EROI is our Common Energy Language

We need a common frame of reference, and I think Energy Return on Investment (EROI) might be it.

It’s a simple concept: The energy you use to get energy, minus the energy it takes to get your food, gives you your lifestyle.

A mama cheetah needs to get enough energy from a rabbit to feed the kids, miss catching a few more rabbits and still have enough energy to catch another one, or else the species goes extinct.

All organisms, organizations and civilizations need surplus energy or they go extinct.

Professor Charlie Hall is the father of the EROI concept, and he has influenced me a lot. This is the Charles Hall paper that got my attention.

Professor Hall and his colleagues have been calculating the EROI of many energy sources. They’ve found that in the 1930s, you could use the energy in one barrel of oil to get you 100 more barrels of oil. By the 1970s it became 30-1. Now it is around 10-15 to 1. It is taking more energy to get energy.

The tar sands in Canada have an EROI of around 6-8 to 1. Shale oil, an incompletely cooked oil, is around 2.5 to 1. Biofuel is less than 2-1.

The EROI for geothermal is about 10-1, and because the Big Island will be over the geothermal “hot spot” for 500,000 to a million years, geothermal costs will remain stable.

Professor Hall estimates that it will take an EROI of 3-1 to maintain our present infrastructure – and that’s not counting the food we eat.

The significance of EROI analysis is that it applies to all of us, from ancient times to now. It’s the common thread that runs through the gift economy – such as the type the ancient Hawaiians had – as well as today’s market economy. It is about surplus energy. This is the common language we all can speak.

Some who are off the grid already have surplus energy, and others are on the grid and need time to transition. What energy source, under what conditions, can we use to help ourselves – and future generations of us?

This is the common language we need to be speaking, combined with Patrick Kahawaiola‘a wisdom: “It’s about the process.” He’s saying that if we follow the process, then everyone who contributes to the process makes for a better end result. Therefore, we must aloha everyone, no matter on what side of the issue they are on.

We must also incorporate Kumu Lehua Veincent’s wisdom: “What about the rest?” This is about all of us, not just a few.


This is why I am so encouraged by the meetings that have been taking place. We are moving toward common ground.