The extraction of natural resources: The role of thermodynamic efficiency
The modelling of production in microeconomics has been the subject of heated debate. The controversial issues include the substitutability between production inputs, the role of time and the economic consequences of irreversibility in the production process. A case in point is the use of Cobb-Douglas type production functions, which completely ignore the physical process underlying the production of a good. We examine these issues in the context of the production of a basic commodity (such as copper or aluminium). We model the extraction and the refinement of a valuable substance which is mixed with waste material, in a way which is fully consistent with the physical constraints of the process. The resulting analytical description of production unambiguously reveals that perfect substitutability between production inputs fails if a corrected thermodynamic approach is used. We analyze the equilibrium pricing of a commodity extracted in an irreversible way. We force consumers to purchase goods using energy as the means of payment and force the firm to account in terms of energy. The resulting market provides the firm with a form of reversibility of its use of energy. Under an energy numeraire, energy resources will naturally be used in a more parsimonious way.
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