The Meaning of Return on Energy

Energy itself is unseen, but we see its effects all around us. Energy flows power our economy, and all nature too. Every living organism has metabolism, the energy required to keep its bodily processes functioning. Without food, energy, cellular processes begin to shut down. When in due course they stop completely, any organism (even you) is dead.

For a species to survive, organisms must take in enough energy to sustain its basal metabolism; then acquire food, reproduce, and see the new life off to a healthy start. Thus, one way to see nature is as a constant flow of energy as plants grow and drop seed, and as hawks swoop prey, for instance, all in more variety than any of us can see. And gazillions of life cycles at the microbial size and below none of us can see with the naked eye.

On a bigger scale, weather is ongoing exchanges of energy. A big storm is an exchange that gets our attention, perhaps very destructively. Howard Odum was an ecologist who pioneered the idea of emergy, or the amount of energy that it took to create a visible object into its present form. He and others measured ecological balance by the balance in energy flows between different ecological areas. Storms, earthquakes, and eruptions mightily disrupt these balances, but so does human activity. Agriculture, mining, cities, traffic, wars, and just noise is disruptive. Unlike other animals we deploy energy far in excess of our bodily needs, so we also shift the balance of nature mightily from what it would be were we not here.

In the last two centuries, we’ve disrupted enough to substantially degrade nature. Where nature used to prevail, billions of people now live, still disrupting. Given this, finding a new balance with nature has two strategies. One is to stop disrupting nature. The second is to revitalize nature; let it come back. Learning how to live well and do that is the objective of Compression Thinking.

Return on Energy as an Example of New Thinking

Energy Returned on Energy Invested is often labeled EROI. It mimics nature’s “measurement system.” It contrasts with money and return on financial investment, ROI, our way of looking at things. ROI presumes that we are independent of nature. We’re not.

EROI is most often applied to obtaining energy. How many barrels of oil do we get when we burn one? It’s a ratio; 10/1 means ten barrels for every one burnt. In nature, any organism with an EROI of less than 1/1 starves, but to thrive, needs an EROI not much over 1/1. Because of this, biology is very efficient, widely dispersing energy to maximize biomass and biodiversity. But humans concentrate energy. We often seek to maximize how much we control. This clash disrupts ecologies. And big explosions or dangerous radiation also disrupt human life.

Human economies run on energy. Ancient elites built civilizations on excess energy (to them) from rich soil, work animals, slaves, water power. Then they used it to innovate, if only to build monuments to their own glory. Today’s advanced economies so utterly depend on energy that even the poorest people can rarely live off the land. To function, they need vehicles, cell phones, and computers. All soak up energy. Imagine Los Angeles bereft of both electricity and motor fuel, a grim scenario likely to produce casualties. What would we do?

Finding a new balance between nature and energy-intensive economies is no small challenge. Hint: We have to become much less energy intensive and ameliorate a host of threats accumulated from being further and further out of balance with nature.

It’s no secret that global politics, the Great Game, centers on petroleum. Control of oil & gas leverages you up the human pecking order. But this Game is threatened by how much oil & gas is available, the EROI to get it, pressure to stop blowing CO2in the air, and by many more environmental threats in a long list.

Despite difficulties actually applying EROI, or maybe because of them, EROI is a telling indicator for comparing fossil fuels and all alternatives to them. In all oil fields EROI drops as they deplete. Unlike tanks that drain dry, oil fields don’t run out. Oil concentration drops too low to be worth the energy (or money) to pump. Globally, here’s roughly where we are:

  • Coal: 45/1
  • Oil & Gas: 20/1
  • Tar Sands: 2/1                         From Figs. 10.7 and 10.8, Energy Return on Investment
  • Oil Shale: 4/1
  • Ethanol: 2/1 max
  • Biodiesel: 1/1
  • Hydroelectric: 80/1
  • Nuclear: 10/1
  • Geothermal: 5/1
  • Wind: 20/1
  • PV Solar: 6/1

Although not on this list, fracking is about 5/1 per other sources. But EROI is only one factor in sourcing energy. Is it constant or cyclical? What’s the energy density? What are conversion losses? How much nature must one tear up to get it? Often overlooked are materials for obtaining or using energy, like whether rare minerals exist to supply global deployment of solar panels (tellurium) or wind generators (neodymium).

EROI Estimation

The advantage of EROI estimates is that they are not precise. Therefore, we have to think. How was EROI estimated? Was anything significant omitted? Exercise symbiotic thinking questioning when output energy become useful. For instance, does the energy of coal burnt for electricity become “useful” when it is burnt at the power plant, or only after 35% or so of that heat becomes electricity? Transmitting it incurs more losses. Then if you blow dry your hair, how much energy actually evaporates water? Losses are enormous. So why not air dry your hair and blow off all this waste? 

In transportation, at best only a tenth of all energy pumped from a wellhead turns vehicle wheels, moving perhaps 3000 pounds, of which only 150 pounds is butt. An advanced economy today requires high EROI sources of energy to cover big waste heat losses.

Losses using energy are easier to identify than the main energy inputs for generating energy. Go deeper into systems thinking. For example, each fracking well needs at least 500 loads of “stuff” hauled to it. Obviously, the truck fuel counts. How about fuel for the driver’s commute? The energy embedded in the truck itself – energy to obtain all materials for the truck, fabricate parts, assemble, and ready the truck for this trip? How about energy to prime the truck driver for the trip; prep her meals, provide the house and bed that she slept in, day care for her children, and on it goes. And don’t forget to allocate some energy used for administrative processes. At some point stop. Energy inputs dwindle into insignificance. If EROI intrigues you, Charles Hall’s Energy Return on Investment is comprehensive.

Charles Hall (no relation) and colleagues have investigated energy sources and EROI for decades. Their educated, but rough guess is that advanced economies need a composite EROI of 10/1 or so to continue much as now. Unfortunately, alternatives to fossil fuels generally have lower EROIs, and many more environmental issues need attention than declining EROI.

“Radical” Implications

Very few fossil fuel extractors estimate EROI to make decisions. They use financial projections based on prices and costs. Will it make money? That is their question. The system dictates that energy must be profitable, as measured by that system, so companies imaginatively lobby system rules. Besides, governments subsidize all major forms of energy production, fossil and alternate. According to Forbes, world-wide subsidies to energy producers top $5 trillion. Most of these “breaks” are imputed, but unpaid costs of pollution that do not appear in company financial statements.

Well known is that external imputations inflate or deflate depending on analyst bias picking effects of pollution. Even with no conscious bias, this still peters out like exploring for significant energy inputs to estimate EROI. This pattern is characteristic of symbiotic thinking.

By contrast, strict company-centered financial accounting primarily summarizes transactions. In theory, these can be precise to the penny, but as the Forbesarticle suggests, precision is narrow in focus, not comprehensive. A precise but self-centered model is biased – biased against all the factors left out of the model. In this sense, every kind of model is based. If it included “everything” it would not be a model, but the “reality” being modeled, and probably incomprehensible. However, for Compression Thinking we  need inclusionary, systemic models. EROI is an example.

Profit-centered business measurements ignore nature. When imputed costs become extreme, portending environmental collapse: no nature, no life, no business — then business logic evaporates into nothingness. Noise about serving all stakeholders just begins to escape this trap. Businesses are still stuck in it as long as they live or die by conventional business-centered profit models.

“Business thinking” needs new conventions more like Compression Thinking. If it would help acceptance, it could take on other names, like Bio-Economics. Maybe even dropping the term “business” might stop us from reverting to our past. Environmentalists have proposed several alternate biases like holding the environment to be sacred so that we mustlearn to be in balance with it. That’s a radically different mindset for a radically changing environment.