Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Energy squeeze, Is it a trap, a cliff or just a simple adjustment?

Tom Murphy writes on his Do the Math blog
Many of us have great hopes for our energy future that involve a transition to a gleaming renewable energy infrastructure, but we need to realize that we face a serious bottleneck in its implementation. The up-front energy investment in renewable energy infrastructures has not been visible as a hurdle thus far, as we have had surplus energy to invest (and smartly, at that; if only we had started in earnest earlier!). Against a backdrop of energy decline—which I feel will be the only motivator strong enough to make us serious about a replacement path—we may find ourselves paralyzed by the Trap.....Politically, the Energy Trap is a killer. In my lifetime, I have not witnessed in our political system the adult behavior that would be needed to buckle down for a long-term goal involving short-term sacrifice. 
From Do the Math
This discussion  relates closely to the concept of Energy Demand On Energy Invested, EROEI, well elaborated in several papers by Charles S Hall and others, See for example
What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?

What is made clear is that we must look into the net energy supplied from various energy sources, and how much energy that we must supply "up front" to realise new energy production. Oil has had the magnificent EROEI 100:1, i.e. we have got 100 times as much energy from oil production than we use to get it. Nuclear power goes down to 10:1 and most biofuels are worse. What Tom Murphy discuss more closely is when this energy investment is needed up-front, to build up the infrastructure etc. Most of the "alternatives" to fossil fuel do require a lot of up front investment (nuclear, solar and wind). He shows that there will be a considerable squeeze on energy supply by all these up front investments.

The trap is bad enough in a scenario of non-growth of energy consumption, which to some extent reflects the situation in the “mature” economies of Europe and Japan. Globally, energy demand is actually still increasing a lot, see e.g. IEA’s prognosis. “In the New Policies Scenario – the central scenario this year – world primary energy demand increases by 36% between 2008 and 2035, or 1.2% per year on average. This compares with 2% per year over the previous 27-year period. In the New Policies Scenario, non-OECD countries account for 93% of the projected increase in global energy demand, reflecting mainly faster rates of growth of economic activity.”

Clearly the trap will be felt even more for economies in those stages of development…..

On the other hand, my understanding is that business investment rates in general are in the range of some 20%. Clearly most of those investments are not “energy-investments” per se, but they do have big implications for energy use, as they will reflect expectations of energy prices. I wonder if this will not partly mitigate the effect of the trap?

I believe there is a justification to state that energy is the currency of the world at large. It is energy that flows from the sun, that starts the whole cycle of life, and all our life is dependent that. In addition, all farming is about yielding energy, and ultimately our whole industrial society is based on access to cheap fossil fuel. If it were not for the coal pits in England, there might never had been an industrial revolution nor capitalism.

Earlier post relating to this

Dopamine, probably the most dangerous molecule on earth

and in Swedish about EROEI: 
(why reduced supply of energy spells the death of capitalism)

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