Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy

Back in June, Nafeez Ahmed published an article, 3 ways Clean Energy will make Big Oil extinct in 12 to 32 Years — without subsidies, that provoked critical feedback from a reader. True to his stated mission to redesign investigative journalism for the 21st century based on ‘generative dialogue’, Nafeez responded with an offer to run a symposium via his online publication ‘Insurge Intelligence, to explore a wider spectrum of perspectives on his article’s theme. The symposium, Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy, responds to the framing question ‘how do we transition away from fossil fuels toward societies that are both environmentally sound and prosperous, allowing their members to live fulfilling, meaningful lives?’ So far it has featured eight articles, from Mark Disendorf, Graham Palmer, Saral Sarkar, Ted Trainer, Jonathan Rutherford, Felix Fitzroy and me.

My contribution, which also ran as it’s feature article, is reproduced in full below, including Nafeez’s editorial intro.

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What is the potential for renewable energy?

In the most recent posts last year, I looked in some detail at what the energy costs of energy supply imply for global-scale transition from fossil fuels to (mostly) renewable energy (RE) sources. The modelling presented there highlighted the importance of taking a dynamic view of transition – rather than just looking at the start and end states. If we’re serious about identifying feasible transition pathways, this type of approach has an important role to play. It’s reassuring to see that more significant effort is starting to be made in this area.

One reason this has been slow to gain traction is the idea that renewable energy sources are so abundant as to be without practical limits. It’s a popular and compelling story, but unfortunately, also one that obscures as much as it reveals. Here, I’ll explain why, and set out the detailed case for why we are much better served by thinking in terms of the practically realisable potential for renewable energy, rather than the raw physical flows. At the heart of this is a basic insight, expressed in a simple aphorism: ‘each joule of energy is not equal’. Continue reading

EROI and the limits of conventional feasibility assessment—Part 3: Intermittency & seasonal variation

In the previous post in this sequence, I developed the concept of power return on investment as a complementary indicator to energy return on investment (EROI) for assessing the viability of wind and solar PV as alternatives to thermal electricity generation. I used as my departure point for this an article in which Ioannis Kessides and David Wade introduce a dynamic approach to EROI analysis.[1] Specifically, I drew on an illustrative example that they present, based on IEA data for coal-fired thermal and wind electricity generation in Japan, showing how the time required for coal and wind installations to provide sufficient energy to emplace additional generating capacity equal to their own can differ by an order of magnitude even where the EROI for coal and wind is identical. Given that the data on which this example was based was from prior to 2002, both the doubling time in Kessides & Wade’s example and the power return on investment in the extended analysis would likely be improved if up-to-date figures for emplacement energy and capacity factor were substituted for those from the IEA study. Unfortunately, this goes only a limited way to mitigating the central issue in terms of “real world” considerations. Continue reading

EROI and the limits of conventional feasibility assessment—Part 2: Stocks, flows and power return on investment

Update, 24 July 2015: while doing some background work for a forthcoming post that draws on data presented here, I reconsidered the best basis to use for the PV comparison. The post has now been revised to reflect my updated thinking, specifically using a higher EROI for PV of 4.17:1, rather than the original of 2.45:1, by considering only a subset of Prieto and Hall’s energy costs. In the course of making this change, I also discovered an error in the original calculation, in the ratio of emplacement energy to operating & maintenance energy for PV (relatively minor impact only, from 0.59 to 0.55). This is also corrected here.


An important principle to bear in mind for inquiring into the ways that energy-related considerations influence human societies is that, by and large, economies are dependent for their present functioning not on the total stocks of energy sources they might have at their disposal, but on the current rate at which energy sources are supplied and utilised. This is a key distinction in understanding the phenomenon of peak oil. “Peak oil” for a given field or territory is taken to have occurred at the point in time for which the production rate for petroleum—appropriately defined, i.e. by grade or composition—reaches a maximum, and thereafter declines. But at such a time, as much as half of the ultimate resource may still be available. Peak oil doesn’t imply that we’re on the brink of “running out of oil”. What it means is that the production rate is at the highest level that will ever be achieved. It is the change in rate that is central for understanding the implications of the phenomenon for future social prospects, as a declining aggregate oil production rate (i.e. where a shortfall from one region cannot be compensated by increased production from others) implies greatly foreshortened prospects for further growth in the non-energy related economic activity enabled by that production, and in fact very likely implies commensurate economic contraction. The same principle applies to any resource that is ultimately stock-limited, but for which it is the supply rate upon which the present nature of the economic activity enabled by that resource depends. Continue reading

EROI and the limits of conventional feasibility assessment—Part 1: The technical potential for renewables

A fundamental requirement that any energy supply system must satisfy for economic viability is a sufficiently high energy return on energy investment (EROI) for manufacturing, installing, operating and maintaining the system over its operating life. The question of what constitutes a sufficient return depends on the nature of the economy and society that the energy supply system is intended to support—while an EROI <1 implies a net energy sink, an EROI >1 does not automatically entail viability. Consider the limiting case in which net energy supply is zero, i.e. EROI =1. This would entail an economy consisting entirely of an energy supply sector that supported itself, but allowed for no economic activity beyond this. It’s certainly possible to imagine a functional economy along such lines, but it implies that every person living in such a society must dedicate their life to and focus all of their attention and effort on providing for the subsistence energy needs of their economic system. Such an economic system would serve no purpose beyond its own perpetuation; citizens of such a society might very well consider their lives to constitute a form of slavery to their economy. Continue reading