Politicians don’t get the energy crisis

IMMUTABLE laws of physics are in a battle with the soundbite understanding of energy among the political class.

In the absence of significant technological innovation, physics will likely win.

For politicians are failing to think in terms of energy return on investment, or EROI: the amount of energy it takes to create or harvest energy, and the size of the surplus.

The rise of industrial civilisation has been enabled by the huge energy returns on energy invested in oil, gas and coal. For example, when the first barrels of oil were pumped out of the ground, EROI was as high as 100:1 or more.

The subsequent era of plentiful excess energy gave us inexpensive fuel and fertiliser, which provided abundant harvests and economic transport to shops and supermarkets where an increasing population of consumers could buy bargain-price food, paid for by the incomes they earned in return for driving affordable cars powered by low-cost petrol to offices and factories where they produced keenly priced goods and services made possible by cheap electricity and gas.

From pharmaceuticals to the package holiday industry to credit markets, everything has grown on the back of cheap energy, particularly oil. But nowadays the EROI on oil is anywhere between 10:1 and 20:1 – in the US it is 11:1 – and this figure is declining globally as deposits become harder to exploit. This is a massive problem that threatens everybody’s standard of living.

At the heart of the global financial crisis of 2008 was the fact oil hit $150 a barrel, exposing industrial-scale bank fraud and sending the world economy into a slump. Too many previously profitable endeavours became uneconomic with oil at that price and growth stopped, then went into reverse. Arguably we have been in a global depression ever since, albeit one disguised by central bank currency creation to cover up the numerous fissures in our economies.

We are now sailing into the same stormy waters once again, as declining oil output meets with an exponentially increasing global population – currently 7.9 billion compared with 6.7 billion in 2008 – and with war and a seismic shift in geopolitical power and influence also thrown into the equation.

As a net energy importer, Britain is not well placed to meet the challenges posed by what some refer to as the “energy cliff”: the inevitable fall in prosperity as EROI declines. The recent focus on our long-term energy security – prompted by recent tensions with energy-exporting Russia and the already spiralling cost of both oil and gas, the latter being the UK’s chief source of electricity generation – is welcome but arguably years too late. We should have been planning for this long ago.

The current government’s energy strategy is little more than an incoherent shambles of lofty platitudes and spending pledges, with little acknowledgement of practical realities. The opposition parties are no better. Indeed, to give you an idea of how far behind the curve they all are we need only listen to Labour leader Keir Starmer addressing this issue last week.Mirror Politics @MirrorPolitics.@Keir_Starmer: “Going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not an energy strategy. The Prime Minister says ‘we can’t rely on Russia’, so now he goes to Saudi Arabia.”

His answer to the need for greater energy security was: “Less imports, rely on renewables here, ramp up onshore and offshore wind, get nuclear going much more quickly, and have retrofit … so we drive down the need for energy in the first place.”

It sounds so easy but it is clear either he has no comprehension of the EROI issue, or he is wilfully ignoring it, since the renewables we would be banking on for our energy security and continued prosperity do not score well: solar PV achieves an EROI of between 6:1 and 12:1; wind hits 18:1 but like solar is intermittent; baseload uranium nuclear is anywhere from 5:1 up to 15:1 and not without several challenges; biofuels effectively need subsidising in energy terms by fossil fuels with a score of as little as 0.8:1.

We would all love to eliminate our dependence on imported oil, particularly from countries run by dictatorship, but the idea we can use renewable energy to replace oil at those EROIs seems optimistic to say the least.

Using renewable electricity to create hydrogen for transport, for example, captures only 50 per cent of the original energy created. This immediately halves the EROI of the energy source you use to make it, and that’s before the energy costs of storage and transportation are also taken into account.

And while electrified transport via battery offers a much more efficient way to utilise renewable energy than hydrogen, batteries require raw materials we do not have along with plenty of energy for mining and manufacture.

So the assumption we can maintain our current standard of living at present population levels using renewables would appear to be at the very least questionable. Indeed, there are academics who argue that without fossil fuels, current renewable energy technology can maintain just 500 million humans on Earth at a 19th-century standard of living.

Starmer’s soundbite on how to deliver energy security also ignores other hard realities.

With uranium nuclear – putting aside for one moment the moral hazard, externalities, waste storage challenges and the expense of a power source that has never been economic or insurable and already has two massive environmental disasters to its name in Chernobyl and Fukushima – it is glib to suggest we can easily speed up the building of current generation power plants. They have a long build time for good reason.

Even if we can speed up the construction of new nuclear plants, there are also basic sustainability and dependence issues.

Uranium is still a fossil fuel, and if every coal-fired power plant on the planet was turned into a uranium nuclear plant tomorrow we would be out of good quality ore grades in very short order. While some argue we may be able to rely on reprocessing waste and breeding new fuel from existing supplies, success in those endeavours seems unlikely to improve the EROI.

Additionally, the UK has no commercial uranium mining or milling operations. So increasing our reliance upon current nuclear technology would do nothing for our energy security since we would also be increasing our dependency upon imports of enriched uranium. Kazakhstan would become the new Saudi Arabia.

Even with wind power Starmer casually overlooks the need for crucial rare-earth metals we do not have at our disposal.

What he does get right is the need for improvements across the board in energy efficiency, to reduce demand. However, this is the last thing he mentions when arguably it should be the first since conservation offers the most significant and most speedily realised energy return on investment.

When our politicians talk about the transition to “net zero” and the “green industrial revolution”, as if all we have to do is put our minds to the task, throw a few billion pounds at it and get the job done, they are deluding themselves as well as voters. More than anything we need an honest appraisal of what is truly achievable with current technological and resource limitations without plunging millions into unemployment and poverty.

That is not to side with those who argue we should revert to coal for electricity and engage in fracking for more oil and gas. Sure, these dirty and environmentally damaging fuel sources could give us a short to medium-term cheap energy hit, but as with oil their EROIs will continue to decline and eventually we will be back where we are now.

What the climate change debaters do not seem to grasp is the whole argument is irrelevant: climate change sceptics cannot pretend the use of finite fossil fuels is sustainable in the long term just because they do not believe carbon emissions from energy use are a threat to humanity; equally, climate change believers cannot pretend the transition to renewables can be made easily and without serious implications for our standard of living and population levels just because they do believe in the need to decarbonise our energy sources.

When it comes to EROI, the laws of thermodynamics do not care about your climate science beliefs or your party politics. The choices we face seem stark and our leaders need to be open and honest about this.

In the meantime we must hope for technological innovations that can improve our prospects. Perhaps thorium nuclear reactors can offer a cleaner, safer, economic, insurable alternative to uranium nuclear, with a higher EROI and a much longer shelf-life as a stepping stone to something else. Maybe advances in the exploitation of geothermal power can give us the energy surplus we need to maintain our way of life. Who knows, even the perpetually “only 20 years away” promise of nuclear fusion might finally be fulfilled.

But while we wait for a paradigm shift to happen, what we need is leaders who will prioritise energy efficiency and be honest and realistic about the challenges we face instead of making empty promises about jobs, growth and prosperity that may not be possible.

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