A Framework for Energy Alternatives: Net Energy, Liebig’s Law and Multi-criteria Analysis

  • Nathan John Hagens
  • Kenneth Mulder


Standard economic analysis does not accurately account for the physical depletion of a resource due to its reliance on fiat currency as a metric. Net energy analysis, particularly Energy Return on Energy Investment, can measure the biophysical properties of a resources progression over time. There has been sporadic and disparate use of net energy statistics over the past several decades. Some analyses are inclusive in treatment of inputs and outputs while others are very narrow, leading to difficulty of accurate comparisons in policy discussions. This chapter attempts to place these analyses in a common framework that includes both energy and non-energy inputs, environmental externalities, and non-energy co-products. We also assess how Liebig’s Law of the minimum may require energy analysts to utilize multi-criteria analysis techniques when energy may not be the sole limiting variable.


Net energy EROI EROEI liebig’s law ethanol biophysical economics oil natural gas 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. American Wind Energy Association. 2006. Comparative air emissions of wind and other fuels. Retrieved on Jan 27 2007 from http://www.awea.org/pubs/factsheets.html.Google Scholar
  2. Ayres, R., L. Ayres, and K. Martinas. 1998. Exergy, waste accounting, and life-cycle analysis. Energy 23:355–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ayres, R., and K. Martinas. 1995. Waste potential entropy: The ultimate ecotoxic? Economie Appliquees 48:95–120.Google Scholar
  4. Baines, J., and M. Peet. 1983. Assessing alternative liquid fuels using net energy criteria. Energy 8:963–972.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baltic, T., and D. Betters. 1983. Net energy analysis of a fuelwood energy system. Resources and Energy 5:45–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bender, M. 1999. Economic feasibility review for community-scale farmer cooperatives for biodiesel. Bioresource Technology 70:81–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berglund, M., and P. Borjesson. 2006. Assessment of energy performance in the life-cycle of biogas production. Biomass & Bioenergy 30:254–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Barlow, M., Clarke T. 2002. “Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World’s Water” Stoddart, Toronto.Google Scholar
  9. Berndt, E. 1983. From technocracy to net energy analysis: Engineers, economists, and recurring energy theories of value. Pages 337–366 in A. Scott, editor. Progress in Natural Resource Economics. Clarendon, Oxford.Google Scholar
  10. British Petroleum. 2005. Quantifying Energy: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2005.Google Scholar
  11. Canadian Assoc of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). “Wells and Meters Drilled in Canada 1981–2006”, 2007.Google Scholar
  12. Chambers, R., R. Herendeen, J. Joyce, and P. Penner. 1979. Gasohol: Does it or doesn’t it produce positive net energy. Science 206:789–795.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chui, F., A. Elkamel, and M. Fowler. 2006. An integrated decision support framework for the assessment and analysis of hydrogen production pathways. Energy & Fuels 20:346–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cleveland, C. 1992. Energy quality and energy surplus in the extraction of fossil fuels in the U.S. Ecological Economics 6:139–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cleveland, C. 2001. “Net Energy from Oil and Gas Extraction in the United States, 1954-1997”. Energy, 30: 769-782.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cleveland, C. 2005. Net energy from the extraction of oil and gas in the United States. Energy 30:769–782.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cleveland, C. 2007 “Net Energy Analysis”, Retrieved 3/16/2007 from http://www.eoearth.org/ article/Net_energy_analysisGoogle Scholar
  18. Cleveland, C. 2007 “Energy Transitions Past and Future”, The Encyclopedia of Earth, Retrieved 7/29/2007 from http://www.eoearth.org/article/Energy_transitionspastandfutureGoogle Scholar
  19. Cleveland, C., and R. Costanza. 1984. Net Energy Analysis of Geopressured Gas-Resources in the United States Gulf Coast Region. Energy 9:35–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cleveland, C., R. Costanza, C. Hall, and R. Kaufmann. 1984. Energy and the United States Economy– A Biophysical Perpsective. Science 225:890–897.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Costanza, R. 1980. Embodied energy and economic valuation. Science 210:1219–1224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Crawford, R., and G. Treloar. 2004. Net energy analysis of solar and conventional domestic hot water systems in Melbourne, Australia. Solar Energy 76:159–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. deBoer, I. 2003. Environmental impact assessment of conventional and organic milk production. Livestock Production Science 80:69–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. DeNocker, L., C. Spirinckx, and R. Torfs. 1998. Comparison of LCA and external-cost analysis for biodiesel and diesel. in Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference LCA in Agriculture, Agro-industry and Forestry. VITO, Brussels.Google Scholar
  25. Energy Information Agency. 2007. “Performance Profiles of Major Energy Producers 2006”, December 2007Google Scholar
  26. EPA. 2002. A Comprehensive Analysis of Biodiesel Impacts on Exhaust Emissions. EPA420-P-02-001, US Environmental Protection Agency.Google Scholar
  27. European Commission. 1997. ExternE, Externalities of Energy, Methodology Report, Vol.1. European Communities.Google Scholar
  28. Farrell, A., R. Plevin, B. Turner, A. Jones, M. O’Hare, and D. Kammen. 2006. Ethanol can contribute to energy and environmental goals. Science 311:506–508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Giampietro, M., S. Ulgiati, and D. Pimental. 1997. Feasibility of Large-Scale Biofuel Production. Bioscience 47:587–600.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gilliland, M. 1975. Energy analysis and public policy. Science 189:1051–1056.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gingerich, J., and O. Hendrickson. 1993. The theory of energy return on investment– A case-study of whole tree chipping for biomass in Prince Edward Island. Forestry Chronicle 69:300–306.Google Scholar
  32. Hagens, N., R. Costanza, and K. Mulder. 2006. Energy Returns on Ethanol Production. Science 312:1746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hall, C. A. S., and M. Lavine. 1979. “Efficiency of Energy Delivery Systems:1. An Economic and Energy Analysis”, Environmental Management, vol 3, no 6, pp493–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hall, C. A. S., C. J. Cleveland, and R. Kaufmann. 1986. Energy and resource quality: The ecology of the economic process. Wiley, New York.Google Scholar
  35. Hall, C., Tharakan, P. Hallock, J. Cleveland, C. and Jefferson, M. 2003. “Hydrocarbons and the Evolution of Human Culture”, Nature 426:318–322, 20 November 2003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hammerschlag, R. 2006. Ethanol’s energy return on investment: A survey of the literature 1990– Present. Environmental Science & Technology 40:1744–1750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hanegraaf, M. C., E. E. Biewinga, and G. Van der Bijl. 1998. Assessing the ecological and economic sustainability of energy crops. Biomass & Bioenergy 15:345–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hardin, G. J. 1999. The ostrich factor: Our population Myopia. Oxford University Press, NewYork.Google Scholar
  39. Herold and Co. Upstream Performance Summary 2007.Google Scholar
  40. Hill, J., E. Nelson, D. Tilman, S. Polasky, and D. Tiffany. 2006. Environmental, economic, and eneretic costs and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:11206–11210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hu, Z., F. Fang, D. Ben, G. Pu, and C. Wang. 2004. Net energy, CO2 emission, and life-cycle cost assessment of cassava-based ethanol as an alternative automotive fuel in China. Applied Energy 78:247–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Huang, W. 2007. Impact of Rising Natural Gas Prices on U.S. Ammonia Supply, US Department of Agriculture, August 2007Google Scholar
  43. International Standard Organization. 1997. Environmental Management– Life Cycle Assessment– Principles and Framework. ISO, Geneva.Google Scholar
  44. Kallivroussis, L., A. Natsis, and G. Papadakis. 2002. The energy balance of sunflower production for biodiesel in Greece. Biosystems Engineering 81:347–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kaylen, M. 2005. An economic analysis of using alternative fuels in a mass burn boiler. Bioresource Technology 96:1943–1949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Keoleian, G. 1998. Application of Life Cycle Energy Analysis to Photovoltaic Design. Progress in Voltaics 5.Google Scholar
  47. Kidd, S. 2004. nuclear: Is there any net energy addition? Nuclear Engineering International 49:12–13.Google Scholar
  48. Kim, S., and B. Dale. 2005. Environmental aspects of ethanol derived from no-tilled corn grain: Nonrenewable energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Biomass & Bioenergy 28:475–489.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Laherrere, J. 2007, “North American natural gas discovery & production”, August 2007, ASPO France, pg 15.http://aspofrance.viabloga.com/files/JL_NAmNG07.pdfGoogle Scholar
  50. Lotka, A., 1922. “Contributions to the Energetics of Evolution”, Biology. 8:147-151.Google Scholar
  51. Mortimer, N. D., M. A. Elsayed, and R. Matthews. 2003. Carbon and Energy Balances for a Range of Biofuel Options. Resources Research Unit, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, England.Google Scholar
  52. Mulder, K., and Hagens N. 2008.“Energy Return on Investment– Towards a Consistent Framework”, AMBIO Vol. 37, no 2, pp. 74–79 March 2008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Odum, H. T. 1973. Energy, Ecology, and Economics. Ambio 2:220–227.Google Scholar
  54. Odum, H. T. 1983. Systems ecology: An introduction. Wiley, New York.Google Scholar
  55. Odum, H.T. 1994. “Ecological and General Systems: An Introduction to Systems Ecology”, University Press of Colorado, Revised Edition of Systems Ecology, 1983, Wiley.Google Scholar
  56. Odum, H. T. 1995. ‘Self-Organization and Maximum Empower’, in C.A.S. Hall (ed.) Maximum Power: The Ideas and Applications of H.T.Odum, Colorado University Press, Colorado.Google Scholar
  57. Patzek, T. 2004. Thermodynamics of the corn-ethanol biofuel cycle. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 23:519–567.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Patzek, T., and D. Pimentel. 2005. Thermodynamics of energy production from biomass. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 24:327–364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Pearce, J., and A. Lau. 2002. Net energy analysis for sustainable energy production from silicon based solar cells. in Proceedings of Solar 2002, Reno, Nevada.Google Scholar
  60. Pimentel, D., and T. W. Patzek. 2005. Ethanol production using corn, switchgrass, and wood; biodiesel production using soybean and sunflower. Natural Resources Research 14:65–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pimentel, D. 2003. Ethanol Fuels: Energy Balance, Economics, and Environmental Impacts are Negative. Natural Resources Research 12:127–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Pimentel, D., M. Herz, M. Glickstein, M. Zimmerman, R. Allen, K. Becker, J. Evans, B. Hussain, R. Sarsfeld, A. Grosfeld, and T. Seidel. 2002. Renewable energy: Current and potential issues. Bioscience 52:1111–1120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Pimentel, D., and T. W. Patzek. 2005. Ethanol production using corn, switchgrass, and wood; biodiesel production using soybean and sunflower. Natural Resources Research 14:65–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Pimentel, D., G. Rodrigues, T. Wang, R. Abrams, K. Goldberg, H. Staeker, E. Ma, L. Brueckner, L. Trovato, C. Chow, U. Govindarajulu, and S. Boerke. 1994. Renewable energy– economic and environmental issues. Bioscience 44:536–547.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Potter, L., and D. Betters. 1988. A net energy simulation model– Applications for domestic wood energy systems. Forest Products Journal 38:23–25.Google Scholar
  66. Rees, W. 1996. Revisiting carrying capacity: Area-based indicators of sustainability. Population and Environment 17:195–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Reijnders, L. 2006. Conditions for the sustainability of biomass based fuel use. Energy Policy 34:863–876.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Ricardo, D. 1819. On the principles of political economy, and taxation, 1st American edition. J. Milligan}, Georgetown, D.C.Google Scholar
  69. Schleisner, L. 2000. Life cycle assessment of a wind farm and related externalities. Renewable Energy 20:279–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Shapouri H., J. Duffield and M. Wang, “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol– An Update”, USDA 2002.Google Scholar
  71. Sheehan, J., V. Camobreco, J. Duffield, M. Graboski, and H. Shapouri. 1998. An Overview of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel Life Cycles. NREL/TP-580-24772, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO.Google Scholar
  72. Skrebowski, Chris, Oil Depletion Analysis Center (ODAC Newsletter May 2006).Google Scholar
  73. Smil, V. 1991. General Energetics: Energy in the Biosphere and Civilization. John Wiley, New York.Google Scholar
  74. Smil, V. 2006. “21st Century Energy- Some Sobering Thoughts”. OECD Observer 258/59: 22–23, December 2006Google Scholar
  75. Southwide Energy Committee. 1980. Petroleum product consumption and efficiency in systems used for energy wood harvesting. American Pulpwood Association, No.80-A-10.Google Scholar
  76. Spreng, D. T. 1988. Net-energy analysis and the energy requirements of energy systems. Praeger, New York.Google Scholar
  77. Tainter, J. A. 2003. Resource transitions and energy gain: Contexts of organization. Conservation and Ecology 7.Google Scholar
  78. Tyner, G., R. Costanza, and R. Fowler. 1988. The net energy yield of nuclear power. Energy 13:73–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Ulgiati, S. 2001. A Comprehensive Energy and Economic Assessment of Biofuels: When Green is not Enough. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 20:71–106.Google Scholar
  80. US Department of Energy. 1989a. Energy Systems Emissions and Material Requirements. Prepared by the Meridian Corporation, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  81. US Department of Energy. 1989b. Environmental Emissions from Energy Technology Systems: The Total Fuel Cycle. R L San Martin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy, Washington D.C.Google Scholar
  82. Wichelns, D. 2001. The role of ’virtual water’ in efforts to achieve food security and other national goals, with an example from Egypt. Agricultural Water Management 49:131–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Wilkinson, R. G. 1973. “Poverty and progress: an ecological model of economic development”. Methuen, London, UK.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nathan John Hagens
    • 1
  • Kenneth Mulder
    • 2
  1. 1.Gund Institute for Ecological EconomicsUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA
  2. 2.Green Mountain CollegeUSA

Personalised recommendations