The Master Resource

Nicole Foss – Energy:  the ‘Master Resource’

A version of this article appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 6th February 2012

This is the second of a series of three articles outlining the thought of Nicole Foss, who will be speaking at the Cavanbagh Centre in Coffs Harbour on Saturday, February 11, from 12 pm – 2.30 p.m.

Energy is the master resource. There is no substitute for it. If your total amount of absolute energy is declining, you are going to have to face consequences as a result. Other societies have lived on an energy income, [whereas] our societies have been based on a massive energy inheritance, in the form of fossil fuels. We burn probably 400 years’ worth of the Earth’s primary production every single year. But production from that inheritance is peaking, and you cannot continue to increase the flow-rate from a finite inheritance, [especially] when what we have left is the difficult, expensive-to-produce fraction…We are having to re-invest a significant amount of the energy we produce into the process of finding more energy. So we have less available as a surplus- net energy, or Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) –  to actually do anything with, and that is going to have major implications…”

This is how Nicole Foss explains ‘Peak Oil’. The key term is ‘flow-rate’, or EROEI. Fifty-to-eighty years ago, when the ‘super-giant’ fields and the ‘gushers’ were first discovered, the EROEI was 100:1. Now it’s reduced by 90%, to 10:1. To maintain our current level of societal complexity, Nicole argues, we probably can’t afford to go much lower than that; yet many of the currently available alternatives have significantly lower ratios.

Ethanol, for example, is estimated to have an EROEI of between 1.4:1 to 2:1; Nicole argues that corn-derived ethanol is in fact less than 1:1. Nuclear power has a slightly better EROEI at around 3:1, but comes with a host of other issues, as the events at Fuksuhima last March demonstrated so graphically. There is an abundance of coal, but if it is substituted en masse for oil and natural gas, then its EROEI will drop sharply; and of course we can hardly forget that burning coal is a major contributor to the warming of the global climate.

The EROEI of renewables like solar panels and wind power is a hotly debated topic, with some suggesting flow-rates of less than 10:1, while others say that the latest thin-film solar technology has an impressive EROEI as high as 40:1.


Nicole however argues that we currently lack the production capacity and the infrastructure to make a large-scale transition to renewable energy sources; and that because of dynamics in the financial system, we are running out of time to mobilise the necessary investments. In particular, she points out that there has been a ‘chronic under-investment in grid capacity’; and that a ‘monumental investment’ would be required to re-tool the grid in order to make it fit for the purpose of channelling distributed energy generated by solar PVs located on private homes and businesses.

The main message is that ‘there are no easy answers’, and we are going to have get used to the idea of ‘doing with less energy; business-as-usual in not going to be option, reality is not going to negotiate with us’. The ‘hydrocarbon age’ will be recorded as a  relatively brief blip over the long-scale of human history.

Energy is a ‘major driver’ of economic activity; , and indeed ‘there’s an almost perfect correlation between energy and economic growth’. It follows that as we move from an era of energy surplus to energy deficit, we are moving from economic expansion to economic contraction. While this will be driven by the logic of the global financial system  in the first instance, the energy constraints will mean that attempts to restart the motor of growth will constantly bump up against physical limits. There will be no ‘de-coupling’ of economic growth from available energy sources. What we’re faced with is ‘not a stasis, but a de-growth scenario’.

In the final article, we will look at the implications of Nicole’s analysis, for individuals and communities.