Responses / solutions

There are numerous actions people can take to reduce their dependence on oil and thus avoid the worst impacts of oil depletion: Individuals, organisations, businesses and cities can take steps to gradually reduce their oil dependency – by about 3% each year, or 25% over ten years. You will benefit personally, so too will the whole of society as we collectively help to create an economy that can be sustained.

At last here’s an Australian produced video “What the Economic Crisis Really Means – and what we can do about it “ that expounds in just 12 minutes the depth of the human predicament and what can be done about it.

Expertly produced with neat hand drawing animation, this educational video explains the slowly disintegrating global economy and its relationship with oil depletion (= rising energy prices).

Please circulate to those who may be interested…. ahem… or who ought to be interested!

by Chris Harries

More than anything else, cars represent our freedom and independence. We”ve become so dependent on them we”ll do almost anything to not let go. And, let”s face it, most of us like driving. So with climate chaos and the prospect of petrol prices going through the roof it”s not hard to see why so many people are seduced by the prospect of simply switching to a nice, clean, “pollution-free” electric car.

With at least a dozen electric and electric hybrid models hitting the new car market(#1), the age of the electric car is coming, so let”s have a look at some practical and ethical implications.

The “pollution-free” myth

Contrary to a widespread misconception, an electric car has approximately same energy consumption and carbon dioxide pollution performance as an efficient petrol engine, taking all factors into account. That”s if it is charged on an electricity supply that is delivered by fossil fuels. (This link provides calculations showing why this is so.)

On the other hand, an electric car that is charged by a renewable power supply will pollute less and use less energy, as shown below.

Before we jump to any half baked conclusions about the wisdom of switching Tasmania”s car fleet to electric, its important to add three caveats:

    1. For all intents and purposes, any extra demand on the Tasmanian power grid is delivered by fossil fuel energy at present. That is, in broad environmental terms it”s not worth doing – at least until such time as we produce an excess of renewable energy to supply the new demand that electric vehicles would add to the power grid. To do that would require a very substantial investment in wind farms (or similar) dedicated to that purpose.
    2. Switching from petrol to electric vehicles does not take into account the significant embodied energy that would be entailed in converting the world”s car manufacturing infrastructure from petrol to electric vehicles. An environmentally minded person would do best by keeping an old car so long as it is fairly small and energy efficient – owing to embodied energy needed to manufacture an electric one along with the new power supply infrastructure to charge it up.(#2)
    3. That said, comparing energy performance of petrol-versus-electric will be of little relevance when we start to run out of liquid fuels. In which case, if we are desperate enough to try to maintain private transport as our main means of getting around, then there will be little choice but to eventually convert to electric vehicles. That conversion is going to happen anyway, because modern society in general, and car manufacturers specifically, are desperate to maintain business-as-usual and electric cars will gradually begin to replace petrol ones. [A wholesale conversion of the world"s 800,000,000 cars would take about 30 years (most cars now being produced are still petrol ones), by which time we will be in the midst of a major global energy crisis and this debate may by then be rather irrelevant.]
How do we charge them up?

To avoid this (see pic below), there is a view that electric vehicles should be powered via a rapid expansion of renewable energy. A hitch here is that if expansive renewable energy systems are installed to try to power Tasmania”s 500,000 registered vehicles, then that new renewable energy capacity can”t be used also for existing energy purposes, such as to supply electric power to our homes and factories etc. So a major shift to electric vehicles would soak up most renewable energy growth for decades, and thus retard the phasing out of existing fossil fuelled power plant. We can”t have our cake and eat it too.(#3)

In any event, the practical reality here in Australia is that the majority of new electricity production, at present and for the foreseeable future, will come from new gas powered generating infrastructure, not from wind farms. This is simply a function of what is happening at a policy level, gas being seen to be able to provide base load power at fairly low cost and able to be built very quickly. Thus, the first generation of electric cars in Australia will, in real terms, receive their electric charging power mostly from gas-fired power stations, whether we like that or not. (It”s probably more efficient to convert a petrol car to burn gas directly than to burn gas in a power station to power an electric car indirectly.)

In a world context, owing to limitations in producing such an immense volume of added-on renewable energy, arguably only nuclear power would be able to provide the additional power capacity that would be placed on national power grids around the world. Thus, in a global context, unqualified advocacy of electric cars is tantamount to advocacy of nuclear energy. For those who have concerns about nuclear energy this poses a moral dilemma.

For those who dearly want to own an electric car but who also want to guarantee that it is powered by renewable energy then they would probably need to personally install enough solar or wind capacity to provide that renewable energy – which then increases the capital cost of the car by at least $20,000 – not in the reach of most people.

Cost of running an electric car

The above describes energy efficiency and pollution attributes of petrol cars versus electric cars – not the cost of running them.

In the first instance (whilst the electric vehicle market is very small) it will be significantly cheaper to run an electric car… about half the running costs in the US, where petrol is cheap, perhaps a quarter in Australia. It’s hard to say how this will change over time. Electricity from renewables will end up pushing up electricity power costs, but the cost of liquid fuels will rise too, perhaps even faster.

For people who don”t care much about environmental factors, then it may be in the interests of their hip pocket to go electric regardless – that is for those who can afford the prohibitive cost of buying a new electric car.

For most people on lesser incomes – who don”t have that choice – their best options are:

    1. Reduce travel demand
    2. Travel as much as possible by foot, bicycles, public transport and by car pooling
    3. Get the most efficient affordable vehicle they can get their hands on, where private vehicle use is a practical necessity for them.

A sensible solution for many people may be purchasing a motor scooter or powered bike.

Using Tasmania”s hydro-electric energy for transport?

Some have suggested if we were to close down a major metallurgical industry then that would release enough hydro-electric energy to provide for the electrification of Tasmania”s entire transport fleet.

Well, yes that”s true. It may even be a rational economic policy when it comes to reducing Tasmania”s hugely significant import bill for liquid fuels. And it would no doubt increase Tasmania”s economic resilience and survivability if we are faced with a really serious oil crunch.

However, in greenhouse terms not much would be achieved in a global context. Lost aluminium output from Tasmania would be taken up by a smelter somewhere else in the world that would be more than likely powered by coal (or maybe nuclear). Local greenhouse advantage, global disadvantage. A case of exporting our pollution.

(Aluminium, curiously, is a very significant material when it comes to the manufacture of many light weight green technologies like electric cars and solar panels. It seems almost perverse that this metal, for so long the bête noir of the environmental movement owing to the huge power demand required for its smelting, would have to be manufactured in significant volumes to supply green technologies, none more so than for the manufacture of hundreds of millions of light weight electric vehicles.)

Using electric car batteries as a “sponge”?

Electric car enthusiasts have been advocating that fleets of electric cars all hooked to a power grid can operate like a very big “sponge” and could thus help to make thermal power stations more efficient by ironing out the power grid”s peaks and troughs, and would also help to offset the fluctuating load that comes from renewable energy sources like solar panels.

At present this idea is a pipe dream, though it may become valid in years to come. However, this is much less of an issue here in Tasmania where our hydro-electric system already serves that function very well, having an instant capacity to provide for fluctuations in power load.

Spot the difference!

Rather than think in black and white terms, we need to think about choices. Whether electric vehicles turn out to be a plus or a minus for society will depend entirely on our attitude to them, what the corporate market creates and the policy setting in which electric cars are brought in.

The car on the left symbolises the environmentalist dream, a modest electric vehicle that can help us get around with a smaller footprint and so aid the transition towards more sustainable future.

The car on the right (Chevy Volt electric) symbolises what big car manufacturers are saying: “Unless electric cars match the power, acceleration and range of petrol cars (what people have come to expect) then hardly any will sell, people won”t make the switch.”

Though we may dream of the one on the left, what churns out of the factories may well be the one on the right.

What to advocate?

Electric cars will be a feature of future society. They will have an important role to play. Not all of Tasmania”s transport needs can be met by other means. However, there is a need to hose own a popular romantic notion that electric cars are somehow non-polluting and offer a green ticket to heaven for anyone who buys one.

If our priority is to reduce resource consumption and CO2 pollution, we”ve no choice but to focus on getting additional power load from sustainable sources before thinking about transforming our fleet of cars to electricity.

If electric car policies are pursued in conjunction with policies to develop matching renewable energy supply (new hydro dams or wind farms) then there would be a clear efficiency advantage. The downside to that is that any such new renewable power that we generate would then be used for that (new) purpose rather than to offset existing imports of thermal power from the mainland. Still, it may be a better way to go.

I would add that any strident advocacy of electric vehicles feeds our society”s lust to maintain at all costs our patterns of unsustainable living. Every step along the way, the electrification debate needs to be placed into the much more important context of making our cities and communities less car dependent. Lose sight of the larger context, then we lose the sustainability argument and unintentionally end up feeding the other side of the debate instead.

What about electric public transport?

It is important to differentiate electrification of private cars and that of public transport. The latter has a significant environmental, energy and social advantage, especially post peak oil.

And it”s not a pipe dream. When I arrived in Tasmania in 1960 Hobart had electric tram and trolley bus services and also a motorised suburban rail car that fed people in from the northern suburbs. With political will, how easily could we bring those services back, especially with even more advanced technology that we now have to hand?


    #1. Plug in cars: See here a range of electric vehicle models being brought onto the world market.
    #2. Old clunkers: If you drive a fair bit, this article says it is more energy efficient to ditch on old car rather than hold on to it. (Most petrol guzzling “clunkers” are not old, they are fairly new cars with oversized engines.)
    #3. Beyond Zero Emissions: This non-profit group believes that in an ideal world we could “have our cake and eat it too” – if government pulls out all stops. BZE has presented a robust plan for Australia to go carbon neutral. The plan is based on the premise that government acts on climate change without restraint.
    If you are in the new car market and want to know what to do, this article says, on balance, to go electric.

by Chris Harries

How can your local council respond to peak oil in the best possible way?

Some councils are large and well resourced. Others less so. Some have progressive councillors elected. Some may have already taken steps to address the issue. Most have not done so yet. Some will be much more impacted by high fuel prices than will others.

In short, no one-way-fits-all. So here you go in 7 easy steps:

Remember: Approaching your local government representative is not as forbidding as you may think. Most people have an elected councillor living somewhere in or near their neighbourhood. They are normally quite friendly and approachable and (even where they may disagree with you) will listen, provided that you approach him/her in a courteous, respectful manner.

Here is a sample motion that can be put to any council:

    That a report be prepared to examine the potential impacts of Peak Oil on:

    1) Council’s operations
    2) Local businesses
    3) Local ratepayers

    That the report further examine some of the policies and practices of leading councils in addressing Peak Oil and report on their potential to be used for the benefit of the council and the community.

The article below is a summary taken from an advisory report (pictured).

It’s a basic checklist for anybody who wishes to influence local government on the multiple ways that councils are able to respond to the Peak Oil issue.

Click here to download a complete copy of the report.


The decline of global oil production will radically change the way our societies are run: our transport systems, how we produce food, where we work and live.

There are a great many things that councils must do, and policies that need to be changed, if we are to have any chance of mitigating the economic effects of peak oil. On the plus side, some of these initiatives already exist (recycling, etc.) but these efforts need to be significantly expanded, and entire areas of policy remain unaddressed.

The continued expansion of road and air infrastructure no longer makes any sense. Forecasts of a massive increase in road travel over the next thirty years are based entirely on historical data, and will soon be rendered meaningless by peak oil. New major road developments run the risk of turning into expensive white elephants. Instead, we must start preparing for a contraction in all travel modes that depend on oil.

Food supplies should be of primary concern. Prices are already soaring globally, partly due to the dash for biofuels. As oil production declines these pressures are only likely to increase, and the dilemmas they pose will only sharpen in the future. In a world of constrained transport, food security will increasingly depend upon local supply. We need to start planning for these changes now.

The most fundamental change needed is in the way people think. Local policy will be fundamental to the transition to a lean-energy future, but councils cannot achieve everything by themselves; the necessary changes will require much greater co-operative spirit within and between communities in future. Hearts and minds are critical; now is the time to change them.

1. Preparing for peak oil
Peak oil means local authorities need to plan for the likelihood of rising oil prices and shrinking fuel supplies. First steps should include:

  • A detailed energy audit of all council activities including transport and buildings. This will point the way to immediate cost savings, emission reductions and greater energy security, and better prepare the authority for any short term interruptions to energy supplies
  • An in-depth assessment of the impact of peak oil on the local economy, environment and social services including food and agriculture, health and medicine, transport, education, waste, water supply, communications, and energy use
  • The development of an emergency plan to respond to sudden interruptions in oil supplies and/or sharply rising oil prices, with a particular emphasis on ‘at risk’ communities
  • Set specific targets for reducing oil and natural gas consumption in the local government, business and household sectors, by a significant proportion within a defined period
  • Encourage a major shift from private to public transport, cycling and walking, through investment in public transport and expansion of existing programmes such as cycle lanes and road pricing
  • Reduce overall transport demand by using planning powers to shape the built environment
  • Shape planning rules to encourage the greatest energy efficiency in new and existing buildings
  • Promote the use of locally produced, non-fossil transport fuels such as biogas and renewable electricity in both council operations and public transport
  • Prevent infrastructure investments that are not viable in a low energy society
  • Develop rigorous energy efficiency and energy conservation programmes that help businesses and individuals to reduce their oil dependency
  • Support the growth of businesses that supply renewable and energyefficient solutions
  • Launch a major public energy-awareness campaign incorporating leaflets, the internet and an expanded network of energy-saving advice centres. The more people understand peak oil, the more likely they are to support or accept demand management measures
  • Find ways to encourage local food production and processing; facilitate reduction of energy used in refrigeration and transportation of food
  • Set up a joint peak oil task force with other councils, and partner closely with existing community-led initiatives such as the Transition Network and the Relocalization Network
  • Adopt the Oil Depletion Protocol and the ‘Five principles’ proposed by Post Carbon Cities

2. Peak oil and climate change
Council policies on peak oil and climate change should be closely coordinated and mutually reinforcing. Most policy options will help mitigate both problems, but where priorities conflict, peak oil must be given adequate weight. Councils need to understand and connect these issues in both strategy and internal and external communication, and should propagate this understanding into the wider local, regional and national government strategic framework

3. Education
Councils need to develop positive ways to educate the public about peak oil, to effect behaviour change and reduce oil dependency throughout business and the community. Local authorities should distribute educational leaflets to households in their area, focussing on positive solutions and the incidental benefits, such as the impact on climate change. The role of institutions and individuals, and the need for immediate action, should all be emphasized

Where councils already operate a service offering information and advice on climate change and energy saving, its remit should be expanded to include peak oil. If a council does not offer such a service, it should consider setting one up

Councils also need to conduct an internal education and awareness-raising programme to inform all their councillors, officers and employees on peak oil issues and the available solutions towards reducing oil dependency

4. Expand existing initiatives
Many initiatives are already underway at the local government level that will help the transition from pre-peak plenty to post-peak scarcity, for example: road pricing, energy efficiency/insulation programs, promotion of renewables, recycling/reuse. These can all be further legitimised as policies that will help mitigate peak oil; if the general public understand peak oil, they are more likely to participate and support local government initiatives in these areas

5. Organization
Each local authority should consider nominating an officer to develop and coordinate its response to peak oil both internally and in cooperation with other councils. Where possible, councils should set up a task force on peak oil

The council’s peak oil task force should partner closely with existing citizen initiatives which are already working on energy planning to foster community based solutions

See also related articles here and here.

by David Hamilton

[This article refers to the Tasmanian government's Oil Price Vulnerability Study, currently being conducted]

Why supply is an issue too.

The Background Info section of this web site explains that oil fields inevitably decline, and since peak discovery was in 1964, global oil supply will shortly enter an inevitable decline – the “second half of the Age of Oil”. Thus, reduced availability will be an absolute constraint: oil will simply become increasingly unavailable, regardless of price.

Put simply, the fact of peak oil means the end of business as usual.

What decline rate is expected?
The rate at which oil fields decline varies from field to field; in addition the companies operating the fields can usually reduce the rate of decline or delay the worst of the decline by spending money trying harder and harder to extract the diminishing amounts of oil left in the field. Predicting the global rate of decline of oil supply once we are clearly past the peak is therefore difficult. Most predictions seem to be in the range 2% to 4% per year, but higher predictions can be found. If the decline is a steady 2% per year, then oil supply will halve every 35 years; if it is a steady 5% per year (at the higher end of the predictions), then oil supply will halve every 14 years.

The time frame for the Tasmanian Oil Price Vulnerability Study is 20 years, so even at the low end of the range of predicted declines, the availability of oil will decrease significantly over the period, as we appear to be already past the absolute peak of oil production. There is a further issue the Oil Price Vulnerability Study is ignoring: whether the oil that is available will be distributed around the world in proportion to how it is currently used. For example, oil exporting countries could decide that they want to slow down the rate at which they export oil to allow a larger buffer for their own use over the years.

What are the implications for oil supply?
Putting these factors together, the outlook for oil supply over the next 20 years is at best a gradual decline of around 2% per year; at worst a larger decline will underlay a tumultuous period which includes rapid changes in availability and conflict over access to oil.

What difference does including supply issues make?
All of us make decisions based on assumptions about the future. When we move house, change jobs, buy cars, we are assuming (perhaps unconsciously) what the future will be like, and often part of that assumption relates to future availability of petroleum fuels: petrol, diesel and jet fuel. A person knowing that price rises were inevitable might decide that given present and expected income and living expenses they could manage the price rises with a slightly smaller or more efficient car, or a bit less travel – life would go on much as at present. If however a person knows that fuel will be subject to occasional severe shortages and will consistently become less available, then they are more likely to decide that the future will be significantly different from the past, and change the decisions they would otherwise make.

Nick Towle et al’s table, below, summarises the differences that considering supply as well as price makes:

by Chris Harries

The bottom line is…

It’s not hard to get a strong debate going about energy choices. Most Tasmanian citizens have a personal preference for various choices such as wind, wave, geothermal, nuclear etc, and most people have a position on the ones they don’t particularly like. Then there are keen enthusiasts out there who believe they have the ultimate solution to our energy future, and these people often disagree bitterly with each other.

So, who are we to believe? How do we make rational choices?

In this article I am going to try to do the impossible, introduce some rationality to our energy choices. At the end of the day, alternatives have to be realistic, not based on romantic whims or wishful thinking. The sums have to stack up.

So here is a short guide to what matters most – real energy. That is: what is the net energy return you will get from any energy resource? And how do energy choices compare? And is it actually possible to replace oil?

Why you need to know about EROEI

At this point we need to introduce a fundamental concept. It’s called the EROEI. This stands for ‘Energy Return on Energy Invested’. It’s a big mouthful, I know, but you are going to hear this term a lot in the near future so this may be as good a place as any to become familiar with it.

Firstly, let’s go back a few steps. Our present world economy was built on cheap oil, discovered mostly during the last 100 years. Although it is non-renewable, there’s lots of oil in the ground and under our sea beds. About 8 trillion barrels of it. Some of it is very easy to get. This is called ‘sweet crude’ – when a drill is sunk, up gushes the sweet crude oil. It has a sweet taste and is a fairly thin liquid that can be easily converted into all sorts of fuels and plastics and other products.

So, this is our starting point. Our present world economy – the one that provides us with nearly everything we now rely upon – was built on this foundation, this amazing product, this low-cost energy resource that was really easy to get and turn into thousands of different products, right down to the shirts on our backs! So amazing, that in the early bonanza days it used to take just one unit of energy to produce 100 units. One barrel of oil to produce one hundred barrels – what a bargain!

Our big problem now is that there’s nothing like sweet crude and there’s nothing to replace it with.

Staying with oil for a moment, after an oil well is tapped and the easy-to-get stuff stops gushing out, what’s left behind is called ‘heavy crude’. This is a thick, viscous substance that permeates the rock structures way down below. It is much harder and more costly to get out, because they have to do costly things like pump in millions of litres of water or gas to try to force the oil to the surface. Or turn tar into liquids, like they are doing on a grand scale in Canada.

What’s more, it takes a lot more energy to convert heavy crude into usable products. The upshot of all this is that the net energy return (EROEI) from older oil wells is nothing like 100 to 1. The ratio for most of oil wells is now less than 30 to 1, and dropping fast. The chart below shows this in graphic form.

(Estimating EROEI is a rather complicated job and analysts come up with differing figures. When looking at this chart it is best to focus on the shorter dark green bars, because these include all the add-on energy inputs required to refine and so forth.)

As you can see that amazing product that has provided our world, with all its extensive transport infrastructure and long distance food production, is shrinking so rapidly that it can no longer be sustained.

The situation is actually even worse. Whilst easy-to-get energy is getting harder and harder to find, energy demand is still growing quite sharply. We have a looming energy emergency. So the race is on to find alternatives…. well, the best possible substitutes, anyway.

How do the alternatives stack up?

The chart below shows the EROEI for a variety of alternative energy supplies. Again, it’s best to focus on the shorter dark green bars, because these include real factors that shouldn’t be ignored – such as decommissioning when the energy plant is retired, and so forth.

Notice that nothing compares with sweet crude – with its magnificant EROEI of 100 to 1. In each case much more effort – and also environmental disturbance – has to take place in order to get less energy than we are used to getting. (In some cases, like the US corn-to-ethanol program, the net energy return is actually negative – more energy is used to make the product than is recovered from the process. Turning coal into liquid fuels is much the same.)

In general, an EROEI has to be at least 3 to 1 in order for the process to be economically viable. You will notice that many of our choices sit barely above that threshold. Note also that in order to sustain the sort of society that we have requires an estimated EROEI of energy supply 12 to 1.

Now, before weighing up these alternatives and getting too evengelical about any one of them, there are other complicating factors to consider too:

    Environmental costs: We have to consider that each energy source has its own set of environmental problems (e.g. climate pollution…nuclear wastes… birds killed by wind turbines… natural ecosystems drowned by dams), and these are difficult to assess with hard numbers. In other words, there is always a price to pay. You can click here for a broad summary. But more on this further below.

    Amount of energy that’s potentially available from each resource: Some energy resources are potentially immense, such as the amount that can (theoretically) be obtained from nuclear fusion or solar power. By contrast, many of the world’s best hydro-electric sites have already been developed – more remote schemes in difficult terrain have a lower EROEI than that shown in the chart. The same applies to very difficult-to-get oil resources sitting kilometres under the ocean bed.

    Cost of energy produced: Having a viable EROEI is not enough to make an energy resource economically viable or competitive. Nuclear power, for instance (once dubbed as so cheap that it wouldn’t need to be metered) has a nice positive EROEI but has been beset with so many safety and other concerns that the unit cost of production to date has been barely competitive, even when subsidised by government.

    Using up precious oil supplies to produce alternative energy: To substantially replace much of the coal and oil that is now being used up would require the construction of tens of thousands of wind farms, nuclear power stations and geothermal plants, all of which require energy to manufacture and construct. And where does that energy mostly come from? You guessed it, oil and coal. Catch 22. The very act of trying to meet growing energy demand with alternative energy would gobble up much of the cheap oil energy that is still yet available. In this way, a policy to aggressively expand renewables to their maximum extent can actually worsen climate change and the peak oil problem. (This is known as ‘energy cannibalism’.)

    Electricity is not the same as energy: This last one is the biggest bogey of all. The world’s immediate energy crisis is to do with oil shortages and spiralling costs of petroleum products – the stuff that is used every day to power jet airliners and cars and freight ships and to produce fertilizers and clothing and building products. You will notice that most of the energy options in the above chart are electricity products. You can’t fly a jet liner on electricity.

Now, in theory it may eventually be possible to use electricity to produce transport fuels (hydrogen) but the wholesale conversion of the world’s infrastructure and transport fleets to a different energy regime would take at least twenty years (and, even then, the EROEI of doing that may well be negative, and therefore not worth doing). Too little, too late.

In short, there’s no silver bullet. Nothing can go near to replacing cheap oil. The scale of the problem is so phenomenal that in order to make up for oil depletion, a huge 1 Gigawatt nuclear power plant would need to be built every single day for the next 30 years, and even then the product (electricity) would not match need (liquid fuel).

To be useful at all any energy supply has to be of a quality and availability to match real needs and this is a very complex business and the subject of many heated debates – too much to deal with here. (If you want to explore this more I have put some EROEI references at the foot of this article.)

But wait… there’s much more to the EROEI story!

We haven’t finished yet. So far I have only talked about energy supply choices, and how difficult it is to choose between them, and how none of them can really do what cheap oil has done for us.

Now let’s turn to our energy uses? How does the EROEI of these stack up?

Basically the same concept can be applied. If you invest in an item, like an energy-efficient shower head, then it is very easy to calculate the amount of energy used to produce that item and compare that figure with the amount of energy that you may save by using it. In the case of a shower head, the EROEI can be greater than 300 to 1.

The chart on the right shows the EROEI of ceiling insulation – to use just one example. Over its service life, ceiling insulation in a heated Tasmanian home will deliver vastly more energy saving than what is used to manufacture it. (Note that the 200 figure is understated, in reality the EROEI may be much greater, depending on the individual circumstance where the product is installed.)

The first thing that will jump out at you is the remarkable EROEI of energy saving technologies as compared to the EROEI of producing energy in the first place (from whatever source).

The second thing that will jump out at you is the absurdity of investing tens of thousands of dollars on supplying energy, for very low net return, without first dealing with energy wastage – the ‘low hanging fruit’.

For instance, I could choose to install solar pv panels on my roof at a whopping cost of about $10,000 (heavily subsidised by government). After two decades that product will generate an eightfold net energy return to my household – once production and installation energy inputs are taken into account – and it will take twenty years to pay for itself. By comparison, I could install an energy efficient shower head at a cost of just $30 and that product will deliver a 300 fold net energy return to my household and it will pay for itself within just six months.

The shower head wins hands down. In fact, such contrasts are so dramatic, it would have been far more cost and energy efficient for the federal government to offer efficient shower heads to all Australian households than to expend considerably more taxpayer money subsidising solar panels for a relatively small number of middle class roofs.

(The above chart compares two hot water investments. In the case of solar, the payback period would be 20 years but is partially reduced via government rebates and incentives).

A second example: the net energy return (EROEI) of a solar hot water system is ten times higher than that of a solar photovoltaic system (off grid) and five times higher than a photovoltaic system connected to grid. Yet householders blindly make many such decisions every day, sometime at great cost, without the benefit of EROEI analysis.

So, what does EROEI tell us?

EROEI analysis provides us with an absolute bottom line and also a way of comparing real energy choices.

The bottom line is as follows:

    1. There’s no silver bullet. Trying to maintain a society that is dependent on huge and growing volumes of cheap energy is an utterly futile challenge. Our society’s energy thirst can’t be satiated, not from any combination of known energy sources. Seen from this perspective, our national obsession with energy supply choices (wind, versus nuclear, versus geothermal, etc) can be seen to be unhealthy, divisive and misdirected.

    2. Knee jerk attempts to fill the ‘cheap oil’ gap with other energy supplies is worse than futile, it has the effect of giving out a signal of false hope, and thus prevents society from making the more substantial cultural and behavioural changes that we have to make in order to move toward true sustainability.

    3. Hard nosed decisions do need to be made about the best mix of energy supplies that can supply the needs of a sustainable society into the long term future, but the absolute priority of government and citizens alike should be directed at 1) deep cultural changes – like the design of our cities and our consumer habits – and 2) energy saving choices, because these deliver a much better energy and financial return at much less cost and much less environmental damage – and much less raging controversy – than the various supply options offer.

    4. Government energy policies should be built around rational energy analysis, with a focus on energy descent policies, not around futile attempts to maintain business-as-usual.

What about householders who wish to make sensible energy decisions?

Unfortunately not enough research has been done at this stage to supply a nice list of EROEI values for all of the hundreds of energy supply and energy saving choices that are available. The EROEIs may vary from approximately 1,000 to 1 for insulation lagging on an exposed hot water pipe to much more marginal choices, such as double glazing or electric cars.

If anybody out there can find a comprehensive list that compares the typical net energy returns on various domestic energy choices we would be very grateful: please just send us an email.

Meanwhile, Sustainable Living Tasmania is one organisation that has been championing a ‘best bang for bucks’ approach for a long time and can provide advice on the most worthy and cost-effective ways to make your home and lifestyle much more sustainable and comfortable.

Further Reading

[The background data in this article was derived from a number of sources including the pioneering work by C.J. Cleveland, H.T. Odum, Nate Hagens, Dr Charles Hall, Tom Konrad and Gail Tverberg. The numbers are illustrative, recognising that EROEI figures vary from researcher to researcher.]

by Chris Harries

There is no “quick fix” that can resolve the problem of world oil depletion. There”s no silver bullet, no magic energy source that can replace oil.

But there are many positive responses that we can make right now.

Our responses to both climate change and peak oil need to 1) be multi-facetted and 2) started right now whilst there is time to make an orderly transition. Below is a summary of the 10 steps that are considered to be vital.

The main thing to remember is that adjusting and adapting can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling journeys you could undertake. Enjoy the adventure!

1. Dealing with denial

How do you personally cope with peak oil and climate change news?

Do you meet them head on and do your brilliant best to respond? Do you deny that they are happening? Do you just want to shut them out and get on with your private life? Does it make you want to bunker in and defend your own patch? Do you fear the worst and respond with despair?

All of these are normal human reactions when a person faces confronting news. They are called stages of grief, and most people go through a range of such emotions, and work them out over time. Being fully aware of our own level of denial (or avoidance behaviour) is the first step most of us need to take if we wish to move forward.

2. Building personal resilience

The concept of resilience is central to building a sane, positive future.

As our society has become more and more complex and centralised we have enjoyed many consumer benefits, but, in turn, we have largely lost control over our lives and over our personal security.

We have allowed ourselves to become almost totally reliant on distant resources and skills to provide us with our basic needs. And if things break down then we no longer have nearby resources and connections that can replace those needs. In short, we have become very vulnerable to chaos and would not survive very well at all in times of great change.

There are many things we can do right now to increase our personal resilience.

3. Strengthening community resilience

Building personal resilience can help us along the way, but history shows that “going it alone” rarely works in times of change or social stress.

A community is much stronger than the sum of its parts. You and the people around have a great array of skills and resources that they can share. The people who thrive best during times of upheaval do so when those around them pool their efforts and draw on each other”s resources.

“If we try and do it on our own it will be too little, if we wait for government to do it it will be too late, but if we can gather together those around us—our street, our neighbourhood, our community—it might just be enough, and it might just be in time.” (Rob Hopkins)

4. Creating “Transition Communities”

Informal communities are great, but much more can be done when communities of people get together with a real commitment to collectively confront the “big picture” issues facing us.

With this in mind, Transition Communities came into being – starting off in Ireland, at Kinsale Community. Transition initiatives have since sprung up in many communities throughout the world, including Tasmania. Their aim is to build resilient communities that are able to withstand severe energy, climate or economic shocks while creating a better quality of life in the process.

Grand Vision: “Every community will pool together its collective creativity to unleash an historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant and resilient; one that is ultimately preferable to the present”.

5. Reducing our footprints

In a wealthy nation like ours, any citizen born into the age of oil can’t help but have a heavy ecological footprint – our cities and highways and homes and transport and industrial infrastructure have all been built around a notion that the energy binge can go on forever. And we are all an intrinsic part of that culture.

Even the most morally indignant person is confronted by a range of barriers that make it hard to change our ways, so it’s all too easy to just go along with it, rather than make an effort to break our lifelong habits and change our consumer choices. Until now.

Spiraling energy prices are rapidly changing all that, and doing what’s good for our hip pockets ends up being surprisingly good for our health and well being.

6. Re-localising our economies

The globalised economy is making we good citizens far too dependent on a system that may one day fall apart. What’s more, rising fuel prices will force globalisation to go into a partial reverse anyway, leading to a much greater focus on local production.

The economies that thrive best will be those that start to provide those basic services and commodities that can be produced in their locality. Strengthening of local economies will also have many spin-offs in the strengthening of community bonds, sense of purpose and cultural richness.

Re-localisation is… “the process by which a region or local neighbourhood frees itself from its overdependence on the global economy and invests its own resources to produce a significant portion of its food, energy and other needs from local financial, natural and human resources.”

7. Creating “Energy Descent Action Plans”

As fossil fuels dwindle and become more expensive, our whole society and economy will be forced to live within the annual energy budget that can be provided by the sun and wind and hot rocks and such.

But, as Ted Trainer of the University of New South Wales argues, the idea that modern consumer society can be powered entirely by renewable energy sources is fanciful and impossible. Redesigning our society and economy to use much less energy is absolutely imperative.

One of the most useful policy tools to do this is the Energy Descent Action Plan. It’s a way of taking a big complicated problem and breaking it down to managed, bite-sized pieces. An EDAP shows how a community (or even a whole nation) can work together to move stepwise towards a sustainable world.

8. Fostering alternative energy

For many people, ‘alternative energy’ throws up images of idyllic wind farms and solar panels taking over from dirty fossil-fuelled power stations. End of story, problem solved!

Unfortunately, it’s not quite so easy. Wind, solar and geothermal energy are all very positive and need to be promoted where sensible, but it’s important to put them into an intelligent context. They can’t, for instance, replace the 95 percent of liquid fuel energy that is used in both food production and transportation. Bluntly put, dilute energy alternatives can not solve the oil crunch, they can only play a part.

Addressing the oil crunch requires a wide mix of solutions, like dealing with our diets and wasteful consumption patterns and the design of our cities. Once we accept that broader context, then alternative energy options have a tremendously important role to play, and deserve our strong support. In doing so, let”s be careful with our choices of alternative energy so that we aren”t just creating new problems somewhere else or sometime else.

9. Forcing our governments to act

“I don’t consider an issue is important to the public until 100 people come knocking on my door to tell me that it is”. (Tasmanian politician)

Well, that’s just honest plain speaking. Politicians rarely rise up and take action unless their constituency is banging on the door.

Although the process of government can be horrendously slow, only government has the power, finances and resources to respond adequately to critical issues like that of oil depletion, so it is vital that they have a strong policy platform in place.

In the face of rising oil prices, there are many things that state and local governments should be doing to adjust economic levers, to prepare the public for oil depletion, to reduce costly energy imports and to protect vulnerable sectors from avoidable hardship.

10. Signing the “Oil Depletion Protocol”

This one is mainly for governments and large institutions. The Oil Depletion Protocol is an international agreement that enables governments of the world to cooperatively reduce their dependence on oil.

How does it work? Each nation, state or agency that agrees to sign the protocol commits to reduce its oil imports (or usage) and exports by a specified amount each year – about 2.6 percent. Doesn”t sound much but when compounded each year for 20 years that small commitment amounts to a hell of a lot of energy.

This simple formula is, in effect, a global rationing system. If the entire world adopted the Protocol, world oil usage would decline by almost 3 percent per annum, thus stabilizing prices and preserving the resource base.

You can explore the Protocol”s website by just clicking on the graphic above.

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By Dr Stuart Godfrey

James Moody, a CSIRO guru on innovation, is lead author of a book, “The Sixth Wave – How to succeed in a resource-limited world”. It offers a bold vision for facing up to the massive difficulties posed by Peak Oil and Climate Change.

The book’s title refers to a Soviet economist who noticed that Western economic activity could be understood in terms of “waves” of forty to sixty years’ duration, each characterised by the rise and obsolescence of a particular technology.

Updating Kondriatev’s picture, the book identifies five waves that have already taken place:

    1) canal transport in the 1700’s
    2) the steam (railway and ship) revolution
    3) introduction of electricity
    4) petroleum-based innovations
    5) the computer revolution

Each new wave started with a period of economic uncertainty and depression as the long-term negative side-effects caused by the old technology came to the fore, accompanied by the birth-pangs of the new technology. The longest delays in this reorientation related to developing the legal basis for adjusting the world economy to fit the needs of the new technology.

The authors see us at the start of the ‘sixth wave’ – and this will be about following Nature to make our economy a closed loop operation in all raw materials. They describe an amazingly wide range of innovations that already exist, that collectively have huge potential for reducing the wastefulness of present-day society. The authors explain the pros and cons of different incentives for reducing waste.

The start of the Sixth Wave may be particularly painful, because our global love affair with the family car is so deep. Because of this, our politicians do not dare do what they should do. If Nature does their job for them, she will give us lessons so severe – in terms of crises in food, water, mobility and general societal disorganisation – that human society is unlikely ever again to forget them.

The task ahead for each of us is to prepare as fast and as well as we can for the consequences of Peak Oil described elsewhere on this website – but to remember, in the stress of this new, frightening activity, that humans have always been immensely inventive, and we are on a huge, historical peak of inventiveness right now.

On top of this, the old English saying: “There is nothing like the prospect of hanging to sharpen a man’s mind” gives hope that we will collaborate well enough and inventively enough so that that under stress, our transition to a more settled future – in line with the mature “Sixth Wave” – will be reasonably short.

(Dr Stuart Godfrey is a marine scientist, now retired and an active member of the Peak Oil Tasmania working group.)