A highly transformed society


by Mary Logan

The picture above is a metaphor for our contracting society in an era of declining nonrenewable energy. What is the emergy basis of an electric bike powered by a solar power battery that the bike and rider tows?  How do we use technology while our horizons of available yet marginal net energy recede? The award-winning bike/solar bob is touted as every environmentalist’s dream, where I can have my cake and eat it too. If I tow a solar panel behind my electric bike, I can boost my power and range to go longer distances at higher speeds. I can even charge electronics and power LED lights. What Is the true value to society of the electric panel towed behind on a bob, and is it worth it? Is the time we save worth the expenditures of energy? Can high-tech boosters augment or be layered on top of human-powered technology in a lower energy world? How much tech is too much? In our struggle to extract usable energy from the surrounding environment to maintain our society based on high-quality fossil fuels, our highly transformed society uses energies of varying qualities in substitution for each other, without an understanding of the Transformity involved in different types of energy.



Energy Transformation Series for Electricity (Odum, 2000, from Understanding Complexity, 2001)
Energy Transformation Series for Electricity (Odum, 2000, from Understanding Complexity, 2001)

Transformity is the idea that energy creates a hierarchy where at each level, transformations convert different kinds of available energy to produce a smaller amount of energy in another form. “Transformity is a measure of the hierarchy of energy and is apparently applicable to all quantities of matter, energy, or information. Transformities have as many orders of magnitude as there are energy levels in the universe. For example, the solar transformity within the geobiosphere ranges from 1 for sunlight to 1 X 1032  sej/J for some categories of genetic information” (Odum, 1996, p. 19).  Most energy transformations in society involve four or more kinds of energy. The higher the transformity value, the more available energy of another kind that is required to make it. Transformity and thus emergy basis increases with each transformation, so it measures the increasing quality of energy or as it passes up the food chain or hierarchy. These can be depicted through graphs of power (energy flow) and empower (emergy flow) in order to view the position and relative importance of different types of energy (Tilley & Brown, 2001). Transformity is typically represented on a logarithmic scaled graph, because losses from entropy are so great at each stage that a plot on a normal graph would be hollow and cover a very small range (Odum, 2007, p. 75).

The solar transformity of electricity is one or more magnitudes of order greater than the original fuel, be it from peanut butter with the electric bike transformation, or from gasoline with the electric car transformation. The use of electricity to transform materials into solar panels is an even greater obligation of available energy, beyond electricity, which uses high-emergy human labor, high-tech, and highly refined materials. Those added steps of transformation, from peanut butter, to electricity, to solar panel are highly wasteful of energy for a society that can’t afford it. Making all of those leaps across the energy hierarchy drains energy from society, from the person riding the bike to people’s household budgets, to countries’ trade imbalances that drain resources from our biosphere.


I will admit to owning an electric bike as an experiment. It is useful for plowing through unplowed trails during mid-winter, and for heavy loads, or for those big hills I have to pedal on the way home that might otherwise force me into a car. An electric bike is also useful for those with disabilities. But the electric bike’s range may be limited due to the need to recharge, or we may travel to a place where electricity is not available for charging. Initial costs and maintenance/replacement costs for the battery add more energetic costs–we are on our second costly battery with this bike. And ultimately, the limiting factor from multiple emergetic inputs is the power in our legs. Uneven matching from a solar panel and human power results in more production but less efficiency. “As nonrenewable resources have enriched the economy, more feedbacks have passed to environmental interfaces, thus increasing the production, increasing the Emergy investment ratio, and producing with less efficiency” (Odum, 1996, p. 166). China has 120 million electric bikes already. Is an electric bike or an electric velomobile a good transition from a car to human-powered transportation? Is it really worth it, when an electric bike battery adds complexity and has energetic and material costs that may not be affordable or sustainable in a lower energy world? Emergy investment ratios of free environmental resources versus purchased inputs can help to gauge whether some economic-environmental use will be economical relative to the ratio of the prevailing region. In other words, this bike bob from the Netherlands, with its high emergy investment ratio (users must buy much of the emergy from trade instead of getting it free from the environment) may not be competitive in global markets.

Energy matching

Best Transport Alternatives Odum, McGrane, Brown, & Bastianoni 1995 (Florida Policies)
Best Transport Alternatives Odum, McGrane, Brown, & Bastianoni 1995 (Florida Policies)

When we add a heavy solar panel and its associated bike-bob towed behind the bike, we are stacking tertiary economy technology on low-tech, human-powered transport. The bike bob illustrates the concept of energy matching–high quality energy such as electricity is best used when paired with larger, low quality fuels. Electricity should not be used for cars, or bikes or electric heat when there is a lower quality fuel that will suffice. The electric mechanism has to engage more to accommodate for the extra weight of the bob and the panel, and we’ve extended the footprint of the humble bicycle to China’s dirty, cheap-labor solar panel factories. We are matching the high-transformity solar panel to the low-transformity of a human-powered bike, which might be successful if the solar panel was net positive, with an emergy yield that does not drain yield from society. But a solar bike bob takes the place of more efficient electricity, and it only works in first-world countries for consumers with surplus wealth–how long will that last in our contracting economies? As discretionary income wanes, people will choose simpler, less expensive efficiencies. We are just rearranging the deck chairs while the band plays on.

We trial marginally yielding technology using surplus wealth, not seeing the added layers of energy transformity that become circular reasoning. It is like raising yourself by your own bootstraps against gravity, or like the Ouroboros eating its own tail. We spend more, but get less. At some point, the cost of this labor-saving device gets too expensive for my personal budget, if it isn’t already! Or I crash the bike and break the solar panel, or it needs repair, or someone steals the panel–how do I lock that up! Or a string of cloudy weather limits recharging. Or, as a form of energy cannibalism, I just get tired of dragging half of China around behind me just so that I can make it easier to pedal up that last big hill to the house, or get somewhere a little faster. Or I find that the electric bike makes me lazy, and I’ve started to get fat. I opt for the simpler solution, which is to go back to my simple cruiser. The added complexity ends up being just not worth it. A bike is the most efficient form of transportation.

Code Green Stephanie McMillan http://www.stephaniemcmillan.org/codegreen/
Code Green Stephanie McMillan

The same process occurs with electric cars. We add technology and thus added emergy to cars with no real increase in function, to use different energy sources that gasoline. In a form of energy cannibalism, we use more energy in factories in China and military efforts in Afghanistan to produce electric cars and batteries that are less efficient than a small, low-horsepower car with an internal combustion engine, or a bike. And we put more demands on an overburdened electrical grid. Because we cannot see the transformed energy, or we have not valued it properly with our false monetary systems and inefficient markets, we may reach for technology as the solution when faced with limits. Even our inefficient, false money markets have rejected electric cars and even hybrids. We have empirical evidence now of the high emergy basis of electric cars.

Paul Kingsnorth calls this “the myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.” In a growing society with surplus energy, these beliefs were true, because surplus energy allowed us to heap transformed energy into technological bells and whistles that promoted a consumer society and profits, which maximized power. We are compelled to create something out of available surplus energy by the system, and to design lower energy amplifying circuits in the form of cultural feedback loops that tell us that consumption is a good thing. In a world of planned obsolescence, we must continue to buy new versions of products to pay the debt and keep companies growing. If we accept that the economy will have to contract back to a level of technology compatible with mostly renewable supports, then we will start to make wiser choices that use the emergy basis for society more wisely.

Solar share

If solar panels have a marginal net emergy yield, then dragging one behind my bike means that I’m dragging a very large footprint with me, with origins in China, Afghanistan, and the Netherlands, just so that I can go a little faster. On average, a US citizen consumes 19 times his personal solar share of the world’s annual global renewable energy income that he is entitled to. If I eat a Big Mac I consume 3.3 times the average daily per capita global renewable solar income (Brown & Ulgiati, 2012). I can only imagine how much of my personal solar share that a solar panel bike bob consumes. In a future with less fossil fuels, this wealth inequity will be resolved either willingly or unwillingly, peacefully or violently. A functional low energy economy means that everyone will have smaller, more equitable personal solar shares. What is the relationship between social justice and solar equity? That question will have to wait until later.


Brown & Ulgiati, Tesla Conference, July 2012
Brown & Ulgiati, Tesla Conference, July 2012

Referring to the table above, electric power has a transformity of about four times that of fossil fuels. The emergy basis of an electric car (or bike) includes the initial outlay of complex technology, resources such as rare earth metals and human labor, and the recurring costs of high quality electricity required to run the car. Why would we use energy in the form of electricity that costs society four times as much to produce than the original gasoline form of energy? The different forms of energy–gasoline for an internal combustion engine versus electricity for an electric or hybrid car–are not valued properly by society, so we waste energy in our search for alternatives. The contributions are from multiple levels of hierarchy with varying qualities of energy contribution. Because there is a surplus of energy in society, and we cannot see the energetic contributions, and since we do not understand the difference in energy quality, the system allows us to waste energy by encouraging superfluous technology for profit that does not really add value. Profit incentives of capitalism dictate that added technology begets more sales, so technology is added whether it is needed or not. Our imperfect market and currency mechanisms fail to value environmental and human contributions appropriately, so we layer environmental degradation on top of the wasted energy in our pursuit to maximize power. Can our society support that extra load? Electricity is not free, electric grids are maxed out, coal creates mercury and other kinds of air and water pollution. How do we calculate those costs to society? Complexity of electric cars requires extra maintenance, less sustainability, and more rare earth metals mining such as lithium from places like Afghanistan—calculate those costs of sustaining our empire through war in hopes of expanding our battery production in the US from 2% to 40%, as Obama proposes. Why are we even considering electric cars, much less putting them into production? Because we haven’t done the math, we’re only looking at pieces of the problem, and we’re asking the wrong questions. Short-term systemic goals of profit instead of sustainability drive the system, at least for now. “The auto age will come to an end when alternate needs for the fuels running the personal autos become more important than the time saved by having individual cars” (Odum & Odum, 2001). A simpler society in the future will have to begin to revalue the calculus that values human labor/time and energy expenditures.

Additional Human Food Chain MTB-3
Additional Human Food Chain Brown, Lecture 3

When we try to use technology to eke out extra efficiencies or improve on Nature through technology, marginal energy sources (and our economy) begin to look more and more like a Rube Goldberg diagram as we try to add technology to improve borderline processes and make them functional. Designing artificial leaves to do Nature’s work of photosynthesis and respiration demonstrates our ignorance of the thermodynamic laws, the energy hierarchy, and the variation in differing energy quality. Or we make claims that some countries are powered entirely by renewable energy, not seeing the large footprints of modern societies powered by global trade and advanced technology that would be impossible without fossil fuels. The same holds true for any situation where we try to salvage unsustainable problems with high tech solutions such as geoengineering, carbon sequestration, biofuels, high-tech healthcare and other high-tech, add-on solutions that oppose nature rather than working with her. Nature knows best, and there’s no free lunch.

If we use environmental accounting such as Emergy synthesis, then we can weigh the relative merit of electric cars, solar bike bobs, and other high-tech gadgets with incremental impacts against low-tech options such as human-powered bicycles. Are solar-powered bike bobs more valuable to society than sharing information? Those choices that we may need to make in our future. And money is not the answer in valuing these choices. Money is a poor measure of the true value of a complex electric car or bike. Money does not value the associated resources required for its production and operation. A resource is generally worth more than it costs according to the calculus of emergy. We’re wasting time and energy going down energetic dead ends. What are better uses for this energy?