Assessing the Energy Return on Investment of future energy systems and implications for the wider economy (EPSRC DTP)

Supervisor(s)

Dr Paul Brockway, Professor Peter Taylor, and Dr Lina Brand Correa

Contact Dr Paul Brockway (P.E.Brockway@leeds.ac.uk) to discuss this project further informally.

Project description

Energy return on investment (EROI) is measure of the net energy available to society (after accounting for the energy used in energy production). For example, if 1 barrel of oil is used to extract 30 barrels, the net EROI ratio is 29:1. At high EROI ratios, economies have plenty of available energy to support their societies. However, at low EROI ratios, going below a ‘threshold’ value could seriously constrain the functioning of society. The conventional view is fossil-fuel EROI values much higher (~30:1) than modern renewables (~10:1), meaning a renewables-led energy system transition might dip below a societal-level EROI threshold. In other words, ‘there may be a problem, but not yet’.

However, recent research completed at the University of Leeds challenges this perceived wisdom. We find evidence that the level of fossil-fuel EROI is much lower than previously thought (around 5:1), as we estimated values for final energy (e.g. electricity/petrol) rather than conventional extraction stage (e.g. oil, coal). This suggests that fossil-fuel EROI may be lower than renewables, meaning we are nearer a ‘net energy cliff’ than supposed, where the availability of net energy to the economy goes into a very sharp and serious decline.

Given this, further research is urgently required, with two key issues to resolve. First, we have no real idea of whether the upcoming renewables transition of the energy system will increase or decrease the availability of net energy to society. There is much more work to do to enable a true apples-to-apples comparison of fossil-fuel to renewables EROI estimates. Secondly, we have little appreciation of when declining EROI values will go below a threshold level which will have serious biophysically-led societal impacts. EROI estimates are largely completed in isolation, with very rare linkages to socio-economic models.

In response, two guiding research questions are proposed:

  1. What are fully-temporal renewable EROI values?
    To date many LCA-based studies focus on EROI values associated with the fabrication and operation of renewables technologies. Broadening to include macro-level construction and decommission phases will better serve to estimate the whole life EROI for renewables, and enable a fairer fossil fuel comparison.
     
  2.  What is the societal-level EROI threshold and the impacts of transgression?
    By including net energy (EROI) as a ‘dial’ in our MARCO-UK energy-economy model we’ve developed at the University of Leeds, the threshold level of net energy availability (EROI) can be assessed. In addition, interlinkages to over 60 socio-economic-environmental indicators enables the study of the impacts of transgressing below the EROI threshold.

The PhD candidate will be directly linked through the supervision team to leading expertise in the EROI field. In addition, links to ongoing research projects in the School of Earth & Environment will be utilised, such as the Centre for Research on Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS); the UK Energy Research Council (UKERC) Phases 3 and 4; and the Living Well within Limits (LiLi) Leverhulme Trust project. Finally, existing connections to policy-sided audiences – for example at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – will be used for maximising project impacts.

Further reading:

  1. Hall C, Balogh S, Murphy DJR. What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? Energies. 2009 Jan 23;2(1):25–47.
  2. Murphy DJ, Hall CAS. Energy return on investment, peak oil, and the end of economic growth. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2011 Feb;1219:52–72.
  3. Lambert JG, Hall CAS, Balogh SB. EROI of Global Energy Resources : Status, Trends and Social Implications. New York.
  4. Sers MR, Victor PA. The Energy-missions Trap. Ecological Economics. Elsevier; 2018;151(February):10–21.
  5. King LC, Van Den Bergh JCJM. Implications of net energy-return-on-investment for a low-carbon energy transition. Nature Energy. Springer US; 2018;3(4):334–40.
  6. Brand-Correa LI, Brockway PE, Copeland CL, Foxon TJ, Owen A, Taylor PG. Developing an Input-Output Based Method to Estimate a National-Level Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Energies. 2017;10, 534:21.
  7. Raugei M, Leccisi E. A comprehensive assessment of the energy performance of the full range of electricity generation technologies deployed in the United Kingdom. Energy Policy. Elsevier; 2016;90:46–59.
  8. Kubiszewski I, Cleveland CJ, Endres PK. Meta-analysis of net energy return for wind power systems. Renewable Energy. Elsevier Ltd; 2010;35(1):218–25.

Entry requirements

Applications are invited from candidates with or expecting a minimum of a UK upper second class honours degree (2:1) or equivalent, and/or a Master's degree in the relevant subject area.

If English is not your first language, you must provide evidence that you meet the University’s minimum English Language requirements.

How to apply

Formal applications for research degree study should be made online through the university's website.

If you require any further information, please contact the Graduate School Office e: apply-phd@see.leeds.ac.uk, or t: +44 (0)113 343 1634.

We welcome scholarship applications from all suitably-qualified candidates, but UK black and minority ethnic (BME) researchers are currently under-represented in our Postgraduate Research community, and we would therefore particularly encourage applications from UK BME candidates. All scholarships will be awarded on the basis of merit.