Net Energy-what Captain Cook didn’t know

By Mary Logan

In June of 1778, Captain Cook’s search for the Northwest Passage brought him to the later-named Cook inlet near my home, Anchorage, Alaska. As he sailed up the arm (fjord) and reached the end, he discovered that there was no outlet. After days of being stuck due to wind and fog, he had to TurnAgain, hence the name of the arm. Captain Cook never found the Northwest passage, and he never saw England again. He died the following year in the Hawaiian islands after picking a fight with Hawaiian Islanders.

We are not quite out of gas yet in the United States. But we keep steaming down fjords without outlets, turning randomly from one blind alley to the next in trying to adapt to our energy quandary. In Captain Cook’s case, he was exploring with zero information, so there was a good chance of failure. But when it comes to energy alternatives, we can avoid dead ends, since we have what Captain Cook didn’t have, information on the best alternatives. This post is about the science of net energy regarding those options.

We are now trialling many unworkable alternative energy sources, as a response to government subsidies and agendas promoted by various energy lobbies, often in pursuit of short-term profits for private companies. Should we be letting private energy companies with vested interests dictate future energy policy which could make the difference in continuing to exist as a country? Which so-called renewable energy sources have yielded practical returns on investment, withstanding the test of time? There is a 50-year body of research on the subject of net energy. Shouldn’t we be using science and not vested corporate interests to set energy policy?

In the last post, I suggested that if one doesn’t understand the problem of declining net energy (empower basis), then growth is not viewed as a problem. Even our oil companies now openly advertise that we have produced the easy half of the oil available to the planet, and we will be producing less in the future since we have peaked. Less oil and other resources means that our economy will have to contract in the future, since renewable energy suffers from lower energy density and quality. Since we are entering energy descent, practical energy sources are beginning to sort from the impractical. Because “the true value of energy to society is the net energy, which is what is left after the energy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted,” we must decide net yield to make proactive choices about the future (Odum, 1973). Odum developed the concept of net energy and then refined the idea over the span of 50 years. The name of the analysis changed several times beginning with the term net energy then to embodied energy and finally to the term emergy yield or net empower to account for more inclusive changes in method, so many don’t recognize that the terms were developed over time from the thinking of the same community of scientists.

The primary goal of this post is to suggest that many purported energy source predictions of net yield are overly optimistic dead ends–many of our current efforts won’t work. The second goal is to suggest more reasonable net empower estimates, and to briefly check the performance of renewables from the proving ground of time. How did these experiments in energy work out for us?

What is net empower yield?

Is the truth out there?

The science of net energy is vulnerable to specious claims from companies who make the devices under scrutiny. Readers may opt to fasten hopefully on the largest net claims as the most probable. As resource availability finally surfaces into the conscious mind of the average American, we are starting to hear claims about the viability of different sources based on very little evidence. Many suggest that nuclear power is our best alternative, with very high net energy. Wind energy has a net ratio of 20:1. Or 30:1. Or solar photovoltaic (PV) will become profitable when the cost of oil gets higher. Or, for the mathematically challenged, we can replace the entire motor fuel supply of the US with biodiesel from pond scum. It’s time for a reality check.

Brown, Cohen, and Sweeney summarized the science of net emergy in 2009, so I will cite heavily from that article.

“Net energy of any process including energy sources is calculated using an Emergy Yield Ratio (EYR) (see Odum, 1976; Brown and Ulgiati, 1997) which is the net contribution of an energy source to the economy. Hall et al. (1986) introduced a similar concept called Energy Return on Investment (EROI), although different from EYR in that it does not include quality correction and other inputs such as labor and environmental contributions” (Brown, Cohen, & Sweeney, 2009, p. 3426).

(Brown, Cohen, & Sweeney, 2009, p. 3429)

It is essential to calculate all costs of energy sources to avoid undue optimism about potential renewable alternatives. Because there is a range of reported energy yields reported, we need to consider the source of reports. If we do not include nature’s contributions to net energy/empower calculations, we will try to use energy sources that damage the environment, as is now shown with market failures with ethanol, solar PV, oil shale and gas, tar sands, and nuclear. Odum calculated almost 40 years ago that solar PVs and oil-shale were net negative–history has borne that out, with failing industries littering the landscape. The fact that tar sands, ethanol, and solar PVs (as opposed to solar thermal or passive solar) exist doesn’t make them net positive. Subsidies and favorable government policies allow short-term profits from net negative projects. Overall emergy yields are declining over time, as shown above.

I’ll spotlight nuclear power, since nuclear is a blind spot for the American public. Approval for nuclear power in the US was at its highest ever in 2010, especially among men. Apparently energy policy is a popularity contest. We can’t even calculate the emergy yield for nuclear, since we can’t dispose of the wastes or decommission the plants. Nuclear power plant meltdowns could be a catastrophic crisis that comes out of left field in the 21st century. Are we going to manage these plants into perpetuity, besides the many other problems of nuclear discussed here? Nuclear power appears to be a dying industry in Japan and the US. Odum’s early words on the net yield of nuclear have been borne out by circumstances in Japan.

“No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them. Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels” (Odum, 1971, p. 135)?

(Brown, Cohen & Sweeney, 2009)

An emergy yield ratio of less than one indicates a loss of emergy from that energy source for society.  Using EYR to calculate renewable alternatives “provides a relative relationship for evaluation of green-house gas emissions. For instance if we assume that ethanol with an EYR of 2 to 1 is used to replace fossil fuels having yields of 8 to 1, the ethanol is actually using energy at four times the rate, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions over the burning of the fossil fuel” (Brown, Cohen, & Sweeney, 2009, p. 3429). Many so-called renewables actually guzzle fossil fuels.

Brown, Cohen & Sweeney, 2009 

Electricity is the defining line between an information society and something less complex. How do we keep the power humming? Renewable energy sources suffer from low emergy yields, distribution, intermittency, flexibility, and other problems (Cleveland, 2007, Fridley 2010). Brown et al. suggest that renewables will not replace traditional forms of energy, and that coal suffers from  optimistic over-estimates due to failure to calculate net emergy and liquid conversion requirements; they estimate coal reserves of 100 years or less. Electric power has impacts on land, water, air, and climate, as do renewables (Keith et al., 2012). Many proposals to scale up marginal renewables to supply electric power have not panned out. Odum suggested that over the long-term, the best hope for maintaining centers of information was hydroelectric power.

Emergy Yield Ratios of Types of Electricity (Odum, Environmental Accounting, 1996, p. 149)

What do we do with this information?

Brown, Cohen, & Sweeney, Ecological Modelling 220 (2009) p. 3425   Our constraint space

We can detect a pattern here. Wherever we are attempting to use marginal energy sources even with sophisticated technologies, devastating industrial scale environmental impacts and device/extraction company bankruptcies result. When we drill oil wells at 20K to 35K feet, we should expect gas blowouts. If we continue to double stack spent fuel pools perched on top of nuclear reactor vessels that are past their due dates, then we should expect catastrophic meltdowns. If we hydrofrack natural gas at 8K feet using toxic chemicals, we should expect contaminated aquifers. The net emergy yield of ethanol is less than 1, so attempts to scale up ethanol result in ocean dead zones, topsoil loss, usurped water and land, and increased pesticide contamination. Solar panel production is so dirty that the Chinese shut down a factory due to protests, but since Americans have exported the environmental costs of PV manufacture to China and have subsidized the cost of purchase, neither the net negative yield nor environmental costs are apparent. Tar sands only work if we cannibalize from pipelines of high quality natural gas to convert net negative tar sands into something we can shove into our gas tanks. It takes more energy to make the solar panels or cook the tar sands than we get out of the final product. And in our Rube Goldberg economy, as useful power declines from marginal energy sources, environmental costs will continue to rise. As Aldo Leopold said, “Having to squeeze the last drop of utility out of the land has the same desperate finality as having to chop up the furniture to stay warm.” 

A hierarchy of home energy investment?

What does this mean for people interested in renewable technologies for their home? Individuals can buy negative yield technologies such as a solar PV panel or an emergy-intensive new electric car if they are wealthy and have money that is not needed for other lower order needs. Solar PV is either net negative, marginal, or slightly positive, depending on methodology and age of the study. For those who insist that solar is significantly positive, consider the string of recent bankruptcies in subsidized solar companies. For those who need further convincing, here is a recent study placing solar at marginal or negative in emergy yields. For marginal energy sources we are wiser to “spend” the energy more equitably elsewhere in a contracting society. Net negative technologies can be used at the small scale without sapping too much emergy from the economy, but attempts to scale up with a desert full of solar panels would quickly become too energy intensive and thus also prohibitively costly, even though cost is still not an adequate, true measure of the drain on society, especially the environment. Nature has optimized the best way to maximize solar energy yield for maximum power through photosynthesis. Perhaps we are seeing a focus on attempts to expand industrial scale PV because that is how the existing corporate utilities make money. Social justice can wait.

As our economy gets worse, and money gets tighter, people will probably choose to fund other more basic needs and not expensive technology to build personal resilience. In our contracting economy, we will have less capital for high-tech investments, not more. Reducing energy use in our basic needs is the first answer, in our transportation, our housing, and our food, through relocalization, growing our own food, and other creative solutions. If you are reliant on fossil fuels for basic needs, consider back up systems or simpler renewable alternatives that are available locally.

Tainter, 1988, 1996

We need to reduce and simplify in all parts of our lives, not just in energy use. Since energy is embodied in everything in our complex society, reducing our energy means reducing the complexity of our homes, our businesses, the technology that we use, and the digitization. As Tainter suggests, we are experiencing a diminishing return at this point on complexity. More complexity will only add bureaucracy and make systems vulnerable to collapse. When there is a choice to add digitization and technology to your business or personal life, consider whether it adds anything useful. The favored phrase in my specialty these days is, “healthcare is broken.” Increasingly, systems attached to the empire will appear broken or too expensive as we add the last piece of computerized health record or new division of toothless regulations that becomes more work than it is worth.

If I was a politician, I would begin a national campaign to educate the public about the limits to growth and the need for a prosperous new way down. I would consider the alternative policy routes carefully. If we make an error at the national scale as to what energy sources we choose to support, we will create a huge drain in terms of mal-investment and environmental degradation. Making such an error with one’s personal budget might mean you move back in with your family. Making the error on the scale of country may result in one or more outcomes of war, poverty, famine, or epidemic. And “all of the above” is not a good energy policy when many of the supposed solutions not only drain emergy from the country but also funnel wealth into the hands of the wealthy. Attempts to return to economic growth at this point are combatting thermodynamics. Since the world’s pie of resources is shrinking rapidly, the only way for the US to return to economic growth is to steal an increasing part of some other country. The only way that we will be energy independent in a future of declining resources will be simpler living. “The only genuinely sustainable energy scenario is one in which energy demands do not continue to escalate indefinitely” (Stover, 2011). Boosting energy production through solar PV or biofuels or fracked gas will leave us with no environment to fall back on when fossil fuel supports decline. There is a difference between promoting realistic hope and promoting unrealistic hope based on faith that something will show up to save us in spite of the evidence our science reveals.

The Castle of the Pyrenees, René Magritte, 1959, or Our Suspended Reality?

For our country, we’ve done a great job of using everyone else’s resources after our oil peaked. Unfortunately, we should have used the time to build the infrastructure and the cultural know-how to live within our means. Creating a new society takes time (Smil, 2012). Now, instead of having an ecologically congruent culture and lifestyle, we have a system adapted to using 25% of the world’s oil for 4% of the world’s population. There is nothing fair about that, and we are getting ready to pay the piper for our party. None of our renewable alternatives will allow us to keep our current level of society. Hall, Balogh, and Murphy (2009) suggest that we need a level of EROI of 5:1 from main fuels for a sustainable society. Using the emergy synthesis approach, Brown has suggested that the EYR needs to be 4:1 to maintain existing levels of infrastructure, but states that he has no way of proving it. As oil exports from other countries wane, the US is going to have to get Manhattan-Project-serious about our quandary if we are to rescue any residual information centers from the ruins. We need 30 million more small farmers in this country, since industrial agriculture grows “potatoes made of oil.” We need to revitalize our lower energy transportation such as the railroad industry, and we need to wean ourselves off marginal, environmentally hazardous energy sources such as nuclear, fracked natural gas and biofuels. Many more suggested policies are on this webpage.

Hope that there are easy, renewable market solutions prevents us from feeling the sense of urgency necessary for the large-scale infrastructure change that we will need to keep even a fraction of the complex information society that we now have. Approximately 71% of whole earth empower comes from fossil fuels, so eventually we will have to live on about a third of our current emergy basis (Odum and Odum, 2001).  Even among those who understand peak oil, there are many who believe that technology will save us. Brown et al. refute that false hope. Even if we were to find a magic pill, more growth would result in declining quality of society due to environmental degradation.

“In industrialized economies today, emergy use per capita is almost 1000 times the emergy per capita of people living 100 years ago. Technological improvements go hand in hand with increased energy demand. We are convinced that humans will strive for any number of potential solutions to the energy dilemma. Money and energy and human ingenuity will be invested in the hopes of finding a new energy source or a more efficient process of utilizing existing sources. If it is found it means more of the same, more growth of demand, more consumption, greater amounts of waste, and increased environmental load. The growth of wastes and environmental load if dealt with will decrease available energy that can be directed toward production of goods, services, and infrastructure for humanity, so that the end may not be much improved quality of life or human welfare” (Brown, Cohen, & Sweeney, 2009, p. 3437).

As an American, I know that the US is on tenuous ground about energy availability. Our oil production peaked in 1970, and we have borrowed resources from the world since then using a petrodollar backed by military might. We base our currency on an IOU to the next century that we will not be able to pay. We will default our unpayable promises to the future, and complex constructs of the 20th century will disappear, starting with large chunks of the financial, insurance, and real estate industries. We don’t have time to go down any more cul de sacs blindly chasing profits that are funneled to wealthy corporate managers. We need policy that is clearly focused on descent, so that we can relocalize in communities and save some of the high density fossil fuels for our grandchildren. Instead, we’re burning it out of our tailpipes at the rate of 80 million barrels per day (20 million in the US alone), as we explore like Captain Cook from dead-end fjord to blind alley to suburban

Sailing the Catboat, Winslow Homer, circa 1875 to contrast with these images, worth a click

cul-de-sac. We will soon be like Captain Cook, out of time and supplies and unable to go forward. At least his ride operated on wind, allowing him to Turnagain and again. Instead, we are burning up the last rays of ancient sunlight, looking for the holy techno-grail of the Next Big Thing, which is actually going to end up being a lot smaller instead.

  • Brian

    A thought I had from one of your previous posts that I think what confuses a lot of people is the difference between using fossil fuels to create an energy collection device and the energy collection device being able to create net emergy. Using fossil fuels to create a passive solar device made of glass might collect more heat energy than directly burning those fossil fuels, but the glass passive solar device will never be able to recuperate the amount of emergy lost. It makes me wonder if there is a similar cognitive problem with PV in that it might make sense to build PV using fossil fuels to make electricity rather than burn fossil fuels directly in a power plant but in the end we will have lost net emergy. Does this mean it might make sense to build out glass passive solar, PV, nuclear, and biowhatever to slow descent? Please correct me if my understanding of any of these concepts,especially emergy, is wrong. Another unrelated question: Why should we work to create information centers for a future that cannot use the information nor any further civilization to come on this planet, since there is not enough time for the Earth to recreate the circumstances that would allow for most of our electronic information to have a use? I felt that to be a large hole in the logic of the last chapter of Environment, Power and Society. Thanks again for the thoughtful posts.

  • Thanks for the good questions, Brian. If I want to build a
    solar thermal flat panel, which is just a collecting device to heat water, you
    can build one in an afternoon with materials from Lowes, a little know how, and some time in the garage at the work bench. The materials are basic (wood, some hose, some plastic and so on). But the heat gain is minimal and slow, so the effort to make the device is not worth it unless you really want a hot water shower with no other means. Solar thermal is not wildly net positive, as you suggest. In the study below, a factory-manufactured solar thermal device yielded 1.19 EYR. Or if you make it from glass blown by hand . . . it depends on how badly you want that hot shower! A simple sun-shower made of black vinyl that you heat up on the deck of your sailboat is worth it. The moral of the story is that simpler is better. A manufactured version with more inputs, that includes a corporation making profits, and so on, maybe not worth it.

    Heating water for your house is a much simpler device than a
    solar PV panel. The solar PV is made in high-tech factories using very pure
    semiconductor-grade polysilicon, rare earth metals, and a number of complex steps that are only possible through a series of complex steps
    The assembly line for a PV panel is complex, taking place in
    a large factory with many steps. The mining of the rare earths, the requirement for highly purified polysilicon, the education of the high-tech workers, and the large environmental contributions (as evidenced by the polluting nature of the factories) all contribute to highly embodied emergy. Batteries are required for storage and conversion to electricity. Each conversion step adds increasingly to the emergy basis at each step of the process. So think of the many steps in transformation and complexity starting with the minerals in the ground, and the processes required to educate the laborers, transportation to assemble everything, and so on. This results in a break-even result in emergy yield from an optimistic, neutral evaluation below, yielding 1.03. So, considering the effort and drain on the environment, solar PV is not worth it. And reality certainly bears that out. If
    you just want to spin your economy and create jobs and profit while damaging the environment and not actually going anywhere, well, that is what we are doing right now. Think Wiley Coyote suspended over the chasm, little legs spinning away.

    And the demands of creating electricity require steps beyond
    that. EYR for electric depends on the method of creating electricity, as the
    bar chart above indicates. But electricity in general has perhaps four times the transformity of oil, so creating a PV panel (already a loss) to make electricity creates even more of a loss, as there are more steps of transformation creating a larger emergy basis. The quoted comment from Dave Tilley below may help, too.

    “Paoli et al. (2008) evaluated a small solar photovoltaic (PV) plant in
    Italy that used monocrystalline silicon (BP Solar BP585F) PV panels that
    covered 136 m2 (~1500 ft2), faced south at 30 degree inclination, and had max power output of 18,300 watts at 8% efficiency. This would be equivalent to a few home roof tops. The energy return on energy invested (i.e. Emergy Yield Ratio) was 1.03, meaning that 3% more energy was yielded than diverted from the economy for investment. Thus, zero return is surely within the margin of error and shows that PV is not a primary source of energy. In addition, they estimated that 28% of the total energy required to produce electricity with PV came from electricity. Another 23% was need to make the inverters and another 20% for maintenance costs.
HT Odum argued from a emergy-based viewpoint that making the leap from visible radiation of solar power with its solar transformity of one sej/J to electricity with a mean solar transformity of 250,000 sej/J, meant that PV was making too giant of a leap across the energy hierarchy. From a practical perspective that leap means that PV has to be a very inefficient means of making electricity” (Dave Tilley, 2011).

    And your last question: “Why should we work to create information centers for a future that cannot use the information nor any further civilization to come on this planet, since there is not enough time for the Earth to recreate the circumstances that would allow for most of our electronic information to have a use?” Good question. We could have electric based information centers in regions amenable to hydroelectric power. Alaskans are opposing and stalling on a proposed Susitna dam. Is it worth the effort or is it already too late, considering the number of years and fossil fuel requirements that would be a drain on society? And the days of having the Federal government (which ultimately means other states and countries in the case of the US) absorb the costs are nearing an end. In this particular case, the dam would be above potential interactions with salmon, but in other cases, is it worth more to keep the viable ecosystem with its benefits such as salmon for basic needs, or do we go for higher order electricity?

    Well that is the question, isn’t it? How do we sort and store
    the best of the information so that we can keep it and use it? The internet has been vastly useful to my husband and me over the past few years. How do you commingle two flocks of chickens? Answer: maybe you don’t—that’s why they named henpecking after lady chickens. How do you best optimize passive solar, sunroom benefits and vegie growing in a subarctic greenhouse? Answer: you can have one or maybe two, but not all three, at least optimally. What’s the best mix of organic fertilizers for our soil that doesn’t attract bears? And so on.

    We’ve lost these skills in the US, and there are precious few farmers around to teach us. The Google has been immensely helpful for our personal transition. We need to rebuild guilds, and redevelop handcrafts. The internet
    can help with all of that, and perhaps some beginning community building. All of that stuff that went digital needs to return to some longer term storage on paper. And what about the music and images? We’re going to have a lower complexity, simpler lifestyle over the long run, but just how simple and how fast it devolves depends on the choices that we make right Now. If we store the wisdom culled from this society, including genetic diversity, make better policy decisions than Pepsi or Coke, and toss the People magazines, and we could still have an information society for a while if we did it right. Are we too late?

    • Brian

      I guess I am getting caught up in the Rube Goldbergness of our economy where I think I understand something but am missing the greater connections. I remember reading somewhere how the Axis powers looked into direct conversion of fossil fuels into food and found that the best they could get was 20-30 percent conversion to edible foodstuffs so agriculture (herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers both mechanical and chemical) was a better way to use fossil fuels. It made me wonder how much this was true for other things like passive solar, PV and Biomass. For PV, the emergy calculation problem confuses me a bit. Most studies inherently take into account societal configuration: inverters, storage, the electrical grid, and whether it is economical (my coffee shop serving lattes definitely doesn’t return energy on its investment but still exists). These things should not effect emergy of a PV panel, because in reality we should be using it gridless onsite with incidental sunlight, keeping it DC with DC appliances, pulse to try to make as little storage as possible necessary, and rely mostly on economics based on physics should play a part in the decision . I understand that even doing all this we might not return positive emergy, but maybe it could slow the decent or keep amenities around longer through proper energy use/conversion. Is the better energy use/conversion a power plant or a PV solar cell? The google helps us currently regain the skills we lost, but in the long run our bird flocks and stocks need to be adapted locally with feed from onsite. We need local cultures and not a global culture that electronic communication mandates. So why keep the electric grid and its information? The problem we have is that all our fossil fuel economy is waste based and doesn’t/cannot return energy on its uses. This leads to the bigger question: Is it better to have loved (used fossil fuels) and lost than to have never loved at all? Has the over all trajectory of Earth’s history now been blessed with more intelligent/happier beings because we did use fossil fuels? Has the over all trajectory of Earth’s history now been allowed to have a greater biomass due to our massive mineral dispersion? Does our environmental damage through loss of diversity plant the seeds for fossil fuels to be regenerated in the future? Thanks again for creating a space for newbies of emergy concepts to learn.

      • Brian, thanks for continuing to chip away at this. I need to learn how to explain this so it can be understood by an elementary school teacher with no basis in the concepts, a friend suggested, and I’m not there yet, obviously. Thanks for the reference to WWII. We figured out how to leverage nature using fossil fuels to maximize production. Look at the systems and emergy diagrams on this webpage:

        Notice all of the resources getting sucked into the system in the industrial agricultural diagrams. In a true agroecological system, everything would be recycled, and the system would operate off of renewables alone. Yields would be nowhere near as high, but it would be sustainable. And we wouldn’t be guzzling fossil fuels, as Brown et al. put it.

        The more we broaden our footprint, population base, and technology with high density fossil fuels, the more environmental resources we suck in and use, drawing the resources in from a wider and wider base, until we are using a global supply chain to feed the scale, technology, and magnitude of the operation. Which then accelerates the use of fossil fuels. Round and round the flywheel goes, faster and faster, sucking in more and more. You can’t stop a flywheel suddenly. I think I’ve got a youtube video of what happens in that scenario on the Policies for Growth page.

        With the PV panels, most the embodied emergy is in the manufacture of the panels. The manufacture is happening in China, so we send green pieces of paper to China in exchange for a polluting energy technology that doesn’t work as well as energy sources that we are using now, and that only the wealthy can buy. If the PV manufacture was happening in your neighborhood, you would have a better sense of just how much energy is going into the whole process. Yes, once the panel is operational, you are relying on nature’s solar goodness as an adjunct to powering some basic needs in your home. As long as you maintain it, and can store the energy, and so on, all of which takes more emergy. I gave an example somewhere else of what happens when a hurricane comes and the grid goes down. People quickly learn that it is not worth it to stand in line all day competing for generator gasoline to try to maintain all higher order needs; it is just easier to simplify and burn candles and cook off of the BBQ grill. As complexity devolves, if we want to try to slow descent and keep amenities, it will depend on stored wealth in terms of the local hierarchy of energy. How many levels of hierarchy are you trying to maintain? As fossil fuels wane, if you’re the only one with the lights on, unless you are really wealthy and in your gated neighborhood (and that’s only a very short term solution) then it depends on the depth of environmental support systems and the general wellbeing of your entire ecosystem as to whether you thrive. How many operational computers and servers does it take to contribute to a thriving internet community? And so on. All of that depends on how much overshoot you started in, and how many levels of hierarchy you are trying to maintain. Each step in the hierarchy below (as one example) takes a large increase in the amount of energy entrained to keep the pyramid going. That’s the bottom line. As energy is removed, layers come off. Eventually, trying to keep the higher order technology becomes too big of a leap, as Odum suggested. Does that help?

        Have your read Jared Diamond’s “Was agriculture the biggest mistake in the history of mankind?”

        “Does our environmental damage through loss of diversity plant the seeds for fossil fuels to be regenerated in the future?” LOL. HT would have been delighted with that question. He always thought long term, that was part of the reason why people couldn’t understand him–too big of a scale.

        Here’s another paper by Brown, Raugei, and Ulgiati, 2012: On boundaries and investments in Emergy Synthesis and LCA: A case study on thermal vs. PV electricity. The computed EYR for PV electricity is 2.2–still very low.
        “Indicators of efficiency and environmental performance are fundamental to marking progress toward more sustainable patterns of human development. Central to indicator development is a common framework through which the wide range of environmental assessment methods may make comparative analysis. Clear and consistent definitions of system boundaries and input categories are essential to their interpretation, and form a necessary pre-requisite for meaningful comparisons of competing systems. A common framework of foreground and background categories, consistent with both LCA and Emergy Synthesis, is identified and discussed as the basis for the calculation of performance indicators. In this paper a revised operational definition of the Emergy Yield Ratio (EYR) is introduced, in light of the proposed categorization scheme, for consistent application to technological processes. Two case studies, namely CdTe PV and oil-fired thermal electricity production, are investigated. The Unit Emergy Value (UEV) of electricity generated by the thermal plant was calculated as 5.69E5 seJ/J with services and 5.11E5 seJ/J without services. The UEV for electricity generated by the PV system is 1.45E5 seJ/J with services, and 7.93E4 seJ/J without services. The computed EYRs including services are 6.8 for thermal electricity and 2.2 for PV electricity.”

  • Thanks for another tour-de-force, Mary! I’ve pulled a few things out for my quotes database.

    • Thanks, Jan, but I’m just reporting the work of a very, very bright community of scientists. The Captain Cook analogy was fun, though! I cannot imagine someone sailing a sailing ship up the tortuous channels of Turnagain arm with nothing but a plumb line and a sextant, and perhaps some local knowledge from Dena’ina natives. The arm has 6 knot currents and a tidal bore that can reach 6 feet and travel at 15 mph on spring tides, as the tidal variation is close to 30 feet. And treacherous mudflats should one decide to get out and walk. And regular hurricane force winds that blow through the passes. Alaska is big, and we have big weather, too.

      And check out the shipwreck images, from Weimarart’s website, especially the Winslow Homer “The Gulfstream.” I was very tempted to include that image opposite the one of the catboat.

  • Rita

    Good article! What many people need now is a practical guide on how to consume less, how to live without fossil fuels! Very few people know how to make and use, for example: haybox, solar cooker, wood stove, sail boats, solar heater, wood house, adobe house, cloth diapers, cloth pads, natural cosmetics, soap, wood lye, wine, beer, dried meat, dried fruit, organic apiculture, organic agriculture, lant etc. All this knowledge is needed to replace the fossil fuel based industry and transport.

    • I think we’ve all been trained that you need to spend most of your time working for money in order to get these things. By the time you’ve cooked the evening meal in a solar cooker (in the winter in Alaska?) made some diapers, dried some meat and fruit, etc. there aren’t too many hours left in the day for a regular job.

      It seems to me that foremost on this list is getting rid of “fiscal monoculture” — having a small number of income streams. If you’re a 40-hour/week wage slave, it can all be taken from you pretty quickly. But if you do enough extra of those things Rita mentions — and sell them to your neighbours — you’ve become fiscally diversified. (And I don’t mean you have a balance portfolio, which the banksters can take away, too!)

      • Absolutely, Rita. But we don’t each need to make or learn all of the skills. That is why community becomes more important when we withdraw the fossil fuel subsidies. Instead of having all of those things basically made out of oil, we fall back on a community of diverse wisdom, skills, and crafts, as Jan suggests.

        But that solar cooker in Alaska in winter, Jan–its just not going to fly. It illustrates another principle inherent in a low energy world. Because we are living in nature and adapting to the available energies, we have to adapt our local communities to what is available there. And in Alaska in winter, historically that was wood, or further north, whale or seal oil. Now, natural gas or coal. In the future in Alaska, a mix of hydroelectric, tidal, coal, waning natural gas and petroleum, and biomass?

        I like the fiscal diversity meme, Jan. Work a little less for the hierarchy, and more for yourself. Start to shift your portfolio from assets made of oil to a broader mix.

  • FreethinkerKW

    Outstanding, brilliant, extremely well written. Thanks for all the references. And please come back to the Free For All Economics board on Motley Fool where much of what you have written is discussed by a handful of posters who have the same outlook you have.

    Rock in the Florida Keys
    aka FreethinkerKW

    • Hey, Rock, great to hear from you and Casey! I’ll be by, it’s been a while since Mish’s board and Metar!

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  • Virginia Hamilton

    Note to webmaster, “potatoes made of oil.” link is dead.

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