HH Where Energy Modeling Goes Wrong

There are a huge number of people doing energy modeling. In my opinion, nearly all of them are going astray in their modeling because they don’t understand how the economy really operates.

The modeling that comes closest to being correct is that which underlies the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others. This modeling was based on physical quantities of resources, with no financial system whatsoever. The base model, shown here, indicates that limits would be reached a few years later than we actually seem to be reaching them. The dotted black line in Figure 1 indicates where I saw the world economy to be in January 2019, based on the limits we already seemed to be reaching at that time.

Figure 1. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in “Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil,” with dotted line added corresponding to where I saw the world economy to be in January 2019, based on how the economy was operating at that time.

The authors of The Limits to Growth have said that their model cannot be expected to be correct after limits hit (which is about now), so even this model is less than perfect. Thus, this model cannot be relied upon to show that population will continue to rise until after 2050.

Many readers are familiar with Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) calculations. These are favorites of many people following the Peak Oil problem. A high ratio of Energy Returned to Energy Invested is considered favorable, while a low ratio is considered unfavorable. Energy sources with similar EROEIs are supposedly equivalent. Even these similarities can be misleading. They make intermittent wind and solar appear far more helpful than they really are.

Other modeling, such as that by oil companies, is equally wrong. Their modeling tends to make future fossil fuel supplies look far more available than they really are.

This is all related to a talk I plan to give to energy researchers later in February. So far, all that is pinned down is the Summary, which I reproduce here as Section [1], below.

[1] Summary: The economy is approaching near-term collapse, not peak oil. The result is quite different

The way a person views the world economy makes a huge difference in how one models it. A big issue is how connected the various parts of the economy are. Early researchers assumed that oil was the key energy product; if it were possible to find suitable substitutes for oil, the danger of exhaustion of oil resources could be delayed almost indefinitely.

In fact, the operation of the world economy is controlled by the laws of physics. All parts are tightly linked. The problem of diminishing returns affects far more than oil supply; it affects coal, natural gas, mineral extraction in general, fresh water production and food production. Based on the work of Joseph Tainter, we also know that added complexity is also subject to diminishing returns.

When a person models how the system works, it becomes apparent that as increasing complexity is added to the system, the portion of the economic output that can be returned to non-elite workers as goods and services drops dramatically. This leads to rising wage disparity as increasing complexity is added to the economy. As the economy approaches limits, rising wage disparity indirectly leads to a tendency toward low prices for oil and other commodities because a growing number of non-elite workers are unable to afford homes, cars and even proper nutrition. 

A second effect of added complexity is growing use of long-lasting goods available through technology. Many of these long-lasting goods are only affordable with financial time-shifting devices such as loans or the sale of shares of stock. As non-elite workers become increasingly unable to afford the output of the economy, these time-shifting devices provide a way to raise demand (and thus prices) for commodities of all types, including oil. These time-shifting devices are subject to manipulation by central banks, within limits.

Standard calculations of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) ignore the fact that added complexity tends to have a very detrimental impact on the economy because of the diminishing returns it produces. To correct for this, today’s EROEI calculations should only be used to compare energy systems with similar complexity. The least complex energy systems are based on burned biomass and power from animals. Fossil fuels represent a step upward in complexity, but they still can be stored until their use is required. Intermittent renewables are far ahead of fossil fuels in terms complexity: they require sophisticated systems of storage and distribution and therefore cannot be considered equivalent to oil or dispatchable electricity.

The lack of understanding of how the economy really works has led to the failure to understand several important points:

(i) Low oil prices rather than high are to be expected as the economy reaches limits,

(ii) Most fossil fuel reserves will be left in the ground because of low prices,

(iii) The economy is experiencing the historical phenomenon of collapse, rather than peak oil, and 

(iv) If the economy is not to collapse, we need energy sources providing a larger quantity of net energy per capita to offset diminishing returns.   

[2] The world’s energy problem, as commonly understood by researchers today

It is my observation that many researchers believe that we humans are in charge of what happens with future fossil fuel extraction, or with choosing to substitute intermittent renewables for fossil fuels. They generally do not see any problem with “running out” in the near future. If running out were imminent, the problem would likely be announced by spiking prices.

In the predominant view, the amount of future fossil fuels available depends upon the quantity of energy resources that can be extracted with available technology. Thus, a proper estimate of the resources that can be extracted is needed. Oil seems to be in shortest supply based on its reserve estimates and the vast benefits it provides to society. Thus, it is commonly believed that oil production will “peak” and begin to decline first, before coal and natural gas.

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