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ESF Professor Advises U.K. Leaders on Energy Issues

Charles Hall visits Parliament, Oxford for week of meetings

ESF Professor Charles Hall spent a week in the United Kingdom in late March, giving presentations on and discussing energy and economic issues with British business, education and governmental leaders, including members of Parliament.

Hall, a systems ecologist with an interest in energy, biophysical economics and the links between energy and society, said he was invited to the United Kingdom to share his knowledge of the connection between global economic problems and the end of cheap energy.

"Our massive economic growth over the past 150 years has been closely associated with, and dependent upon, a similar growth in energy use, especially oil. But we're not growing economically much any more," Hall said. "And all of our economic theories are built on the principle that economies grow. We're entering the second half of the age of oil, a time during which the production of oil can no longer increase year after year. It will eventually decline and it's going to be very different."

Hall's work in the United Kingdom is tied to what he sees as the most important product of his scientific career: the development, in both ecology and energy/economic analyses, of the concept of energy return on investment (EROI). He first derived the idea while undertaking his Ph.D. work on fish migration. In the 1980s he began to apply the concept to the finding and extraction of oil and gas.

Hall discovered that as humans find and deplete the largest and most accessible petroleum reserves the energy required to find and exploit the next reservoir tends to increase while the yield tends to decrease. In the 1970s, the return on investment was 30:1; it is now less than 10:1.

"More and more of all of society's economic activity must be diverted to getting the same amount of energy needed to run the economy, leaving less for other activities," Hall said. "My trip to the United Kingdom was focused on helping the country's leaders understand the challenges they are facing as their once abundant North Sea oil and gas resources are rapidly depleting."

Hall began his visit meeting with representatives of Atkins, one of the largest engineering and design consultancies in the world. He was asked to discuss both the economic implications of a declining energy return on investment and biophysical economics, which combines knowledge of economy and thermodynamics to analyze the economic process.

The same day, Hall met with the New Economics Foundation, a "think-and-do tank" that inspires and demonstrates economic well-being as something different than just gross domestic product; finally he spent two hours addressing the All Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil, which investigates peak oil production and studies its impacts and possible solutions.

On subsequent days, Hall:

  • presented a lunchtime talk at the Department for International Development and attended seminars with department members.
  • presented a lunchtime talk at Arup, a global firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists, and met with Dr. Simon Roberts of Arup who has done extensive work developing a new model for national economies that factors in energy.
  • gave a seminar at the Department of Energy and Climate Change with the department's chief economist, chief scientist and others, presenting a talk focusing on implications for the nation's energy security.
  • met at the University of Oxford with Jeremy Leggett, a geologist, writer and commentator who is the founder of Solarcentury, the U.K.'s largest independent solar electric company.
  • met with Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith, Dr. Oliver Inderwildi and other members of the Low-Carbon Energy Centre at Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.
  • Met with reviewers of the U.K.-sponsored grant that supports Hall's graduate program on the impact of peak oil and declining EROI on the U.K. economy and that of developing countries that were once part of the British Empire.

Hall said, "It was an exhilarating and exhausting week."