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Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air Paperback – February 20, 2009
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"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 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
About the Author
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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Mr. MacKay did a wonderful job of getting a large amount of hard data together about the UK and to a lesser extent the world, an power, in particular, electrical energy use and generation, now and in the future. It was originally free on line at a web site "withoutthehotair", however as of the date of this write up, unfortunately it is no longer available on line.
MacKay is a British, so this book is written about the United KIngdom, and not the US. However, all of the basic principals and arguments that he presents can be easily applied to the USA. He starts from the place that we like the life that we live with ample and reasonably priced electricity. He does address the CO2 emission issue, for the global warming crew, so there is hard information to consider. He is not going down the hair shirt route that we all need to cut our energy use by x percent or the world will cook tomorrow. It is so nice to look at a book that deals with real numbers and the world as it is, and that people like living in this world. He looks briefly at the world and history of CO2 emission over the years essentially since before the industrial revolution.
He does a wonderful and very comprehensive job of looking at the different proposals for generating energy such as tidal, wave, wind, geothermal, etc. The specifics are tied to the UK, but they can be applied to the USA or any other country as applicable. Tidal could apply to the Bay of Fundy for example in North America. He has a breakout for where all of the energy including the electrical energy goes which is interesting. He breakouts out total energy consumption including air travel. He looks at the energy that is used for housing and different approaches. All of this is preparation for the last section of the book, where you can play king for a day, and devise your own approach to providing the required electrical power fro the UK by selecting the option that you prefer. He includes nuclear as an option.
My favorite section is 27, "Five Energy Plans for Britain", where he presents five different options to illustrate the choices that one must make in deciding what options to select among wind, tide, solar, geothermal. nuclear, solar in the desert, hydro, waste etc.
He says at one point: "When I planned this book, my intention was to ignore climate change altogether." (p240). However, he does give a summary at the beginning of the book (which he invites readers to skip if they don't want to read it) and a chapter towards the end that is geared towards understanding options such as carbon capture. He is a clear believer in anthropogenic climate change but also argues that self-sufficiency in energy is a valid goal for security and other reasons and in Britain the majority of fossil fuels and now imported.
One apparent disadvantage of this book for readers in North America is that it focuses primarily on the energy uses and options for Britain. There are some references to the situation in North America, (sometimes disparaging, sometimes enlightening) but most of the information contained in the book is helpful to readers anywhere.
In the first section of the book he builds up a balance sheet of energy usage and potential renewable energy sources. Using short chapters he looks first at an energy use, e.g. cars and then a renewable source e.g. wind and estimates current actual use and theoretical potential. There is a lot of interesting information in this section, such as the difference between wave and tidal power. What is also enjoyable about the author's style is his willingness to debunk ideas on all sides of the argument. For those who would argue for energy savings from planes, he says: "The only way to make a plane consume fuel more efficiently is to put it on the ground and stop it. Planes have been fantastically optimized". Although in the end he is able to show that the theoretical availability almost meets current use, he is quick to point out that the practical availability is significantly different. Because renewals are so diverse, the facilities needed are enormous, he explains "to get a big contribution from wind, we used wind farms with the area of Wales", for waves "wave farms covering 500km of coastline". He concludes that to sustain Britain's current lifestyle on renewables would be very difficult.
The second section of the book looks at alternative plans to address how it would be possible to eliminate the use of fossil fuels by 2050. His overall plan is in three parts 1) electrify all transport - and use "green" electricity 2)supplement solar heating by use of heat pumps -again electricity driven 3)get the electricity from 4 sources: British renewables, perhaps from "clean coal", perhaps from nuclear and from other people's renewables. His chapter on nuclear power is a good summary of the real risks and benefits of nuclear power and should be read by both proponents and opponents. His fourth source, other people's renewables is primarily referencing a plan being promoted that would develop huge solar facilities either in Algeria/Libya or Syria/Iraq/Saudi Arabia that would then link to Africa and Europe by transmission lines. Well, interesting I guess but hardly what I would call "secure", at least at the moment. This is similar to an idea that he mentions for the U.S. to build an Arizona-sized facility in the US Southwest.
This book is occasionally marred by unfortunate diversions. There is a section about the amount of energy used for defense in the UK and the nuclear defense system in the US and he compares this with the amount of energy used by the UK university system. This is really unworthy of the rest of the book. He is also rather puritan in his views of energy use. Bicycles feature frequently (reasonable in a small, flat university city like Cambridge) as do admonitions about the high settings of heating thermostats. He suggests a setting of 15C (59F) or maybe 17C (63F) and reminds us that in the early 1970s actual home temperatures were lower. I lived in Britain at that time as a young adult and I can still remember how miserable that was.
Fortunately these examples are rare and I would recommend any reader to pass over them as there is a great deal of value in this book. Although it is inevitably a little out of date in energy developments such as fracking, it forms a very useful and easy to understand basis for debating and evaluating energy options.