Category: renewable

Are there enough minerals in the world for a total transition to an alternative energy system?

Are there enough minerals in the world for a total transition to an alternative energy system?

There’s an ongoing debate concerning the availability of minerals needed for a full transition to alternative energy sources. This conversation involves factors such as the Earth’s resource capacity, energy return on investment (EROI) for various energy technologies, technological advancements, and the practicality of shifting away from fossil fuels.

Many discussions have raised concerns about the adequacy of critical minerals required for renewable energy technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle (EV) batteries. These technologies rely on materials such as rare earth elements, lithium, and cobalt, which might not be as abundant as more common resources. However, advancements in technology and improved recycling methods are being considered to address these concerns.

Recently, I have been reading about energy return on investment and energy flows in the current system (Brockway, 2019 and Barnard, 2023). Energy return on energy invested (EROI) is a calculation that experts use to try to answer questions about transitioning the energy system. EROI tells us the proportion of return on investment for producing energy and this can be then compared to the percentage that is used in the system and the investment needed to use it. Unfortunately, some methodologies for calculating EROI focus on the production side and compare energy source to source. These experts claim that since the EROI on oil is so much higher than for renewables, transition would be impossible from a sheer energy perspective. Other experts have begun to look at energy flows through the system, factoring wasted energy into the equation. These experts are saying that renewable energy produces  such little waste that the EROI is comparable with oil after factoring in efficiency (Brockway, 2019). Still others are saying that as the cost of extracting and processing the finite resource rises the transition to renewables is inevitable (Barnard 2023). 

A diagram of a energy consumption

Description automatically generated

Energy is often viewed as the economy is, as a supply and demand equation. After all, the economy is largely a story of energy inputs and outputs. On the supply side, people pay for energy produced and delivered with utilities accounts. This view is loaded with assumptions and hides energy waste out of view entirely. As a result, consumers pay for the lost 65% of energy generated in the delivery fees along with grid maintenance costs!With the supply side getting most of the attention we can easily stop imagining a brighter future with a thriving economy for our descendants.

However, the demand side of the equation is simply the wattage hours, rather than the cost of wattage hour. The wattage hours metered, the gallons pumped, or cordage dropped represents the demand side of the equation. A recent article by Micheal Barnard, for example, says that, “The primary energy fallacy is the assumption that all the energy, in all of the oil, gas and coal that we burn today must be replaced. We don’t need to replace it, we need to replace the unwasted energy services.” (Barnard, 2023). And that is less by a factor of two-thirds! Viewing it from this perspective suddenly seems much more doable.

The technologies are developing rapidly, for storage especially, but the intermittency of renewable energy is still a challenge to be met. The scale of that challenge, however, is less ominous than I thought. If we are building that new system for energy actually used and not comparing sources solely on the basis of production ROI, the future looks brighter. While concerns about mineral availability and EROI are well founded, ongoing developments suggest that a complete transition to an alternative energy system is plausible. This transition will likely require a combination of technological advancements, efficient energy utilization, and a shift in focus from energy replacement to maximizing energy services while reducing waste.

By Rachel Lyn Rumson


Barnard, M. (2023, February 13). Why Aren’t Energy Flows Diagrams Used More To Inform Decarbonization? CleanTechnica.

SKAGEN Fondene (Director). (2023, January 16). Mark Mills: The energy transition delusion: inescapable mineral realities.

Brockway, P. E., Owen, A., Brand-Correa, L. I., & Hardt, L. (2019). Estimation of global final-stage energy-return-on-investment for fossil fuels with comparison to renewable energy sources. Nature Energy, 4(7), Article 7.

What is a Regenerative Economy?

What is a Regenerative Economy?

Does it mean biological means of production? While regenerative farmers are talking about high yields with no-till methods and soil biodiversity, some economists are talking about “a new vision for prosperity” that leaves behind the “rational man” of neo-classical economics for a new model of participation and dignity, one that meets the social needs of everyone while operating within the ecological limits of the planet. 

One of the most prominent voices for a regenerative economy is Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st  Century Economist. Raworth recently spoke at Schumacher Center for New Economics on the topic of Planetary Economics: New Tools for Local Transformation. In her talk last November to a record-breaking number of attendees for the Institute, Raworth suggested that transformation of the economy to save the planet is imperative and that the innovation we need is going to come from that bottom-up and be local. She is offering the Doughnut model as a guide and has launched the Doughnut Economics Action Lab as a collaborative toolbox for local economic renewal and participatory climate action.

The basic theory on Doughnut Economics focuses on a thriving future that emerges from balancing the ecological ceiling and the social foundation. The model has been adopted by over 40 cities and regions including Philadelphia, Amsterdam, Leeds, Barcelona, Mexico City, and Toronto. Place-based administrations and community coalitions around the world are using it as a way to reimagine and recreate the future in balance.

Raworth suggests that through multiple crises, humanity is awakening to an awareness of our profound interconnectedness with the living systems of Earth, and each other. Raworth’s idea for a regenerative and distributive economic reality is interesting. The framework borrows from the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to define the social foundation as the essential of life. The outside of the doughnut are the planetary boundaries defined by Roskstrom et al (2009). The planetary boundaries are what keeps life working on Earth. Raworth compares her doughnut to the dynamic circles of various Indigenous cultures around the world symbolizing health and wellbeing. She says that she is coming to see the doughnut as a “Western economic mindset recovery program”.  

We are paying attention to Doughnut economics because of the way that it embeds the economy within society and within the environment.

What does this mean for our clients and colleagues? We think that the model is useful as a holistic view for municipalities, civic organizations, businesses, trusts and finance. Whichever sector you are in, whether you’re in the visioning stage, looking for participatory tools for engagement or need just-in-time research or local impact analysis, we can help. Our consultants will partner with you to help you learn about the challenges of the changing world. 

Here are the eco-social and inventories areas of the doughnut. Contact us to learn more about the Doughnut or any of these parameters. Let us know if you are working on a Portrait of Place.

Ecological ParametersSocial Parameters
climate crisismobility / transportation 
load on the soilcommunity and connectedness
freshwater consumptionsocial participation and equality
loss of biodiversityhousing and energy
greenhouse gas emissionshealth and education
waste production, pollutionfood and water
deforestation and land use changework and income
air pollutionculture
peace and justice
political participation

Blog post is by Rachel Lyn Rumson


Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).

Rachel’s Journal Roundup Q3 2022

Rachel’s Journal Roundup Q3 2022

  1. Theine,H.; Humer, S.; Moser, M.; Schnetzer, M. 2022. “Emissions inequality: Disparities in income, expenditure, and the carbon footprint in Austria,” Ecological Economics (197).

Recently, we completed a project for the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, where we estimated the economic, social, and environmental carrying capacity of the peninsula. One of the issues we considered was the environmental impact of those moving to the area. Like many areas in Maine, the Blue Hill region is seeing an influx of wealthier individuals to the area, primarily due to the rise of remote work. One question that was brought up for us is how households’ environmental impact changed with higher income levels. This article investigates the carbon content of households’ expenditure patterns. They find that the top decile of the income distribution in Austria receives 22% of national income, spends 18% of national expenditure, and causes 17% of emissions. The bottom decile, by contrast, accounts for just 3% of national income, 4% of expenditure, and 4% of emissions. While the article focuses on Austria, results are suggestive for the United States, where income inequality is much larger than it is in Austria. 

While differences in income may explain some of the differences in emissions, they only explain about one third of the difference, implying that the remaining two-thirds of the variation in emissions is attributed to other factors. Not surprisingly, results show that characteristics such as housing stock, heating fuel, and car dependence all contribute to the variation in household carbon emissions. 

These results are not surprising. However, they do bring up a question about the environmental footprint of households moving to Maine (and other places). If, as evidence seems to indicate, higher income people are moving to Maine, it may presage an increase in carbon emissions, based upon these results.  However, the potential good news is that two-thirds of the variation in emissions was due to other factors. If newcomers to Maine reduce their dependence on fossil fuels either by weatherizing or upgrading existing housing stock, they may be able to mitigate some of the increase in emissions coming from increased consumption. If public transportation can be improved in areas that are attracting in-migrants, so much the better. It is possible that an influx of in-migrants will increase carbon emissions. But it is not inevitable.

  1. Kovacs, K.; West, G.; Nowak, D.; Haight, R. 2022. “Tree cover and property values in the United States: A national meta-analysis.,” Ecological Economics (197).
Tree canopy” by Jim Stanton is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This article explores the relationship between tree coverage and property values. The authors refer to tree coverage as a public good because increased tree coverage in a given area of a neighborhood has been shown to increase value of the homes throughout the entire neighborhood. A representation of this relationship would help municipalities quantify the benefits of community forestry programs. 

The hedonic property value method is a statistical technique that can be used to assess the value of ecosystem services to property. However, these studies are expensive and time-consuming, and oftentimes, local governments are unable to access the resources needed to carry out these analyses. The authors used hedonic property studies conducted in the past to create a benefit transfer tool (whereby multiple hedonic analyses are combined in a meta-analysis) that can be used to measure the value of tree coverage in communities that have not yet conducted hedonic property value analyses. 

Results indicate that where existing tree cover is low, increasing on-property tree density increases property values, while increases in off-property tree cover has no statistically significant effect. In contrast, where tree cover is medium to high,, off -property tree cover has a greater positive effect on property valves than on-property tree cover. This perhaps reflects the belief that high density tree cover on the property is seen as increasing maintenance costs. 

Although the study finds relatively low property value effects, increases in property values are only a small part of the benefits of increased tree cover. The ecosystem services provided by tree cover include air filtration, soil stabilization, flood control, recreation, and habitat provision, as well as aesthetic value. The authors conclude by noting that hedonic property studies can also be used to support open space zoning and green space ordinances.

  1. Mueller, J. 2022. “Natural Resource Dependence and Rural American Economic Prosperity From 2000 to 2015,” Economic Development Quarterly 36(3):160–176. 

This article investigates the role that natural resources play in the economic development of US counties. There are two types of natural resource development: extractive natural resource use, such as oil and gas, mining, and timber, and non-extractive, such as tourism, recreation, and real estate. The author points out that dependence on natural resource development has been shown to be associated with decreases in per capita income, increases in inequality, and elevated poverty in the long term (the so-called “resource curse”). Yet not as much attention has been paid in the literature to the dependence on non-extractive natural resource development. This study aims to correct that, by studying both forms of resource development on economic outcomes in rural counties across the United States. The author makes a distinction between remote rural counties and metro-adjacent rural counties. 

The author finds that the relationship between natural resource development and economic prosperity varies between non-metropolitan remote and nonmetropolitan metro-adjacent counties. Generally speaking, high levels of dependence on either extractive or non-extractive resource development was associated with negative economic outcomes for both remote and metro-adjacent rural counties. However, these relationships were complex. Non-extractive resource development in particular has been promoted in some strands of the literature to have a positive effect on economic outcomes in rural areas. But this work casts doubt on that hypothesis, indicating that non-extractive resource development may actually have a negative effect on the economic outcomes of remote rural counties, perhaps due to the low wages in many of those industries. More work needs to be done in this area.

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

Recycling changed dramatically in 2018, when China went from accepting 45% of the world’s plastic waste to almost none. As a result, by 2030, up to 111 million metric tons of plastic could be displaced.[1]

All that extra plastic, as well as the paper and other materials China is refusing, has significant and far-reaching effects. It impacts waste management systems and the economics of recycling, and it may also force people to re-evaluate their behavior.

Read More Read More

Woody Biomass: One step forward, two steps back?

Woody Biomass: One step forward, two steps back?


Last week I was a guest in my colleague’s Renewable Energy Law class.  One of the questions I was asked had to do with Maine’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).  Maine’s RPS seems, at first glance, to be an ambitious goal (40 percent of Maine’s electricity is to come from renewable sources by 2017). However, at the time the RPS was made law, Maine was already mostly meeting that goal, thanks to Maine’s booming woody biomass industry. 

Other states in the New England Power Network can help fulfill their own RPS by purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECS) from other states in the network.  If a particular unit of energy is produced by a renewable source, that unit of energy could earn a REC, which could then be sold elsewhere.  However, even though every state in New England has a RPS (except Vermont, which has a goal), they don’t all accept the same types of energy for their RPS. Hence, there are some RECS that can be sold in some states, but not others.

Maine is the only state in New England that accepts biomass and large scale hydro to help fulfill its RPS. Therefore, any biomass facility that produces RECS can only sell them in Maine. In a report that came out detailing the performance of Maine’s RPS during the past year, a good 95% of the  Maine RPS was met through RECS generated from biomass.  And the fact that biomass credits can only be sold in Maine will depress the price of those credits -leading to less revenue for those facilities.

Which lead to one of the students’ questions: why don’t the other states accept biomass?  It’s a good question.  Leaving aside the (obvious) conclusion that Maine accepts biomass as an energy source in order to prop up its ailing wood products industry, why would other states not accept it? Isn’t biomass a renewable source of energy? And isn’t it carbon neutral ?

The answer, as any good economist knows, is “it depends.”  (My father used to say -paraphrasing Harry Truman – that what the world needs is a one-handed economist, because we’re always saying ”on the one hand….  But on the other hand…” ) Biomass is certainly a renewable source, in the strict physical sense that the “fuel” used – plant matter – is renewable.  The time it takes to regenerate, of course, depends on the growth rate of the plant matter used.

But there’s also no escaping from the grim third law of thermodynamics – that matter (or energy) can neither be created nor destroyed.  It takes power to make power.  How efficient the energy source is depends upon the energy content of the fuel and the energy used up in the process of making it.  Think lifecycle analysis.  If a unit of energy generated requires two units of energy in order to generate it, then that source isn’t really renewable – is it?

UPDATE: As my colleague Bill Strauss of FutureMetrics points out, “Every solid or liquid fuel whether coal, pellets, gasoline, diesel, natural gas, etc., gathers a carbon footprint from mining, extraction, refining, transport, etc.  Only biomass, if the net carbon stock is not depleted (i.e., the growth rate equals or exceeds the harvest rate), captures the CO2 from combustion contemporaneously…  Wood pellets are a low carbon solution… they are carbon neutral in combustion but are not carbon neutral over the supply chain.  Of course neither is anything else that depends on fossil fuel for transport etc.”

Absolutely, Bill, and thanks for that. (So people actually do read this stuff…) Check out their website!

Biofuel can be made from a number of things: corn, switch grass, trees, wood  manufacturing waste, to name a few.  And there are a number of ways biofuel can be produced – burned, fermented, digested by bacteria, or “gasified.”  The energy content of the fuel as well as the energy input needed vary widely for each process. 

As for whether it’s carbon neutral – well,  anyone who makes that claim is doing some pretty funky carbon accounting.  In the sense that the carbon released when the tree is burned is the same amount of carbon that was “stored” in the tree – then yes. But what about the carbon used in harvesting the tree?  Getting it to the processing site,  and from there to where it will ultimately be used? There’s also the fact that trees uptake carbon at different rates in their lifecycle, and that different species of trees uptake carbon at different rates. So for it to be carbon neutral, the net stock of carbon in the forest needs to remain unchanged. It’s possible, but it’s not as simple as “cut a tree, plant a tree.”

What about the claim that it’s sustainable? Again,  it depends.  If the trees are harvested at the same rate they regenerate, then yes. And, Maine’s biomass is mostly from residue from the forest products industry, so the use of waste product for energy gets a thumbs up in my book.

Recently,  two major biomass facilities in Maine went offline,  alarming the logging industry and others in the forest products supply chain. It also should alarm environmentalists.  The decline in oil prices has not only boosted demand for oil,  but depressed demand for biomass and other renewable sources of energy. Biomass may not be a perfect source of energy,  but it needs to be part of the energy solution in Maine.