Generating better energy indicators: Addressing the existence of multiple scales and multiple dimensions

Alevgul H. Sorman, Mario Giampietro

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22 Citations (Scopus)


High energy prices and the growing concern for " Peak Oil" have put energy analysis, once again, on the front burner. However, before speculating about possible roadmaps regarding our energy future, it would be wise to develop better quantitative analyses. This paper flags the existence of systemic epistemological flaws in the current use of aggregate energy indicators and presents an alternative approach capable of dealing with the issue of multiple dimensions and multiple scales. Starting from a critical appraisal of the aggregate indicator " Economic Energy Intensity" it shows that economic and biophysical variables are often correlated and that their value is determined by characteristics which can only observed across different levels and scales. Complex metabolic systems (systems that use energy to maintain and reproduce themselves) are operating simultaneously at different scales. This implies that changes in the characteristics of parts, defined at the local scale, and changes in the characteristics of the whole, defined at the large scale can only be obtained after establishing a scaling mechanism in the analysis. In order to deal with the issue of scale in energy accounting, we propose to make a distinction between three different categories: (i) primary energy sources (PES) - establishing a link between energy quantities and the associated requirement of biophysical gradients, at the large scale, on the interface black-box/context; (ii) energy carriers (EC) - defining the set of energy inputs required by technical devices for expressing useful functions, at the local scale, within the parts operating inside the black-box; (iii) end uses (EU) the set of functions to be expressed by society across hierarchical levels for reproducing itself. Finally, the paper presents examples of quantitative results obtained using an innovative method of analysis - Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism (MuSIASEM). We conclude that by using this new accounting method it is possible to generate a better understanding of external and internal constraints determining the desirability and viability of the metabolic pattern of societies. © 2011 Elsevier B.V.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-53
JournalEcological Modelling
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Dec 2011


  • Economic Energy Intensity
  • Energetic metabolism
  • Energy carriers
  • Multi-scale energy accounting
  • Primary energy sources
  • Societal metabolism


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