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Implications of net energy-return-on-investment for a low-carbon energy transition

An Author Correction to this article was published on 03 April 2018

This article has been updated

Abstract

Low-carbon energy transitions aim to stay within a carbon budget that limits potential climate change to 2 °C—or well below—through a substantial growth in renewable energy sources alongside improved energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage. Current scenarios tend to overlook their low net energy returns compared to the existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Correcting from gross to net energy, we show that a low-carbon transition would probably lead to a 24–31% decline in net energy per capita by 2050, which implies a strong reversal of the recent rising trends of 0.5% per annum. Unless vast end-use efficiency savings can be achieved in the coming decades, current lifestyles might be impaired. To maintain the present net energy returns, solar and wind renewable power sources should grow two to three times faster than in other proposals. We suggest a new indicator, ‘energy return on carbon’, to assist in maximizing the net energy from the remaining carbon budget.

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Fig. 1: Illustrative comparison of high- and low-EROI economies.
Fig. 2: Model output.

Change history

  • 03 April 2018

    In the version of this Analysis originally published, the value of the pessimistic EROI for the geothermal energy source in Table 1 was incorrectly given as 14:1; it should have read 9:1. This has now been corrected in all versions of the Analysis.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the ‘María de Maeztu Unit of Excellence’ programme of Spain, awarded to ICTA by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO), under grant MDM-2015-0552. The authors thank J. Subtil Lacerda and R. Breding for useful comments on the manuscript.

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L.C.K. and J.C.J.M.v.d.B. jointly designed the study and wrote the paper. L.C.K. performed the model calculations.

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Correspondence to Lewis C. King.

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King, L.C., van den Bergh, J.C.J.M. Implications of net energy-return-on-investment for a low-carbon energy transition. Nat Energy 3, 334–340 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-018-0116-1

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