Tar Sands EROI For ICE Transportation vs EVs

JAN 28 2015 BY MARK HOVIS 49


EROI graph from Drill, Baby, Drill by J. David Hughes

This article is a sobering look at the energy return on investment (EROI) for tar sands oil as a transportation fuel compared to that of the EV. The three primary factors effecting today’s energy sources is environment, economy, and the energy required to harvest our energy sources. The latter continually is the least understood. According to calculations by David Huges, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute,  tar sands report an EROI of 5-to-1 ratio. In other words, it takes one unit of energy invested for every five units of usable tar sands oil extracted. This EROI is for surface mining. . These returns compare to 25-to-1 EROI of new conventional oil extraction and shale oil starting at 8-to-1 headed rapidly to 5-to-1 as wells are depleted. As tar sands surface oil is depleted, deeper retrieval comes in at 3-to-1 ratio. This means one unit of natural gas is required to generate less than three units of oil-based  energy in 90% of deeper retrieval environments. And with ethanol from corn at nearly 1-to-1 you can understand why many generally do not consider FlexFuel as an option.

Charles Hall, a professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, explains that gas helps turn tar sands “into something a bit closer to what we call oil.” Hydrogen from gas is used to heat the tar sands so that the petroleum it contains, known as bitumen, can be liquefied and pumped from the ground.

Now this is only looking at the energy required for extraction. The bitumen must then be transported either by truck or pipeline.

Hall states that the EROI for oil sands would fall closer to 1-to-1 if the tar sands’ full life cycle from extraction, transportation, and refinement are accounted for. Transportation accounts for the energy to truck or pipe transcontinental. Refinement accounts for the energy intensive process or the amount of energy required to refine a gallon of gas for transportation.

As environmentally dangerous and economically volatile fossil fuels are, we will continue to require enormous amounts for years to come. It is for this very reason that we should not choose to use them in areas that currently offer an alternative. Any energy source operating below a 1-to-1 EROI is an energy sink.

Enter the Electric Vehicle

Edited for clarity: EVs hold a superior efficiency to the ICE automobile based on  conventional oil practices. The energy equivalent to 4-6kWh of electricity is required to refine each gallon of gas.  Part of this 4-6kWh equivalent of energy comes directly from electricity, and the rest comes from large amounts of coal, petroleum coke, natural gas, and millions of pounds of water(steam) to produce gasoline and diesel.  All of which could be eliminated if an ICE could use electricity directly like an EV.  Compared to an energy source like tar sands that requires equal amounts of energy to produce the same amount of usable energy would only add the imperative justification for  EVs.

1-in-3 EV drivers are turning to solar power as their source of energy. As late as 2010, the solar industry suffered the same 1:1 EROI ratio .The EROI started high due to the high melting point of materials like silicon. The EROI has  aggressively improved since 2012 largely due to manufacturing processing. The EROI  may be on the verge of improving again thanks to the development of products that don’t rely on silicon,  and are investigating more abundant elements, such as copper, zinc, tin and carbon. Furthermore, solar power is the hands down winner environmentally. As for EROI as it relates to solar combined with storage, Stanford Scientist have now calculated the energy required for both and have determined that it makes sense today. Future EROI for photo voltaics continue to improve with time, as fossil fuel extraction diminishes as seen in the graph below.

eroiExcerpt from “Drill, Baby, Drill” by J. David Hughes

“As one moves lower in the pyramid resource volumes increase, resource quality decreases, hydrocarbons become more dispersed, and the energy required to extract them increases. A dashed line represents the transition from high quality, low cost, conventional resources and lower quality, higher cost, nonconventional resources. The hydrocarbon resources at the base of the pyramid are extraordinarily plentiful, but totally inaccessible. Two other lines on this pyramid determine the proportion of the resources that are accessible to humans. The price/technology line reflects the fact that as prices go higher, higher cost (but lower quality) resources become accessible. Also technological innovations, such as we have seen recently with the development of multi-stage hydraulic fracturing, make previously inaccessible resources available. The ultimate barrier is the second line, which is the point when the amount of energy in the resources that are recovered is less than or equal to the energy that must be invested to recover them. All resources below this line represent an energy sink, not an energy source. Politicians and pundits often do not see the importance of these differences in resource quality which ultimately impact the rate at which hydrocarbons can be produced and the net energy they will provide to do useful work. They instead look only at purported resource volumes and trumpet “one hundred years of natural gas” or “U.S. energy independence is just around the corner.

“An objective understanding of energy realities is crucial for minimizing the societal impacts of a transition from the current paradigm requiring continuous large and unsustainable increases in energy consumption to a new paradigm with a much lower energy footprint—and which is inherently more sustainable. Although some unconventional fuels potentially have a very large in situ resource base, they suffer from low net energy yield, the need for large and continuous inputs of capital, rate-of-supply limitations, and large environmental impacts in their extraction. Unconventional fuels are not a panacea for an endless extension of the growth paradigm. At best they are a high-cost interim source of energy that will mitigate some of the impacts of the decline in production of lower-cost conventional fuels. They can buy some time to facilitate the development of the infrastructure that will be required to reduce energy throughputs. But to view them as “game-changers” capable of indefinitely increasing the supply of low-cost energy which has underpinned the economic growth of the past century is a mistake.”

“Hydrocarbons have been a tremendous onetime energy bonanza for the human race; their unique properties and versatility will be very difficult or impossible to replace. Unfortunately they are a finite, non-renewable resource, with sizeable collateral environmental impacts in their extraction and utilization. They will be needed to develop infrastructure for a more sustainable energy future. It is imperative that planning for that future be based on a foundation of objective facts, not wishful thinking.”

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49 Comments on "Tar Sands EROI For ICE Transportation vs EVs"

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Nice facts and well presented.

“. As late as 2010, the solar industry suffered the same 1:1 EROI ratio”

That is a bit misleading. No one would buy solar PV and it would be very expensive if it were really 1:1 EROI. It was just 1:1 AT THAT TIME because the solar PV panels haven’t been around long enough to make back the energy embedded within them. But OVER THE ENTIRE LIFETIME of a solar PV panel, it makes back much more than the original energy put into it.

Great article, Mark! It’s kind of amazing what a wide spectrum of topics (and writing quality) shows up at InsideEVs.com . The Stanford study is widely reported, here included, as saying that solar EROI is now at parity. But what they actually said, two years ago, was: “… the electricity generated by all of the world’s installed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels last year probably surpassed the amount of energy going into fabricating more modules” (on an annual basis) That’s just one year of production from those solar panels, but it’s also “all of the world’s” solar panels! So that’s including production from panels that were fabricated two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, etc. Conversely, those older panels were less efficient. So, let’s think this through a bit. I believe the above implies the following … If you take ONE YEARS’s worth of solar energy production by TODAY’S panels, and compare to the energy used to fabricate those panels over this same ONE YEAR, you should find that the energy cost to fabricate the panels still dwarfs the energy those panels produce IN THEIR FIRST YEAR. The EROI in the first year is TERRIBLE. However, those panels obviously… Read more »

Sad to see yet another pro-EV article that includes statements of “fact” which just are not true.

It is -not- true that “6kWh of electricity is required to refine a gallon of gas”, altho you can find that false claim many places on the Internet. First of all, the 6 kWh figure applies only to older refineries; newer ones need only about 4 kWh to refine a gallon of crude oil. More importantly, most of that energy is for heating the cracking stacks, and is provided by burning vented gasses and/or the fractional distillates from petroleum which have no commercial value.

We EV enthusiasts should stick to the facts and the truth, because those are quite sufficient to show the superiority of powering a vehicle with electricity instead of burning fossil fuels. Let’s leave the truth-twisting, the biased claims, the cherry-picking of facts, and the outright lies to the EV bashers.


So true, so much so that I’ve basically given up on trying to correct the distortions…

Refining expenses are minimal as anyone going to buy a gallon of gasoline lately has seen.

The part about Ethanol being a total joke if made from corn is however, totally true.

It wouldn’t exist without massive gov’t subsidy because of the energy levels involved. The Brazilians use switch grass, and for them it DOES make economic sense.

The good thing is that Horizontal Hydrofracking which does huge environmental damage (and this time it is REAL, not imagined), is always uneconomic with $40/bll oil. This is not especially a new technologies but it is literally ruining the country. Thank goodness all those fracking companies will go bankrupt after their flash-in-the-pan wells dry up, which is most sooner than most of them expected. As it is, there will not be any new wells drilled since no company has any money to do it and since its uneconomic at these crude prices no banker will lend.

They use sugar cane to make ethanol.

I got my facts confused, ah senility must be settling in. Thanks for the correction.

Two things: 1. This is using the WORST case figures to prove your point, which is the trick the EV bashers like to use against us. Tar sands are one step removed from coal mining. It was a method born of desperation. 2. Before we all go jumping on solar and bashing fracking, that is the technology that has stopped, single handedly, the USA from being a net importer of fossil fuel and put the USA awash in natural gas. In fact, this country has and will continue to reduce emissions largely because of the conversion to natural gas power generation, which our dear leader is helping along by bankrupting coal companies. And the EV generation will be fueled by NG for a long time to come. Don’t saw off that plank yet folks, you might be standing on it. PS. For you anti-fracking zelots, your dear leader has just taken a dramatic step TOWARDS making us completely dependent on fracking for our energy needs. How so? The trans-alaskan pipeline, turns out has a clause in its legal status that it will be dismantled if not sufficiently used, because the environmentalists wanted it specified that the oil companies would have… Read more »

For people interested in the facts behind what I wrote above:


The pipeline today carries 500,000 barrels per day, way down from its 2.1 million peak. The article above states 100,000 B as the “absolute minium” to operate the pipeline. Thus, it is not far to go to trigger a complete (and permanent) shutdown of the TAP.

I have no problem with Coal mining, if the people in the locale where it is occurring want it, it provides jobs, and the area is returned to decent conditions. But that’s for the people who live in the area to decide, not an outsider like me. I have always considered Natural Gas to be a premium fuel, not to be wasted. Therefore I frugally use it for everything in my house, with the exception of motorized and lighting devices. Almost every other appliance requiring heat I use Natural Gas. What I object to vehemently is they WASTING this precious resource on BOILER FUEL for power plants. I would much rather these remain coal fired, but thats a losing battle in my State. There still remain, temporarily, some areas of the country enjoying low electric rates, substantially due to it being coal fired. So I don’t see the great necessity for this rather unnatural fracking process. If gas was used as frugally as I use it, there would be plenty for everyone. But I have to tell you, mine is a minority view here. But if you are talking about how great horizontal hydrofracking is, ask the people in Butler… Read more »

I don’t mind coal mining.

I don’t want coal burning.

Wow this is going to be a mixed message.

My own experience is with the salinas valley here in California. The power plant at moss landing provides all of the power for the valley, and used to be oil fired. Virtually all of the pollution also came from the plant as well, as there is not that much highway traffic in the valley.

Short story, the plant converted to NG, and now the valley’s main source of pollution is blowover from San Jose.

As for the hydrofracking bit:

There was a car accident near my house the other day. Therefore I want all cars banned. NOW.

The problem with that train of thought Scott is that this kind of thing happens with the majority of the wells, They all leak after a few years. This is like the argument for Nuclear Power…. the AEC chairman said its “too cheap to meter” – unfortunately there is not 1 plant built ANYwhere where this is true. Nuclear plants are ‘Safe’. Except for routine releases like tritium, and the fact that cases of leukemia increase within a 2 mile radius of ALL nuclear power stations. When 3 mile island had a stuck valve, and the operators mistakenly shut off the cooling water, and 1/2 the core melted down, the industry said every thing worked. Except for the increase in cancer around the radiation plume. And on American Experience they lied when they said there was a mistaken calculation and the thing never was in danger of exploding. Except it DID explode, Wednesday afternoon, but seeing as it was a Hydrogen Deflagration, the containment building held. THen Chernobyl exploded – twice – the second ‘prompt criticality’ blew off the partial containment, which incidentally, since this was a Nuclear Detonation, Western Containment buildings wouldn’t have survived this earlier. Of course it… Read more »

Yet mining coal contributes more airborne radioactive pollutants than nuclear plants.


The problem with those articles is that they confuse external radiation with internal. Internal is MUCH more dangerous than “whole body exposure”..

Rather like sitting in front of a fire is fine, but going up and eating one of the embers much have health consequences.

Not sure you will see this Bill, but you keep using this analogy and making heavy use of “internal” vs “external” exposure. You’ve referred (I believe, but not certain) to radioactive dust as One means of presenting ‘internal’ but I find no correlation there (dust/earth are gathered and buried).

Can you provide -with luck- link(s) that discuss this “internal” exposure that you refer to primarily and without reference as to why Nuclear is armageddon waiting? As I have looked at the “disasters” quite a lot and do not reach your conclusions at all. I would argue that a society that does Not need to reach engineering efficiency (lowest cost) -could- have Better plants, as the safety net Needs to be x layers deep including direct bombing. If engineered to that level (self-contained, forever) by guv’m’t mandate, we could start popping up nukes in the desert with aplomb.

Please ‘splain me this “internal” exposure?

And sometimes it matters when doing a “study” what the desired result is. The head of the study at the Univ at Berkley supposedly is going to study radiation in Kelp. At the beginning of the study he said “Its obviously we won’t find any Radiation in the Kelp”.

If you don’t look for something, you won’t find it.

The first thing I would ask is, if someone says they are not going to find anything a priori, “do you plan on looking for it?”.

THere was another study at Harvard looking for cancers due to radiation. The mice were only examined for 25 days. It was common knowledge any cancers didn’t start showing up until 30 days at the earliest. Doesn’t take a genius to see why the study terminated at 25.

I’d be more impressed if this didn’t come from a collection of lunatic left web sites. Where are the actual studies? The government in cahoots with the oil companies? Really?

Fracking is saving the USAs large and growing rear end. It is dramatically lowering pollution, helping the economy, and making clean EVs possible, since the only real practical way to power EVs cleanly is via natural gas powered generation plants. We all hope that will be a temporary bridge to a more solar and alternative based power system, but saying we have to have it all RIGHT NOW is just a recipe for economic disaster and WAY MORE polution as people are forced back to oil and coal to satisfy your frackaphobia.

I am no oil company enthusiast. I’m for solar all the way. But NG is the transition fuel. Show me a solar powered aluminum smelting plant or a steel making operation, or a solar powered rocket, solar powered ship, you name it.

Yeah, I’ve documented this before. Too busy today, sorry.

Nice piece Mark!

Very well written and I like the perspective of energy and energy sources relating to transportation.

I like the story, but I HATE, HATE, HATE it when people repeat internet memes that are false. Even when it is with the best intentions. “6kWh of electricity is required to refine a gallon of gas” That is not correct. Please follow the links back to the original source. http://gatewayev.org/how-much-electricity-is-used-refine-a-gallon-of-gasoline Here is the key part of the quote from DOE letter: “about 21,000 Btu—the EQUIVALENT of 6 kWh—of energy are lost per gallon of gasoline refined” Now we here all know that MPGe (Miles Per Gallon EQUIVALENT) is not at all the same as MPG. In the same way, the equivalent of 6 kWh of energy is not the same as 6 kWh of actual electricity. The energy equivalent does NOT mean that 6 kWh of electricity is used to produce that gasoline. It just means that some source of energy from somewhere (coal? oil? natural gas?) that is equivalent to 6 kWh of electricity is used. Picky? Yes. But it sucks when we go from our “bubble” here and then have somebody stick it in our face when we try to repeat these things elsewhere. So it is better to correct it here. The sad thing is that… Read more »

How could PV EROI have ever been 1:1? A 200W panel x 3hrs x 365 days x 30 years = 6.5MWhrs. Conservatively. Are you saying that at some point it took 6.5MWhrs to make one 200W panel??


But its saying that we gain nothing positive from solar panels YET.

Most probably because we produce more and more solar panels.

So whatever we gain from those new panels, we loose on producing even more of them 🙂

It also mean that solar panels (in pure energy terms) are self sustainable. That is, we can produce enough of them to replace those that need replacement without “borrowing” energy elsewhere.

EROI is not to be confused with cost of production thought!

Bill of materials is different thing.

“It also mean that solar panels (in pure energy terms) are self sustainable. That is, we can produce enough of them to replace those that need replacement without “borrowing” energy elsewhere”

well said, Nothing else can make that claim (to my Very limited knowledge, of course).

While EROI (energy return on investment) is one view point on investment, it does not account for other returns or costs. The problem is that not all energy production is transparent to inputs and returns on investments. Both governments and businesses obfuscate many processes and details.
eg: both ethanol and petroleum production are highly dependent on volatile community prices, so any EROI is a snapshot at best, unless trends over time for each energy type.

Most PV Panels have much better EROIs today. Look at this professional analysis.


Dependent on the type, and age of panel EROIs have been around 4-20 in 2012.

When you own a SunPower or Panasonic HIT Panel EROIs are sice 2007 in the 20ths range. Panasonic for example produces their high efficient HIT panels from PV-Energy 🙂

Earlier Studies did lots of todays wrong assumptions of lifetime, degradation, efficiency and solar radiation. Also todays standard recycling procedd was not included.

Degradation of 1 or 0,5% per year was assumed often, which is much too high for High-End cells.

Of course is an EROI of a cheap panel with 7% effienciy much worse than an EROI of a 20% Sunpower/Panasonic Panel. You need to produce 3 cheap panels to get the same amount of energy output instead of one.

So genereric statements of EROIs in PV are bullshit.

Side Question:
How do you recycle burned Oil ?



Actually it is not the EROI that counts but rather the energy return on fossil CO2 emission (ERCE) that counts and that is a very different story.
In the case of ethanol, if the tractors are also driving on ethanol and the factory is run by burning plant rests and PV electricity, the fossil CO2 emission comes close to zero while the energy from the ethanol remain the same. The EROI remains the same but the ERCE becomes very good.
For the solar panels the factory producing them can be run with photovoltaic electricity in which case the ERCE becomes even better.
For tar sand the FCIER remain at 3 and the ERCE is extreme bad and that is not even considering that the final obtained gallon of gasoline is going to add still more fossil carbon dioxide when it ultimately get burned in an ICE.

If you use some of your production output to during production (e.g. fuel your tractor) then your energy returned gets smaller and decreases your EROI.

Lindsay — Using your own product does indeed reduce your EROI. But using your own product in this case also displaces energy that came from another energy source. In this case diesel. How much net loss or gain in EROI would be calculated by deducting off the top the amount of net energy produced (to account for the ethanol used) and subtracting the diesel fuel from the energy inputs. It actually isn’t simple math, since the units of energy in ethanol that would need to be consumed to do the same work would not equal the same units of energy of diesel (much less number of gallons, which is a completely different unit of measure than units of energy). But more to Priusmaniac’s point, even if the EROI went up going from diesel to ethanol or biodiesel, the ERCE (energy return on fossil CO2 emission) would absolutely go down. Not all energy is equal when it comes to CO2 emissions. Energy that comes from any source deep underground (oil, coal, natural gas, etc) and is then released in the atmosphere will always result in a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. This makes sense because you are taking carbon… Read more »

“even if the EROI went up going from diesel to ethanol or biodiesel, the ERCE (energy return on fossil CO2 emission) would absolutely go down.”

Is exactly backwards of what I meant to type. Should be:

“even if the EROI went down going from diesel to ethanol or biodiesel, the ERCE (energy return on fossil CO2 emission) would absolutely go up.”

Mark, there was this reply to the Hyundai article. In view of our email discussion I thought a tongue-in-cheek response was best, since the analytical one is always met with boredom. Here’s the thread: “…Murrysville EV says: January 20, 2015 at 10:55 am I didn’t buy a Leaf to save the environment from the myth of global warming. Reply LuStuccc says: January 20, 2015 at 11:06 am SMOG Reply Mikael says: January 20, 2015 at 12:02 pm I can assure you that 100% of scientists in any real scientific field can guarantee you that global warming exists. And if you don’t believe them then just go out at night and feel for yourself Reply Bill Howland says: January 23, 2015 at 11:35 pm HORRORS! : You don’t mean that dangerous “POLLUTANT” Carbon Dioxide!!!! (sounds like carbon monoxide). You don’t actually mean a little co2 is actually good for you do you? I mean CO2 has to be the main problem facing MANKIND! Who cares if there is Plutonium floating around in the Northern Pacific which all the living things are Bio-Accumulating to the point where there used to be thousands of species on the coast of Vancouver and now there… Read more »

Great article… I simply think that the folks who support fracking should only be allowed to drink water from aquifers that have been fracked.

Chemicals should never be used for fracking….other than salt water. Otherwise we will be killing ourselves quickly. All fracking wells are subject to leaking and a small percentage leak soon after drilling. Igniting your drinking water to keep warm so you can avoid doing the right thing for the environment is simply stupid.

Salt water should only be used for fracking when there are no fresh water aquifers or fresh water streams or lakes, or fresh water plants anywhere near where the fracking is being done.

Salt water kills fresh water plants, kills fresh water fish, ruins fresh water aquifers for drinking water and for irrigation water.

There are two salt water spills of millions of gallons of salt water in Nebraska right now.

The way they are cleaning up the streams affected are to completely drain the streams, killing all life, and then letting them refill with snow melt and rain water.

Always interesting to look at the energy on return and how our messed up economic system can some how make the oddest things a reality. Here’s an odd one for the room to consider. I purchase my electricity through a company called powershop which allows you to buy power by the unit from a number of different sources. I bought some power this month from the (cane) ethanol producers in Queensland who produce excess steam by burning the Bagass which they use to generate electricity. So while some guy in Queensland is driving his car on ethanol, I drive my leaf in Melbourne powered on the rubbish left behind from producing his fuel. This is where I think these calculations get very complex because if the guy in Queensland stopped using ethanol I’d have to get my power from somewhere else (that somewhere else is probably Brown coal). I know the same is not true for tar sand oil which probably doesn’t have any side benefits and is probably different for corn ethanol but everything is so interlinked in the modern energy world it is very difficult to see which form of energy is the most sensible use of our… Read more »

So how much does your electric bill go up is you use 1 extra kilowatthour?

I doubled my average kWh used when I bought my leaf so got a better rate and because I use a massive chunk off peak I switched to am off peak tariff and got even more off. I now pay roughly the same per month. I am still trying to figure out exactly how that works but I’m not complaining. I think it is all scewed because off peak I pay 8 c per kWh. That’s about 6 c usd. My on peak is about 25 c aud.

So in answer to your question 1 kWh extra costs me 8 c, 300 kWh extra a month pretty much nothing. Go figure?


Aussie’s usually complain how much more stuff costs ‘down under’. You are paying in your area under 1/2 the price of what I pay here, and I’m considered an extremely cheap area (although there are a few places in the states with electricity as cheap).

SO what is the mix of generation types in your area? Mostly Coal, I’d assume. No?

Incidentally, I thought i had heard your new PM decided to ‘give up’ on ‘climate change’ since it was costing Australia too much money…. Any new news there?