Monday, January 17, 2011

Without Hot Air: Mackay

17 Jan '11: David Mackay who wrote 'Sustainable Energy - Without Hot Air', has made it available free on the web - for some time it has been available as a large PDF or as a set of html pages readable on line. It is a very realistic look at all our sources of energy. While I can't agree with everything in the book (for example he is somewhat scathing of wind power) the overall message is clear - it is our Energy Guzzling habit that is the biggest problem. All the efforts to exploit new technologies like wind farms and heat pumps don't get away from the fact that as a society we use too much. Natural processes like vegetation cannot convert all the new CO2 that is caused by our energy consumption, especially if we are de-foresting as part of human activity. The inhabitants of the Los Angeles region drive the equivalent of 140 million miles every Day!

In particular he mentions that doing only a little, like not leaving mobile phone chargers plugged in will only achieve a little. Bigger gestures are required. Some need cost nothing. Turning down the thermostat by one degree could save 10% of annual heating costs. In everything he discusses, he is not polemically pro or anti anything specifically, fundamentally, he is pro-Arithmetic, and the logic that that carries with it. This is the opening quote from his statement to the House of Lords committee, Jan 2009:

The public discussion of energy options tends to be intensely emotional, polarized, mistrustful, and destructive.  Every option is strongly opposed: the public seem to be anti-wind, anti-coal, anti-waste-to-energy, anti-tidal-barrage, anti-fuel-duty, and anti-nuclear.

We can't be anti-everything! We need an energy plan that adds up. But there's a lack of numeracy in the public discussion of energy. Where people do use numbers, they select them to sound big, to make an impression, and to score points in arguments, rather than to aid thoughtful discussion.

Cutting our consumption is the priority. But what can governments do about energy generation? He concludes by discussing what is possible at the large scale, such as very large wind farms in the north and very large solar farms in sunny regions, with high capacity long distance cables.

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