6019 Measuring Energy as a Driver of Globalization: Trends of Prices and Net Energy

Sunday, February 19, 2012: 8:30 AM
Room 114-115 (VCC West Building)
Carey King , University of Texas, Austin, TX
Since the dawn of civilization humans have pursued increasingly complex conversions and combinations of natural resources into functional products and services.  Energy resources have been at the forefront of our advances from wood to coal to oil and photovoltaic cells. In pre-industrial times, wood and coal were harvested using human and animate power without any devices resembling modern infrastructure.  Thus, the energy return on energy invested (EROI) of 18th Century United Kingdom coal at the mine mouth was > 500 compared to 50-150 in the United States today over the last 80 years.  The energy inputs to 18th Century coal mining were dominated by food for workers and animals.  Today, the inputs are dominated by refined fuels and energy embodied in capital. Thus, one view of ‘energy technology’ can be those ideas and devices that refined high net energy resources for new purposes, including the mining of resource itself. This presentation focuses on the concept of net energy and how the speaker and other researchers are working to make the concept more meaningful and approachable for both economic and policy decision making.  Relating EROI of fuels and industries/business to prices and expenditures for of their energy products includes one approach.  New work shows that EROI = 1, typically seen as the critical level for a ‘viable’ energy product, is much too low to act as a threshold for economic viability. EROI can also help us to better conceptualize future energy systems based upon renewable energy flows (e.g. sun, wind, water) instead of fossil energy stocks (e.g. coal, natural gas, uranium ores).  Because a renewable-dominated system will require new types of industrial energy storage (e.g. chemical batteries, compressed air) at larger scale than the current fossil-dominated system (e.g. piles of coal, natural gas seasonal storage caverns), tracking energy embodied in this new storage infrastructure can provide insight into future possibilities. Ultimately, net energy analyses must be used in tandem with traditional economic analyses to inform economic assessments and projection estimates.  Financing is often seen as the major barrier to renewable energy development, but financing does not affect the energetic and biophysical inputs and outputs of the technology.  By considering temporal aspects into net energy analyses, both to analyze the past and understand future possibilities, we can create new understanding to bridge views of energetic and ecological sustainability with those of economic sustainability.