Publication type: Research article.
Author(s): Carlos de Castro, Iñigo Capellán-Pérez
Keywords: Economy & finance, Energy & materials, Sustainable development.
Whether renewable energy sources (RES) will provide sufficient energy surplus to entirely power complex modern societies is under discussion. We contribute to this debate by estimating the current global average energy return on energy invested (EROI) for the five RES technologies with the highest potential of electricity generation from the comprehensive and internally consistent estimations of their material requirements at three distinct energy system boundaries: standard farm-gate (EROIst), final at consumer point-of-use (EROIfinal), and extended (including indirect investments, EROIext). EROIst levels found fall within the respective literature ranges. Expanding the boundaries closer to the system level, we find that only large hydroelectricity would currently have a high EROIext ~ 6.5:1, while the rest of variable RES would be below 3:1: onshore wind (2.9:1), offshore wind (2.3:1), solar Photovoltaic (PV) (1.8:1), and solar Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) (<1:1). These results indicate that, very likely, the global average EROIext levels of variable RES are currently below those of fossil fuel-fired electricity. It remains unknown if technological improvements will be able to compensate for factors, which will become increasingly important as the variable RES scale-up. Hence, without dynamically accounting for the evolution of the EROI of the system, the viability of sustainable energy systems cannot be ensured, especially for modern societies pursuing continuous economic growth.