I’m interested in the competitive struggle between technology and resource depletion and associated emissions. The Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is a useful tool for exploring the nexus between energy, technology and the economy.
My name is Graham Palmer and I’m undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne in the Australian-German College of Energy and Climate. My research includes net-energy and the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of electricity generation. It draws on the history of energy transitions, markets, renewables integration, and engineering. I have a B.Eng (Hons) Industrial and Computing from Monash University and a M.Eng (Sustainable Energy) from RMIT University.
For example, one hundred years ago, it was common to mine copper ores at 3% ore grade – today the average is 0.8%. One hundred years ago, a small team of enthusiastic and modestly funded salt drillers could bring highly profitable oil wells into production in Texas – today, multi-billion dollar, off-shore rigs are required to produce the same volume of oil. Resource depletion is a merciless one-way trip.
But today we have solar power at prices almost unimaginable 20 years ago. Wind technology is a modular product with rapid deployment that can deliver electricity at a lower cost than many fossil fuel competitors. These technologies are largely unencumbered from regulatory demands, such as that imposed on nuclear power. Information and communications technology (ICT) capability has grown exponentially and the promise of integration of renewable energy, storage, and transport seems imminent.
The question is – how do we reconcile these countervailing trends? Solar is being integrated into grids, but is not substituting for our most valuable energy resource – oil – nor meaningfully substituting for network or generation capacity. The shift to ICT-enabled service economies is changing the pattern of work and leisure, but has not broken the inexorable link between energy and the economy. Indeed, energy remains the master resource. Are there alternatives to a high energy-intensity society? Will society will forced to adapt to a new energy reality? Will technology forge ahead and solve all of these problems?