Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dr Charles Hall is still totally wrong about EROI

Recently I saw an article on and found that Dr Charles Hall is still making the same incorrect claims. Once again, Dr Hall is claiming that civilization requires an EROI higher than a certain amount to feed its population and support advanced activities. Apparently, if EROI drops below a certain level, then civilization will revert to a primitive state. It could even result in mass starvation if EROI drops too low.

The following remarks are taken from the article:

[Summarizing his research] Pretty soon it looked like we needed an EROI of at least 10:1 to take care of the minimum requirements of society, and maybe 15:1 (numbers are very approximate) for a modern civilization.

Similar ideas are expressed in his earlier papers, such as Hall's "energy pyramid"[1] in Lambert & Hall[2].

Apparently, we require an EROI of at least 5:1 just to grow enough food to survive, whereas we require an EROI of at least 15:1 to have a modern, industrialized society, according to Dr. Hall and associates.

However, those numbers are clearly wrong. A decline in EROI from 15 to 5 implies a decline in net energy of only ~14%, and this can be shown using arithmetic ( (1-1/5)/(1-1/15) = ~86%). As a more extreme example, a decline in EROI from 1 billion down to 5 implies a decline in net energy of less than 20% (19.999...). Such declines in EROI imply only modest losses of net energy, and do not imply the collapse of civilization, mass starvation, or a return to a medieval mode of life. Above a very low level, EROI makes practically no difference; for example, a decrease in EROI from 1 trillion down to 10 implies a loss of less than 10% of net energy.

Presumably, the error here is to infer that modern civilization must have a proportionally higher EROI than primitive civilization, in order to gain more net energy to support more advanced activities. Dr Hall observes that the kung (a hunter-gatherer tribe) has an EROI of approximately 10. Presumably, Dr Hall infers that modern civilization must have a higher EROI to obtain more net energy.

From the article:
Lee's assessment of the traditional kung hunter gatherer life style implies an EROI of 10:1 and lots of leisure (except during droughts–which is the bottleneck).

However, Hall's inference is incorrect. Modern civilization doesn't just have a higher EROI than primitive societies; it also has a greater AMOUNT of gross energy which it can obtain. Primitive societies have too little energy they obtain, regardless of EROI. Even if the kung increased their EROI from 10 to 1 billion, it would result in less than 10% additional net energy, which presumably would make little difference. The problem is amount, not EROI. It is not possible to know how much net energy will be obtained from EROI alone.

The amount of net energy can be calculated using the following formula:

net = gross - gross/eroi

You will notice that it's not possible to solve the simple equation above using EROI alone. As a result, any remarks along the lines of "we require an EROI of at least x to have modern civilization" are incorrect. Without knowing how much GROSS energy is obtained, we cannot calculate how much NET energy will be obtained. Modern civilization runs on net energy, not a high EROI, so an EROI number by itself (without any indication of gross energy) provides no important information, unless the EROI ratio is lower than 1.

At present, the United States uses 6916 kg of oil equivalent capita, per year. Even if the average EROI ratio for the entire country dropped down to 3, the US would still have more net energy per capita than France[3]. The French are obviously capable of growing food, having education, and so on.

Dr. Hall then claims that we require an EROI of at least 3 to support modern transportation:

We found you needed to extract 3 liters at the well head to use 1 liter in the gas tank to drive the truck, i.e. an EROI of 3:1 was needed... But even this did not include the energy to put something in the truck (say grow some grain)

That claim is incorrect. Hall's paper in question[4] includes depreciation of all vehicles as an energy cost. It also includes all road construction. However, most vehicle depreciation occurs in personal vehicles which are used for discretionary trips. As a result, an EROI of 3 is not the minimum which civilization must have to deliver food in trucks, because civilization could curtail personal vehicles while retaining food delivery in trucks. Furthermore, the replacement rate of personal vehicles would decline proportionally as the rate of net energy to drive them declined. In other words, vehicle depreciation is not constant. As a result, the minimum EROI needed for modern transportation would be far lower than 3 because most of that energy investment could be curtailed without (thereby reducing the minimum EROI figure) without sacrificing anything essential.

It's not necessary for civilization to construct the entire first world edifice of cars and freeways before commencing any other activities. As a result, Hall's energy pyramid is incorrect, because the numbers contained in it would change as EROI declined, and also because those activities are not stacked on top of each other in the way implied by that diagram.

Dr. Hall then turns his attention to the idea of chaining energy sources. You could "chain" power plants (or "stack" them) and thereby achieve a higher aggregate EROI (This is discussed further on this blog, here). For example, if you had solar PV plant with an EROI of 2, you could use the output of that plant to build twice as many new ones, which would yield 4 units of energy for an initial investment of 1. Alternatively you could use the output from the initial plant to build 1.5 times as many new ones (which would yield 3 units of energy for an initial investment of 1) and then return the remaining net energy to society.

Dr. Hall addresses that issue in the same thread, as follows:

The problem with the "stacked" idea is that if you do that you do not deliver energy to society with the first (or second or third) investment — it all has to go to the "food chain" with only the final delivering energy to society.  So stack two EROI 2:1 technologies and you get 4:2, or the same ratio when you are done.

That is clearly incorrect. It is not necessary to devote the entire amount of gross energy obtained to building more solar panels. It would be possible to invest more than is required to replace existing solar panels, but less than the entire amount. This would still lead to exponential growth in net energy obtained (with any EROI higher than 1) while also providing energy for other purposes in the mean time. Exponential growth in energy supply would obviously allow us to obtain any amount until some limit (other than EROI) is reached. As a result, EROI is not proportional to net energy obtained by society.

Dr Hall also claims that solar PV with an EROI of 8 may not actually provide any net energy to society after including more factors as energy investments:

If the EROI [of solar] is 8:1 ... then it seems like you could make your society work. But let’s look closer. If you add in security systems, roads, and financial services and the EROI drops to 3:1 then it seems more problematic. But if you add in labor (i.e. the energy it takes to make the food, housing etc that labor buys with its salaries, calculated from national mean energy intensities times salaries for all necessary workers) it might drop to 1:1. Now what this means is that the energy from the PV system will support all the purchases of the workers that are building/maintaining the PV system, let’s say 10% will be taken care of, BUT THERE WILL BE NO PRODUCTION OF GOODS AND SERVICES for the rest of the population.

Of course, that implies that 7/8ths of the output of a modern power plant is devoted to the employees who work there and miscellaneous expenses like security cameras, roads to the plant, and so on. On its face, that number is highly implausible.  A modern solar PV power plant often has more than 250 MW nameplate capacity, which is equivalent to 47.5 MW continuously at a capacity factor of 0.19. Even if there were 2,000 employees who worked at the plant continuously for 30 years (which is false; solar plants have only a handful of employees), that would still imply more than 23.75 kw continuously per employee which is vastly higher than the total energy usage per capita of any industrialized country. That figure of energy usage includes the employees' discretionary consumption (such as taking plane trips to the Bahamas for vacation) which is not an energy investment.

There is another serious problem with Dr. Hall's ideas on this matter. Over and over again, Dr. Hall treats energy returns as energy investments. In doing so, he places terms in the denominator of the EROI fraction which belong in the numerator. For example, in his paper What is the minimum EROI that society must have?[4], he treats all personal vehicle depreciation as an energy investment. However, most personal vehicle travel is for discretionary trips and not for activities such as (say) gathering coal. As a result, such vehicle travel represents an energy return, not an investment. As another example, Hall repeatedly treats first world salaries for certain workers as energy investments; for example, in the remarks above, or in his book Spain's Photovoltaic Revolution[8], he treats salaries of power plant employees as energy investments.

If we treat things like first world salaries, discretionary car travel, vacations, etc as energy investments, then it would be possible to increase EROI greatly, by simply curtailing discretionary first-world activities somewhat for power plant employees. As a result, the EROI of those sources of energy would increase greatly as salaries declined, in which case, Hall's EROI figures would no longer hold. This implies that Hall's warnings about the decline of industrial civilization wouldn't hold either, because any decline in the first world incomes of power plant employees would cause a concomitant large increase in the EROI of power plants.

In conclusion. Dr. Hall's ideas and papers contain serious mathematical and logical errors which invalidate his analysis. He assumes that modern civilization must have a proportionally higher EROI than primitive civilization in order to obtain more net energy to support advanced activities. However, that assumption is clearly wrong, because modern civilization also has more gross energy than primitive civilization, and so would obtain vastly more net energy even with far lower EROI ratios. Furthermore, Dr Hall is throwing around numbers which are clearly implausible and which are refuted using straightforward arithmetic. What's more, Dr. Hall's criticism of the "stacked" energy source idea is incorrect, insofar as he wrongly assumes that society must devote either all of leftover energy, or none, to obtaining more energy. Finally, Dr. Hall repeatedly treats energy returns as investments, and in so doing, invalidates his other conclusions.

There is one more thing I should point out. These ideas are not new. Dr. Hall and his mentor (HT Odum) have issued warnings about declining net energy and imminent grim consequences to civilization, over and over again, since the early 1970s. Odum first warned in the early 1970s that all sources of energy then had perilously low and declining EROI (called "energy yield ratio" back then) [5]. Odum claimed repeatedly during the 1970s that nuclear reactors probably would not yield more energy over their lifetimes than was required to construct them and refine the Uranium. Odum also claimed at that time that the EROI of coal fired electricity was extremely low and declining. Dr Hall started warning in the early 1980s (during the oil crisis) that the EROI of oil was disastrously low and could decline to just above 1 fairly soon thereafter[6].  Dr Hall warned again, in 2009, that the EROI of oil and gas was perilously declining: "The fact that the EROI for global oil and gas extraction declined by nearly half from 1999 to 2006 is cause for concern."[7] Both Hall and Odum devoted much of their professional careers to issuing such warnings about almost all sources of energy, over many decades. These most recent warnings about the EROI of renewables are simply repetitions of earlier, failed predictions and warnings, applied to other sources of energy back then. Dr. Hall needs to explain why these ideas and methods have failed so badly in their predictions in the past, when applied to fossil fuels, but are still correct now when applied to renewables.

I have pointed out repeatedly, for several years, that Dr Hall's analysis contains mathematical errors. Dr Hall responds to this by being petulant and insulting:

First I would like to say that the bountiful energy blog post is embarrassingly poor science and totally unacceptable. As one point the author does not back his (often erroneous) statements with references. The importance of peer review is obvious from this non peer-reviewed post.

However, that simply does not address the mathematical errors I have pointed out.

If Dr Hall offers no relevant response to these objections, then his ideas are refuted.




[3] . The USA has an energy use per capita of 6916 kg of oil equivalent, which is 4613 net energy per capita with an EROI of 3. France has an energy use per capita of 3840 kg of oil per capita, which implies lower net energy per capita regardless of the EROI of France.

[4] What is the minimum EROI that society must have?, pp 42, table 2. Charles A. S. Hall, Stephen Balogh and David J. R. Murphy. Energies 2009, 2, 25-47.

[5] Energy Basis for Man and Nature. Howard T Odum and Elisabeth C Odum. MacGraw Hill, 1974.

[6] Petroleum Drilling and Production in the United States: Yield per Effort and Net Energy Analysis. Charles A.S. Hall, Cutler Cleveland. Science, 211, 4482, 576-579.

[7] A Preliminary Investigation of Energy Return on Energy Investment for Global Oil and Gas Production. Nathan Gagnon, Charles A.S. Hall, and Lysle Brinker

[8] Spain's Photovoltaic Revolution. Pedro A. Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall. Springer, 2013.