Graham Palmer, a regular BNC community member, has published a new book. It is titled “Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth” and is published by Springer (in their “Springer Briefs in Energy” series). It’s a slim, taughtly written volume (91 pages) that can be read in 1 or 2 sittings. If you have a Kindle, you can purchase it on Amazon.com.au.
I enjoyed the book and got a lot out of it — a combination of useful facts/figures and practical, hard-nosed analysis. I won’t go on too much about the details of the content in this post, because I’ve asked John Morgan to do a full review of its contents for BNC, which he will write up shortly. So stay tuned.
But meanwhile, here is a short precis from the author (Graham), written for this website:
Since the cost of energy represents a relatively small proportion of GDP, the standard neoclassical economic theory of economic growth assumes that it is not a significant factor of production. Therefore improvements in the productivity of energy systems are assumed to make only a minor contribution to economic growth – global primary energy consumption is assumed to rise with global GDP subject to improvements in the energy intensity of production, and price and income elasticities. Indeed, the IEA, EIA and IMF energy forecasting models are computed from GDP growth forecasts – energy supply is assumed to be unconstrained (see Ayres and Voudouris 2013).
The alternative ecological economics perspective is that the increase in energy flows, since the industrial revolution, has been integral to economic development, and that the low cost of energy is a reflection of the ready availability of energy dense fossil fuels. Rather than GDP driving energy consumption, high-EROI energy has enabled GDP growth (see Ayres and Voudouris 2013, Sorrell 2010, Alcott 2012). The very high energy return on investment (EROI) from fossil fuels has enabled the development of the modern state, with advanced education, healthcare, welfare, and the richness and diversity of modern society.
But what if the high global EROI is on a downward trend (Hall et al. 2014)? Capital investment for the global oil industry has tripled in the past 10 years, but oil production has barely increased. Oil production is increasingly reliant on deepwater drilling, enhanced recovery, smaller fields, and unconventional and tight oil. But if we take the commonly quoted EROI figures from authoritative sources of 15 to 60 for solar PV – and increasing (eg. Fthenakis 2012) – one could easily conclude that the net-energy available from PV is superior to current oil production, and may actually begin to approach the very high net-energy figures that used to be available in the Golden Era of oil gushers in Texas and Louisiana.
Yet, intuitively it is not obvious that PV seems to have the same value to society vis-á-vis fossil fuels. The curious thing is that the literature on PV life-cycle analyses seems to readily accept these high numbers without questioning what these figures really mean. Yet high-school science and maths students are regularly taught to question whether their answers “make sense”.
It is only recently that more rigour has been applied to trying to understand the figures, leading to Prieto and Hall’s (2013) examination of large-scale deployment of PV in Spain through 2009 and 2010. Coincidentally, I was researching a paper on PV, which was published in Sustainability Journal and BNC shortly afterwards (Palmer 2013). Both of us came to similar conclusions on EROI (between 2 and 3), which is significantly less than commonly quoted figures, and below the critical minimum EROI required for society (Hall et al 2009). This led to an email exchange with energy and solar researchers, and the writing of this book (Palmer 2014) for the SpringerBriefs series.
At the heart of the PV-EROI issue is the methodological guidelines established by the IEA-PVPS program (Fthenakis, V., et al. 2011). The guidelines establish the boundaries and methodology for PV-Life Cycle Analyses, and provides a coherent and consistent framework for comparing various PV systems. The issue is that results calculated with the constrained IEA-PVPS boundaries are being used to compare PV with other energy sources, leading to a gross overestimation of their true value to society.
While much attention has been on greenhouse abatement strategies in the advanced countries, arguably the greater challenge is coming to terms with a decline in EROI, particularly given the enormous challenge of rising energy demand in the developing countries. Modern energy supply is highly correlated with economic and human development, and a billion people still lack minimal access to electricity (Bazilian & Pielke 2013). We cannot assume that the poorest will be content with a few solar panels supplied by foreign aid, powering a water pump, light and radio – constructing a modern civil society with schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, sewage and clean water, requires a modern advanced energy system based on energy dense, dispatchable energy.
Treating PV as an extension of, rather than as a substitute for, the fossil fuel enterprise enables a more productive discussion of PV’s potential role in electricity generation. For example, with a small amount of distributed storage, solar PV could provide a potentially valuable contribution to network support in summer-peaking grids. In isolated grids reliant on high cost diesel or gas, PV could provide a valuable fuel-saving role. However, the current policy focus on the mass deployment of grid-connected PV distorts the electricity market and provides among the highest cost source of emission abatement. Instead, a research focus on grid integration, storage, niche supplementary roles, and renewed R&D would be far more productive. Importantly, the low energy density of solar insolation, along with temporal intermittency, driven by the seasonal and diurnal cycles, will fundamentally constrain PV’s role as a primary source of energy, regardless of future improvements in solar cell efficiency or cost.
Book and pdf available at Springer:
Book and Kindle version at Amazon:
Alcott, Blake. “Mill’s scissors: structural change and the natural-resource inputs to labour.” Journal of Cleaner Production 21.1 (2012): 83-92 <http://www.blakealcott.org/pdf/Mill’s%20Scissors.pdf>
Ayres, Robert, and Vlasios Voudouris. “The economic growth enigma: Capital, labour and useful energy?.” Energy Policy (2013). <http://www.researchgate.net/publication/253643818_The_economic_growth_enigma_Capital_labour_and_useful_energy/file/9c96051f938728582b.pdf>
Bazilian & Pielke, 2013, Making Energy Access Meaningful, Issues in Science and Technology <http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2013.22.pdf>
Fthenakis, V., et al. “Methodology guidelines on life cycle assessment of photovoltaic electricity.” IEA PVPS Task 12 (2011). <http://www.seas.columbia.edu/clca/IEA_Task12_LCA_Guidelines_12_1_11_Latest.pdf>
Fthenakis, V. How long does it take for photovoltaics to produce the energy used?; National Society of Professional Engineers: 2012 <http://www.bnl.gov/pv/files/pdf/236_PE_Magazine_Fthenakis_2_10_12.pdf>
Hall, C.A.S.; Balogh, S.; Murphy, D.J. What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? Energies 2009, 2, 25-47. <http://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/2/1/25>
Hall, Charles AS, Jessica G. Lambert, and Stephen B. Balogh. “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society.” Energy Policy 64 (2014): 141-152 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2013.05.049>
Palmer, Graham. Energy in Australia Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth., 2014. Springer
Palmer, Graham. “Household Solar Photovoltaics: Supplier of Marginal Abatement, or Primary Source of Low-Emission Power?.” Sustainability 5.4 (2013): 1406-1442. <http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/5/4/1406/pdf>
Prieto, Pedro A., and Charles AS Hall. Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment. Springer, 2013. <http://www.amazon.com/Spains-Photovoltaic-Revolution-Investment-SpringerBriefs/dp/144199436X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1386572228&sr=1-1&keywords=Spain%27s+Photovoltaic+Revolution%3A+The+Energy+Return+on+Investment>
Sorrell, Steven. “Energy, economic growth and environmental sustainability: five propositions.” Sustainability 2.6 (2010): 1784-1809. <http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/2/6/1784/pdf>
So, if you are interested in Australia’s energy future — and that inarguably includes the majority of BNC readers — then you really ought to read Graham’s book… and keep it handy as a reference when you are engaged in a commenting war on the internet. It’s a great source of factual ammunition!