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One Scientist's Easily Understood Theory Offers a Radically Different Vision for How We Think About Energy

Charlie Hall champions a revolutionary idea known as "energy return on energy invested." Every plant, animal and human civilization lives by EROI, he explains.

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Now that the price of oil has reached $100 a barrel, and given that most of the island's power is generated by oil-fired generators, Hall wonders if the clock won't turn back. "I'm beginning to wonder when energy becomes less available if the same parameters that drove Puerto Rico development will have to be run backwards."

Why the US is in decline

Hall also thinks that EROI explains the damnable predicament of the United States. The world's first petro state, a resplendent creation, dazzled the planet with energy returns of 300 to one. But now the nation's energy jazz has shrunk and sputtered with returns of 10 to one or less.

"I have seen the future and it's here. Do you get what I'm saying?" says Hall. "Everywhere you turn in the United States you see economic constriction. About 46 of 50 states are broke. Our universities are broke. All the Tea Partiers are bent out of shape by the national debt. The country just can't do a lot of the things that it used to do. We have had no increase in GDP and no increase in energy use for six years. And that's not a coincidence."

Hall doesn't see another future of exponential growth in the cards either. The U.S. economy will either hover around no growth or barely exceed one per cent. The nation that got the world hooked on oil culture, Chicago school economics and cheap stuff has simply peaked and spent all of its cheap energy returns.

"We are sitting around waiting for growth to happen," says Hall. But like fishermen waiting for another catch, the nets are coming up empty and the big boats are spending more fuel to chase smaller fish or the ghosts of fish.

Now being a good ecologist, Hall doesn't think that EROI should necessarily become the only scientific tool for decision-making. But he thinks it's one critical and important idea that regulators and policy makers need to ponder.

Before building more wind farms or digging more bitumen mines or polluting more groundwater for shale gas, policy makers need to ask what they are sacrificing for energy as well as what the real energy costs and gains will be.

Given the declining returns for difficult oil and shale gas, as well as low EROIs for most green alternatives (solar is moving up), Hall predicts that EROI will shape our lives in the days ahead as much as the fish he studied in New Hope Creek.

Not so long ago the biologist stood in the middle of Puerto Rico's Luquillo Experimental Forest and talked about the importance of energy costs and gains for the Discovery channel. What works in a rainforest, he told viewers, also works for civilized society and empires based on oil.

"I think it's very simple," he said. "Just as the forest cannot use more energy than is available by photosynthesis, human civilization cannot use more energy than what's available from the sun or from our temporary joy ride on fossil fuels." 

 This is the latest of Andrew Nikiforuk's weekly Energy and Equity column for The Tyee. Nikiforuk is an award-winning author and journalist, and a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read his previous Tyee stories  here.

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