A Renewable Energy Transition Violates The Maximum Power Principle

Energy Aware

We all want solutions to the world’s many crises but do we understand the underlying problems?

Everything in nature, including human society, relies on energy for production, consumption, recycling, and sustainability. Therefore, to understand things, we must first examine how energy is turned into work and power.

Steel, concrete, plastic, and fertilizer are fundamental to modern civilization yet we have no idea how to make any of them at scale without fossil fuels. Those who think that the solution to our climate crisis is to end the use of fossil fuels do not understand this. Ending fossil fuels would cause society to collapse, and result in more short-term human death and suffering than is expected even in the worst-case scenarios for global heating.

Those who think that a solution is to substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels don’t understand this either. Even if true, we’re a long way from that. At present, wind and solar account for only two-and-half percent of global energy consumption, and all renewables—including hydroelectric and nuclear energy—account for only seven percent using the direct equivalent method.

The larger problem is that energy substitution is only a theory. It is naive and flawed because it only considers amounts of energy while ignoring rates of energy output.

Society runs on power, not energy. Energy is the potential to do work. Energy must be converted into work for anything to happen in the physical world. Work takes place when energy is transferred to an object by application of force along a displacement.

A common example of energy being converted into work is when a person rides a bicycle. The rider’s body converts chemical energy from food, and his muscles use this energy to contract and produce work. Whether the bicycle goes slowly or quickly is a matter of power—the rate at which work is done, the rate of energy transfer.

Power is the problem with renewable energy. Most renewable energy sources have lower power density than fossil fuels. This means that, on average, they produce less energy per unit area and per unit of input compared to fossil fuels.

Renewables have an important place in our energy future but they don’t produce enough power to run modern civilization.

Howard Odum explained this in 1955 when he published his work on the Maximum Power Principle.

“The maximum power principle can be stated: During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

Howard Odum

This means that natural and human systems evolved to optimize power output not to optimize the total amount of energy available. Organisms and species that maximize the rate of useful energy transformation—power—have been more successful and sustainable. Odum emphasized that not all energy is of the same quality. Some energy sources like fossil fuels can do more useful work than an equivalent amount of low-quality energy like renewables.

All life systems including human civilization follow the Maximum Power Principle. A transition to a civilization that runs on renewable energy means departing from this fundamental principal. No successful species has ever attempted to move away from optimizing power output before. Let that sink in.

Those who think that we should stop using fossil fuels, or think that economic growth is possible in a renewable energy future, do not understand the physics of how the world works.

Energy is the problem that underlies the world’s many crises but solutions require understanding the Maximum Power Principle. The well-intentioned people who promote a transition to renewable energy acknowledge that it will not be easy. The implication of Howard Odum’s work is that it may be impossible.

This has broad implications for our current predicament. We have to focus on the rate of energy production, rather than just the total amount of energy available. Our civilization has optimized for maximum power; a civilization based on renewable power will not.

“Solar panels and wind turbines can power a perfectly good civilization for quite some time, just not this one.”

DJ White and NJ Hagens

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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25 Comments

  1. Michael Vickerman on May 30, 2024 at 4:54 pm

    Art,

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Within the electric power sector, I see more and more signs of backtracking from the utilities’ ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through substituting wind and solar power for fossil generation. Utilities and grid operators cite several reasons for this backtracking: anticipated rapid load growth attributable to cloud storage needs, insufficient transmission capacity to accommodate wind and solar plants, and concerns over wintertime power outages (think Winter Storm Elliott). In states like Virginia, Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin (where I live), utilities like We Energies and power authorities like TVA are rushing forward with applications to build the next wave of gas-fired power plants.

    All this is prologue to my main point, that the voluntary clean energy transition now underway may be effectively aborted in a few years, the result of forces that could be viewed as proxies for the Maximum Power Principle.

    • Art Berman on May 30, 2024 at 6:27 pm

      Michael,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure how much of this green energy transition is voluntary. The Inflation Reduction Act was passed by Congress but the recent tariffs were an executive order. Most Americans acknowledge that climate change is a problem but it doesn’t make the top 10 list of important problems. Maybe that’s why our leaders can move the country in a greener direction without too much push back but it’s coming in the back door through populism along with a slew of other grievances against the status quo.

      All the best,

      Art

  2. Edward Downe on May 23, 2024 at 1:39 pm

    Geoffrey West points out that all life follows the MPP: Minimize the amount of power devoted to getting energy and materials to the cells so as to maximize what is available for reproduction. Darwinian feedback insures this continues.
    Johnathon Haidt argues we have evolved 90% Chimpanzee, 10% Hive (90% competitive and selfish and 10% cooperative like the Bees).
    Question: Can we ever turn hive-like enough to solve our dillemma? The answer my friend is blowing in the wind.

    • Art Berman on May 26, 2024 at 10:09 pm

      Edward,

      It is, of course, possible to become a cooperative society–they existed in the past and there are some hybrid versions today. It is, however, unlikely because it involves a radical change in the human psyche that has evolved over the last 5000 years.

      I recommend listening to Riane Eisler: “Domination and Partnership in Society”: https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/episode/116-riane-eisler

      All the best,

      Art

  3. Ervin Gazy on May 19, 2024 at 4:44 pm

    As the climate continues to change as it always has, one must not forget the human ability to adapt to the change. I’m 77 and the weather(climate) pretty much seems no different than when I was a child. Your logic is spot on.

    • Art Berman on May 19, 2024 at 6:17 pm

      Ervin,

      What “seems no different than when I was a child” is not supported by data. The problem with anecdotal information is that we are unaware of the shifting baselines that make things seem not to change.

      Temperature

      All the best,

      Art

  4. John B. on May 19, 2024 at 3:29 pm

    Thank you, Art. My understanding of energy, including the Maximum Power Principle, has been dramatically enhanced by reading your work.

    • Art Berman on May 19, 2024 at 6:13 pm

      Thanks, John.

      All the best,

      Art

  5. Steve Genco on May 18, 2024 at 6:01 pm

    I don’t see how transitioning to renewable energy sources violates Odom’s Maximum Power Principle. Odom’s definition says that *during self-organization* a system is most likely to survive if it maximizes its utilization of the energy sources available to it. Once fossil fuels are more expensive to produce than they can be sold for, they will no longer be produced (capitalism in action). *When* that will happen is of course the 64 billion dollar question, but I believe your position is that it will happen in the lifetime of humans living today, You make the point that renewable energy is less dense than FF energy, so cannot power *today’s* civilization. I think most climate scientists would agree with you.

    But when we get to that situation, which we will in all likelihood get to sooner rather than later,Odom’s principle still holds. Yes, the maximum power available for reorganizing human society post-fossil fuels will be less than it was before. But that *new* maximum power capacity will be exploited and utilized to support whatever social organization humans can develop in a post-carbon world. It will be an energy descent, but still in conformance with Odom’s principle.

    Having to make due with less dense and less powerful energy sources only means that the *maximum* is now less. I think your quote from White and Hagens is worth pondering in more detail. We need to ask what that “other” civilization might be, and what can we build on top of the disaster we have created with fossil fuels.

    • Art Berman on May 18, 2024 at 6:59 pm

      Steve,

      Perhaps you should read the post again. You are using power and energy interchangeably; they are related but not the same.

      Oil price is not the only or even dominant factor. The work value of a barrel of oil is ~$250,000. When will that be too expensive to have net value?

      All the best,

      Art

      • Steve Genco on May 19, 2024 at 7:13 pm

        You wrote, “All life systems including human civilization follow the Maximum Power Principle. A transition to a civilization that runs on renewable energy means departing from this fundamental principal.” My comment was perhaps just a semantic one. I don’t see how a world running on renewable energy *departs from* the MPP. If we assume that fossil fuels are no longer available at some point in the not-too-distant future, then the *maximum* power available after that point will still a maximum, it will just be a lower maximum.

        All of the problems and challenges of renewable power vs FF power that you highlight are still there. Indeed, the size of the gap between the Maximum Power we are able to generate with FFs and the Maximum Power we can generate with renewables will essentially determine what kind of civilization our descendants can hope to maintain once FFs are gone and the planet’s carrying capacity (for humans and other species) has been significantly reduced.

        If it’s true that “All life systems including human civilization follow the Maximum Power Principle” then it can’t also be true that a post-carbon world *departs* from that principle. On the contrary, it must comply with it, but in a new global reality in which the available Maximum Power is less (how much less?) than it was under FFs.

        You say explicitly that a transition to renewables is *impossible* because it somehow violates the MPP. My nitpick is that an energy transition can’t violate the MPP any more than I can violate the law of gravity. The issue is not whether the energy transition is impossible, it is what kind of civilization, and how many humans, if any, can be sustained given the energy descent we will inevitably be facing. As White and Hagens say, renewable can power a civilization, just not this one.

        • Art Berman on May 20, 2024 at 1:01 pm

          Your assumption that “fossil fuels will no longer be available” is false, Steve, and that renders the rest of your argument irrelevant.

          I suggest that you stop editorializing the Maximum Power Principle according to your beliefs, and do the research to understand what Odum and Lotka before him were describing, and its significance.

          All the best,

          Art

          • Steve Genco on May 21, 2024 at 8:00 pm

            In your earlier post, “Telling the Truth About Our Future”, you took issue with the Delannoy et al 2023 paper that argues renewables are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. You also dismissed the conclusions of the 2020 Raugei et al California study, because “California is not the world, forward modeling is not historical data, and solar PV is not the renewable universe.” But you didn’t claim that what’s going on in California is “imaginary”, only that it will be hard to replicate in other parts of the world, because California is very rich and very politically committed to increasing its production, storage, and transmission of renewably-generated energy. I agree.

            You just said here that the statement “fossil fuels will no longer be available” is false.

            Does that mean you also reject the findings of Delannoy’s other big paper from 2022, “Peak oil and the low-carbon energy transition”, in which it is argued that “the energy required for energy production will reach a staggering proportion of 50% by 2050”? If I understand the Delannoy argument correctly, that would give oil an EROI of 1.0, rendering it essentially useless as a net energy source. That moment might come sooner or later than 2050, but I’m surprised that you seem to be saying that it will *never* come.

            I’ve been a fan of yours since “The Climate-Change Trip to Abilene”. What you wrote there made sense to me:

            “The oil age won’t end tomorrow but lack of capital will put it on a similar glide path as coal. Oil will get very expensive and that will do more to limit its use than regulation and legislation can accomplish.”

            You added:

            “None of this will be fast enough to do much about climate change but neither will complaining and blaming.”

            It does all come down to timing, I think. But it’s not all-or-nothing and saying we can’t “do much about climate change” sounds pretty all-or-nothing. If you assume our continued dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere will never end (because fossil fuels will *always* be available?), then a “doomist” conclusion certainly follows.

            But it’s also possible that we will indeed stop burning fossil fuels (for other reasons, like affordability) before we have burned them all, and we will limit the devastation to something survivable. In that case, we might imagine a reset and rebuilding of civilization on a smaller, more sustainable, and more humble scale. Something like what White and Hagens hint at, “renewables can power a civilization, just not this one”. But if we all just embrace “radical acceptance”, then even that slightly more bearable outcome is unlikely to happen.



          • Art Berman on May 21, 2024 at 11:42 pm

            Steve,

            The way that Raugei, Delaney and others calculate EROI is flawed because they use life-cycle analysis that does not account for operational energy inputs like gas and battery storage backup for base load support. Final consumption is also a flawed approach for renewables because it assumes no losses which violates reality and the second law of thermodynamics.

            EROI is an elegant concept but not a very practical way to calibrate the needs of modern civilization. As I discussed in my latest post on the Maximum Power Principle, it’s all about power output. Renewables simply cannot compete for society’s power requirements. There is a trade-off between efficiency and power with maximum power at about 50% efficiency. EROI is a measure of efficiency.

            Imagine modern society as a race car. Renewables can get to 100 mph but it takes a long time. A gasoline-powered turbo-charged engine wastes a lot of fuel but gets to 100 much faster. If you’re thinking of a Tesla, you’re no longer talking about high-efficiency because of all the losses from battery storage, weight, etc.

            It’s complex and beyond a reply in comments but I hope that you get the point.

            All the best,

            Art



    • Stephen Gwynne on May 19, 2024 at 11:43 am

      It violates the maximum power principle because a voluntary transition would reduce power output over time.

      The MPP might be better understood within the context of interspecific interactions, and in particular interspecific competition. Humanity isn’t driven to maximum power output over time for its own sake, it is driven by the MPP in order to compete with the entirity of Nature.

      Thus power isn’t expressed solely as direct competition in terms of deforestation for example but also indirectly by encouraging intra species cooperation to strengthen inter species competitive advantage. An example of indirect competition with the entirety of Nature is the Net Zero strategy which helps to release more fossil fuels, in particular gas and to some extent coal and oil, for additional work in other sectors of the human economy in order to accommodate and facilitate additional human population growth which is another source of power through labour work.

      Biological power isn’t solely about economic work but a range of biological functions that assist a species or a biological system to compete. This can range from stealth and speed, dexterity, protection, venoms, the ability to make spider webs or fly. Thus the MPP describes how a biological system designs itself to achieve maximum fitness which of course humans do with the assistance of technology in order to compete with the entirety of Nature.

      • Steve Genco on May 21, 2024 at 8:31 pm

        Thank you for commenting on my comment, Stephen. I think the key to this little kerfuffle is the word “voluntary”. I agree that a *voluntary* effort to replace a more powerful energy source with a less powerful one would indeed be violating the MPP. But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that once a more powerful energy source is no longer available, some other energy source, by definition, will become the maximum power source, and the populations that best exploit it will be the ones most likely to survive. Nothing more complicated than that. Art’s position against this appears to be that fossil fuels will never end (see his second reply to my comment), so they will remain our most coveted Maximum Power source forever. Therefore, the MPP tells us we will continue to burn FFs until we have rendered our planet unlivable. I know we’re a pretty stupid species, but are we that stupid?

    • Stephen Gwynne on May 19, 2024 at 11:53 am

      Replacing fossil fuel driven power with renewable energy driven power violates the maximum power principle because a voluntary transition that involves the contraction of fossil fuel use would reduce power output over time.

      The MPP might be better understood within the context of interspecific interactions, and in particular interspecific competition. Humanity isn’t driven to maximum power output over time for its own sake, it is driven by the MPP in order to compete with the entirity of Nature.

      Thus power isn’t expressed solely as direct competition in terms of deforestation for example but also indirectly by encouraging intra species cooperation to strengthen inter species competitive advantage. An example of indirect competition with the entirety of Nature is the Net Zero strategy which helps to release fossil fuels, in particular gas and to some extent coal and oil, towards additional work in other sectors of the human economy. For example to accommodate and facilitate additional human population growth via the use of fossil fuel derived fertilisers with population growth another source of power through labour work.

      Biological power isn’t solely about economic work but a range of biological functions that assist a species or a biological system to compete. This can range from stealth and speed, dexterity, protection, venoms, immune systems, the ability to make spider webs or fly. Thus the MPP describes how a biological system designs itself to achieve maximum fitness which of course humans do with the assistance of technology in order to compete with the entirety of Nature.

  6. AA on May 18, 2024 at 5:08 pm

    I always felt something like fossil fuels have been wasted on just stupidity like SUVs mcmansions ,long commutes etc
    When it comes to heavy transport , aviation ,mining theres no way without oil (at least at scale) plus things like paint or even plastic barrels to ship food etc
    I remember reading in the 1800s there was a movement that Engineers would run Society,the idea being that all the innovations of the time needed to be managed by people who are more logical and not impulsive.

    • Art Berman on May 18, 2024 at 6:53 pm

      AA,

      Thanks for your comments. I would add that logical is rarely wholistic or creative.

      All the best,

      Art

  7. Dennis Keay on May 18, 2024 at 10:49 am

    Power is the measure of the rate at which work is done (or at which energy is transferred). Until such time as work is properly defined, the results of power defined by social scientists (economists) will continue to mirror their “compounded errors”. Art, you say it well : “Everything in nature, including human society, relies on energy for production, consumption, recycling, and sustainability”. In other words, planet earth operates on natural science laws, not on social science convenience.

    • Art Berman on May 18, 2024 at 11:38 am

      Thanks for your comments, Dennis.

      All the best,

      Art

    • Floyd Prather on May 27, 2024 at 2:10 pm

      Sorry Steve… your assumption about power requirements going down due to efficiency or whatever is just wrong. We are on a steep path of increasing societies power requirements, even with efficiency gains. The amount of electrical consumption with AI, robotics, IoT, and your plan to electrify everything currently using natural gas or fossil fuel will be a giant problem even if we continue using fossil fuels to generate electricity. Nuclear is likely our only way to meet our needs in the coming years. I don’t see that happening quickly. So fossil fuels, regardless of price, will be needed to make up the difference in power requirements.

      Secondly, your assumption oil and gas has no use if you’re not burning it is, well, grossly uninformed. And peak oil… yeah there’s a finite supply, but not in our lifetime.

      • Art Berman on May 28, 2024 at 2:53 am

        Floyd,

        I agree with your comments that efficiency is a false meme for power consumption. I’d extend that to just about everything. It’s a 1%/year proposition–not nothing but hardly save the world.

        I disagree on nuclear. You’re right that it can’t be scaled fast enough to matter but even if it could, it only addresses electric power generation and that’s only 20% of total energy use.

        I guarantee that we will see peak oil and gas in the next few decades. There is plenty left for sure but we are doubling our consumption every 30 years and that will pretty much deplete what’s left at an affordable price.

        All the best,

        Art

  8. Diana Tod on May 18, 2024 at 10:45 am

    A clear and concise explanation of our predicament as always, thank you Art. I always prioritise reading your posts when they arrive in my inbox.

    One sentence I wonder about tho is this one, “Ending fossil fuels would cause society to collapse, and result in more short-term human death and suffering than is expected even in the worst-case scenarios for global heating.”

    If global heating continues unabated until fossil fuel availability declines, which seems to be the inescapable path we’re on, say around 2060, we may hit feedback loops and runnaway temperatures before this that some claim will possibly result even in human extinction. That’s not so far in the future, geologically speaking, so I guess the critical term you use here is “short-term”.

    Certainly, human extinction would also presume the extinction of most other species and the end of the world as we know it. However, perhaps my query is just semantics, as clearly there is little chance of us voluntarily lowering our use of fossil fuels – a treadmill we’re on and can’t get off.

    • Art Berman on May 18, 2024 at 11:41 am

      Diana,

      Stopping oil would be catastrophic as soon as reduction reached a few percent lower. The price would increase beyond the limits of the economy & credit would contract drastically. Heating is a more gradual death.

      I don’t see extinction as a realistic outcome except in the nuclear war case.

      All the best,

      Art

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