Gasoline Rationing . . Are You Kidding?


SPECIFICS: (left-side inflow)

   The most important factor in the above model is the overwhelming contribution (over 85%) from the TEMPORARY-FINITE input of fossil energy. Nuclear is also a smaller finite energy factor  (about 6%)  because fissionable uranium, which peaked in production about 1980 during the cold war, is also non-renewable. Since all left-side TEMPORARYFINITE inputs must eventually and inexorably decline by their very definition as finite, internal system growth will cease and begin to concurrently decline unless energy outputs on the right side also  proportionally decrease, or other left-side inputs increase enough to make up the shortfall of TEMPORARY-FINITE energy and keep the entire system from contracting.

   We waste valuable time trying to find new energy sources, arguing about how much is left, or how the climate is changing while, by about 2020, all finite fuels (oil, natural gas, coal, and fissionable uranium) will have peaked and started down the second half of the brief industrial age.  The first half  led to un-precedented energy-fueled growth. The second half will lead to energy-starved system contraction, unless we instead constrict the right-side output of our energy-balance system.

   The most confusing input, which led to our current economic crisis, is the FALSE borrowing of wealth from the future based on the perception of continued growth of the complete system. Wealth, as measured by paper currency or metal coins, is not energy. It can’t do work or keep us warm.  It is only a temporary quantitative value assigned to real things, goods, or services and subject to change at any time. Continued growth infers an increase of wealth equal to the original principle plus interest. This can not happen without a steady surplus (over output on the right side) of either honest TEMPORARY-FINITE energy inputs from the past or CONTEMPORARY SUSTAINABLE inputs from the present.

   The borrowing of wealth based on expected, continued, future growth is the backbone of our entire financial system. But remember the basic premise: a system cannot grow without ever-increasing energy. It may take time for this connection between energy and wealth to make sense, but think about it, you can’t keep a pail from emptying today with hope of rain next week.

   The leveling or peaking, beginning in 2004 at about seventy-five million barrels per day of conventional crude oil production and resultant sharp price increase, led to the incipient collapse, first of the growth-based housing and then of the entire, intertwined, debt-based, highly-leveraged, world-financial complex. Everyone started to spend far more on energy and all related goods and services.

   In the last quarter of 2008, all liquid fuels including non-conventional oil from tar sands, deep-off-shore,  polar, natural gas liquids, and bio-fuels also peaked at about eighty-five million barrels per day and began to decline. This is because the collapse in economic activity, demand, and lower price rendered these non-conventional sources unprofitable. We have clearly passed “peak oil.”


It may seem audacious for an energy engineer to attempt to simplify and explain macroeconomics, but economists, politicians, bankers, financial advisers, pundits, and so on don’t seem to understand the basic role of energy. Further infusions of paper wealth, bail outs, and stimulus packages based on hope of growth revival in the future cannot work because future energy growth, dependent primarily on oil, is no longer possible.

   In our present predicament, CONTEMPORARY-SUSTAINABLE inputs account for less than ten-percent of our total energy consumption. Because of the dilute, sporadic nature of incoming, annual solar energy in its common forms of direct solar, wind, bio-energy, or hydro power, the sum (from the sun) can NEVER remotely approach the quantitative level of conveniently stored fossil fuels, which represent millions of years of prehistoric solar energy. Other non-fossil inputs like tidal, wave, or geothermal are tiny, site-specific and poor in energy return. They cannot amount to more than diversions to our main focus, the imminent decline of TEMPORARY-FINITE fuel inputs.

   The last energy input on the left side of our energy balance is NEFARIOUS. For smaller internal subsystems like nations or societies, this is a most important factor. “We want what you have.” Whenever a closed group of bio-species exceeds or diminishes its carrying capacity (in its most basic form, food) or expands population, the over-powering urge to survive (the “Selfish Gene”)  leads to territorial conflict. Sometimes this external input is hidden as a seemingly benevolent interaction. But the energy balance is the same. Energy is transferred from one sub-system to another. This is simply a non-sustainable contraction of one system to support growth in another. All externally-sourced TEMPORARY-FINITE fossil fuels could be included in this category, like oil from Canada and Mexico, but instead are lumped together as one specific input because of their dominant, unique contribution compared to the other inputs.

   The NEFARIOUS category also holds true for non-energy resources, but these are just inert raw materials which cannot be accessed (mined), transported, or processed into useful goods and growth without ... energy. Open the history book to any page, and this last category underlies and explains much of the glory and tragedy of our past. The slave trade would be an example. As surplus fossil energy winds down, unfortunately we are beginning to regress to past human nature, which is to do anything to keep left-side inputs maximized in order to continue a high level of right-side outputs and at the same time avoid system contraction and ultimate collapse.

   For a complete closed system, like our planet, subsystem NEFARIOUS  inputs are not possible. We can’t raid the moon for energy except for a little tidal gravity. We can access a small amount of internal geothermal energy, but it is site specific and can’t contribute more than a tiny fraction of our needs. Our best sustainable energy input source always has been and still is the sun.


SPECIFICS: (right-side outflow)               

   To keep our closed system from contracting as TEMPORARY-FINITE left-side inputs begin to decline in the post-fossil fuel age, our only option is to reduce right-side output losses just as with the water pail or storage battery. We must try to plug the leaks.

   HEAT LOSS from a warmer body to colder surroundings is one of the fundamental laws of physics. On a world macro-basis, there is nothing to reduce this energy output because the sun and the world are always in energy equilibrium. The effect of increased natural or industrial greenhouse gases only serves to raise the world temperature a few degrees to a new equilibrium level. The resultant global warming does not reduce the overall quantity of energy output back into cold outer space.

   However, the desired temperature of small sub-systems like living bodies or houses can be maintained with far less input energy by reducing right-side HEAT LOSS through better clothes or insulation. This is the basis for efficiency savings and makes sense as long as decreased energy improvements are not offset by continued overall system growth such as an increase in population. This common phenomenon was identified by W. S. Jevons at the beginning of the fossil-fueled industrial age in the 19th century, and bears his name, “Jevon’s Paradox.”

   HEAT LOSS is a significant category from a human basis because it accounts for the energy output as we, individually and collectively, dissipate the heat from metabolizing food. Higher food consumption from increased population results in proportionally more right-side energy lost as heat and/or non-growth work, forever.

   SECURITY-DEFENSE energy output can be most important in a subsystem energy balance. It is the opposite of NEFARIOUS inputs. How much precious energy is expended by an individual, a village, or a nation to defend the integrity of a specific energy-based system? Military energy requirements can be massive. In systems where energy inputs are copious, like ours has been in the fossil-fuel age, this is not a problem.  But in any other time, the energy cost to resist NEFARIOUS encroachments from other systems can be ruinous by itself.

   In future low-energy times, SECURITY-DEFENSE losses will begin to be very important. For instance, a single animal can exhaust itself by fighting for survival or to protect territory and food sources. The end result is the same, system-decay leading to death. A nation like the Roman Empire can fail from inadequate internal energy left for securing NEFARIOUS inputs after losses for SECURITY and DEFENSE. Should the last internal energy go to feeding people or defending them?

   A third and often overlooked energy loss is the ENERGY INVESTMENT required to acquire the inflow energy. This ratio is named by the acronym EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). Sometimes this term is shortened to EROI and is usually analyzed for a specific energy source as the quantity acquired divided by the quantity expended. When the ratio is greater than unity the acquisition is considered positive and the effort makes sense. The harvesting of fossil energy originally put this ratio over 100:1 but is steadily declining as we deplete the easiest sources of prehistoric finite energy.


   An example of a very positive EROEI is wood. Otherwise our ancestors would not have survived. In the fossil fuel age, it takes only a tiny bit of energy to acquire the petro-fuel required to in turn harvest a huge multiple of bio-energy. However, this loop is clearly unsustainable if more wood is harvested in one year (about one cord or 3,000 pounds, wet, per acre) than grows through photosynthesis of incoming solar energy in the same period. In addition, the soils, water, and minerals as ashes from the burned wood, need to be replaced. Over-harvesting beyond sustainability has historically led to the overshoot of population and collapse of civilizations like Easter Island. 

   There are many examples of marginal EROEI’s, which do not significantly help system growth and avoid contraction and decay. The confusion creeps in when other subsystem inputs or losses are mixed in with those used directly in an analysis.

   For instance, there is much argument concerning the EROEI of corn ethanol for fuel. Should all the inputs to grow the corn like irrigation energy, fertilizer, fossil energy to manufacture farm equipment, and many more be included in the inputs? Should the heat from burning rather than returning to the same land the co-products (stalks, leaves, and ashes) be considered output? Depending on the methodology used, EROEI for corn to fuel-ethanol ranges from less than one up to 1.5.

   In addition, it is clear from our energy-balance model that the output energy for ethanol as fuel is lost as NON-GROWTH work rather than assimilated as INTERNAL GROWTH. Using 30% of our corn for fuel instead of food for growth and survival does not make sense from any quantitative or ethical view. Yet, here we are. Drive up to the gas pump and fill with 10% ethanol, a tragic testimonial to our intelligence.

   On a personal level, the external right-side ENERGY INVESTMENT to acquire energy is different from NON-GROWTH WORK. Instead of going for a ride on the bike or a hike, we could expend the same food energy growing more food or cutting firewood. Much hidden energy loss is from energy consumers who do not work directly to facilitate energy inputs (including food, like a farmer) but still contribute to right-side energy losses. This has always been true of children, the aged, or infirm, but it is equally true for anyone not directly involved in the energy chain. For instance, a productive adult who is suddenly out of work represents a continuing energy-system drain because he/she still has to eat.

   This argument could be carried further to question the energy-input contribution of (in no particular order) the energy required for financial services, marketing, insurance, recreation, entertainment, transportation (with no fuel), management, building construction (except to save energy), space exploration, and so on. It may sound heretic to question traditional careers, but without copious surplus energy, any activity not directly related to fuel, food, or warmth will be greatly challenged. All of the above occupations grew far out of proportion to farming and keeping warm only because of the fossil energy age. Even essential needs like medical care and communications are already under pressure.


NEXT: The Car is the Culprit