14 April 2009


Dale recommended that I check out Cambridge Prof David MacKay's book, Sustainable energy — without the hot air. I decided to read the first chapter while drinking my coffee this morning and ended up getting sucked in and wasting almost a whole day with it. I recommend it to everybody (you can download the PDF for free), but beware that it might cost you many lost hours (those of you who have many hours to kill have no excuse, ahem, MRhé).

While MacKay is definitely "green", all his arguments are valid even if you don't care about global warming, but instead just wonder what humanity will do once we've burned all the oil and coal. The book focuses on the fundamental question, "Can we live on renewables?", with specific attention to the particular case of the UK, but in a way that address the question with respect to any country or region.

The book's approach is all about "Numbers, not adjectives", and aims to provide a frank discussion of facts of power consumption and generation without distorting the numbers into emotionally charged slogans. Furthermore, the bonus "Technical chapters" which go into more detail than the main book are excellent for the scientifically minded reader.

MacKay finishes his lengthy treatment of problems facing both energy consumption and renewable production with five plans for making Britain 100% fossil fuel free. None seem remotely plausible. Take the first, for instance:

  • Transport is completely electrified. The petrol car fleet is replaced by electrics and what few vehicles can't be electrifed are run on biofuel produced from crops which would need to be grown on a land area the size of Wales in order to fill this relatively small gap.

  • Improved insulation and 2.5 m2 of solar panels on every house, supplemented by air-source heatpumps (read the book for more) and wood fires for home heating.

  • Incineration-for-power of all non recycled waste (approx 300 waste-incineration plants in the UK).

  • A 30-fold increase in Britain's on-shore wind power production.

  • An 830 kilometer wave power generation station on the Atlantic coast, consisting of 16,000 devices weighing 700 tons each.

  • 360 million square metres of top-of-the-line solar panels.

  • Dozens of enormous tidal lagoons and barrages.

  • Quadrupling Britain's current fleet of nuclear power plants.

  • Converting essentially the entire existing coal burning infrastructure to so-called (though not yet existent) emissions free or "clean" coal.

Any one of the above bullets is currently viewed as a pipe dream by the proponents of the relevant technologies. It left me thoroughly depressed!

07 April 2009


Good op-ed by A. A. Gill about President Obama's visit to Europe.