New research confirms that renewables have been generating far more net energy than fossil fuels for years, reports Nafeez Ahmed

New scientific research provides stunning confirmation that solar, wind and batteries have been outperforming conventional power plants based on fossil fuel resources for years.

The new research has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Sustainability, and authored by a team of energy experts led by Professor David J. Murphy, departmental chair of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University in New York.

Prof Murphy is a one of the pioneers of research around the concept of ‘energy return on investment’ (EROI), developed most prominently by systems ecologist Charles Hall at the State University of New York – with whom Murphy has worked closely.

But the research’s findings have been widely overlooked until now due to faulty methodologies among mainstream energy analysts.


Oil System in Decline

EROI measures the amount of energy used to extract energy from any given resource. The more energy needed to get energy out, the less surplus ‘net energy’ is available for use by wider society.

Many studies have shown that the EROI of global fossil fuels peaked around the 1960s and is now in terminal decline. This means that, because we are using more and more fossil fuel energy just to extract and refine fossil fuels, we have less and less net energy for social and economic activity. 

As Byline Times has previously reported, a study led by French scientists found that, by 2050, half of the energy extracted from global oil reserves will need to be put back into new extraction to keep producing oil. This level of energy use is so big it makes the whole enterprise pointless.

This decline is happening so fast, the French scientists warned, that if we leave it too late to transform the global energy system, by the time we get round to doing so it might not be economical to extract the energy we need to sustain this very transformation.

In the new research, Prof Murphy demonstrates that while oil, gas and coal are becoming more inefficient and expensive, the opposite is true for renewables – for which EROI is increasing all the time. This means that for every unit of energy we are using to create and install renewable technologies, we are getting far more energy out – and this amount of net energy is actually getting larger, not smaller.

Even more exciting, the new research confirms that renewables have been generating far more net energy than fossil fuels for years.

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The Wrong Lens

According to the new study, many conventional EROI studies have been wrongly measuring energy outputs from fossil fuels at the ‘point of extraction’, rather than at the ‘point of use’ – which is when they generate actual usable energy. This approach has led many analysts to infer artificially high EROI values for fossil fuels and lower values for renewables.

“Solar photovoltaics produce electricity straight away and therefore can’t be fundamentally compared to gas at the point of extraction until we look at what happens when gas is converted to electricity,” Prof Murphy told Byline Times. “As a result, some researchers were adding huge costs to solar and wind which they weren’t including in fossil fuels.”

His team conducted a ‘meta-analysis’ – a study of studies looking at findings across the scientific literature – and then revisited EROI measures to develop more accurate calculations focusing on a ‘point of use’ based on an engineering perspective using life-cycle analysis.

Previous EROI studies also often suffered due to poor data sources. The new research uses rigorous data from the ECOINVENT database which is widely recognised as the most detailed, transparent and vetted source for industrial life-cycle data on energy, resources, materials and beyond.

The new study confirmed that fossil fuels invariably display low and declining EROI values. Finding that no liquid fuel products from conventional oil have an EROI above 10, the study concluded that an average estimate for the EROI of oil today is around 4.2.

“All other estimates for bioethanol, biodiesel, and petrol from oil sands have harmonised EROIs below 5,” it said.

But it’s a different ballgame for renewable energy.


Renewables Rise Above Fossil Fuels

The new study concludes that wind and solar panels “have EROIs at or above 10” – which means that “greater than 90% of the energy produced by these technologies is delivered to society as net energy”.

This also means that renewables have progressed from merely being ‘cost-competitive’ with fossil fuels to fully out-competing them by generating more than double the net energy. Oil, in other words, is now generating less than half the net energy of solar and wind power.

Importantly, the study also found that incorporating battery storage into the analysis does not significantly decrease the overall EROI of a solar or wind system.

“Understanding EROI can give investors a way to make sense of which technologies are worth supporting,” said Prof Murphy. “What’s going to change for oil, gas and coal, where we’ve used up most of the best stuff?

“The prognosis from here is that costs will largely keep going up. But for wind and solar, we are nowhere near the most optimum deployment – technology advances will keep reducing costs, and as renewables get cheaper through time, this will continue to improve EROIs.”

Prof Murphy’s team conclude that oil is now delivering “less net energy to society for each unit invested in extraction, refining, and delivery than PV or wind”.

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The energy transformation should not be seen as siloed-off from the transportation disruption either, according to the researchers.

Transitioning to electric vehicles “will actually increase the amount of net energy delivered to society”, not least due to “the higher efficiency of electrical power trains versus internal combustion engines”, the report finds.

The study further throws light on the underlying systemic drivers behind the global cost of living crisis – not just a gas shortage related to the war in Ukraine, but a deeper problem rooted in the long-term economic decline in fossil fuel resource quality.

As the quality of oil, gas and coal continues to plummet, this is driving up the energy costs of “the associated process chains”, which in turn will further reduce their EROI values. Meanwhile, the increasing costs of remaining dependent on fossil fuels must be borne by the wider economy.

But the good news is that “as the technologies used to harness renewable energy improve, the corresponding EROIs will continue to increase in the future”.

Indeed, there is mounting data suggesting that the EROI of solar panels has been increasing exponentially, and will be able produce at least at least three to five times more energy than currently generated by the fossil fuel system if properly optimised.

This new study provides compelling scientific evidence that creating a new clean energy system based on solar, wind and batteries will provide the cheapest and most reliable route not only to energy security and self-sufficiency, but also to economic prosperity.

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