By Murray Grimwood*
We don’t do anything without using energy. Don’t eat; you die. Don’t fill the tank, your car dies. Don’t feed ‘the economy’ with energy, your economy dies (or becomes virtual). Which suggests that dollars are underwritten by petajoules, not the other way around. In this first part, we’ll examine energy to date. Part two will look ahead at future options.
We started with no energy-surplus at all – hunter-gathering, hand-to-mouth. We got better – storing surpluses for times of shortage. We got even better using fire (via solar-derived energy, stored in trees) which alleviated some of our digestion-demanded energy. Eventually we organized agriculture and our social structures so we had bigger energy surpluses, releasing some folk to specialise in non-energy activities – art, writing, education, leadership. Most of our energy – surpluses included - was in the form of food which fuelled human and animal labour.
Human ‘productivity’ depends on how much energy is spent producing stuff versus how much is spent consuming it. Hence, moves toward ‘productivity’ always involve less pay (less ability to consume) for the labourer - the ultimate expression of which is slavery. The dominance of male over female also had its origin in the times when human muscle-power meant the difference between surplus and death, indeed it can be argued that access to excess energy has enabled equalities of all kinds.
Solar-derived energy underwriting human/animal work was largely the case until fossil-fuels became harnessed around 200 years ago, kicking-off the Industrial Revolution. At the time, most of its one billion inhabitants thought of the planet as being infinite. They burrowed into this underground bonanza as fast as they could, going for the best-stuff first, little caring that it was just a one-off store of ancient solar energy.
A rapid evolution of technologies applied the new, compact, powerful energies to everything from clothing to agriculture to transport. Coal/steam turned to oil/internal-combustion. Both drove electricity. Within a century, we were using fossil fuels efficiently enough to power flight. Within two, human labour was contributing less than 1% of all work done (and a goodly percentage of that labour was fossil-fuel-fed). William Jevons was the first to notice a trend induced by technology – one which is of no use to us at all. Now known as the Jevons Paradox, he noted that efficiencies led to more consumption, not less.
But technology is always impotent without energy in the tank and the laws of physics – more pertinently the Laws of Thermodynamics, always applied. We’ve never got away from cooling-fins, compressors or radiators, never beaten the Laws. It will always take energy to do work, it will always take work to accomplish anything physical.
Energy return on energy invested
As stated, we tapped into the best, first. This is an important point, overlooked by almost every commentator. We went for the closest, the shallowest, the most useful, the most compact fossil energy, first. The best anthracite coal was burnt before any of us was born. The supply of the light-sweet-crude oil we prefer, plateaued a decade ago. Coming on stream are fractured-rock sources, tar-sand derived sources, deep offshore sources; ever-worsening as we go.
If the trend is overlooked by most commentators, the problem it presents is overlooked universally. The problem is that it takes energy to obtain energy. As the obtaining process gets harder to do (fracking, shifting mountains to get at coal, turning tar-sand gloop into what you expect at the pump) you’re going to have to sacrifice more of what you get, to get it. In other words, your available energy – and thus your available work – becomes an ever-lesser proportion of the quantity of every ‘next’ source.
The ration of useful energy available, versus the energy it took to obtain it, is termed EROEI – Energy return on Energy Invested. In Nature, this ratio is everything; no life-form can survive if its ratio is negative. If a wolf chases a rabbit, the eating of the rabbit has to return more energy that the chase expended – or the wolf dies. EROEI is why trees shed leaves and bears hibernate – to survive the winter period of low solar energy. It explains why the wolf chases the fattest rabbit, it explains post-battle cannibalism. It also explains why we don’t sequester the CO2 we leave behind us on the highway – to collate the CO2 and pump it underground, we’d have to divert a significant chunk of the energy we use.
It is generally reckoned that we started into fossil energy at an EROEI of around 100:1, currently we’re dropping into the ‘teens. At 1:1, no energy will ever be extracted, no matter what the price. (This seems hard for some folk to grasp – one commentator even suggesting you could ‘exchange cheaper energy for more expensive’. All I can say is that if you paid for an education which left you thinking like that, I’d ask for my money back. In full jerry-cans).
At some predictable point, the growing of our rate-of-extraction of fossil energy had to cease – this is true for all finite resources. The first to contemplate this formally was Hubbert – here critiqued with hindsight.
The squeeze comes on when you are about half-way through the volumetric resource, exacerbated by the reducing quality of what remains (reducing EROEI, in other words). This debate got muddied a decade ago – light sweet crude hit a plateau as predicted, but suddenly ‘oil’ seemed to include tar-sands, shale, bio, coal-to. These inclusions all keep kicking the volumetric can down the road, but due to their reducing EROEI, the required resource volume is increasing exponentially. Energy studiers have called it the Red Queen phenomenon – we’re running ever-harder to stay on the same spot.
Oil discoveries peaked globally in 1964 and given that you cannot extract what you have not discovered; the trend is pretty obvious. According to Rystad, less than 7 billion barrels of conventional oil equivalent was discovered in 2017, the lowest since the 1940's and enough to replace just 11% of global oil and gas production last year. If you want to go deeper into the topic look at this.
Peak everything else
Putting variables (like efficiencies and triage) aside, peak energy-supply means peak work do-able. But it gets worse than that – to extract other minerals involves shifting ever-more ‘overburden’ per ton recovered, using fossil energy of ever-lowering EROEI to do so; a compounding whammy. The same goes for what we’ve built – a never-bigger collection of infrastructure, all of which represents expended fossil energy. That collection is all ageing, a process which requires more and more energy be directed at maintenance or replacement, as time passes. Energy which is being increasingly contested.
It would appear that we’ve arrived at the inevitable stage where the energy required to develop the next energy extraction, ‘costs’ more than society can ‘afford’. Above a certain inflation-adjusted level – around US$80 to US$90/barrel it seems – ‘economies’ go into ‘recession’. Even though they’re counting only one side of the ledger, racking up arguably unrepayable forward bets (debts). Money aside, technology (fracking, water-injection, horizontal drilling) is not keeping pace with demand any more.
Yet we are still building, selling and – for now – buying, technologies reliant on the plateauing energy-source. For every EV sold, more than 50 fossil-powered vehicles leave the sales-yards. We have to ask how many of those will become stranded assets before their design life is over. As well as the tractors, diggers, planes, boats – all being turned out for sale with fossil-fuel-requiring power-plants.
Accounting for energy
(source: Our Finite World). What if we unhitch GDP from energy-use? Perhaps the prior question should be: Is GDP a useful measure? GDP doesn’t recognize deferred maintenance, which is exactly what happens when ageing infrastructure meets dwindling energy-availability and is one of only two explanations for any recent de-coupling (the other being ‘virtual’ trading, including upping the ‘value’ of existing energy-imbedded items). A recent treatise even cites our own PM in this regard.
Growth-rates, numbers and implications
I have kept away from minutiae figures here, deliberately. When exponential growth curves are concerned, the ‘doubling’ phenomenon renders all observation pointless – it’ll happen soon even if it isn’t happening now. And when two exponential trends cross – as with EROEI trending down and finite-resource extraction trending up – soon just happens sooner. If your societal and infrastructural constructs depend on continued net energy availability, you’d better have your Plan B infrastructure in place before Plan A runs its course. Arguing about a decade or two, is worse than pointless. That infers that we have to go with ‘known technology’ (in a nice turn of phrase Heinberg calls the alternative: ‘Waiting for the Magic Elixir’). Statistically, depending on the yet-to-be-invented/proven is a game of Russian roulette; it’s just a matter of time and the problem will be never-bigger when it happens. Our Parliamentarians have no excuse for not having matters in hand.
The logical questions (covered in Part 2) are: Can we continue doing what we’re doing, in daily-effort terms? And: If not, what is our best course of action, over what time-frame?