Energy, ecology, and economics revisited

By Mary Logan

We must understand the concept of net energy in order to see the underlying energetic basis for society.  Yet net energy is often misunderstood, typically through optimistic measures of valuation that do not address the hidden inputs. Perhaps HT Odum’s clearest, simplest, most understandable paper on the topic was written 40 years ago, in a special issue of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s Energy in Society issue of Ambio (1973). The article was republished in Mother Earth News, still available online through Minnesotans for Sustainability. The paper remains as relevant and fundamental to the arguments for net energy today as it did 40 years ago. Each time I read the paper, I find new meaning from it. Perhaps it is time to revisit the principles quoted below from the paper, to update the terms and give modern examples of the interrelationships between the 3Es of energy, ecology, and economics. Some of the terminology and accounting methods have been refined over time, but the general principles remain unchanged–principles that are essential to the energy dialogue.

1. “The true value of energy to society is the net energy, which is what’s left after the energy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted.”

All processes in the world involve energy, materials, and information. Materials are transformed through energy, which drives the process of creating every good, service, and environmental process. Information guides the process of transformation. Energy has different qualities, so a calorie of one form of energy is not the same in quality as a calorie of another form, as certain forms of energy are not substitutable, depending on the situation. A calorie of sunlight may not be substituted for a calorie of oil or of food. In order to compare apples and oranges, we need to create a common denominator. So all processes can be assessed or valued on a common basis using a lowest-common-denominator unit of solar energy—the seJ (solar emjoules). The science of Emergy accounting places values on the energy, information, and materials in the processes, allowing us to choose more efficient policies. Emergy is defined as the available energy of one kind that is used up in transformations directly and indirectly to make a product or service. Real wealth, then, can be measured as the emergy memory that exists in human goods and services, and in non-human environmental goods and services. Odum’s updated term for net energy is net emergy or net empower. The true cost of a process to society is the net emergy, which is the emergy delivered after the emergy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted. Net emergy contribution of any process within the economy including energy production can be calculated using an Emergy Yield Ratio, which is the net energy yield of a process expressed in emergy, divided by the purchased goods and services, which are also expressed in emergy. The EYR includes the contributions for renewable and non-renewable sources, and inputs such as human labor/services and environmental contributions, using a quality correction factor for energies of different qualities. Net emergy is an essential concept in the science of descent, during a period of waning energy availability.

Brown, Cohen, & Sweeney, 2009
Brown, Cohen, & Sweeney, 2009

2. “Worldwide inflation is driven in part by the increasing fraction of our fossil fuels that have to be used in getting more fossil and other fuels.”

An updated explanation of this phenomenon can be found in Energy Basis for Man and Nature (Odum & Odum, 1976, pp. 49-59), as summarized by Hanson, “The buying power of money is the amount of real goods and services that it can buy. If the amount a dollar can buy diminishes, this is called inflation. Inflation can be caused by increasing the amount of money circulating without increasing the amount of energy flowing and doing work, for example, when more money is printed. It can also occur when the money supply is constant but less work is done, for example, because energy becomes scarce. As long as there is unused fuel energy to be tapped, increasing the money supply can increase the flow of energy through the system, causing growth as well as some inflation.” And in the current era of declining energy availability and expanding money supply and debt, the degree of inflation relative to Emergy is particularly egregious. The graph below illustrates the calculated steady decline of Emergy per dollar value of gross world product since 1970, demonstrating a loss in value of about 33%.

Brown & Ulgiati 2011 http://www.mendeley.com/research/understanding-global-economic-crisis-biophysical-perspective/
Brown & Ulgiati 2011 http://www.mendeley.com/research/understanding-global-economic-crisis-biophysical-perspective/

3. “Many calculations of energy reserves which are supposed to offer years of supply are as gross energy rather than net energy and thus may be of much shorter duration than often stated.”

Because the emergy valuation method is notable for including human labor and environmental goods and services in the valuation of a process, the net emergy yield for energy sources tends to be lower than other methods that do not include all inputs. Below is a diagram from Chapter 3 of a pending book by Mark T. Brown and Sergio Ulgiati on Emergy and environmental accounting, posted here with permission. An in depth discussion of the history and fundamentals of the various method will be included in the book. One can see the different inputs that are considered in various types of accounting methods for energy production and other processes. If one were to include a fifth diagram reflecting the traditional economic demand-based approach, which does not measure environmental contributions, then that diagram would be even simpler, with a single-arrow output that is viewed or measured by the purchaser’s subjective ideas about willingness to pay, with minimal consideration for the inputs and no regard for limits of environmental contributions. It would be helpful to this discussion if we examined the various energy accounting methods and the ranges of net energy estimated from each one, and placed them on a continuum. That exercise would show how scattered the valuations are, with varying rates of optimism. But that is not today’s goal in this post.

From a pending book by Brown and Ulgiati, chapter 3
From a pending book by Brown and Ulgiati, chapter 3, used with permission

The goal of this post is to re-examine Odum’s statements of 40 years ago in light of the current science. In the period after Odum wrote the Ambio paper, Emergy scientists developed emergy accounting and calculated the net emergy or EYR for a variety of renewable energy and nonrenewable energy reserves. The ranges in the table below show values of EYR for a number of settings and processes over several decades. Net emergy is declining over time for these sources, so many of these values are now lower than what is published in the table. How many wrong policy guesses have occurred in various countries attempting to produce marginal sources? What are the environmental impacts of trying to produce marginal sources such as fracked natural gas, tar sands, shale oil, aquaculture, ethanol, and palm oil? How many wrong guesses on net energy policies are we allowed?

Odum, 2007, p. 201
Odum, 2007, p. 201

4. “Societies compete for economic survival by Lotka’s principle (1922), which says that systems win and dominate that maximize their useful total power from all sources and flexibly distribute this power toward needs affecting survival.”

(From MT Brown Lecture 2)
Mechanisms of Maximum Empower (From MT Brown Lecture 2)

Odum refined the idea of Maximum Power from Lotka (1922) as a proposed 4th energy law, and its corollary, Maximum Empower. Individuals and systems that maximize energy flow and power flow (empower) through systems have an advantage in competing with other systems for available energy. Systems develop mechanisms of feedbacks, high quality storages, and systems of exchange to maximize energy flow (see diagram above). For examples of this in modern economies, look at the United States. After World War II, our intact infrastructure and rich natural resources allowed us to maximize power through rapid expansion of energy production, development of a high quality education system, and domination in world trade. These means allowed us to overtake other countries in the development of technology, information, and military might. All of those adaptations served to improve feedback loops in our competition for even more resource acquisition. Power begets more power.

5. “During times when there are opportunities to expand one’s power inflows, the survival premium by Lotka’s principle is on rapid growth even though there may be waste.”

Using this same example, America’s empire development in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in rapid expansion of energy production, industrialization, highway systems, suburbanization, industrial agriculture, and finally a high-tech information society. Competitive and predatory capitalism, an expansive, debt-based financial system, and a large construction industry promoted rapid growth which gave the United States a great advantage in global trade, creating inequities and power imbalances.

6. “During times when energy flows have been tapped and there are no new sources, Lotka’s principle requires that those systems win that do not attempt fruitless growth but instead use all available energies in long-staying, high-diversity, steady-state works.”

from Mark T. Brown's Democracy Lecture
from Mark T. Brown’s Democracy Lecture

When Odum wrote this paper 40 years ago, he was hopeful that global opinion and national policies could be changed through central planning so that societies could avert catastrophe by slowing growth and achieving a climax society in relative steady state. But that did not happen. We are now in overshoot, and over the past 40 years, signs that the United States and the world at large are slowly losing emergy flow per capita can be seen in indirect proxies such as failing wages, failing middle class, and collapsing empires. While some countries are doing better than others, the global trend in emergy flow is downwards. Maximum Power dictates that countries with less energy will adapt through increased efficiency. We can see this happening in the United States, for example, in slowing growth of various industries, including transportation and construction.

7. “High quality of life for humans and equitable economic distribution are more closely approximated in steady-state than in growth periods.”

For points #7 and #8, I will let Odum’s words speak for themselves:

“During growth, emphasis is on competition, and large differences in economic and energetic welfare develop; competitive exclusion, instability, poverty, and unequal wealth are characteristic. During steady state, competition is controlled and eliminated, being replaced with regulatory systems, high division and diversity of labor, uniform energy distributions, little change, and growth only for replacement purposes. Love of stable-system quality replaces love of net gain. Religious ethics adopt something closer to that of those primitive peoples that were formerly dominant in zones of the world with cultures based on the steady energy flows from the sun. Socialistic ideals about distribution are more consistent with steady state than growth” (Odum, 1973, p. 222).

8. “The successfully competing economy must use its net output of richer-quality energy flows to subsidize the poorer-quality energy flow so that the total power is maximized.”

“In ecosystems, diversity of species develop that allow more of the energies to be tapped. Many of the species that are specialists in getting lesser and residual energies receive subsidies from the richer components. For example, the sun leaves on top of trees transport fuels that help the shaded leaves so they can get some additional energy from the last rays of dim light reaching the forest floor. The system that uses its excess energies in getting a little more energy, even from sources that would not be net yielding alone, develops more total work and more resources for total survival. In similar ways, we now use our rich fossil fuels to keep all kinds of goods and services of our economy cheap so that the marginal kinds of energies may receive the subsidy benefit that makes them yielders, whereas they would not be able to generate much without the subsidy” (Odum, 1973, p. 223).

9. “Energy sources which are now marginal, being supported by hidden subsidies based on fossil fuel, become less economic when the hidden subsidy is removed.”

Stephanie McMillan Code Green
Stephanie McMillan Code Green

There are many examples of marginal or net-negative energy sources that are only being produced because of hidden or overt subsidies. Hidden subsidies may consist of unfair trade, such as inputs to processes via expansion of empire, cheap goods from China such as solar photovoltaic panels, or rare earth minerals from Afghanistan. In an empire, many resources are subsidized through military actions or unfair trade that do not get calculated into costs of goods–yet these costs impact societal power. Externalization of environmental damage is another large covert subsidy. Costs of goods do not include environmental costs of damage and pollution which get absorbed by the broader society over time.  Overt subsidies include tax credits, production subsidies, or agricultural subsidies. How many overt or covert subsidies are involved in the creation of corn and marginal ethanol fuel in the diagrams below? Which components are not reflected in the economic price? If you want to learn more about this specific topic or what inputs contribute to an emergy analysis, the folio by Brandt-Williams (2002) analyzes the emergy basis including the inputs for 25 Florida agricultural commodities.

Cambell 2008 Emergy Brief Comparative Corn Production 4 states
Cambell 2008 Emergy Brief Comparative Corn Production 4 states


10. “Increasing energy efficiency with new technology is not an energy solution, since most technological innovations are really diversions of cheap energy into hidden subsidies in the form of fancy, energy-expensive structures.”

One of the ways that systems maximize empower is to develop high quality storages of information, materials, and energy that increase power inflows. New technology is highly transformed, energy-intensive machinery and processes that add to the transformity and emergy basis of processes. Technology acts as a driver to promote faster use of energy. Technology in and of itself cannot power a system. For example, high-tech GMO-modified seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, feed lots, aquaculture, and other technologies expand rates of power flow through the system, technology by itself is useless without energy. Technologies add to the emergy basis of produced foods. While the required other fuels, chemicals, and services allow larger yields in the short run, the system creates more wastes and is not sustainable when the fossil fuel subsidies are withdrawn. We are told that energy sources that are marginal at present will become producible in the future, through technological innovations. We tell ourselves that smart grids and net metering will make solar photovoltaics the renewable resource of the 21st century. Or electric vehicles are touted as energy solutions, even though the solar emergy required for an electric car is even higher than that of an internal combustion engine car, due to hidden costs of electricity, batteries, and new infrastructure. It is time for us to look beyond the hoods of our cars at the real cost to society, beyond the sticker price.

Ortega & Miller-Soybean Comparison http://www.unicamp.br/fea/ortega/italia/soybean-comparison.htm
Ortega & Miller-Soybean Comparison
Odum, 1987, Crafoord Lecture
Odum, 1987, Crafoord Lecture, modified from A. Brown

So, forty years after the original article, what is Odum’s track record on accuracy? Except for his hopeful stance on a climax steady state, Odum and colleagues’ estimates of which sources measure net benefits to society seem to be on track. This is part 1–that’s enough for now. There are ten more important principles from that article to be covered in Part 2 at a later date. I’ve avoided discussing nuclear and solar photovoltaic in this first part of the series, as Odum covered those specifically in the ideas in the next section of his paper.

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Tiny Energies

I'm an adjunct nursing professor with a background in critical care, and a PhD in Health Policy. I learned most of what I know about complex systems from the Odum brothers—HT was my father. Our website and blog, which I administer, evolved out of discussions at a prior Emergy conference regarding the Odum book, A Prosperous Way Down. They said, “We need a blog.” And then they turned and looked at me.

  • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

    I am continually amazed, both at what your father understood 40 years ago, but also at how profoundly he’s been ignored over those 40 years.

    Why isn’t this part of basic high school curriculum? Why are so few people exposed to these concepts?

    Because HTO was a dangerous man. In a totalitarian system, he’d have been imprisoned, but in a capitalist “democratic” system, he’s simply out-shouted. Pity.

  • Doug Salzmann

    Ah, that’s a really good one, Mary. Really good.

    As you know,
    I’m always trying to figure out how we get to an “Emergy for Everyone”
    exegesis of these critical concepts. This post is a real step in that

    Jan said: “Because HTO was a dangerous man. In a totalitarian system, he’d have
    been imprisoned, but in a capitalist ‘democratic’ system, he’s simply
    out-shouted. Pity.”

    Exactly. But HT and his brilliant work is dangerous to the bosses and
    what we now call the one-percenters. And it is they and their systems,
    incompatible with a world of reduced energy flows, that threaten us all
    as a society and a species.

    But the much greater danger, of
    course, is that we will, collectively, continue to fail to absorb and
    act on the insights that HT’s work has afforded us. If we do fail, it
    will be despite your fine efforts.

    Brava! And thanks.

    • Doug Salzmann

      Hmmm. Don’t understand the weird line breaks. Maybe need a techie consult. ;^)

      • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

        Hi, Doug. If you cut and paste something into Disqus, it picks up odd line breaks?

        Emergy for everyone–working on it. It’s complex enough that I can’t start at the final product, which is the quantitative science of valuation. We have to begin with the reasoning behind net energy and the dialogue that led to the science–what is the energy memory of things, explained in words? I don’t think we’re able to see hierarchy in systems anymore. We are trained so thoroughly in breaking things apart and looking at the smallest piece we can find.

  • Guest

    Another Great Post,,,I especially appreciate those links to the somewhat “older” papers… In terms on ¿how to transmit Odum´s science in a readable way, personally I entered thanks to David Holmgrens conceptualization of Permaculture – thats, it his words, “Systems ecology for the commons”… but still a bit difficult to grasp for people with difficulties in abstract & conceptual thinking…

  • Holger Hieronimi

    Another Great Post,,,I especially appreciate those links to the “older” papers… ¿how to transmit Odum´s science in a readable way, personally I leared about Odums Energy Principles thanks to David Holmgrens conceptualization of Permaculture – it his words, PC was originally conceived as “Systems ecology for the commons”… but his book on that (Principles & Pathways beyond Sustainability) is still a bit difficult to grasp for the more practical people

    • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

      Thanks, Holger. I haven’t read the book, but I suppose it goes on my list now. Here’s the cliff notes, apparently:


      • Holger Hieronimi

        “Essence of permaculture” is a very condensed version of the book…gives you a good idea of Davids writing style. The book is important, actually its even dedicated to H.T.Odum, and gave me a good idea of emergy concepts even before reading “A prosperous way down” and “Environment, Power & Society” (the original version of 1971 and the update from 2008) – “Environmental Accounting” I have at home, but its a bit too difficult for me at the moment…needs time and concentration, and people to discuss the ideas (i do not have them around here on the mexican countryside…) – a good synopsis of Davids book is here: http://permanentpublications.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/PR-Perm-Principles-Pathways-EMILY.pdf

        Though still quite “cerebral” and (at least for many PC-folks) very theoretical & conceptual, the 12 PC principles developed in the book (by themselves they represent a major renovation & actualization of the PC Concept) translate the sometimes complex language of systems ecology into easy to remember and practical principles… definitely an important read. Here you get the book:


        and of course amazon

        • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

          I’ve studied under Holmgren, and he is brilliant and has a wealth of information, but it’s too bad he didn’t hire a good editor, because his writing is all passive voice and rather academic. But it is a rigorous and well-crafted description of Permaculture.

      • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

        Chapter Three of Holmgren’s Principles and Pathways is Odum 101. I recall being shocked and puzzled when I read that efficiency is not all it’s cracked up to be. I had to read that chapter over and over before I “got it.”

        • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

          Thanks again for the links and book recc. I’ve got the book, and it looks really good–I’ll get to it soon. Lots of hits on the website this morning, Jan. I went to see what the fuss was about. Manchurian Candidate? LOL. Thanks for the props. And I really liked this explanation of yours:


          “There exists a “maximum power point” on the effort/efficiency curve. Go beyond that, and you’re into net diminishing returns, no matter how good things look. That Prius that gets 60 MPG? It took way more resources than a first-cut look at materials reveals. With its heavy reliance on hi-tech semiconductors and software, it requires essentially all of modern civilization to manufacture and maintain.

          I think my non-computerized diesels from the ’80s will be running long after the last electronic module for the Prius ceases to be available. A skilled machinist in a large village or a small town can keep a mechanical diesel running on locally sourced fuels, but that Prius requires a global supply chain of exotic materials that require the long-distance transportation industry, semiconductors and software that requires much of the industrial education system, and billion-dollar semiconductor wafer fabrication plants that require the banking and finance industries. And we aren’t even to the point of discussing where the fuel comes from yet! (They are only rated “E85″ — 15% ethanol, unlike the diesel that can run on 100% plant oil.)”

          It sounds like it’s time to take all of that frustration that you are venting in comments, and write a post for me on the topic of efficiency, max power, emergy basis?

  • ralphieo

    Consider this sentence, from Odum’s May, 1974 paper. It is why your father was ignored (and rightly so).

    “14. Energy is measured by calories, Btu’s, kilowatt hours, and other intraconvertible units, but energy has a scale of quality which is not indicated by these measures.”

    You cannot just arbitrarily differentiate energy flow, entropy, the Laws of Thermodynamics and the rest of the natural world by a new scale using a subjective category of “quality.” This is the theoretical flaw in “emergy.”

    Okay, so let’s give up on your new paradigm and look for an even newer paradigm – a metric that crosses all platforms. Joules will work; so will kilocalories. Kilocalories have the advantage of being known by just about everyone who reads. [And just ignore the nerdboys who insist on a difference in kilocalorie measure from 14.5-15.5 C, versus 15.5-16.5 C.]

    Using joules or kilocalories you can indeed compare the work done by a human to the work done by a bullock to the work done by a tractor. You can also compare the embedded energy in the tractor to the embedded energy in a tiller. [Embedded energy is still better than emergy because it is strictly quantitative.] Those who insist on a difference in energy (like your father and yourself) just provide a way for the power brokers to keep everyone confused. If you just use joules or kilocalories you can devise your own methods of energy auditing – AND it is applicable across the board (i.e. crosses all platforms).

    There is no big conspiracy here. It is just hard science.

    • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

      Emergy does use joules as a measure, Ralphieo. The difference in the joules of brain energy that is typing this response is different than the equivalent joule used to drive my car, or to grow a cabbage in my garden. They cannot be transposed. And the joules of brain and finger energy used to type this Disqus response is not just a couple of neurotransmitter exchanges at the axonal synapses and finger muscles on computer keys. This response is the result of my formal schooling, my upbringing, my cultural values that give me the passion, the knowledge of navigating the web and creating this website, and some small component of both my Apple computer and the associated high tech company, and the overall internet that allows you and me to talk here, today, in this corner of the internet. Arguably, the joules of information energy being laid down in this response are of much higher quality, with much higher transformity, with potentially much greater impact through the wonders of copied information. People say that electrons are free on the internet . . . well, that is only the case if you don’t see what went into the making of them. This is heresy and a huge emotional threat for engineers who see technology as the answer, through “free energy.”

      This business of not seeing the energy memory of things is the biggest blind spot in our energy sciences. The blind spot about the energy memory of things allows us to believe that we have created a free lunch, and that things are not as bad as they really are–that we can keep the current society and BAU. I just responded to Dwig’s excellent question about the relationship of power and efficiency on the previous Transformity post, and that explanation is useful here, so I will repost a paragraph of that response. Easy copying and sharing of information is a transformational use for the internet, even though we don’t see the true costs of both the internet and the original knowledge generation. Originals are expensive. Copies are cheaper.

      Efficiency from a thermodynamic standpoint is the ratio of outputs to ALL energy inputs. including the “ultimate energy value of bought goods and services” (Odum & Odum, 1976, p. 4). But the contributing energies are of different qualities, and are not always readily visible from the perspective of the high tech engineer at the top of the hierarchy, especially the environmental contributions. Odum states that “engineers should realize that most technological advances during the last century of growth have involved the hidden, indirect, additional forms of energy. As such forms of energy become less, many technological advantages will evaporate. What was an advance becomes wasteful and must be discarded” (O&O, 1976, p. 4).

      • ralphieo

        No it is not different. It is measured the same.

        • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

          It cannot even be measured! It must be calculated!

          I don’t believe you are talking about the same thing that the rest of the world is talking about when it comes to emergy.

        • Dwig

          Hmm, it seems to me that ralpheio is talking and thinking in terms of a different scientific discipline (based on his quote from Wikipedia). There, heat is heat, no matter what its effects are. Odum, however, thought and worked as an ecologist; a given amount of energy expended can do very different things in an ecosystem; in this context, the difference is very important.

          Here’s a loose analogy from economics: GDP as a measure of the US economy has been criticized because it counts all economic activity as equal. The expense of building a house and the expense of tearing down a house are measured equally, regardless of the value they add to the neighborhood (and yes, both can be valuable, but in different ways). Another example: was Superstorm Sandy good for the economy? Certainly, it caused a lot of economic activity to occur. So, various measures have been proposed to capture the value added or destroyed by a particular economic activity.

          • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

            Thanks, Dwig and Jan. Ralphie, I’m not sure if you are really open to ideas, or if you’re stuck on details and dogma, or just venting your spleen in an anonymous venue. Please be polite if you want to converse here.

            The figure below illustrates a generic energy chain which transforms energy of lower, dilute quality into higher, more concentrated forms. Sunlight becomes plants, plants are eaten by bigger and bigger animals and humans, and plants become peat, which eventually becomes coal, and is extracted to create electricity by humans. For a joule to get to the higher levels and exist there, as a joule of electricity or a solar PV panel, or as DNA, or as information on the internet, it has been transformed many, many times, with associated very large losses in the form of heat entropy. Does a joule of bear exist without the supporting plants? Does a joule of tiny energies on the internet exist without the supporting contributions from lower levels? No. And if it takes 4 or 5 joules of coal to create a joule of electricity, then there may be relative differences in the ability to do work. Complex work requires a lot of different kinds of high quality energy. Could we run our current society based on coal, without the electricity? No. Can electricity based on renewables run our society? No, not so much. Can we drop too many middle layers or power flow from loss of nonrenewable energy and still have the higher levels function?

            Energy is transformed and upgraded through energy chains which store progressively higher quality energy as assets at each level, then feeding back at each level to promote pulling in more energy.

          • ralphieo

            Mary – You and Jan are being impolite, not me. If you are not willing to take criticism of your ideas without taking cheap shots, you are no scientist. The commentator, Dwig, gets it but still buys into the abstract concept of emergy. Here is a tip for all of you. No matter how hard you try, you cannot alter the laws of physics. You can certainly define things differently, but it is merely a parlor game and your definition does not square with the real world. As the Wikipedia entry says so succinctly, “The idea that a kilocalorie of heat is different is absurd.”

    • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

      I’m not sure I understand you. Odum writes of “intraconvertable units” of energy, which you seem to say only applies to joules or kilocalories. Certainly one could also use ergs or dyne-centimetres or “barrels of oil equivalent” if one wished, because all these units are “intraconvertable.”

      Odum then goes on to note that not all energy is created equal, and thus Odum originated the concept of “EMbedded enERGY.”

      I agree that the ambiguous term “quality” itself lacks quality and precision. “Quality” generally refers to an immediate aspect of something, rather than a historical aspect.

      In the vernacular, a closely regulated source of precision flow of electrons might be thought of as a “high quality” energy source, whereas the chaotic, random nature of a lightening bolt could be thought of as lower quality because even though it may provide vastly more power than a typical 200-amp household electrical service, it’s nature is too unpredictable to be of much practical use to anyone except for some plants that get off on the nitrogen it fixes.

      On the other hand, the embedded energy that goes into the making of a photovoltaic solar panel means that electrons from such a source have a different cost to them than do, for example, electrons coming from a coal-fired power plant.

      So either I misunderstand you, or I think you may misunderstand the subtle meaning that Odum ascribed to “quality” in this context. Not all electron flows are created equal!

      • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

        Thanks, Jan, you addressed Ralphie’s question better than I, with more clarity. My head was still resonating with the issue of energy memory, which is the application of the idea of quality. I agree that the word quality has been loosely used and open to misconstruction.

      • ralphieo

        Yes you misunderstood me. Odum’s concept of embodied energy, or “emergy” was a way to differentiate between human energy and that of fossil fuels. It is a false distinction.

        Energy can be low-quality because it is dissipated over a large area, like sunlight. It can be high-quality because it is concentrated in a coal seam. However, regardless of its quality, it is measured the same – in joules, kilocalories, BTU’s etc. Arbitrarily assigning a new qualitative category and changing the measurement units to fit your arbitrary standard is not acceptable. Physics trumps politics.

        There is a very good reason for SI units (look it up). This is why Odum got no traction with his new units.

        • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

          I still think we’re talking past each other.

          Emergy units are not just another unit for expressing energy.

          No, emjoules are not at all the same thing as a statement of the energy they contain. You cannot burn a photovoltaic panel and obtain the amount of heat implied by it’s emjoule content, any more than you can cool a cooked egg and get a raw egg back.

          This is not politics. It is not some “arbitrary standard.” It is measuring a different thing. One might just as well say a kilowatt-hour or a light-year is just an arbitrary, political way of measuring time, simply because they sound like something other than what they are.

          I understand Systéme International units quite well, and kilocalorie is not even one of them, as it’s been superseded by the watt*second.

          • ralphieo

            Jan – I am not talking past you at all. You have bought into an absurd concept. Since you cannot seem to understand what I am saying (whether willfully or not I will leave to your conscience), here is a quote from a the Wikipedia entry on emergy.

            “The idea that a calorie of sunlight is not equivalent to a calorie of fossil fuel or electricity strikes many as absurd, based on the 1st Law definition of energy units as measures of heat (i.e. Joule’s mechanical equivalent of heat).”[28]

            Sciubba, E., 2010. On the Second-Law inconsistency of Emergy Analysis. Energy
            35, 3696-3706

          • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

            I understand what you are saying. You do not understand what I am saying. Good day to you!

    • David MacLeod

      Hello Walter (Ralphieo),

      Good discussion here. I appreciate the worthwhile contributions of all the participants. I agree with most everything said by Mary, Jan, and Dwig. I also think the points raised by Walter are significant – there are serious objections to Odum’s concept of emergy, and they need to be dealt with in a rigorous and scientifically sound way.

      As Dwig indicated, emergy needs to be considered in the context of Odum’s work in systems ecology, and alongside the parallel concept of transformity. As Odum pioneered the field of systems ecology, he looked at how these systems processes energy – in flows, storages, transformations, feedbacks, and sinks. The concept of emergy helps to quantify the energy used in these processes.

      To me, the concept of emergy makes intuitive sense in a number of ways. It does not make sense to me to look only at energy quantity. Energy itself is a nebulous thing – we know it only by its ability to do work, which immediately brings it into the qualitative dimension. What kind of work, and what scale of results? And yes, heat energy is heat energy, but does the burning of a book tell us it’s true energetic value, or is there a way to take into account all of the energy that went into making the book possible? One can argue about and refine how the math is done to calculate it, but Odum’s efforts were an attempt to bring this closer to a common apples to apples standard, which continues to be refined (Giannantoni, 2003). I think it is an extremely helpful and important concept. I’m currently reading Environment, Power & Society in the Twenty First Century, and am continually amazed by Odum’s broad perspectives and how the concepts interact and support one another across many systems, scales, and depths. I think it is a work of genius.

      OK, having said that…I also recognize that new concepts such as emergy, and fourth and fifth laws of thermodynamics need rigorous analysis from a wide body of experts…and that blog comments are not the greatest forum to undertake such an exploration.

      I did a quick Google search. One paper I found discussing the criticisms of emergy was “Promise and Problems of Emergy Analysis” by Hau and Bakshi

      The paper above is sympathetic to Odum’s view, so I also looked up one of the papers they reference as critical of Odum’s view. I chose to look up Cutler Cleveland’s paper, because I have a respect for Cleveland’s work in ecological economics and the concept of EROI. The paper is called “Aggregation and the Role of Energy in the Economy”

      This comment is too long already, so I won’t try to summarize the papers here. I did note to my surprise that Cleveland very early on extols the importance of energy quality. “Despite its widespread use, aggregating different energy types by their heat units embodies a serious flaw: it ignores qualitative differences among energy vectors.” Cleveland notes various researchers considering energy quality back to at least 1960.
      Secondly, Cleveland praises Odum for laying the foundation of research into biophysical energy and material flows in systems that provided the intellectual backbone for the discipline of ecological economics. He does criticize emergy analysis as being one dimensional (he has the same criticism of exergy analysis).

      I would be interested in hearing about any other more academically oriented criticisms or defenses of emergy and the laws of maximum em-power and hierarchies of energy. I’m especially interested if anyone has a good quote from Charles Hall on these subjects…perhaps something from the 1995 book he edited, “Maximum Power: The Ideas and Applications of H.T. Odum.”

      • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

        Hi, David. No, this isn’t the place for rigorous analysis, thanks. I’ve heard these complaints so many times over the past 40 years–yet Odum’s explanations for how the world works have been borne out over time in what’s happening in the world today. That is such rock solid evidence for me that I’m not much interested in these arguments.

        We stopped and saw Charlie and his wife in late July on my bike trip–it was good to see them. Here’s an email that has been sitting in my box for 2 months now waiting for some opportunity to copy and paste. So here’s Charlie’s take, with his permission. I was trying to wheedle him into expanding it into a guest post, but I guess this will do:

        “Odum was my PhD adviser and I have written a book called “Maximum Power ” (Colorado Univ. Press). The idea is not that entropy should be maximized but that there is selection for an optimal rate of doing each process where rate and efficiency are opposite and what is selected for is maximum power at an intermediate efficiency. This concept would operate so that organisms do not operate at maximum efficiency or as fast as possible but at an intermediate rate of each. Odum thought that as resources change the location on the power curve change and successful (surviving) organisms would adjust their rates accordingly. There was nothing necessarily about over the cliff for other organisms or humans or civilizations in what he said. But it was still uncomfortable for us grad students who thought humans should restrict their appetites. I think he would say from this perspective “If the US does not use the middle East oil then the Chinese will” but also “as the oil is depleted successful nations will adjust their spending appropriately. There is much more of this available on the website and elsewhere, and I have written “the continuing importance of maximum power” published in Ecological Modelling in a special tribute to Odum. Do not despair quite yet, although H.T. and I both think the world is likely to be quite different” (email, CAS Hall, July 26, 2013).

        The PDF version of the 2004 Ecological Modelling article is linked below:


        • Brian

          I have thoroughly enjoyed the comments this time round. Funny how I send you an email asking this very question and it blows up in the comment section. The world is a strange place and coincidence abounds.

          • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ MaryLogan

            Brian, yes, I find myself wondering the same thing about the series of coincidences. Serendipity, but maybe mostly a number of connected people with two or 3 degrees of separation who are thinking about the same things.

        • David MacLeod

          Mary, thank you! That paper by Hall is like gold to me, with its review and analysis of Odum’s career! I highly recommend everyone give it a read.

          “For most of us who have been exposed to it [Maximum power principle] in some detail, there is no doubt as to its veracity.”

          “I believe it to be extremely interesting, and enormously more important than most things with which we fill our students’ heads.”
          – Charles Hall

  • David MacLeod

    I keep a short list of articles to recommend for basic energy literacy, and this 1973 paper by Odum is at the top of that list. I also love the introduction given by Mother Earth News when they reprinted it:

    “In early November of 1973—during a visit to MOTHER’s new home in the mountains of western North Carolina—New Alchemist John Todd gave the magazine’s editors about the 14th-generation Xerox copy of what can conservatively be described as a dynamite paper.

    “We had only to glance at this extraordinary document to realize that the paper (originally written at the request of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) is one of the most concise—yet most sweeping—examinations yet made of the real problems of
    the world. Read it and see for yourself.”

    I’m also glad to see another person here who recognizes the strong connection between Odum and David Holmgren’s articulation of Permaculture. Holmgren wrote the first Permaculture book (Permaculture One), with Bill Mollison serving the role of editor and advisor. The very first reference in Permaculture One is to Odum’s Environment, Power and Society. And as Holger notices, Holmgren’s “Permaculture Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” is full of constant references to Odum’s work. Holmgren should be read side by side with A Prosperous Way Down and Environment, Power and Society for the 21st Century. These works complement and reinforce one another so well. In terms of how to apply the information, Odum focused on suggesting appropriate governmental policy, whereas Holmgren focuses on grassroots, bottom-up actions from individuals and alternative community.

    In fact, the other paper at the top of my list for energy literacy is Holmgren’s “Energy and Permaculture.” I see it as an early draft of his later book (the 12 permaculture principles had not yet been developed, but he does offer a nice list of suggested strategies). It is almost entirely a tribute to Odum.

    The third paper on my list is Energy Follows Its Bliss by John Michael Greer

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