David Murphy on “Net Energy”

The Wendell Town Hall was nearly filled last Friday evening for a talk by David Murphy, a doctoral candidate in Environmental Science at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. Murphy is part of a movement in economics and the sciences to move beyond narrow disciplinary silos and bring the insights of fields like physics and geology together with environmental questions and economic models, research that is often prompted by concerns about peak oil, climate change, and related issues.

Murphy’s own research centers around a single big question: How can we calculate the useful energy delivered to society from any given energy source? He spoke about the basic idea of “Energy Return on Energy Invested” (EROI), pointing out that humans are currently investing more and more to produce the same net amounts of useable energy. This is largely due to the fact that for the past century or so, we’ve had access to relatively easily-extracted sources of fossil fuels, which give us a lot of bang for our buck. As fossil fuels become harder to reach and extract (for example, having to be separated from tar sands or drilled from ocean floors thousands of feet from the surface), and as global demand for energy grows and sends us in search of renewables and other “alternative” kinds of power, we are beginning to confront the uncomfortable reality that, as Richard Heinberg and others have been saying for some time now, the party’s over and we are entering an era of new limits on growth and more conflicts over the resources that we do have.

These are familiar arguments to people involved in peak oil and climate change activism, and in some ways it seems that Murphy had gauged his talk for an audience less knowledgeable than the one he found in Wendell. Both he and the audience members did, however, raise many good points to ponder. A couple of these were:

  • The inherent difficulty of deciding how to calculate what counts as an “investment” in an energy source. How far back the energy chain do we go in deciding what the total cost of a particular kind of energy actually is? Which “externalities” should be considered in the cost? (For example, the ongoing Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico shows the potentially huge list of costs not related to extraction or refining in the oil industry.) Among Murphy’s various charts and graphs was one showing how opinions about different fuel sources and solutions diverged as more factors are added into the equation. That is, it’s fairly easy for people to agree on what the most direct costs of energy are (for example, extraction, refining, transportation), but adding additional costs (for example, environmental degradation, public infrastructural costs for transportation systems, etc.), opinions begin to diverge much more sharply. Murphy and others are trying to work toward a scientifically-solid calculus of “true” energy costs that might be the basis for a broader consensus, to overcome the current difficulty even in talking about the real costs of the energy we use.
  • “Where are the young people?” This was a question from a member of the audience, and while it certainly didn’t apply to David Murphy himself, it reflected a reality at many energy-related meetings in our area and elsewhere. Murphy noted that he regularly attends the meetings of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) and that he is one of very few people under 30 there. Discussion with the audience didn’t come up with solutions to this generation gap, but many people agreed it was of concern.
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