A common claim within the energy decline movement is that renewables have much lower EROI than fossil fuels. For example, it is often claimed that coal has an EROI of 80 and oil has an EROI higher than 15, whereas solar PV has an EROI of only 10. Thus, solar PV is no match for fossil energy and cannot provide the same amount of net energy.
Such claims have been made repeatedly within the energy decline movement for more than 15 years now, and they rely upon data which is considerably older than that. Presumably, the EROI of fossil fuels has deteriorated at least somewhat, and the EROI of solar PV has improved at least somewhat, since those claims were first made. As a result, it's worth re-examining the issue and seeing what the respective EROI ratios of those sources of energy are now.
Gagnon et al (2009) published an analysis of EROI trends over time for both oil and gas combined. EROI for oil and gas had declined from approximately 30 in the early 1990s to approximately 17 in the mid-2000s. Gagnon et al also included a best-fit linear trend line of that data. Simply extrapolating from that linear trend line (visually using a ruler) yields an EROI for global oil and gas of approximately 13 now.
The EROI of solar PV, on the other hand, has been improving fairly rapidly. Leuwen et al (2016) examined the trend lines for energy payback studies of solar PV and found a consistent decrease in energy payback time over decades. The most recent studies (in 2014) indicate an energy payback time of approximately 1 year in areas of moderate insolation. This figure implies an EROI of approximately 25 for solar PV, assuming a 25+ year lifespan. The oft-quoted EROI of 10 for solar PV is two decades old and is seriously out of date.
In which case, the EROI of solar PV is already nearly twice as high as the EROI for gas and oil worldwide. As a result, the notion that fossil fuels have much higher EROI ratios than solar PV is badly outdated and is exactly the opposite of the true situation; in fact, solar PV has an EROI ratio which is considerably higher than oil and gas worldwide.
Granted, the EROI for coal in the United States (80) is still much higher than the EROI for solar PV. However, the United States is an outlier insofar as its coal deposits are larger and more easily accessed than anywhere else in the world. As a result, the United States is not a good comparison for solar PV in areas of average insolation. Instead, we should compare the EROI of average solar to the EROI of average coal for the world.
In which case, the EROI of solar PV is higher than the EROI for coal worldwide. In my opinion, China is a good comparsion for coal, because China mines and uses more coal than the rest of the world combined. Hu et al (2103) published a historical trend line for the EROI of Chinese coal and found steady declines over decades. The trend line indicated an EROI of 27 for Chinese coal in 2010. A simple visual extrapolation (again using a ruler) indicates an EROI of approximately 22 now. As a result, the EROI of Chinese coal is already lower than the EROI of solar PV in areas of moderate insolation, and the gap is presumably widening over time.
Extending the boundaries of EROI analysis will simply reduce the EROI of fossil fuels by more than for renewables. Coal fired electricity in particular has far more "uncounted" energy investments, which are reflected in its much higher price (as shown here). Any conversion of money into energy, as was done by Prieto and Hall (2013), will reduce the EROI of fossil fuel electricity by more. This implies that extending boudaries will increase the EROI advantage which solar power already enjoys.
This analysis makes no attempt to compensate for energy quality. Even if we count the waste heat losses from cooling towers at coal power plants as "energy returns", which artificially inflates the EROI of coal-fired electricity, the EROI of global coal is still worse than the EROI of solar PV in areas of average insolation.
It should also be mentioned that the EROI of solar PV continues to improve and this trend shows no sign of stopping. New kinds of solar panels are being introduced, such as perovskite and organic solar cells. Those panels have an estimated energy payback time of a few months or less. If the lifetime of those panels can be improved to 20 years, it implies an EROI of 60 or higher for areas of average insolation.
It is possible that the EROI from 4th-generation, thin film solar cells deployed in desert regions near the equator will exceed the EROI from any fossil fuels anywhere, ever. If EROI were actually an important metric (which it is not), then global civilization could simply relocate its most energy-intensive manufacturing (such as aluminum smelting, or solar panel manufacturing) to desert regions near the equator, which could afford them higher EROI than any fossil fuels have ever provided.
In conclusion. The idea that solar PV has very low EROI, is simply outdated and is based upon obsolete data. The EROI of solar PV has been improving ever since that claim was first popularized around 2005. By now, the EROI of solar PV matches or exceeds the EROI of all fossil fuels, except coal in a few ideal locations. The EROI advantage which solar PV enjoys is likely to increase in the future because the EROI of solar PV continues to improve and shows no sign of stopping, whereas the EROI of fossil fuels continues to decline.
Gagnon, N., Hall, C., Brinker, L. 2009. A preliminary investigation of the energy return on energy investment for global oil and gas production. Energies 2 490-503.
Louwen A., van Sark W.G.J.H.M., Faaij A.P.C., Schropp R.E.I. 2016. Re-assessment of net energy production and greenhouse gas emissions avoidance after 40 years of photovoltaics development. Nature Communications 7
Hu, Y., Hall, C., Wang, J., Feng, L., Poisson, A. 2013. Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of china's conventional fossil fuels: Historical and future trends. Energy 1-13.
Prieto, P., Hall, C. 2013. Spain's Photovoltaic Revolution. Springer.