Just as fish swim in water, we swim in oil. You can’t understand the predicament we’re in until you can see the oil that saturates every single aspect of our life.
What follows is a life cycle of a simple object, the pencil. I’ve cut and reworded Read’s I Pencil, My Family Tree to show the fossil fuel energy inputs (OBJECTS are in BOLD CAPITALS, ACTIONS are italicized).
“My family tree begins with … a Cedar tree from Oregon. Now contemplate the antecedents — all the people, numberless skills, and fabrication:
All the SAWS. TRUCKS, ROPE and OTHER GEAR to HARVEST and CART cedar logs to the RAILROAD siding. The MINING of ore, MAKING of STEEL, and its REFINEMENT into SAWS, AXES, and MOTORS.
The growing of HEMP, LUBRICATED with OIL, DIRT REMOVED, COMBED, COMPRESSED, SPUN into yard, and BRAIDED into ROPE.
BUILDING of LOGGING CAMPS (BEDS, MESS HALLS). SHOP for, DELIVER, and COOK FOOD to feed the working men. Not to mention the untold thousands of persons who had a hand in every cup of COFFEE the loggers drank!
The LOGS are SHIPPED to a MILL in California. Can you imagine how many people were needed to MAKE FLAT CARS and RAILS and RAILROAD ENGINES?
At the mill, cedar logs are CUT into small, pencil-length slats less than a quarter inch thick, KILN-DRIED, TINTED, WAXED. and KILN-DRIED again. Think of all effort and skills to make the TINT and the KILNS, SUPPLY the HEAT, LIGHT, and POWER, the BELTS, MOTORS, and all the OTHER THINGS a MILL requires? Plus the SWEEPERS and the MEN who POURED the CONCRETE for the DAM of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company HYDRO-ELECTRIC PLANT which supplies the mill’s POWER!
Don’t overlook the WORKERS and OIL BURNED by the RAILROAD LOCOMOTIVE to TRANSPORT SIXTY TRAIN-CARS of SLATS ACROSS the nation.
Once in the PENCIL FACTORY—worth millions of dollars in MACHINERY and BUILDING—each slat has 8 GROOVES CUT into them by a GROOVE-CUTTING MACHINE, after which the LEAD-LAYING MACHINE PLACES a piece of LEAD in every other slat, APPLIES GLUE and PLACES another SLAT on top–—a lead sandwich. Seven brothers and I are mechanically CARVED from this “wood-clinched” sandwich.
My “lead” itself—it contains no lead at all—is complex. The GRAPHITE is MINED in Sri Lanka. Consider these MINERS and those who MAKE their many TOOLS and the makers of the PAPER SACKS in which the graphite is SHIPPED and those who make the STRING that ties the sacks and the MEN who LIFT them aboard SHIPS and the MEN who MAKE the SHIPS. Even the LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS along the way assisted in my birth—and the HARBOR PILOTS.
The graphite is mixed with CLAY FROM Mississippi in which AMMONIUM HYDROXIDE is used in the REFINING process. Then WETTING AGENTS and animal fats are CHEMICALLY REACTED with sulfuric acid. After PASSING THROUGH NUMEROUS MACHINES, the mixture finally appears as endless extrusions—as from a sausage grinder-cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then TREATED with a hot mixture which includes CANDELILLA WAX from Mexico, PARAFFIN WAX, and HYDROGENATED NATURAL FATS.
My cedar RECEIVES 6 coats of LACQUER. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the GROWERS of CASTOR BEANS and the REFINERS of CASTOR OIL are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!
Observe the LABELING, a film FORMED by APPLYING HEAT to CARBON BLACK mixed with RESINS. How do you make resins and what is carbon black?
My bit of metal—the ferrule—is BRASS. Think of all the PERSONS who MINE ZINC and COPPER and those who have the skills to MAKE shiny SHEET BRASS from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black NICKEL. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story would take pages to explain.
Then there’s my crowning glory, the ERASER, a rubber-like product made by reacting RAPE-SEED OIL from Indonesia with SULFUR CHLORIDE, and numerous VULCANIZING and ACCELERATING AGENTS. The PUMICE comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives “the plug” its color is CADMIUM SULFIDE.
Sharp pencils image via dcosand/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?
Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Sri Lanka and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on.”
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)
When it comes to replacing fossil fuels with another kind of energy, you want to be sure you aren’t merely building a Rube Goldberg contraption that churns out less power over its lifetime than the fossil fuel energy used to make the device.
There are decades-old scientific methods that try do do this. The best-known is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which calculates the monetary costs (though there are some LCA databases with energy used to make objects or perform actions).
When it comes to evaluating a device that produces energy, a better measurement is the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI, EROI), which subtracts the fossil fuel energy used in every step and component from how much energy is output over the lifetime of the contraption. The higher the EROEI the better.
At the start of the fossil fuel age, for every barrel of oil discovered, 100 more could be produced – an EROEI of 100! With just 1 percent of the energy needed to get even more oil, the other 99 percent of the energy could be used to make cars, fly around the world, make movies, electronic goods, build roads, bridges, railroads, ships, homes, heat, cook, refrigerate, air-condition, buy out-of-season food, and all the other marvelous comforts and enjoyments we take for granted.
Clearly an EROEI of 1 or less is big problem. If the fossil fuel energy to make ethanol has an EROEI of 1, then there is no extra energy left over to do anything but make more moonshine. Worse yet, the EROEI of ethanol is probably negative if the boundaries are wide enough (Pimentel). At best, the EROEI is 1.2 (Farrell), which means that society would have to spend most of its energy making moonshine, with just .2 of low-quality extra energy left over to make the 14 billion pencils from 82,000 trees and all the other goods we use every year.
The problems with LCA and EROEI
This is insane! There are infinite regressions, since every object has its own LCA and EROEI. A Toyota car has about 30,000 parts. Per turbine assembly, a windmill has 8,000 components. In 2012 the U.S. wind industry installed over 6,700 turbines, which required 20,100 blades and tower sections, 3.2 million bolts, 36,000 miles of rebar, and 1.7 million cubic yards of concrete (AWEA).
LCA & EROEI studies are bound to miss some steps. Reed’s pencil story left out the design, marketing, packaging, sales, distribution, and energy to fuel the supply chains between California, Oregon, Mississippi, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, etc., and the final ride the pencil takes to the garbage dump.
Every step in a process subtracts energy from the ultimate energy delivered. Oil is concentrated sunshine that was brewed for free by Mother Nature. Building alternative energy resources requires dozens of steps, thousands of components, and vast amounts of energy in the supply chains of providing the minerals and pieces of equipment to make an alternative energy contraption.
Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) often use money rather than energy to calculate “costs”. Money is an artificial, abstract concept used to grease the wheels of commerce. Money varies in value over time for reasons of politics, financial cycles, and can’t be burned in combustion engines.
There are many different LCA tables to choose from. So scientists accuse each other of cherry-picking data or argue the data is out-of-date.
EROEI studies often leave out LCA monetary costs because they’re difficult to quantify as energy costs. For example, when the EROEI of a windmill farm is calculated, many costs are left out, such as insurance, administrative expenses, taxes, the cost of the land to rent or own, indirect labor (consultants, notary public, civil servants, legal costs, etc), security and surveillance costs, the fairs, exhibitions, promotions, conferences attended by engineering staff, bonds, fees, and so on.
External (environmental damage) costs are rarely mentioned or considered. Making biofuels mines topsoil, depletes aquifers, creates immense eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico and other waterways from fertilizer runoff, energy crops result in rainforests being cut down, and so on.
A report that chased down the energy in the infinite regressions of thousands of parts would take a lifetime and over a hundred thousand pages long. Therefore boundaries have to be set, which leads to never-ending fights between scientists. Just as tobacco industry funded scientific studies tended to find cigarettes did not cause cancer, energy industry-sponsored scientists tend to use very narrow boundaries and cherry-pick LCA data to come up with positive EROEI results, usually published in non-peer reviewed journals, which means the data and methods are often unavailable, making the results as trustworthy as science-fiction. Systems ecologists, the experts and inventors of EROEI methodology, use wider boundaries, include more steps and components, energy rather than financial data whenever possible, and publish in peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals require a review by scientists in the same field, and the data and methods are available to everyone so that the results can be verified and reproduced.
On average, the EROEI results of university systems ecologists in peer-reviewed, high quality, respected journals are much lower than the energy industry sponsored scientists in non-peer-reviewed industry publications.
Alternative energy resources must be sustainable and renewable
What’s the point of making biofuels if unsustainable amounts of fresh water, topsoil, and phosphorous are used, or windmills and solar PV if they depend on scarce, energy-intensive, and extremely damaging mining to get the rare earth metals required, leading to even more wars than we have now over oil to get the rare minerals that exist only in foreign countries?
Nevertheless, these studies are valuable no matter what the results, because you can see some of the oiliness. The more studies you read, the more you can decide whether the boundaries were too narrow and which scientists wrote the most complete and fair study.
Civilization needs energy resources with an EROEI of at least 12
Charles A. S. Hall, who founded EROEI methodology, initially thought an EROEI of at least 3 was needed to keep civilization as we know it operating. After three decades of research, he recently co-authored a paper that makes the case an EROEI of at least 12-14 is needed (Lambert).
An alternative energy resource built to replace oil had better have an EROEI over 12, or it’s just a Rube Goldberg contraption.
I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read – Library of Economics and Liberty
AWEA. American Wind Energy Association. 2012. Anatomy of a Wind Turbine. There are over 8,000 components in each turbine assembly.
Farrell, et. al. Jan 27, 2006. Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals. Science Vol 311 506-508.
Lambert, Jessica G., Hall Charles A. S. et al. 2014. Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy 64:153–167
Lambert, J. Hall, Charles, et al. Nov 2012. . EROI of Global Energy Resources Preliminary Status and Trends. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Pimentel, D and Patzek, T. March 2005. Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower. Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14 #1.