Friday, October 18, 2019


Energy Supply System Requirements

In a few posts I’ve briefly touched upon the three basic requirements (as I see them) for any energy supply system which sustains a society, state, empire, or civilization, but I have always felt the need to describe it in a bit more detail and in a more formal manner. Such is the purpose of this post. The three requirements are:

1. The system must be self-sustaining. That is, it must pay its own day-to-day running costs.

2. The system must be self-replicating. That is, it must provide the energy for building (and rebuilding/replacing) its own physical infrastructure. These costs are capital expenditures, as opposed to running costs.

3. After satisfying requirements #1 and #2, the system must still have surplus energy with which to power the socioeconomic system.

Corollary to #3: The amount of surplus energy supplied to society determines what kind of society/civilization is possible. For example, civilizations based on wood and charcoal will be totally different from, and primitive in comparison with, those based on denser forms of energy such as fossil fuels.

This helps explain why industrial civilization is tanking. Not all fossil fuels are created equal, and we are steadily moving from higher-quality, easy-to-extract fossil fuels to lower-quality, hard-to-extract fossil fuels. This transition gradually decreases surplus energy (#3) because there is progressively less surplus energy left after covering the costs in #1 and #2. The situation gets increasingly desperate, as illustrated by, for example, shale oil, which is not even economically viable. Another example would be biofuels, which — because of their low EROI values — cannot satisfy even requirement #1. In other words, if biofuels produced in the first cycle were used to power the machinery, trucks, and biofuel production facilities in the second cycle, the biofuels would run out during the production process, leaving no energy for requirements #2 and #3.

This also casts a dark cloud over renewables like wind and solar. Intermittency, variability, and the need for storage, overbuilding, and vast tracts of land, as well as other problems, lead me to believe that they cannot satisfy the three requirements, or at least that they cannot supply enough surplus energy to maintain civilization at this level. And if civilization cannot be maintained at this level, that is bad news for renewables because their infrastructure is built by the industrial system.

Another factor is the key difference between fossil fuels and renewables. FFs are actually biofuels created by natural forces. Nature produced the organic materials which served as the feedstock for FFs, gathered them up in colossal quantities, put them in gigantic pressure cookers, and let them stew for millennia. When humans appeared on the Earth, they were already finished. All we have to do is extract them from their underground containers and perform the final processing. Because our energy input is relatively small, the FF energy supply system has yielded a fabulously huge amount of surplus energy. And that is the prodigious power that built our globe-straddling industrial civilization.

On the other hand, to make biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel we must do all that work ourselves. Nature’s only input is sunlight (in the case of FFs, geological forces did the rest), so we have to produce and harvest the feedstock ourselves. As such, our energy inputs are so large that there is much less surplus energy, and in some cases none at all! As I have conceived it, therefore, biofuels are a complete waste of the FF energy used to satisfy requirements #2 and #3. In terms of this energy system, the sensible thing to do is directly use the FFs, and forget about biofuels. The real test of any energy source or combination of sources is not its EROI, but whether it can satisfy the three requirements given above. In other words, it either pulls its own weight (requirements #1 and #2) and supplies surplus energy to society (requirement #3), or it’s simply not an energy source. Many people will say that technological improvements will be made, and they are likely correct. But no matter what improvements are made, they will not cause nature to magically do most of the work for us, as it did with FFs; we still need to supply the inputs ourselves, which means that renewables can never match FFs with regard to requirement #3, i.e., in supplying society with such a large amount of surplus energy.

Many people insist that we can completely stop using fossil fuels, and power civilization as we know it on renewables alone. Think about that for a minute. Renewable-energy hardware is currently made with FFs, but we are supposedly going to operate, build, and replace all those solar and wind farms, hydroelectric dams, and other energy-producing facilities and equipment with their energy alone, and still have plenty of energy left over to live the high life. I propose that if and when we actually try to do this, we shall find that even if all three requirements are met (which I strongly doubt), the amount of surplus energy will not be big enough to maintain what we have already built. In light of the corollary to #3, that is a very serious problem. It means a long downhill slide to a much simpler lifestyle. As Richard Heinberg would say, the party’s over.

Finally, there are several peripheral items I would like to briefly touch upon.

1. I have frequently mentioned “net energy decline.” Net energy is simply a system’s “energy take-home pay” after paying the system’s energy costs. Those costs are requirements #1 and #2. And the “take-home” portion is the surplus energy left to run the economy.

2. Governments and military forces all know that FFs, not renewables, will power the victors. Thus the focus on controlling major oil fields.

3. We often hear that new technologies are going to bless us with new sources of energy, i.e., technology begets energy. I propose that it is actually the other way around. In other words, energy begets technology. Although I concede that technology does aid in obtaining more energy or new sources of energy, it’s important to realize that scientific discovery and technological advances are very highly dependent on the amount of energy we can lavish on research and development. I leave it to readers to imagine how different the world would be if humanity had never gotten beyond the photosynthetic ceiling, and we were still limited to biomass for energy.

4. Hydrogen is not an energy source!

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