How do we know which energy technologies or resources are worth pursuing and which aren’t? One way to answer that question is to compare the energy return of a certain technology—i.e., how much energy is remaining after accounting for the amount of energy expended in the production and delivery process. Such energy return ratios (the most famous of which is energy return on investment (EROI)) fall within the field of net energy analysis (NEA), and provide an easy way to determine which technology is “better”; i.e., higher Energy Return Ratios (ERRs) are, certeris paribus, better than lower ERRs. Although useful as a broad measure of energy profitability, comparisons can also be misleading, particularly if the units being compared are different. For example, the energy content of electricity produced from a photovoltaic cell is different than the energy content of coal at the mine-mouth, yet these are often compared directly within the literature. These types of inconsistencies are common within the NEA literature. In this paper, we offer life cycle assessment (LCA) and the LCA methodology as a possible solution to the persistent methodological issues within the NEA community, and urge all NEA practitioners to adopt this methodology in the future.
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