Gushing oil wells

Oil doesn’t flow like this anymore. This is Lakeview Gusher Number One, an oil eruption from a pressurized well in the Midway-Sunset Oil Field in Kern County, California, in 1910. One hundred years ago, wells like this one produced 90,000 barrels of oil per day, but now they’re down to only two barrels per day. Photo is public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Development professionals do their work under the assumption that the developing world will some day look a lot like the developed world. But there’s a good chance that they’re wrong. A practical look at the world’s energy supply, and interesting new research into the link between energy, culture and quality of life, shows that the reverse is probably true: The developed world will soon look more like the developing world. Here’s why that’s happening and what we can do to prepare for a big change right now.

From farmers to desk jockeys

Since the early 1990’s, the US government has not counted “farmers” as a category in the national census, and that is a symptom of energy consumption. Diesel fuel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are all forms of energy that have supplanted human and animal muscle on the farm. This energy, tdemic “cubicle serfs,” in developed countries. And global development professionals are trying to shepherd the developing world along the sahat comes from cheap, accessible fossil fuels, has turned the agrarian serfs of the middle ages into today’s corporate, government, and acame path.

Fossil energy has facilitated three doublings of the global population since the eighteenth century, while erecting a byzantine techno-social hierarchy in the developed world and in the power centers of the developing world.

A truck hauls the tower of a wind turbine

Renewable energy depends heavily on fossil fuels, exemplified by this convoy of diesel-fueled trucks bearing the gargantuan pieces of a wind turbine. Photo credit: Tom / Flickr

Energy return on investment

Let’s look at energy from an accountant’s point of view. We’re not going to look at the total amount of energy possessed by planet Earth – the fossil coal, oil and gas, sunlight, wind, tides, radioactive nuclei, or the sum total of energy embodied in chemical bonds. Instead, we’re looking at net energy: the amount of useful energy left over after subtracting the energy it takes to explore for energy sources, then extract, refine, process them, and so on.

One method for calculating this net-energy surplus is called the Energy Return On Investment, EROI for short. This concept was pioneered by Charles Hall and his colleagues at the State University of New York in Syracuse, New York. At the heart of EROI is one simple equation: EROI = energy returned to society / energy invested to get that energy.

Tapping 500 million years of sunlight

Access to high-EROI energy sources is what allows societies to develop the advanced technological systems and complex, highly differentiated social hierarchies that we see around us today.

In contrast, people in the Middle Ages had low-EROI energy sources – just human and animal muscle, plus biomass to burn and some light use of wind and water currents. In those days, most of the population had to put their back into their work because they didn’t have a diesel engine to do it for them.

The fossil fuel era has ushered in a high-EROI-energy windfall unprecedented in the history of the planet. Humans have unlocked the power of 500 million years of stored, concentrated sunlight. And we have been burning through this finite, one-time energy bonanza with remarkable speed.

EROI is tied directly to development

To keep our Western lifestyles going, developed countries need a substantial net-energy surplus.

Jessica Lambert and her colleagues at Next Generation Energy Initiative, Inc. in Marcellus, New York, posit that societies meet the most basic and important energy needs first, then if there is energy left over, they meet increasingly complex needs along a ladder that they call the “hierarchy of energy needs.” It is analogous to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.

The researchers gave voice to their ideas in the August 2013 edition of the journal Energy Policy (pdf). Above, I’ve appended a figure from their paper with arrows indicating the coordinates of increasing EROI available to society and increasing techno-social complexity.

The researchers calculated energy access and EROI for countries around the world, plotting the data against common indices of development and quality of life, including the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), percent of children underweight, public health expenditures, female literacy, gender equality, and access to “improved” water supply. I’ve reproduced one such plot on the left with a superimposed line corresponding to the EROI that marks the approximate boundary between upper and lower levels of human development.

The researchers found that countries with moderate to high levels of human development tended to have EROIs in excess of 20:1 or 30:1 (an EROI of 20:1 signifies that for every 1 unit of energy invested, 19 units are acquired). On the other hand, countries accessing net energy at less than 20:1 generally have not been able to achieve high levels of development.

Why did we replace human labor with fossil fuels?

One barrel of oil costs about $100 and contains the energy equivalent of 1 person’s manual labor of 11 years.At the US minimum wage, paying for that human labor would cost $500,000. Even at the very low wage of $1 per day, common in some developing regions, a $100 barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of $5,600 worth of human labor.

The authors also looked at trends in EROI provided by prevailing energy technologies including oil, gas, coal, solar photovoltaics and wind, nuclear, hydro, and so on.

The highest EROI sources are gone

The fossil fuel sources of the 20th century had a far higher EROI than everything else., and now they are gone. Historic conventional oil and gas fields, for example, provided EROIs of the magnitude 50:1 to 100:1, or more. We have burned through the deposits that were the easiest to exploit and now EROIs for global oil and gas have declined to something like 20:1.

For example, yesteryear’s conventional oil wells cost $400,000 to drill and produced about 1000 barrels per day for a few decades. Today’s “fracked” shale oil wells cost $6-12 million per well to drill and produce at best a few hundred barrels per day for one to three years.

And renewable sources do not have high EROI

But that is still a much higher EROI than renewable fuels can provide. Renewable technologies have lower EROIs, at about 5:1 to 15:1, and they depend on cheap fossil fuel for large-scale deployment. As an example, wind turbines contain large amounts of neodymium to make the magnets that they use to generate electricity, and we mine that metal with Godzilla-sized diesel-powered machinery.

Wind and solar photovoltaics make up less than 1 percent of the global energy portfolio. In the United States, solar-PV supplies less than one hundredth of 1 percent of our electricity. Hobbled by relatively low EROIs and owing to their dependence upon a platform of cheap high-EROI fossil fuels for their manufacture, installation, and maintenance, it’s not feasible for renewables to be rapidly scaled to meet future energy needs if we are aiming to maintain business as usual with exponential growth in national economies, population, and wealth.

So, we appear to be facing a very troubling net-energy shortfall. The EROI that has fueled our development so far will soon be gone as fossil fuels deplete and decline in quality, and we cannot make up the difference by substituting renewables. What’s even more troubling, though, is that EROI does not appear to decline in a linear fashion.

The “Net-Energy Cliff” with EROI expressed as the number of the horizontal axis to one, i.e.e 20:1 (this figure is from Lamber and Lamber, adapted from Murphy and Hall (2010)). Concepty courtesy of Euan Mearns. Image by Josh Kearns.

The net-energy cliff

The implications of this analysis are troubling to say the least.

Globally, the net return on our prevailing energy staples oil and gas1 has declined into the range of 20:1 – 30:1. A look at the state of global development today suggests that this is an EROI that makes it difficult for societies to achieve a high quality of life. The EROIs of renewable technologies fall at or below this range.

Now look at what happens in an EROI range of 10:1 – 20:1. The exponential EROI function begins to drop off sharply. This is termed the “net-energy cliff.” A society moving through this range of declining EROI becomes increasingly less able to support high levels of techno-social complexity. We in the affluent West have come to take the fruits of this complexity for granted as the sine qua non for a high standard of living as well as our birthright in perpetuity.

The end of global development

This analysis has two take-home messages for E4C readers and everyone involved in engineering for global development. First, it is unlikely that the developing world will ever “develop” as such. And second, the affluent developed world will face catabolic “de- development,” as energy sources dwindle and eventually fail to support the upper levels of the hierarchy of energy needs. Catabolism occurs when a society depletes its resources, can no longer grow and begins to dissassemble its infrastructure to consume it for energy, as John Michael Greer explains (pdf).

We need to do this not simply out of moral obligation to the world’s poor, but also because, in short order, we are going to need these same technologies ourselves.

Soon, much of the taken-for-granted armature of modern affluent life will break down and go whistling down the wind of history. Unfortunately, this will be a painful process that will catch many by surprise. The prevailing assumptions are that growth is endless and prosperity always rises. We have a quasi-utopian faith in the unalloyed beneficent proceeds of technology and innovation. But a practical look at net energy suggests otherwise.

The engineers’ response

We should act now to prepare for the decline. The first priority should be to gain more experience developing technologies that are scaled to the resource constraints of the future. And we need to do this not simply out of moral obligation to the world’s poor, but also because, in short order, we are going to need those same technologies ourselves.

EROI calculations should inform decisions about the course of science and engineering research and development. Innovation should be targeted to make better use of local resources. What we build must help us to live with less energy, emphasizing quality over material quantity, all while we’re becoming poorer in the aggregate. And it should help us to anticipate what kinds of shocks are ahead and how we can respond intelligently and creatively.

In short, engineering science and technology R&D should focus on solutions that meet basic needs that are not dependent upon high EROI inputs, long and vulnerable supply chains, or fragile and complex techno-social systems.
There are so many options for innovation, creativity, hopefulness, improvement of our quality of life and community building once people start to seriously consider and embrace the limits to business as usual.

To set appropriate targets for this innovation, we have to accept the probability that the developed world of the future will look a lot more like the developing world of today, and not the reverse as has traditionally been assumed in the development sector.

There are so many options for innovation, creativity, hopefulness, improvement of our quality of life, and community building once people start to seriously consider and embrace the limits to business as usual. There’s so much about business as usual that’s inefficient and unhealthy, so a change really could be a win-win, even in a difficult future of decline and protracted economic collapse.

Painful, but practical, predictions

What kinds of reasonable speculations can we make about the future to draw targets for technology R&D? Here are a few, and I invite you to submit more in the comments section.

  • The future will feature a lot more careers in direct solar- energy-conversion activities such as small-scale farming and forestry. (Roll up your sleeves and grab a hoe!)
  • Local economies will gain importance as cheap-fossil-fuel- dependent long-distance transport chains become nonviable. (Get to know your neighbors and local businesses!)
  • We dare not assume that complex, global, high-tech and energy-intensive systems such as the Internet and ubiquitous 24/7 mobile wireless connectivity are a permanent feature of human existence. (Who wouldn’t welcome less time spent hunched in front of a glowing screen?)
  • Leaders in government, business, media, academia and so on will make every effort to maintain the status quo and business as usual for as long as possible, all the while insisting that nothing is wrong despite mounting evidence to the contrary. (It’s up to us – let’s get to work!)


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