Thursday, July 2, 2015

Peak oil, debunked

For years, I've been trying to find a sensible debunking of peak oil. Clearly, the reality that oil production will, at some stage, peak is incontrovertible. The debunking I was seeking concerned the nature of EROEI and renewables, and whether it would be possible to successfully transition from a fossil-fuel society to a renewable society in the sort of time frames that remain to us.

There are many peak-oil writers who contend that this is not possible and that because of this, industrial society will disappear over the next few centuries. I wanted to find an opinion that countered this (I like to read all sides of a debate).

Finally, I've found one: Bountiful Energy

This is a sensible, well-written blog that attempts to systematically dismantle the idea that industrial civilisation is failing because of peak oil. But, is it right?
(I encourage you to read it yourself, but here are some of my thoughts)

The good

The blog makes some new observations that I'd not previously seen in the peak oil debate:
  1. EROEI for oil in transport is a lot lower than reported because of the poor efficiency of the internal combustion engine. The author estimates EROEI of about 4 for fossil-fueled transport. This is a pretty low bar for renewables to clear!
  2. The author also develops the idea of cost of net energy, which is the cost of the energy gain from a process. He contends this to be more useful a metric than EROEI. I'm inclined to agree.
  3. The author observes that a lot of the embodied energy we see can be recycled. For example, a lot of the embodied energy in solar PV installations is used to manufacture the aluminium racking. This is almost completely recoverable at the end of life, and so that should be considered when assessing the EROEI for solar PV. This will make the EROEI of PV better.

The bad

The biggest problem I have with the blog, is that he appears to believe (I am discussing this with him) that pollution and environmental catastrophes will not affect industrial civilisation. My feeling is that it is impossible to separate peak oil from the effects of pollution since the extraction of more marginal fossil fuels (one can't call tar sands "oil" in any meaningful sense) is inherently more polluting (per unit of net energy) than conventional oil plays. In other words, the negative effects of peak oil could manifest as environmental degradation rather than high/low prices, etc. (quoted from a comment I left on his blog, to which he has not yet responded).


I will keep reading and thinking about his blog. My feeling for now is that it helps clarify for me the way industrial society is likely to follow the trajectory of limits to growth. For example, taking his blog at face-value, I could see industrial civilisation making a significant transition to renewables this century, but still failing to contain pollution which will drive down quality of life. This could also be seen to tie in with David Holmgren's brown tech scenario.

In a nutshell, the author of Bountiful Energy is bringing interesting new arguments and insights, but I am not yet convinced that the future will be business-as-usual.


  1. I should mention that "Tom S," the author of Bountiful Energy, thinks we should do something about environmental problems and pollution -- he just doesn't think they'll be responsible for the downfall of industrial society.

  2. Hi Angus,

    No worries, it's all good. Unfortunately, I live with renewable solar energy and sometimes I wish that people lived with this stuff before spruiking it as a possible replacement for fossil fuels. From my perspective, renewable energy sources don't even come close - especially over the depths of winter and you'd be amazed to find that the over sized copper cables here which bring the low voltage electricity back to the batteries from the distant solar panels at high currents actually cost more than the actual solar PV panels themselves. ;-)!

    And then I look out the window from this eagles eyrie and see the people in the valley below and wonder whether the challenge to live without a fossil fuel generator is all worth it? Dunno, but it is a complex issue. Fortunately, for most of the year, I don't have to even think about it.

    Winter was traditionally a time where very little went on and humans tended to recover and relax from other more busy and productive seasons. There is something to be said about not getting up in the dark, but I fail to achieve that at this time of year!

    PS: I trust that your excellent questions were answered this evening on my blog. They're were very good questions indeed.



  3. Hi Chris,

    I think that's a good point. I think one thing to consider is that, in living off-grid, you lose the "network effect", which contributes a lot. Because of this, I see the question of "whether we can replace fossil fuels with renewables as the power to the grid" as different from the question "whether we can all live off-grid using renewables".

    Btw. My feeling at the moment is that the answer to both these questions is "no" ;-) but there could conceivably be a situation where renewables could sustainably power the grid but not off-gridders. As we've discussed before, I still think the best (most cost-effective) approach is to reduce consumption.

    You clearly understand the need to curtail electricity consumption in the middle of winter! We're very frugal, and are all electric (except for the wood heater), but I don't think we could go off-grid with our current arrangements unless we had more PV, an enormous battery bank, or used a wood oven for cooking. It's pretty clear to me which of those options is the most sustainable! (the wood oven ;-)

    Thanks for answering the questions -- yes, they were very helpful :-)
    For others, Chris' excellent blog is here:

    Cheers, Angus


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