilibrium system whose behavior is determined by the flows of energy it receives. This kind of system tends to act as energy transducer and to dissipate the available energy potentials at the fastest possible rate (Sharma and Annila 2007. Nonequilibrium systems tend to attain the property called “homeostasis” if the potentials they dissipate remain approximately constant (Kleidon 2004). In the case of the earth system, by far, the largest flow of energy comes from the sun. It is approximately constant (Iqbal 1983), except for very long timescales, since it gradually increases by a factor of about 10 % per billion years (Schroeder and Connon Smith 2008). Therefore, the earth’s ecosystem would be expected to reach and maintain homeostatic conditions over timescales of the order of hundreds of millions of years. However, this does not happen because of geological perturbations that generate the punctuated transitions observed in the stratigraphic record.

The transition that generated the Anthropocene is related to a discontinuity in the energy dissipation rate of the ecosystem. This discontinuity appeared when the ecosystem (more exactly, the “homo sapiens” species) learned how to dissipate the energy potential of the carbon compounds stored in the earth’s crust, mainly in the form of crude oil, natural gas, and coal). These compounds had slowly accumulated as the result of the sedimentation of organic matter mainly over the Phanerozoic era, that is over a timescale of the order of hundreds of millions of years (Raupach and Canadell 2010). The rate of energy dissipation of this fossil potential, at present, can be estimated in terms of the “primary energy” use per unit time at the input of the human economic system. In 2013, this amount corresponded to ca. 18 TW (IEA 2015). Of this power, about 86 % (or ca. 15 TW) were produced by the combustion of fossil carbon compounds.

The thermal energy directly produced by combustion is just a trigger for other, more important effects that have created the Anthropocene. Among these, we may list as the dispersion of large amounts of heavy metals and radioactive isotopes in the ecosphere, the extended paving of large surface areas by inorganic compounds (Schneider et al. 2009), the destruction of a large fraction of the continental shelf surface by the practice known as “bottom trawling” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011), and more. The most important indirect effect on the ecosystem of the combustion of fossil carbon is the emission of greenhouse gases as combustion products, mainly carbon dioxide, CO2, (Stocker et al. 2013). The thermal forcing generated by CO2 alone can be calculated as approximately 900 TW, or about 1 % of the solar radiative effect (Zhang and Caldeira 2015), hence a nonnegligible effect that generates an already detectable greenhouse warming of the atmosphere. This warming, together with other effects such as oceanic acidification, has the potential of deeply changing the ecosystem in the same way as, in ancient times, LIPs have generated mass extinctions (Wignall 2005; Bond and Wignall 2014).

Burning fossil fuels generate the exergy needed to create industrial structures which, in turn, are used to extract more fossil fuels and burn them. In this sense, the human industrial system can be seen as a metabolic system, akin to biological ones (Malhi 2014). The structures of this nonbiological metabolic system can be examined in light of concepts such as “net energy” (Odum 1973) defined as the exergy generated by the transduction of an energy stock into another form of energy stock. A similar concept is the “energy return for energy invested” (EROI or EROEI), first defined in 1986 (Hall et al. 1986) [see also (Hall et al. 2014)]. EROEI is defined as the ratio of the exergy obtained by means of a certain dissipation structure to the amount of exergy necessary to create and maintain the structure. If the EROEI associated with a dissipation process is larger than one, the excess can be used to replicate the process in new structures. On a large scale, this process can create the complex system that we call the “industrial society.” The growth of the human civilization as we know it today, and the whole Anthropocene, can be seen as the effect of the relatively large EROEI, of the order of 20–30 and perhaps more, associated with the combustion of fossil carbon compounds (Lambert et al. 2014).

A peculiarity of the dissipation of potentials associated with fossil hydrocarbons is that the system cannot attain homeostasis. The progressive depletion of the high-EROEI fossil resources leads to a progressive decline of the EROEI associated with fossil potentials. For instance, Hall et al. (2014) show that the EROEI of oil extraction in the USA peaked at around 30 in the 1960s, to decline to values lower than 20 at present. A further factor to be taken into account is called “pollution,” which accelerates the degradation of the accumulated capital stock and hence reduces the EROEI of the system as it requires more exergy for its maintenance (Meadows et al. 1972).Only a small fraction of the crustal fossil carbon compounds can provide an EROEI >  1, the consequence is that he active phase of the Anthropocene is destined to last only a relatively short time for a geological time subdivision, a few centuries and no more. Assuming that humans will still exist during the post-Anthropocene tail, they would not have access to fossil fuels. As a consequence, their impact on the ecosystem would be mainly related to agricultural activities and, therefore, small in comparison with the present one, although likely not negligible, as it has been in the past (Ruddiman 2013; Mysak 2008).

However, we should also take into account that fossil carbon is not the only energy potential available to the human industrial system. Fissile nuclei (such as uranium and thorium) can also generate potentials that can be dissipated. However, this potential is limited in extent and cannot be reformed by Earth-based processes. Barring radical new developments, depletion of mineral uranium and thorium is expected to prevent this process from playing an important role in the future (Zittel et al. 2013). Nuclear fusion of light nuclei may also be considered but, so far, there is no evidence that the potential associated with the fusion of deuterium nuclei can generate an EROEI sufficient to maintain an industrial civilization, or even to maintain itself. Other potentials exist at the earth’s surface in the form of geothermal energy (Davies and Davies 2010) and tidal energy (Munk and Wunsch 1998); both are, however, limited in extent and unlikely to be able to provide the same flow of exergy generated today by fossil carbon compounds.

There remains the possibility of processing the flow of solar energy at the earth surface that, as mentioned earlier on, is large [89,000 TW (Tsao et al. 2006) or 87,000 TW (Szargut 2003)]. Note also that the atmospheric circulation generated by the sun’s irradiation produces some 1000 TW of kinetic energy (Tsao et al. 2006). These flows are orders of magnitude larger than the flow of primary energy associated with the Anthropocene (ca. 17 TW). Of course, as discussed earlier on, the capability of a transduction system to create complex structures depends on the EROEI of the process. This EROEI is difficult to evaluate with certainty, because of the continuous evolution of the technologies. We can say that all the recent studies on photovoltaic systems report EROEIs larger than one for the production of electric power by means of photovoltaic devices (Rydh and Sandén 2005; Richards and Watt 2007; Weißbach et al. 2013; Bekkelund 2013; Carbajales-Dale et al. 2015; Bhandari et al. 2015) even though some studies report smaller values than the average reported ones (Prieto and Hall 2011). In most cases, the EROEI of PV systems seems to be smaller than that of fossil burning systems, but, in some cases, it is reported to be larger (Raugei et al. 2012), with even larger values being reported for CSP (Montgomery 2009; Chu 2011). Overall, values of the EROEI of the order of 5–10 for direct transduction of solar energy can be considered as reasonable estimates (Green and Emery 2010). Even larger values of the EROEI are reported for wind energy plants (Kubiszewski et al. 2010). These values may increase as the result of technological developments, but also decline facing the progressive occupation of the best sites for the plants and to the increasing energy costs related to the depletion of the minerals needed to build the plants.

The current photovoltaic technology may use, but do not necessarily need, rare elements that could face near-term exhaustion problems (García-Olivares et al. 2012). Photovoltaic cells are manufactured using mainly silicon and aluminum, both common elements in the earth’s crust. So there do not appear to exist fundamental barriers to “close the cycle” and to use the exergy generated by human-made solar-powered devices (in particular PV systems) to recycle the systems for a very long time.

Various estimates exist on the ultimate limits of energy generation from photovoltaic systems. The “technical potential” in terms of solar energy production in the USA alone is estimated as more than 150 TW (Lopez et al. 2012). According to the data reported in (Liu et al. 2009), about 1/5 of the area of the Sahara desert (2 million square km) could generate around 50 TW at an overall PV panel area conversion efficiency of 10 %. Summing up similar fractions of the areas of major deserts, PV plants (or CSP ones) could generate around 500–1000 TW, possibly more than that, without significantly impacting on agricultural land. The contribution of wind energy has been estimated to be no more than 1 TW (de Castro et al. 2011) in some assumptions that have been criticized in (Garcia-Olivares 2016) Other calculations indicate that wind could generate as much as about 80 TW, (Jacobson and Archer 2012), or somewhat smaller values (Miller et al. 2011). Overall, these values are much larger than those associated with the combustion of fossil fuels, with the added advantage that renewables such as PV and wind produce higher quality energy in the form of electric power.

From these data, we can conclude that the transduction of the solar energy flow by means of inorganic devices could represent a future new metabolic “revolution” of the kind described by (Szathmáry and Smith 1995). (Lenton and Watson 2011) that could bootstrap the ecosphere to a new and higher level of transduction. It is too early to say if such a transition is possible, but, if it were to take place at its maximum potential, its effects could lead to transformations larger than those associated with the Anthropocene as it is currently understood. These effects are hard to predict at present, but they may involve changes in the planetary albedo, in the weather patterns, and in the general management of the land surface. Overall, the effect might be considered as a new geological transition.

As these effects would be mainly associated with solid-state devices (PV cells), perhaps we need a different term than “Anthropocene” to describe this new phase of the earth’s history. The term “Stereocene” (the age of solid-state devices) could be suitable to describe a new stage of the earth system in which humans could have access to truly gigantic amounts of useful energy, without necessarily perturbing the ecosystem in the highly destructive ways that have been the consequence of the use of fossil fuels during the past few centuries.

References (see original article)
Teaser photo image description: During the “golden age” of science fiction, a popular theme was that of silicon-based life. Above, you can see a depiction of a silicon creature described by Stanley Weinbaum in his “A Martian Odissey” of 1934. The creature was endowed with a metabolism in which it would “breathe” metallic silicon, oxidizing it to silicon dioxide, hence it would excrete silica bricks: truly a solid-state creature. It is hard to think of an environment where such a creature could evolve, surely not on Mars. But, here on the Earth, some kind of silicon-based metabolism seems to have evolved during the past decades. We call it “photovoltaics.” Some reflections of mine on how this metabolism could evolve in the future are reported below, where I argue that this new metabolic system could usher a new geological era which we might call “Stereocene”, the era of solid state devices.