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Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air Paperback – February 20, 2009

4.7 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"If someone wants an overall view of how energy gets used, where it comes from, and the challenges in switching to new sources, this is the book to read."  —Bill Gates, chairman, Microsoft

"I would choose Sustainable Energy as a text over its competitors because MacKay has moved the energy discussion in the direction where energy alternatives can be considered quantitatively."  —American Journal of Physics

"This is a must-have book for anyone who is seriously interested in energy policy."  —Scott Kirwin, therazor.org

"The main text of his book is readable (and witty) and its technical appendices bristle with equations. If the planet and its people are the patient, MacKay's book is the the lab results, temperature chart and electrocardiogram." —The New York Review of Books (April 26, 2012)

"This is a brilliant book that is both a racy read and hugely informative . . . It shows . . . how cars might become far more efficient but why planes cannot."  —David Newbery, director, Electricity Policy Research Group, University of Cambridge

"Here are the numbers in a form easy to digest about energy use and availability. Fantastic achievement."  —Professor Volker Heine, Fellow of the Royal Society

"May be the best technical book about the environment that I've ever read.  This is to energy and climate what Freakonomics is to economics."  —boingboing.net

"A tour de force . . . As a work of popular science it is exemplary . . . For anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the real problems involved [it] is the place to start."  —economist.com

"There are so many books about sustainable energy and alternative energy on today's market that one might wonder about the need for yet another; but Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air offers something different - and that's a notable achievement in a genre overloaded with too many revamps using the same approach." —D. Donovan, Midwest Book Review, California Bookwatch

About the Author

Breakthrough Institute is proud to announce David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, as the 2016 Breakthrough Paradigm Award winner. 

David MacKay is a professor in the department of physics at Cambridge University, a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Climate Change, and a regular lecturer on sustainable energy.

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Product Details

  • Series: Without the Hot Air
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: UIT Cambridge Ltd.; 1 edition (February 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0954452933
  • ISBN-13: 978-0954452933
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 0.8 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #41,090 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book is an essential resource for understanding energy policy as it relates to conservation and to renewable resources.

I've just been listening to yet another "news" report pointing out that compact fluorescent light bulbs don't save much energy because an incandescent light bulb will also heat your house.

Coincidentally I had just read the part of this book dealing with this myth, so I was able to confidently mutter under my breath "true, but only in the winter (when you need the heating) and only if you are heating inefficiently using electricity."

This book puts real numbers to a lot of hand-waving arguments which are used to justify grandiose claims made for different renewable energy sources or to imply that we could save the world if we all just unplugged our mobile phone chargers. Some of the arguments stand up when the numbers are put in, but many don't. When you see what the numbers are, it becomes evident how unrealistic and ineffectual many of the proposals are.

Is it worth unplugging a power block when not in use? Can planes be made more efficient? How much space would solar farms or a wind farms need to occupy to meet our energy needs? How much agricultural land would be required for bio-diesel? All these questions (and many more) are answered.

What makes this book really stand out is that it converts energy amounts to comprehensible units (kilowatt-hours per person per day), supplies copious references for the numbers used, and provides the calculations on which the arguments are based. (Detailed calculations are presented in appendices for the math-averse and should be accessible to anybody with a basic knowledge of physics).

Note. Although this book is primarily aimed at a UK audience (energy consumption figures are based upon UK patterns, and land use proposals are related to UK locations), the discussions are of global applicability.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is essential for anyone thinking about energy policy. It excels because MacKay does not espouse one specific solution, but rather teaches the reader how to create solutions and evaluate them. He emphasizes that the numbers must add up -- total energy production must equal total energy consumption.

In a way the book is very simple. He leads the reader by the hand in estimating the energy requirements of society - transportation, heat, food, gadgets, and so on. He similarly helps you make credible estimates of achievable production from sources such as sunlight, tides, hydro, nuclear, wind, coal, and oil.

Like a good physicist, MacKay is able stand back and estimate these numbers top-down from first principles, with just enough depth to generate numbers that are credible to you and good enough for policy making.

The charts, graphs, tables, and pictures are extensive and clear.

If you have a particularly loved energy source [wind?] or a particularly hated one [coal?] you can "do the numbers" and build your own energy policy. The only requirement is that the numbers add up!
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Format: Paperback
I work for an environmental watchdog in New Zealand. I flicked through the first few pages of "Sustainable Energy - without the hot air" as it sat on a colleague's desk, took it back to my own desk and read it for two hours straight, got online and bought my own copy. It's that good.
For a start, this is how environmental science should be communicated; crystal clear text and honest graphs, with simplified theory and ballpark calculations that anyone can follow, backed up by empirical data as a check on results, real examples, frequent references, and explanations of limitations.
But the thinking behind it is every bit as good. MacKay is entirely pragmatic about energy supply and demand, never preachy, and he is game enough to admit when his results surprise even himself. If he is cautiously optimistic in his conclusions, it is because he has laid out a number of justifiable options.
Buy it. Better still, buy it and read it.
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Format: Kindle Edition
This book was amazingly well written, and frankly, it scared the hell out of me. In clear concise language the author describes many alternative energy sources without the flimsy "if everyone unplugged their cell phone chargers we could power X houses" foolishness. He used physics and graphs. To show the land costs of some of the energy projects he used *gasp* maps.

Our civilization needs to make hard decisions about our energy future. This book is an essential resource for citizens. It truly gives you the facts about energy sources without the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt that many activists and lobbyists rely on. I know that I'm going to send a copy to all my representatives and tell them to get moving on helping the US become energy independent (a cause I didn't care that much about until reading this book).

And, finally, this is a free book. If you own a Kindle DX, go download the PDF in high definition from the author's website. The print is a little small, but it was worth saving the $30.
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Prof MacKay's starting point is that there is a great deal of vague flummery talked about energy production and consumption. It is easy to make vague claims of "huge" potential green sources or to obsess over what turn out to be very minor energy savings. His goal in this book is to have a hard-nosed discussion of real numbers, so that there can be a more sensible discussion of options. He avoids making explicit recommendations, but his one continual plea is that we create a plan that "adds up" rather than merely reflecting wishful thinking. The world currently consumes enormous quantities of fossil fuel, so any viable alternative plan also has to deal with very large numbers, either as savings or as alternate sources.

MacKay writes in a very readable and entertaining style. But he is also very careful to explain his numbers and to build his scenarios from the ground up. I found his analyses convincing and stimulating. Sometimes more detailed or more mathematical analysis is pushed off to supplementary appendices, but those are also well worth reading.

I learned many things. One key factor I hadn't appreciated was the enormous land areas required for renewable sources, such as wind, solar, biofuel, or geothermal to make a substantial difference. For example, MacKay calculates that it would probably require 10% of the UK's surface to be dedicated to wind farms in order to make a significant contribution to the UK's current energy needs. Even larger areas are required to generate meaningful quantities of biofuel. If an area the size of Africa were dedicated to growing biofuel, that might only replace a third of current world oil needs. But MacKay also points out there may be places where building vast energy farms makes sense.
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