Bo Eberle wrote a review of the New Materialism that I recommend. I've been meaning to write more on this fantastic book for months, so that's finally on the way over the next few weeks.
EROEI- energy return on energy investment- was one of the simplest and yet most eye-opening concepts introduced to me in Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. The book tackles the big three crises of capitalism, climate change, and energy, but the latter two are often conflated as one and the same. Unfortunately, this means the two are ignored together as well by the climate denialist crowd. But I couldn’t stop thinking that this single concept of EROEI- intuitive as it sounds once you realize its simplicity- is being left out of the talk of energy today. It could change the conversation.
A rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to cause devastation in food supplies and species extinction, not to mention the weather anomalies we are already seeing and the decade of nearly consecutive “hottest years on record.” But the has IPCC estimated that without a switch to cleaner energy, the best case scenario is a rise of 2.52 degrees (worst case, 10.44). So we naturally frame the conversation in terms of clean energy alternatives. But what happens if there is no serious alternative yet?
Kevin Mequet joined Crockett and Robbins to write the two chapters on energy. The second chapter is a radical proposal for athermal nuclear power, and the need for alternatives to nuclear fission is set up by discussing EROEI. The reason we need to think about alternatives (even alternatives to our current low-EROEI alternative/renewables) is simple:
“Unfortunately, while capitalist economics is premised upon the possibility of infinite growth, you cannot have infinite growth given a finite resource. Oil, along with coal and natural gas, are fossil fuels; they result from deposits of vegetation that trapped carbon during the Carboniferous Period, around 400 million years ago. We are using up these deposits of “ancient sunlight” at an astonishing rate, and they will not be replenished.” (95-6)
[Like all of life, economy is energy transformation]
For 9,800 of the last 10,000 years since the dawn of the agricultural era, we relied entirely on wood for energy. The EROEI for wood is 4:1- for every unit of energy put into using wood, we get 4 units of energy in return. Since all of life (and by extension, economy) is energy conversion, an EROEI of 4:1 produces natural limits on expansion.
The advent of coal provided a resource with an EROEI of 10:1, a 2.5 increase over wood. This provided the energy for industrialization. But coal was expensive, dirty, and difficult to transport. We were not yet able to acquire and transport large quantities of natural gas, so we shifted to petroleum.
There was- and still is- absolutely nothing like petroleum. Its EROEI was 150:1 when we first began to scale its acquisition and use. We went from wood’s 4:1 to petro’s 150:1 in a century. But here is the catch: EROEI changes as the resource depletes and acquisition becomes more costly. By the mid-20th century, oil EROEI fell to 100:1. It is currently at 50:1 and will continue to drop. This is part of the controversy wrapped up in the Canadian tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline. Recent estimates are that tar sands oil will have an EROEI of 7-10:1 (read: less than or equal to coal).
What about nuclear energy and alternative/renewable resources? This is where it only gets worse. We have yet to figure out nuclear fusion for power plants. Our reactors use fission. Nuclear fission has a 4:1 EROEI (yes, you read that correctly- nuclear fission EROEI is the same as burning wood) because of the enormous costs of building plants and handling radioactive waste. No other alternatives- solar, wind, hydroelectric- have an EROEI much better than 4:1. We are depleting ourselves back into the EROEI of ten millennia ago.
If we shifted all energy production to nuclear fission reactors, Cal Tech’s David Goodstein tells us:
“You would have to build 10,000 of the largest power plants that are feasible by engineering standards in order to replace the 10 terawatts of fossil fuel we are burning today.” (97)
That would make energy-production cleaner; it would also last all of 10-20 years until we burned through all our current fissile uranium supplies.
The solution- which Mequet notes is always 25 years away- may rest in developing nuclear fusion. Mequet again cites Goodstein, writing:
“...1 gallon of water if converted by nuclear fusion would equal the current exploitation of 300 gallons of gasoline. At petroleum’s 100:1 EROEI that would be a phenomenal increase to 30,000 EROEI. Given the last 350 years of history if the transition from wood to coal increased energy resource productivity by 2 1/2 times, then from coal to petroleum it increased another initially 15 and then 10 times, then a jump from petroleum to fusion anticipates a jump of another 300 times, it is reasonable to speculate the expected jump for athermal nuclear technology could be in the range of 25-30 times the petroleum EROEI.” (98)
The age of Homo carbonicus will come to an end. That is simple math. What the New Materialism asks is this:
“As Homo carbonicus goes extinct what can we do? Exactly what we’ve been doing- evolve... again.” (96)