Net energy in a nutshell

Some time ago, I set up a Google Alert on ‘peak oil’, which generates way more emails than I have time to read – they get squirreled away in a folder which I occasionally trawl through, hitting delete wildly. Today I avoided deleting a few from late January about this year’s Davos meeting. The theme for this meeting was to “Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign and Rebuild”. Yeah, right! While there were several alerts, one title jumped out – that “energy bosses were divided on peak oil risks”. On reading the article, it soon became clear that it was the old conventional vs. non-conventional oil argument, although it is encouraging that peak oil is being discussed at the World Economic Forum, I s’pose.
Put simply, conventional oil is the good stuff, the cheap & easy stuff, the stuff which has fuelled the growth of globalisation. It doesn’t need to be heated or diluted because it’s too thick and gloopy – it’s Goldilocks oil. However, of all the world’s oil resources, conventional oil makes up just one third – the rest is non-conventional oil, which includes heavy oils and tar sands. This is why those who dismiss peak oil say things like “of the four trillion (barrels) of oil the planet is endowed with, only one has been produced” – yes, and it was the best one!
These non-conventional oils require a lot more energy to access and to process. They are not the same – it’s like comparing apples with horses because of ‘net energy’, a really important if slightly nerdy concept rarely considered by, well, anyone. I have recently learned (and hence updated this post) that non-conventional oil does not include deep, ultra-deep and Arctic oil reserves but these are still concerning because they require more ‘energy in’, yet many refer to these as being proof that peak oil is nothing to worry about. Net energy issues are incredibly complex but they can be thought of very simply. It takes a certain amount of energy to find oil, to get it out of the ground, to process it and to transport the end-product to market. If we go exploring miles off shore and find oil beneath thousands of meters of sea and rock, it’s going to take more energy to get each barrel out. But the energy within each barrel will be roughly the same. If the oil is heavy oil, it will take more processing, in which case even more energy has gone in to get a barrel of the good stuff out. This is ‘net energy in a nutshell’ (the title of a book I still haven’t written!) and since the 1930s, the net energy returned from oil has dropped from 100:1 (i.e. one unit invested in oil extraction yields 100 units out the other end – a net energy of 99) to as little as 3:1 today for some of the worst returning fields. If the guys at Davos understood this, I doubt there would have been much disagreement and I would love to have heard how those discussions might have gone if they really did want to “Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign and Rebuild”. Any ideas?

About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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2 Responses to Net energy in a nutshell

  1. Gregory Nicholls says:

    Now one may think that when net energy from a source reaches 1:1 the oil company will abandon that source. Not so fast. This is where “government” (read, taxpayer) subsidies kick in. Pleading the need to maintain jobs in the energy sector and to keep a healthy balance of payments by exporting oil, the government subsidizes the oil company by many million of dollars a year. An added advantage of this system is that it ensures cosy, well-paid jobs (in the said oil company) for some government minsters when they retire or fail to get re-elected.
    This will be just one more way for governments to channel taxpayers’ money to corporations. We have seen the same thing in successive U.S. Administrations’ various wars and preparations for wars. There is indeed logic behind what appears to be the useless and never ending violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s called channeling taxpayers’ money to weapons manufacturers and Haliburton. The recent Olympics in Vancouver will cost residents of B.C. a billion dollars – for the security. (The Olympics themselves will cost many times that amount.) Governments have discovered that “security”, like wars, is an amorphous concept that can swallow money without trace. (If you want a view of Vancouver different from the tourist brochures, and and idea where some of that billion could have been spent, log onto
    Forgive me if I seem to have gone off topic here, but I think the point is worth stressing: The solutions you or I might see in a situation of zero sum or negative net energy may not be the same as those seen by corporate/government elites.

    • mandy meikle says:

      Hi Gregory – great to have my first non-mate, overseas comment! I don’t think that anything is off-topic these days and I agree that what we think may be a solution is not what those who think they’re running the show see as solutions. How corporates/governments will respond is one of my greatest fears because they have a lot of power to make things much worse as they deny the basics of the problem – i.e. the end of growth (see my latest post on The Stationary Economy). The thing with net energy is that 1:1 is not good enough for this complex society we live in. Even coyote would struggle to survive if eating road-runners only gave 1:1 energy return. We need an energy surplus – have you seen Chris Martenson’s Crash Course? 20 short videos linking energy & economics but maybe start with this one – – if time’s limited (only 12 mins).

      Just found a good site with 3 short films on peak oil & what we can do – Nothing new to those who’re up on this stuff but it’s a good summary and has excellent notes with further reading for each film.

      Keep in touch!

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