Energy Transition

Philipp Muessig
Twin Cities Energy Transition Working Group

Huge energy price increases. Tight oil supplies. Climate change. Energy conservation. Major investments in renewable energy.

To many people, it looks like the world is in the midst of an energy transition. What is driving this transition, where are we going, and what can we do?

This energy transition is driven by three seemingly unstoppable trends:

  1. Society’s desire to prevent extreme climate change-burning fewer fossil fuels and developing more renewable energy sources.
  2. Declining global oil production-most forecasts estimate this will begin before 2020, based on the underlying geologic, financial, and geopolitical realities.
  3. Lower energy return on energy invested (called EROI, or energy surplus)-all alternatives to fossil fuels and current oil, coal and natural gas supplies take more energy to produce and leave less energy left over for society to use.

Together, these three trends will result in an energy future where we put less climate-altering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and move towards using more renewable energy sources.

Society’s desire to prevent extreme climate change.

Concern about climate change clearly drove the Minnesota Legislature’s aggressive Next Generation Energy Act of 2007. This act will move Minnesota towards a lower-carbon future, with goals (starting from a 2005 baseline) to:

  • Cut CO2 emissions 15% by 2015.
  • Cut fossil fuel use per person 15% by 2015.
  • Generate 25% of the total energy used in the state from renewable sources by 2025.

Declining global oil production.

The second trend driving our energy transition is known as peak oil. The reality of peak oil in most oil producing countries makes it impossible to drill and mine oil-bearing rocks in hopes of producing vast new flows of oil. The total amount of world oil was fixed millions of years ago. The US realized this during the oil price shocks of the 1970s. By 1970, the US had pumped about half of its oil endowment and, as predicted in 1956, yearly oil production peaked in 1970 and has never recovered. Decades of real-world oil data show that high prices for oil in the 70s, and high prices (and improved technology) for oil now, did not and will not result in a reversal of oil peaking in this country and soon for the world as a whole.

Lower energy return on energy invested.

The third trend driving our energy transition is the least known but is equally significant. In previous energy transitions-from wood to coal, and from coal to crude oil-the world switched to higher quality fuels with a high “energy surplus.” This energy surplus is also known as energy profit, net energy, or energy return on energy invested (EROI). Our current energy transition will be to lower quality fuels characterized by a lower energy surplus. For example, during the 1930s in Texas and Saudi Arabia, it took one unit of energy to find and produce oil that yielded 100 units of energy when burned. The energy return on energy invested was an astounding 100 units. In contrast, corn ethanol fuel, previously thought to be a solution to our addiction to oil, only returns about 1.5 units of energy when burned for every one unit of energy used to produce it.

Our industrial and materialistic lifestyles were built upon increasing quantities of easily found and extracted fossil fuels that had this very high energy surplus. The easily obtained coal, natural gas, and oil, however, are mostly gone. Additionally, the energy surplus of present-day fossil fuels and all alternatives is much lower. The list below demonstrates how many units of energy we get from each source. These units include the energy used to source and produce the energy.

  • 65 units of energy from coal
  • 30 units of energy from Middle East oil fields
  • 30 units of energy from wood
  • 25 units of energy from wind turbines
  • 20 units of energy from all global oil and natural gas production
  • 10 units of energy from nuclear reactors
  • 10 units of energy from solar photovoltaic panels
  • 3 units of energy from tar sands
  • 1.5 units of energy from shale oil
  • 1.5 units of energy from corn ethanol

Primer on US Energy Sources

U.S. Energy Sources

Percent of Total









  • High quality, flexible fuel and industrial input
  • Still cheaper than bottled water, fueling 96% of current transport in U.S.
  • Over 60% imported
  • Emits moderate greenhouse gas (GHG)
  • World supply peaks by 2020

Natural gas




  • Of all fossil fuels, emits least GHG and other pollutants
  • Major input for agricultural fertilizer
  • North American supply peaks before 2020
  • Imports more difficult than oil imports





  • Highest energy surplus of all non-renewables
  • 91% of large U.S. quantities generates 52% of U.S. electrical supply
  • Of all fossil fuels, emits most GHG and other pollutants
  • World supply peak (in terms of energy surplus) around 2025





  • No direct GHG emissions
  • Lots of energy produced per plant
  • Low energy surplus
  • Very high financial and environmental risks







  • Many types, can be used in many generation devices
  • Huge supply of sun energy
  • No sun = no energy
  • Currently most expensive per unit of energy



  • Cost-competitive with coal
  • No direct GHG emissions
  • No wind = no energy
  • Cannot site everywhere



  • Huge and constant supply of thermal energy in soils and deep earth
  • Not available everywhere
  • Units more expensive than furnaces for home heating/cooling





  • Small- and large-scale uses
  • Can site small to big plants most anywhere
  • Very low energy surplus for most biofuels
  • Monocrops not ecological
  • Air pollution controls needed for wood burning





  • Highest energy surplus
  • Low environmental impact from micro-hydro and tidal generators
  • Large hydro locations mostly in use, aging, have ecological problems
  • Tidal energy only on coasts

Moving towards a lower energy future.

All three trends discussed are driving our energy transition to a future that has less total usable energy. We will be producing less energy from burning less coal (until we can burn coal and safely store the C02 emissions), less energy from less oil to burn, and less energy from fossil fuels and alternatives because of their lower energy surplus.

While a lower energy future sounds alarming, the U.S. has previously experienced and prospered during a lower-energy period. During the 1973-1983 oil shocks, carbon emissions dropped, but economic activity actually increased. The US accomplished this feat by employing the fastest, quickest, and cheapest solutions: conservation and energy efficiency.  We used less energy overall, and the energy we did use, did more work. Although the U.S. largely dropped its conservation and efficiency efforts in the mid-1980s, the Europeans and Japanese have continued to implement these strategies. Their successful results are shown in the energy use per person, which is now half that of those of us in the U.S.

Therefore, the key to creating our energy future over the next few decades must be decreasing energy demand through energy conservation and energy efficiency. In addition, we need to renew our work towards population stabilization. This will allow us to use dwindling supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas to transition to a sustainable energy future based upon renewable energy sources. The longer-term steps along our energy transition may well include technological and biological innovation that develops renewables with a much higher energy surplus. Today, our energy sources have an energy surplus much lower than we’re used to. Thus conservation and energy efficiency are essential to buy us time to develop long-term alternatives.

Philipp Muessig of Minneapolis is a former exploration geologist and can be reached at

Read Up

Twin Cities Peak Oil Resource Guide, by Twin Cities Energy Transition Working Group,

Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, by  Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, 2007.

The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, by Rob Hopkins, Green Books Ltd., 2008.


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