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Energy is everything

By Michael Lardelli - posted Thursday, 23 April 2009


As a whole, the world may attempt to turn to coal to continue to grow its energy production. However, the USA (the world’s greatest coal province) is already past peak net energy from coal production even though its total mined tonnage increases. World coal production is expected to peak before 2030 and will only be marginally higher than current levels. Coal currently supplies only 25 per cent of world energy so this will not compensate for the decline in energy from oil:

Where are we going?

Every time a politician talks about market “sentiment” or says that the market needs “confidence” to recover what they are really confessing is that the pseudo-science of economics provides no reliable predictions for market behaviour. If economics was actually a science it would have undergone a progression of theory development where only those theories that provide reliable predictions of behaviour would be retained and unsuccessful ideas would have been rejected. Obviously this has not happened. (As an article in the journal Scientific American described it, "The Economist Has No Clothes".)

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On the other hand, chemistry and physics can provide very reliable predictions for the behaviour of systems. The laws of thermodynamics tell us how energy determines what a system can and cannot do.

One of the greatest contrasts between economics and science is shown by their view of future energy production. Many “energy economists” believe that declining energy availability will cause the price of energy to rise and this will attract investment to stimulate development of new and alternative sources of energy. Thus the “intelligence” of the market means that an energy crisis solves itself and there is no ultimate limit to how much energy humanity can use. However, if we view the economy as a thermodynamic system (since “the economy is energy”) we would say that a high energy price leads to the greater allocation of a society’s current energy production into the production of more energy. But there is a problem - the energy investment required for new energy production from mined sources increases with time. (See my essay, “Earth as a magic pudding” in On Line Opinion, for a more detailed explanation.)

No source of energy will be exploited if the energy it yields is less than the energy investment required to exploit it. When a finite source of energy is found that does yield an energy profit, (e.g. fossil fuels) the most easily extracted part of that resource (requiring least energy investment) is extracted first since it provides the greatest energy profit. As this finite resource is used up it becomes less and less energetically profitable since more and more energy must be invested to return progressively less energy. Eventually no more energy can be extracted from the resource.

The world’s energy production is now declining and the profitability of energy production is declining at the same time. This means that the net energy available to support activities other than energy procurement will decrease much faster than the fall in total energy production. We are approaching a “net energy cliff” that gets very serious when less than five units of energy are produced for each unit of energy invested:

 
(From Euan Mearns at europe.theoildrum.com. “ERoEI” is Energy Returned on Energy Invested. The ERoEI of oil production has fallen from ~ 30:1 in 1970 to from 11 to 18: 1 in 2000.)

We could possibly increase energy production (“grow the economy”) if we first made extremely large energy investments in the infrastructure required for nuclear and renewable forms of energy - a “wartime crash program”-like commitment. In other words, to stop the energy decline (economic decline) we need to divert a large proportion of our remaining oil energy into building nuclear power stations and solar arrays etc. This is very unlikely to happen in democratic nations since it would require large, voluntary reductions in living standards in the midst of a serious and worsening economic crisis. The immediate cries for help now (e.g. unemployment benefits, company bailouts) will outweigh any future possibility of improved living standards. Wartime crash programs can work because a nation’s population literally has a gun pointed to its head - the population fears death at the hand of the enemy. Energy decline can be just as deadly as any human enemy but, like climate change, its effects are slower and most people do not understand enough about energy to fear its loss.

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There are a number of consequences that follow from this train of logic. They are quite different to what economists are saying:

1) The world economy will contract for at least the next 50 years as oil production declines since oil is such an important proportion of world energy use and oil energy facilitates the production of other energy forms (e.g. coal mining). There may be some local and temporary economic growth in regions with local concentrations of available energy but, on the whole, contraction will be the rule.

2) Governments may attempt by stealth to divert energy investment into renewable and nuclear energy infrastructure and away from the rest of the economy. They can do this by printing additional money and then using this money for the energy infrastructure investments. However, by doing so they have not changed the amount of energy in the economy. All they have done is to dilute the energy value of each unit of currency. The nominal $ value of wealth in the rest of the economy (the non-energy infrastructure part) has not changed but the actual wealth in terms of energy in the rest of the economy has decreased since energy had been diverted out of that area.

3) Once energy is in decline the recent pervasive economic lie that everyone can become wealthier can no longer be sustained. Now one person’s increased wealth can only come at the expense of another person’s worsened poverty. Actually, it is worse than a zero sum game since the economy is not just failing to grow - it is actually contracting at the same time as the number of consumers (population) is expanding. We have come to a fork in the road where we can either share a contracting pool of wealth (energy) equally or it can become concentrated in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. Some financial commentators believe that the bailouts of financial institutions in the USA together with the inflationary printing of money are an example of ongoing transfer of wealth to the elite. From our starting point as a highly divided society, the most likely path that we will follow is not the egalitarian one.

4) Since governments and business will be not make the required investments in energy infrastructure it will be left to individuals and local communities to cope with energy decline. As individuals we can drastically reduce our need for energy (our money expenditure) by growing our own food, living closer to our place of work and so on. Growing our own food is, of course, a method for capturing solar energy, i.e. it is a method for earning energy income. This energy in food can then be exchanged for forms of embodied energy such as items manufactured by others. For human beings, food is the ultimate currency.

John Michael Greer recently wrote an excellent article on coping with the decline of the world economy that is now underway. Read it and follow its good advice (and if you make future decisions based on the advice of economists then you have only yourself to blame).

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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