In last week’s post I linked to an article published recently in the Journal of Futures Studies (JFS) in which I look at the relationship between the questions that we ask about energy futures, what it is that we then take into account as relevant in exploring them, and the possible avenues for action that are apparent to us in the present as a result. As I pointed out, that article acts as a pretty good overview of the inquiry here at Beyond this Brief Anomaly, and also prepares the way for the phase into which this will head shortly. Before embarking on this next phase, it occurred to me that it might be worth dusting off some earlier work on which the JFS article was based that goes a little further in sketching out the background context for the inquiry, and that will help with locating the areas covered to date within that broader context.
By way of introduction, I’d like to first return to a discussion early in the life of Beyond this Brief Anomaly, in which I briefly introduced the soft systems approach—based on action research principles—as a source of ideas for approaching economy-wide energy transitions that offers a better way forward than the ‘hard systems’ approach, where the change process is envisaged as a (massively) scaled-up engineering infrastructure project. In discussing such a way of going about systemic change, I referred to the work of Peter Checkland, the originator of Soft Systems Methodology. Checkland characterises the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches as fundamentally a matter of how social reality is viewed. I’m going to go a step further here—though I’m not aware that Checkland used the terminology in this way himself—and describe this as a matter of difference in practitioner worldview—the framework of ideas, beliefs and presuppositions with which we interpret our experiences and act in relation to them. The worldview concept provides more than a basis (as I’ve chosen to do here) for differentiating soft from hard approaches to systemic change—it also plays a central part in the actual performance of the soft systems approach. In fact, recognising the place of worldviews in shaping purposeful human activity is perhaps the defining characteristic of the soft systems approach itself.
While the JFS article focuses on a report from one organisation in particular, the essence of the critique that I offered there is relevant to a great deal of ‘official’ commentary on energy futures. In the article, I made passing reference to the orienting worldviews that seem to be associated with the issues to which I wanted to draw attention. In doing that though, I underplayed just how significant I understand the appreciation of worldviews to be, both for making sense of what is going on in the situations in which we’re interested, and for improving our responses to them. With this post, I’ll bring the consideration of worldviews in a little more explicitly. A good starting point for this is to recognise that the espoused intent of Beyond this Brief Anomaly—namely, to carry out a systemic inquiry into energy and society as a way of generating improved insight into the range of possible futures for humanity—can itself be understood in terms of worldview. The shift from analytic inquiry that follows more circumscribed disciplinary lines (for example, by focusing specifically on questions that are answerable from within established knowledge disciplines such as the various branches of economics, sociology, physics or engineering), to systemic inquiry that attempts to deal with messy situations as comprehensive wholes by reaching across disciplinary boundaries, can be understood as, in essence, a shift in worldview. The discussion earlier on in the inquiry about the view of knowledge on which Beyond this Brief Anomaly is based (see posts here and here) goes a long way towards articulating some of the features characteristic of such a worldview that come to light when we follow its logic through to consider some of the more subtle implications. I’ll take that line of inquiry a little further in coming weeks, by expanding on the introductory discussion of thinking with systems from earlier—focused as it was on the use of systems concepts as tools for structuring our thinking about any situation—to consider ‘systemicity’ more generally as a way of both seeing the situations in which we’re immersed and going about the activity of living within them. In doing that, I’ll look at how ‘systemicity’ as a way of seeing and living seems to be available to humans as a universal potential, outside of specific knowledge traditions and conceptual frameworks. This will lay down some important foundations for extending the inquiry into its next major phase under the broad theme of efficiency.
My point of departure here, in considering the issues examined in the JFS article as a question of the worldviews at play, is to suggest that in commencing an exploration of global energy futures by asking ‘how can growing energy demands be met in socially desirable and environmentally compatible ways?’, the consideration of such futures is prematurely—and illegitimately—decoupled from the more fundamental question of whether widely-held expectations for long-term demand growth can be met. To leap immediately to examining how this might occur reduces the discussion of global energy futures to a merely technical question, and submerges from view the broader historical, social, economic, financial, environmental, geo-physical, thermodynamic and above all epistemological contexts within which such technical considerations must necessarily be assessed. Given the prevalence with which thinking about the relationship between energy and society starts with more narrowly technical concerns in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that so much of the research that takes place into ‘sustainable energy futures’ amounts to cataloguing and describing emerging and anticipated technologies for enabling energy conversions deemed necessary by official forecasting agencies, in ways other than through the exploitation of fossil fuel resources. The nature of the growing demand itself and its relationship with primary energy sources and energy conversion technologies—that is, the multitudinous contexts within which our energy use takes place—receive far less research attention. Given that our industrial civilisation has arisen in the context of cheap, abundant fossil fuels, how it is that a system of global living arrangements of such scale and complexity might fare as these energy resources are depleted would seem to be a matter of some significant concern. It doesn’t seem so unreasonable that we might direct more of our research effort towards this.
At this point, some deeper examination of the relationship between energy demand and supply may help to illustrate the consequences of making the technical question— the how question—our primary focus. This will establish important foundations for then thinking about a pervasive and foundational cultural myth that appears to influence much discourse relating to the energetics of industrial society. There is much to be gained by considering the linked metaphors of supply and demand in light of our very human propensity for constructing the situations that interest us in terms of such dualisms. There seems to be a very natural tendency, once such a binary characterisation is established, for our thinking to be shaped in turn by the construct itself. Hence we have a situation where energy supply and energy demand become separate areas of technical speciality, each frequently regarded as enclaves to be understood, overseen and administered by their own cohorts of expert caretakers. As such, questions of demand and supply are very often treated as relatively independent matters. The task is to understand demand—from a futures perspective, typically via socio-economic forecasting of a technical nature—with this in turn forming the basis for supply planning that focuses on presently available and emerging technologies. For the most part, the relationship between energy and society is reduced to questions of how taken-for-granted expectations of human activity will be met through the techno-economic exploitation of a circumscribed set of naturally occurring resources. This typically leaves aside considerations of the ways that expectations are constructed by us—humanity acting together—in the context of historically and geo-physically contingent existential circumstances. More adequate appreciation for what energy in fact is—a system of conceptual constructs for making sense of regularities in the ways that situations are observed to change—or of energetics—the study of such regularities—is so far from most minds as to seem an esoteric irrelevance (perhaps test this in terms of your own immediate response to what you are reading right now!).
Alternative framings that give rise to very different understandings of energy and society are readily available. Consider the implications of starting with a view of reality organised in terms of integrated wholes, the boundaries of which are a matter of human perspective-taking—that is, where situations in which we are interested are organised conceptually along lines that are best characterised as systemic. With such a framing, the supply-demand relationship is subsumed within an integrated system of human ‘socio-energetics’. In this view, ‘energy supply’ and ‘energy demand’ are simply conceptual tools for making sense of human activity as it arises in our field of perception here and now, and as we reflect on the past history of such activity and anticipate its future unfolding. Moreover, supply and demand can be seen as arising together, each setting the context within which the other is understood. Expectations of energy use emerge in the context of the particular energy sources and supply regimes available to us, while the sources that we exploit and the means employed for this are shaped in important respects by the expectations that we hold.
In light of this way of thinking, the concept of demand takes on a very particular character that is often misunderstood. It is not simply a matter of ‘what people want’, a product of collective wishful thinking. It is better understood as the aggregate energy required to run that portion of the installed base of powered devices that we deem necessary to provide us with work, lighting and heating at any given time. The reference here to the installed device base is crucial to the understanding that I’m hoping to foster. The nature of this installed base—the designs of the machines, vehicles, lighting systems and heating equipment upon which contemporary human civilisation depends for enabling the activity that we desire—directly reflects the particular forms of energy available to us—especially electrical energy and chemical energy via fuels—and the primary sources of that energy and the infrastructure for transforming it to its end-use forms. It also reflects the way that infrastructure is distributed across the different energy forms available to us. The scale of the installed base directly reflects past investments that we have made both in infrastructure to power the installed device base, and to produce the installed base itself: our civilisational infrastructure embodies vast expenditure of previously-but-no-longer available energy. This hopefully highlights a crucial point: expansion of the installed base—and hence growth in demand—is itself dependent on the use of energy, energy that must be provided by current sources. There is an absolutely critical insight to take from this. The primary sources upon which industrial civilisation has depended for the growth of its entire energy supply infrastructure and for the installed base of devices that use this energy were from the outset, and continue to be today, fossil fuels. It is cheap, abundant fossil fuels, characterised especially by their high energy density and high energy return on the energy invested in making them available, that provide the energetic context within which industrial civilisation has arisen and expanded outwards to encompass most of the globe. In light of this, it is particularly important to understand that, apart from traditional bio-fuels, the use of which continues at significant levels today only in less-industrialised parts of the world, all significant non-fossil energy sources in commercial use and under development today—principally nuclear and modern renewables—have arisen in the context of existing fossil-fueled energy infrastructure. In other words, all non-fossil energy converters receive a general subsidy from fossil fuels. Today, more than 80 percent of global primary energy supply continues to come from oil, coal and gas: all other industrial energy sources owe their existence to a global system of social, technological and economic arrangements underpinned by this remarkable geo-physical windfall.
This situation extends in fact beyond renewable and nuclear energy to include the ‘minor’ (i.e. relatively so, in terms of gross heating value) fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, themselves. Each of these primary energy sources is similarly dependent for its large scale exploitation on the subsidy that it receives from oil. Crude oil is the raw material for fuel critical to the mining and transport of these resources, and the maintenance of the supply infrastructure. Open cut mining of lignite in the Latrobe Valley (Victoria, Australia) provides an interesting illustration of just how important this is. While the coal is mined using massive bucket wheel dredgers powered by electricity from the power stations that they feed, these dredgers are entirely reliant for viable operation on comparatively tiny (although the largest available) diesel-fueled bulldozers that facilitate their movement across the floor of the open cut. Continuous movement of the conveyor belt system for transporting coal to the power stations is also reliant on diesel-fueled vehicles, as are all maintenance activities and personnel transport (to observe this, we need only to consider the power station workers’ car park!). The open cuts are also subject to fires, as lignite spontaneously combusts on exposure to air at sufficiently high ambient temperatures. Diesel-fueled vehicles are essential for management of these fires and hence for viability of the mining operation.
It’s within such a context that the viability of all non-fossil energy sources really needs to be considered. In assessing this viability, it’s generally well recognised that any end-use energy supply system capable of contributing to what might be considered as a ‘sustainable energy supply’ must provide sufficiently more energy over its operating life than is required to make it available in the first place, and to then maintain and operate it over its lifetime. It’s this that is under consideration when we talk about energy return on energy invested or EROI. It’s far less well appreciated that conducting this analysis in terms of direct energy use for provision of materials and manufacturing alone is not sufficient: we must also consider the sources of that energy and the means by which it’s made available in forms useful to us. Why is this the case? Surely, ‘energy is energy’. Well, not so. And this is where popular—and in fact, many apparently specialist—understandings of energetics tend to depart from the understandings of those with a more fundamental grounding in thermodynamics, particularly as it applies to the satisfaction of human needs and desires—that is, in an engineering context. Energy resources are unlike other resources in that it is not just the quantity of energy available to us that is important, but the proportion of whatever quantity we have that can be made available to us in a useful form. At all stages of the chain of conversions from primary source to end-use, energy must be expended to make useful energy available to us. The proportion of energy associated with the primary source that can be made available depends on a whole raft of considerations, many of which we’ll look at in more detail in later posts, as the inquiry proceeds.
One additional layer of complexity that does bear specific mention at this point is that to replace fossil fuels as they are currently used, renewable energy technologies would not only need to have a similar EROI to fossil fuels under life cycle circumstances in which the invested energy is provided by those same renewable energy technologies; they would also need to provide that energy return at a similar rate to that available from fossil sources. This is often neglected in discussion of EROI from renewable sources such as thin-film photovoltaics, which promise much higher life cycle EROI than renewable energy technologies currently in use (see for instance the article ‘Renewables out of the bottle’ by Ugo Bardi, published by The Oil Drum in 2010). The high EROI for renewable energy conversion technologies is typically calculated over life cycles of multiple decades. Therefore, in order to replace the energy supply rate of fossil fuels, it is the installed capacity of the renewable energy conversion technology that is important. To achieve this, the installed base—and hence the energy investment upfront—needs to be many times greater than it would be if EROI was the only relevant consideration. This requires suitable production scales and material resource availability, as well as sufficient enabling and connecting infrastructure. The key point: in addition to EROI, we also need to look at power return on energy invested (or PROI, to coin the inevitable acronym), when thinking about a transition from fossil-fuelled industrial civilisation to civilisational forms using alternate energy sources and conversion technologies. Thinking along related lines, Tom Murphy at Do the Math describes the problematic situation associated with attempts to base energy transitions on supply infrastructure with insufficiently high PROI as The Energy Trap.
Returning for now to a specific focus on energy return considerations, as a very general rule of thumb, the higher the energy density of a source—the higher the concentration of stored energy per unit volume of source material as it occurs naturally—the greater the proportion of the stored energy that can be made available to us in useful form and the greater the EROI. Again in general terms, this is because the scale of the infrastructure required to make the energy stored in the naturally occurring source available to us in some useful form is relatively lower for sources for which the associated energy is more concentrated than it is for sources for which the associated energy is less concentrated. All energy conversions involve the dispersal of energy from where it is more concentrated to where it is more spread out. Consequentially, the higher the initial concentration, the less energy (and other resources) that must be invested in supply and conversion infrastructure in order to provide a given end service. Bear in mind with all of this the emphasis that I place on naturally occurring energy sources: it is the concentration of energy associated with these original sources that is most important, not the concentration of energy associated with fuels that have already undergone some series of processing steps—all such steps depend on infrastructure that has associated capital and operating resource costs.
What consequences does this entail for assessing new energy sources and conversion technologies? Perhaps most importantly, it means that it’s not acceptable to place the sources of the energy that are used to provide any technology outside the system boundaries for the assessment. For instance, as I noted in concluding the post on visualising energy density two weeks back, photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and nuclear power plants, to the extent that they are demonstrated in practice to provide positive EROI, do so at present in the context of a global industrial system that runs on oil, coal and natural gas. Transport activity is almost exclusively fuelled by oil. To the extent that these technologies rely upon a globally—or even regionally—integrated transport infrastructure, they rely not just on a certain number of joules of energy, but on a certain number of joules of energy sourced from crude oil. Any practical experience of an alternative energy source’s viability on the basis of a sufficiently positive EROI cannot simply be translated to contexts in which crude oil is less abundant. Changes to the structure of our primary energy sources flow through the whole system and hence the real life-cycle energy use for any particular situation changes. Assessment of the viability of alternative energy sources and technologies in a world in which the fossil fuel subsidy is not available on the scale that it is at present—for reasons of geology or political economy—must be made on a theoretical and hence a speculative basis. We do not have any historical basis for assuming that an industrial civilisation of the scale and complexity that we live with today could be viable in the absence of today’s fossil fuel subsidy. In the absence of an equivalent energy source with the remarkable properties of crude oil, it seems pretty reasonable to anticipate that the resource requirements for maintaining our current global economic activity, let alone increasing its scale, would increase. Certainly, there is great potential for efficiency improvements to allow for the same activity with lower energy and other resource use, but for a given activity provided in a given way, substituting energy sources of lower density than oil or without oil’s ease of material handling requires more infrastructure and more enabling activity. It’s also worth noting that the ‘remarkable properties’ of crude oil are themselves highly variable—the composition of crude oil changes geo-spatially, as do the circumstances of its occurrence (deep water versus desert landscapes, for instance). This is worth bearing in mind when considering the way that crude oil’s fungibility is often regarded at a macro-economic level i.e. at a level of economic aggregation beyond that in which we can differentiate between, for instance, petro-chemical refineries in terms of the crude oil feedstock composition that they can handle.
Discoveries of conventional crude oil peaked decades ago and new discoveries lag far behind net global production—that is, we are producing conventional crude oil reserves much faster than we are replacing them. The EROI for petroleum discovery and extraction in the U.S. has decreased since the 1930s from something in the order of 100:1 down to around 20:1 today  (see also this more recent reference which supports Cleveland’s finding, putting the US aggregate EROI at 18:1 in 2006 ). In light of this situation and the discussion I’ve presented of why it matters so much, accepting without more critical consideration projections by forecasters such as the IEA of nearly doubling global energy demand over the next couple of decades establishes rather shaky foundations for any exploration of possible futures that is then based upon those projections.
In the spirit of trying to better understand why such projections can seem to make sense within the technological primacy worldview on which so much energy futures thinking is based, I’d like to return to discussion of what I described earlier as a pervasive and foundational cultural myth relating to energetics. The primacy given to the question of how—rather than whether—projections of growing demand can be realised reflects in important respects what John Michael Greer describes in his book The Long Descent as the myth of progress. Within this myth, our present high energy civilisation is seen as an inevitable consequence of the forward march of human ingenuity. An entailment of this way of understanding the pathways by which we arrived in our current situation is that further progress is primarily a matter of further growth in ingenuity. If we’re faced with the limits of our current energy sources, the default assumption becomes one in which those limits will inevitably be transcended by innovations in energy conversion systems. Living within this myth, it is essentially unthinkable that our present era of energy abundance might be an historical anomaly and that the energy available to us—along with the industrial civilisation that it makes possible—might be headed towards decline. We see this reflected in much conventional economic thinking, in which technological innovation driven by price signals is often regarded as the primary determinant of resource limits: if a resource becomes scarce, the price goes up, and this drives innovation leading to the expansion of the economic reserves associate with the particular resource. While for any natural resource this is at best a simplistic view of socio-ecological relations, its failure to serve us well is perhaps most comprehensive in relation to energy resources. The reason for this is closely bound up with the apparently unproblematic use of the very terminology that I’ve adopted in the last sentence, namely ‘energy resources’. When we reduce our description of a resource to its equivalent heating value alone, we characterise it in the most general way available to us. In talking about oil resources or wind resources as energy resources, we remove from their respective background contexts the very most abstract characteristic of the resources and leave their particular characteristics out of the picture. In doing so, we diminish our ability to recognise the critically important differences between energy sources. As discussed earlier, these broader contextual characteristics are just as important for understanding the value of these resources as is the quantity of energy that is associated with them, or the rate at which they potentially make that energy available to us. This masks the consequences, for instance the capital, maintenance, operating and environmental implications, of accessing energy from one particular source in place of another. It’s these consequences that prevent us from simply substituting one energy source for another one of different origin. At the level of abstract economic theory, though, this is all hidden from view: from such a perspective, the history of the past couple of hundred years of human civilisation can be depicted as a progessive development in the mix of dominant primary energy sources—first from coal, to coal and oil, and then to coal, oil and natural gas—enabled by innovation in conversion technologies. If such a view is taken as an inalienable article of faith, and if this past history is taken as the model for future change, then it might seem reasonable to proceed on the assumption that as the oil era heads towards decline, there must surely be a replacement energy source and conversion technology just over the horizon, waiting only for progress in human innovation to bring it to view.
There’s little reason though to privilege this view of history—and futures—over a view in which fortuitous circumstances enabled exploitation of oil as a primary energy source, creating the conditions for global industrial civilisation, which in turn provided the circumstances within which increased human endeavour could be directed towards technological development including that necessary for further exploitation of energy resources. The growth in availability of high-density energy sources, while partly a consequence of that technological development, is for the most part underpinned by the geological occurrence of oil—once an oil field is opened up to production, the marginal cost (in financial and energy terms) of increasing the rate of production initially reduces. A positive feedback effect means that a little initial oil makes more and more oil available. It is the characteristics of oil and the way that it occurs naturally that carries the bulk of the load here though, rather than expanding ingenuity on our part (which is not to deny the significant growth in our instrumental technical know-how and praxis that has accompanied the age of oil). In this view, global industrial civilisation is a particular historical phase that is contingent upon the availability of cheap, abundant oil. In the absence—or more realistically, the declining abundance—of this natural subsidy, there is little basis for expecting the current system of global living arrangements to continue with a simple transition to some replacement energy source. This needn’t mean the loss of everything that is important to us—while oil continues to be available, and even on a multi-decadal timeframe at least, there is significant scope for maintaining an acceptable quality of life for a large global population. As discussed in an earlier post on the global distribution of energy wealth, Vaclav Smil has published a wide range of data demonstrating the non-linear relationships between measures of societal wellbeing and energy use., And as this chart reproducing Smil’s findings on the relationship between the Human Development Index (HDI) and energy use for more recent data indicates, there appears to be a level of per capita energy use beyond which further energy availability provides no benefit. For instance, Japan is rated at essentially the same level as the USA on the HDI, while using just a little over half of the energy per capita of population.
This suggests that we shouldn’t discount altogether the possibility that ways of life with many of the benefits afforded to us by industrial societies are possible as our present energetic foundations decline. The transition away from the vast wealth, abundance, comfort and security afforded for a brief historical period by our crude oil, coal and natural gas windfall is unlikely to be particularly pleasant by comparison. But having in place as early as possible during such a transition period renewable energy infrastructure that is as large in scale and diverse as we can achieve will very likely help to offset that unpleasantness. This will depend in important ways on how we invest our remaining high-density energy resources in general, and oil in particular. We have plenty of opportunity right now, in the present, to see what life might look like as the likely transition in available energy from abundance to scarcity and beyond unfolds—as the cyberpunk author, William Gibson is reputed—perhaps apocryphally—to have observed, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed” (though I’m not entirely overlooking the irony in making such a connection, given the very different futures to which the observation is typically directed). As The Distribution of Energy Wealth was specifically intended to point out, the comforts and privileges enjoyed by the minority of humans living in rich world societies, coupled with a sufficient ignorance of history, can hide from view just how fulfilling far less energetically rich lives can in fact be.
This is a theme towards which Beyond this Brief Anomaly will eventually wind its way. Our next port of call, though, is to see how the overarching theme of efficiency might illuminate our inquiry into energy and society. To prepare the way for that, the next post will consider in more detail what it means to approach such an endeavour from within a systemic worldview.
 Smil, Vaclav. (2010). Science, energy, ethics, and civilization. In R. Y. Chiao, M. L. Cohen, A. J. Leggett, W. D. Phillips & C. Harper Jr. (Eds.), Visions of Discovery: New Light on Physics, Cosmology, and Consciousness (pp. 709-729). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.