The limits to growth, resilience, and reliability 

A few hours before my recent presentation at SMRP’s 31st annual conference (16-19 Oct 2023), I sent a poll to attendees asking, “What the world will look like in 2050 and what are the consequences for industrial facilities”. The results were the following:  

The following article aims at providing insight on the question above. It is an attempt to imagine what the manufacturing site of 20501 will look like by proposing a different perspective on what people generally hear or read about green growth and transition to all-renewable. 2 main solutions axes derive from that reflection:  

  • The need for resilient industrial facility 
  • The call for reliability excellence 

Liberalism and capitalism: the foundational context for “green growth”

In 2023, the world is dominated by 2 ideological pillars: 

  • Capitalism, which, as Karl Marx described, is the eternal seek for more profit. 
  • Liberalism, which, on its economical side, acknowledges that the end justifies the means to achieve growth. Good examples of that are the low interest rates and quantitative easing policies implemented by the federal reserves for the past 15-20 years.  

Of course, some countries are more capitalist than others, and some are more liberal than others, but today, none is ready to abandon the seek for eternal economic growth.  

Now, under the impulse of environmentalists and economists, that quest has turned into a curious concept : Green growth. According to OECD: “Green growth means fostering economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies.”

In the following paragraphs I will demonstrate that the green growth concept is misleading. 

What is an exponential?

Are you saving money for your retirement? Or for a future housing investment? Or to finally buy that legendary race car you’ve been dreaming about since you were a little boy?  

If so, what is your expected yearly return to make sure that this dream of yours comes true in a timely manner? Not less than 5-7%, I presume. 

Now, let’s consider that your market return is aligned with the worldwide average annual GDP growth: a terrifyingly low 2%2! Would you put money in the bank and expect only a 2% increase in returns every year? My answer is yes… if you are willing to wait a little bit! 

Figure 1: The Power of the exponential
From $1 to $400,000,000 in 3023: An Extraordinary Investment Journey

Imagine you put $1 in the bank today (in 2023); in 25 years, you will double it. And if you’re patient enough, you’ll be worth $400,000,000 in 3023. Pretty good ROI. 

Jokes aside, that graph’s purpose is to give you some perspective on time scales. When discussing such important topics as energy, we must not look at the horizon of a generation but think in terms of centuries or millenniums.  

The Iron Man syndrome

Figure 2: The Power of the exponential
The Growth of GDP in the 19th Century and Beyond3

The exponential increase in GDP we’ve experienced since the beginning of the 19th century (see Figure 2) is because we’ve built machines that transform energy into power and put them at our service, giving us the ability to literally become Iron Men! From your laundry machine to the supersonic airplane, your smartphone, or the gigantic mining trucks and shovels, we have multiplied our productivity by hundreds of thousands over the course of two centuries. 

Figure 3: Becoming Iron Men
Harnessing the Power of Energy-Transforming Machines4 

Now, let’s have a look at the amount of energy it takes to be Iron Men: 

Figure 4: The Power of the exponential
the correlation between Energy consumption and production efficiency5

The correlation between Figures 2 and 4 enables us to establish the following equation:  

GDP = F x Energy 

(“F” being a function/factor of energy prices, inflation, productivity, and other things for a specific country). 

When energy is cheap and abundant, it’s all good!

As we can see in Figure 4, after WW2 we have been using energy that is easy to extract (cheap) and store: coal, oil, and gas. EROI (Energy Return On Investment) was incredibly good in the 1950s: the energy contained in one barrel of conventional oil could let you extract up to 40-50 barrels of that same oil6.   

Figure 5: The Golden Era of EROI for fossil fuels –
The Astonishing Energy Return on Investment in the 1950s

A finite amount of resources available on a finite planet

At this point, we need to acknowledge a fundamental fact: Earth’s size has changed in the past 4 billion years. More precisely, its radius has remained the same since the 1st industrial revolution (1800’s).  

Figure 6: The Only Constant –
Earth’s Finite Resources on a Finite Planet

The primary consequence is that the available volume of fossil fuels has not significantly increased in that period; there is a limited amount of them for the time being. And if you take oil, for example, the total quantity that is economically acceptable to extract (with a minimum EROI of 1:5, let’s say) will mathematically go through a maximum… and then decrease. 

Figure 7: The end of the Golden Era of EROI –
The Inexorable Decrease of Energy Return on Investment for Oil 

And what is true for oil is also true for coal and gas, as well as iron, copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt, and all other metals used in electric and electronic components. 

The illusion of a transition to an all-connected and all-renewable energy-powered world

In 2023, it is globally accepted that we must transition from fossil fuels (which constitute 90% of our current global mix) to all renewable and green energies. However: 

  1. To build wind turbines, you need composites and plastics (oil), concrete, steel, etc.  
  1. To build electric trains, you need steel, concrete, composites (=oil), copper (lots of it), etc.  
  1. To build batteries for electric vehicles, you need lithium, graphite, cobalt, and manganese. These need to be extracted with drills, shovels, trucks, conveyors, and all sorts of industrial equipment that are made of steel or plastics and are currently powered by oil. 

In other words, there is currently no such thing as a net-zero electric vehicle, or a net-zero wind turbine when you consider their full life cycles. In fact, there probably never will be one. Replacing all our motor cars, trucks, and cargo ships with net-zero options seems quite difficult (some might say impossible), especially if you keep in mind our economic paradigm of ever-increasing growth and its intrinsic relationship with energy (GDP = F x Energy). 

Of course, automation, computers, robotics, and data analytics can help us optimize our energy consumption. But look closely at Figure 4; each industrial revolution was in fact a formidable opportunity to boost productivity as well as GDP, hence the increase in energy consumption. 

What is the most probable scenario?

At this point, we need to summarize the problem:  

  • Countries/OECD want to sustain economic growth (liberal + capitalist ideology) 
  • Economic growth = energy consumption = 90% of fossil fuels in 2023 
  • Transition to all-renewable will require tons of fossil fuels energy to be achieved. 
  • Fossil fuels stock will eventually come to an end. 

Simple mathematics applied to the above equations lay out the following prediction:  

“The next 30-80 years will be comprised of consecutive phases of recession because of diminished access to cheap and easily convertible/storable energy. It will probably create political and social tensions at the same time.” 

Is the end near?

Simply put, no.  

A million things can be done to reverse the trend, or at least smooth things up while the transition to 100% green and renewable energies is complete. However, it will require a complete paradigm shift at social, political, cultural, philosophical, and metaphysical levels.  

What can we do as maintenance professionals and industry leaders?

Our world is in energy contraction, and we must embrace the fact that the upcoming years will be the years of energy and resource sobriety. 

In other words, we must aim towards reliability excellence and a resilient industry. 

Resilience in a world in contraction

As resources and non-renewable energies become less available in the upcoming century, bumps and turbulence are expected, including disruptions in the supply of raw materials, manufactured goods, and energy.  

In these situations, resilient organizations will be the ones that are most likely to survive. 

  • Relocation of manufacturing sites for local distribution to minimize transportation fees and lead times. A country/region should be able to produce its own clothes, drugs, food, power, electronics, home goods, cars, etc. By doing so, they become less dependent on trans-ocean shipping containers which operate solely on fossil fuels. 
  • Building a network of local partners and distributors (with common spare-parts warehouses and shared manpower) to diminish the risk of increasing MTTR. 
  • Strong district/community integration 
  • Partnerships with local schools and colleges to promote and inspire future workers. Make manual/technical work cool again! 
  • Multi-skilled employees whose tasks can be adapted during production vs. stand-by periods (do not over-specialize workers) 
  • Value of manual workers and the development of pride in working for the company 
  • Reduction of coal, gas, and oil usage to a minimum with the implementation of high-efficiency industrial heat pumps (for steam generation, building heating, etc.) 
  • Regeneration/reuse of energy and waste/rejects as much as possible (steam, by-products, district heating, etc.) 
  • Better insulation of buildings and installations 
  • Standardized product lines mean less customization for customers, which means more controllable and reliable processes. 
  • Carbon-capture technologies installed where applicable to minimize emissions. 
  • Disaster mitigation, response, and recovery policies 
  • Detailed, optimized, and standardized start-up/shut-down procedures. 

The above items are deeply rooted cultural ones and will take 25 to 50 years to be implemented. Yes, they depend on the will of industry leaders, but also politicians, the media, public figures and citizens in general. 

Reliability in a world in contraction

When not disrupted, operations will need to be as reliable as possible, with a strong focus on the following: 

  • Pragmatic goals and vision for the organization given the political/economic contexts. 
  • Sales and marketing efforts should be aligned with operations and maintenance to minimize constraints and avoid losses, scrap, and rejects (aim towards 0% scrap and rejects). 
  • Design for reliability of new assets: 
    • Go back to the basics: what is the required function, and what is essential for your operations? 
    • Prefer “low-tech” to “high-tech”: reliable components that are easy to inspect, maintain, repair, or replace. Stay away from complex electronics and parts that are not repairable or recyclable. 
    • Have full-proof maintenance plans and SOPs from the get-go to reduce MTTR as much as possible after commissioning. 
  • Consolidate asset reliability foundation: 
    • Master equipment list in CMMS is detailed, accurate, and complete. 
    • Parts (items and materials) are detailed, unique, easily ordered, and optimally stocked. 
    • BOMs are accurate and complete. 
    • Criticality ranking is performed and up-to-date. 
    • Maintenance strategies are defined for all assets depending on criticality ranking and based on failure modes to have the right task performed at the right time, by the right person, in the right way. 
    • The plant is kept clean, and assets are properly lubricated. 
  • Develop craft skills and encourage accountability. 
    • Precision maintenance techniques are known and used by the craftspeople to make sure everything is properly installed, aligned, balanced, and torqued. 
    • Operators are trained and encouraged to perform defect elimination. 
    • Competency development plans are in place for all trades. 
  • And finally, use high-tech wisely by deploying live-monitoring technologies only on the most critical assets. 

The above items are asset and process focused and can take only a few years to be implemented. They depend on the will of industry leaders and their providers/partner

Conclusion: Technology will not save us

Believing that we can expect GDP to grow continuously (2% every year = x 400,000,000 every millennium…) while reducing energy consumption and carbon footprint seems unrealistic. Instead, we need to figure out how we can reduce our energy/resource needs and live with what we already have. Humanity is smart, and it might even invent revolutionary technologies or sources of green energy that will miraculously solve all our problems. In the meantime, let’s guide our industries toward resilience and continue to consolidate the fundamental elements of their reliability and maintenance programs.


Writing this article wouldn’t have been possible without active listening and reading of the works of engineers Philippe Bihouix and Jean-Marc Jancovici over the past years. I highly encourage readers who are interested in learning more about energy-related topics to read their books and watch some of their conferences on the Internet. A respectful thank you to both. 


  1. 2050 has been chosen as an easy reference point (middle of the century). ↩︎
  2. Annual growth of GDP per capita, 1961 to 2021 ↩︎
  3. Gross domestic product (GDP) by world region ↩︎
  4. Jean-Marc Jancovici ↩︎
  5. Global direct primary energy consumption ↩︎
  6. Energy return on investment ↩︎

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