Saturday, June 1, 2013

Austerity and energy

If you want a pretty terrifying read see "Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance and the End of Growth"  from Tim Morgan of  Tullet Prebon Research, a London  finance outfit. It sees the debt crisis being made even worse by an upcoming energy crisis, due to the declining ‘energy return on energy invested’ (EROEI) of conventional fossil and nuclear fuels, and the implications of this for economic growth. The global EROEI is he says now down  from about 40 in 1990 to 17 in 2010, may decline to just 11 by 2020.. He talks of the need for ‘social, political and cultural adaptation to “life after growth”.’And this from, in effect, a Banker...
However, he doesn't pay much attention to renewables, other than saying CSP is worth looking at. His data shows that biofuels and shale gas are all hopeless in EROEI terms, as is PV solar, well below his EROEI cut off point for profitability of 15, and wind is not much better- he puts it a just under 15.
There are higher estimates. For example, Gagnon’s study 'Civilisation and energy payback' in Energy Policy 36 (2008) 3317-3322 and Danny Harveys excellent work on EROEIs.  Gagnon quotes EROEIs  for wind power, with 35% load  factors, of ~18 for Offshore and 34 for Onshore. Harvey’s 2010 book ‘Carbon Free Energy Supply’ ( Earthscan) , using more recent data, puts the EROEI for wind at 40-80, and it’s likely they will improve on that with new technology.
It’s worth noting however that hydro does much better, with EROEIs of 200 or more, due to the long life of the plant. Nothing else can compare. Harvey puts CSP at 8-40. But PV is now getting better (Harvey puts it at 10-25) with new less energy intensive cell technology, and wave and tidal stream power may follow the path of wind to lower EROEIs, while nuclear will get even worse, as lower grade fuel has to be processed. Gagnon puts current PWRs at 14-16, while Harvey quotes 17-19 for the current world average uranium ore grade of 0.2 - 0.3%, but for an ore grade of 0.01%, it drops to 5.6 for underground mining and to 3.2% for open pit mining, and could be as low as 2 for in situ leaching techniques. So nuclear could become even worse than coal which Harvey quotes as 5-6.7 and even gas plants, at 2.2. Renewables can do much better than that, not least since they don’t need fuel. They offer power sources for a new and sustainable economic and energy system. If we are to return to some sort of growth, that may be where it will be. So maybe our banker friend, and the rest of us, can breath easier.
Tim Morgan is not the first  to warn of industrial and economic collapse due to falling EROEIs. See  for example 'Energy and the Wealth of Nations’, Charles A. S. Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard, Springer, 2011. And of course Barry Commoner said it all in the 1970s, though he put it in terms of capitalism running out of capital faced with the increasing cost of energy technology.  Proponents of simpler conserver lifestyles, like Ted Trainer, who don’t see renewables being able to support anything like current ‘Western’ living standard, also say similar things. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt (much) to adopt a more sustainable approach to consumption, as Tim Jackson has argued in his seminal  ‘Prosperity without Growth’.
Some say this will be forced on us. For example in his 2007 World Energy and Population (WEAP) blog report, Paul Chefurcha said that oil would peak round about now, while gas, and then coal, would peak around 2025. Shale gas and oil may extend that a little, but, more interestingly, he also claims that nuclear won’t get off and running and although renewables will, their growth will stall and collapse around 2090 or so, since there wont be enough fossil/ nuclear energy or the high level of technology and manufacturing capacity needed to sustain expansion. The result is further societal and population collapse.
This particular doom scenario seems unlikely, or, rather, unnecessary.  If we invest our remaining fossil (and fissile) fuel in building up renewables capacity, we will create a base for further renewables growth, up to maybe a sustainable steady state, which will then only need small energy inputs for upgrades and replacement. However it could also provide a surplus, to allow for more growth, if that’s what we want/need, up to the final planetary limit of renewable energy availability, which is some way off, even given land use constraints. There is an awful lot of desert for CSP/CPV and sea for offshore wind, wave and tidal.  The only (!) uncertainty is- will we invest fossil energy in this, or just burn it off, for no long-term benefit.  Chefulka is not confident.  He thinks we are doomed by our willful short termism and greed for more. Certainly, as the WEAP study makes clear, and  as the Optimum Population Trust also always says, what would help, is less economic growth  expectations, or at least less people!

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