Book Review: “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air”

UPDATE: Now in print here

I’m a conservative of the dreaded neo-con variety, but to me part of being a conservative is actually conserving resources – whether that is money, families or wildlife. While I don’t buy the anthropogenic global warming arguments, I’m not wedded to the petroleum lifestyle especially since I believe that preventing Saddam from invading Saudi Arabia in 1990 was a mistake (we should have let him clean out the Wahabis and Osama’s financiers in the Saudi royal family). Having lived through the 1970’s once, I would have hoped that over thirty years later we would have by now stopped shoveling cash to the Arabs; but we haven’t, and US politicians continue to refer to the Saudis as “our friends” and “allies” even as they rape us at the pump and fund madrassas that graduate homicide bombers instead of productive members of society.

I have never been keen on gas guzzlers because they waste money. I don’t like McMansions because they too are a waste to me. I like a car that gets me where I’m going as simply and cheaply as possible. Hummers and the super SUVs like the Chevy Suburban and Cadillac Escalade may be needed by some, but not by me. Similarly I value smaller, well built homes on large plots of land, the very opposite of today’s pressed board cookie-cutter monstrosities thrown up on good farmland right on top of each other – ghettos of the aspiring rich.

For the past several months I have been writing about energy and the enviroment, and one thing I’ve found is the paucity of data. As an amateur scientist I want to understand how we use energy, and whether there are better alternatives out there. It’s the same thing that drove Professor David J. MacKay, Professor of Natural Philosophy, Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, to write and distribute free his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.” (if that link is broken click here.) MacKay admits to being your typical Leftist UK professor – he can’t say the word “defence” without putting it in quotes, and parrots the party line about global warming. However typical Lefties don’t say this on the first page:

What’s this book about? I’m concerned about cutting UK emissions of twaddle – twaddle about sustainable energy. Everyone claims to be concerned, and every- one is encouraged to ‘make a difference’, but many of the things that allegedly make a difference don’t add up. Twaddle emissions are high at the moment because people get emotional (for example about wind farms or nuclear power) and no-one talks about numbers. Or if they do mention numbers, they select them to sound big, to make an impression, and to score points in arguments, rather than to aid thoughtful discussion. This is a straight-talking book about the numbers. The aim is to guide the reader around the claptrap to actions that really make a difference and to policies that add up.

He’s also not very keen on the belief propagated in the media, by companies, and by environmentalists themselves that “every little bit counts.” He counters “If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve a little.” This isn’t exactly the politically correct leftist propaganda I had expected, and it soon becomes clear why not: MacKay is a scientist first – leftist second. He states in the preface that he intends to explore the facts – not the ethical considerations that environmentalists like to use in their arguments instead of facts. And for the most part MacKay succeeds with the two exceptions noted earlier. In fact in fairness to MacKay, the AGW argument is the current scientific paradigm, and his support of the argument in the first chapter is nothing that an AGW sceptic hasn’t seen before. For those of you who are AGW sceptical, I’d recommend skipping this chapter and going right onto the next. MacKay does too good job of explaining the science behind energy production and use for an AGW sceptic to toss aside the rest of the book.

The book is divided into non-technical chapters with much of the technical stuff in the Appendix. He separates the technical discussions from the narrative in order to prevent the reader from getting lost; however anyone with a technical background will spend quite a bit of time flipping to the “back” of the book.

He focuses his book on the UK, and discusses the possibility of making that nation energy independent:

No single sustainable source matches our current consumption, even if much of the country were industrialized; and even all of onshore wind, shallow offhore wind, solar heating, solar PV at 12m2 per person, biomass, food, hydro, tide, wave, and geothermal together don’t reach 90 kWh/d. We can achieve a total substantially bigger than 125 kWh/d only by calling on deep offshore wind (covering an area bigger than Wales) and vast photovoltaic arrays (covering an area bigger than Wales).
Realistically, I don’t think Britain can live on its own renewables – at least not the way we currently live. I am partly driven to this conclusion by the chorus of opposition that greets any major renewable energy proposal. People love renewable energy, unless it is bigger than a figleaf. If the British are very good at one thing, it’s saying “no.” Wind farms across the country? “No, they’re ugly noisy things.” Solar panels on roofs? “No, that would spoil the visual amenity of the street.” An expansion of forestry? “Ruins the countryside.” Waste incineration? “No, I’m worried about health risks, traffc congestion, dust and noise.” Hydroelectricity? “Yes, but not big hydro – that harms the environment”. Offshore wind? “No, I’m more worried about the powerlines
coming ashore than I was about a Nazi invasion.” Wave or geothermal power? “No, far too expensive.”

He exhorts the media and environmentalists to get serious about the effort and move away from the myth that it will be easy to substitute renewables for fossil fuels.
Stop saying “we’ve got huge renewables,” and do the sums. To make a difference, renewable facilities have to be country-sized. For any renewable facility to make a contribution comparable to our current consumption, it has to be country-sized. To get a big contribution from wind, we used windfarms with the area of Wales. To get a big contribution from solar photovoltaics, we required the area of Wales. To get a big contribution from waves, we imagined wavefarms covering 500 km of coastline. To make energy crops with a big contribution, we took 75% of the whole country.
To sustain Britain’s lifestyle on its own renewables alone would be very diffcult. A renewable-based energy solution will necessarily be large and intrusive.
“Nuclear or wind?” is the wrong question. We need everything we can get our hands on – all the wind, and all the nuclear – and even then, we’re still in trouble.

For nuclear, he pays close attention to the risks and the deaths caused by its usage, calculating that on a deaths vs. energy output, it’s less dangerous than generally believed.
Nuclear power is not infinitely dangerous. It’s just dangerous, much as coal mines, petrol repositories, fossil-fuel burning and wind turbines are dangerous. Even if we have no guarantee against nuclear accidents in the future, I think the right way to assess nuclear is to compare it objectively with other sources of power.

This is a must-have book for anyone who is seriously interested in energy policy. The chapter discussing units of measurement and how they are intentionally misused to confuse listeners during debates is worth downloading alone. Without the flair of Mythbusters, MacKay still manages to write lucidly and convey his ideas.

One serious criticism I have with him is that his writing often runs into a wall of equations at the end of some chapters. It’s at these points that I am reminded that this is a first draft of his book; any decent editor could point out that he needs complete his chapters by translating what the technical information means to an interested reader. He could either combine the technical with the text by putting that info in the footnotes at the bottom of the page, or remove the technical verbage completely from the text and having a robust notes section in the appendix. It’s almost as if MacKay didn’t trust his own ability to translate the concepts and got scared when he approached a chapter’s end, so he supported his argument with technical details.

Another fault I have with the book is that he needs to scrub his personal politics from the text. As a leftist he focuses most on governmental and international solutions to the energy problem without spending enough time on the downsides of these solutions. While he mentions NIMBY he expects governments to act in ways that they are incapable of doing.  Any of his renewables strategies would be mired in bureaucratic red tape. Storing wind power by using it to pump water into lakes to be used to generate electricity during lulls in the wind is one example that would have to face red tape across governmental bureaucracies not to mention opposition from environmentalist groups opposed to dams and the fluctuating water supply his “solution” would entail. And we aren’t talking about ponds; the amount of energy we need the renewables solutions are all huge requiring lakes with surface areas as big as the Great Lakes.

Yet MacKay is at his finest when translating complex ideas to a lay audience,  and this book is good enough to maintain your interest for hours on end.  At the very least it will provide you with tons of statistics and calculations that you can use in debate.

Keep it handy when you hear someone say “Every little bit counts.” I just heard it said on the Forecast Earth segment on the Weather Channel. Worse, the show mentioned the largest wind farm in the world, the Horse Hollow Energy Center in Texas, produced 17 gigawatts, enough to power 1.1 million homes. I thought this was a little high after reading MacKay, so I checked and sure enough the Weather Channel had screwed up; it’s 737 megawatts which powers 169,000 homes on an average day. The Weather Channel was off by a factor of 8. Considering that the Weather Channel was founded by one of the leading AGW sceptics, it would be nice if it spent more time talking about the weather and less time propagandizing about the climate.

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One Comment

  1. Frankie:

    It is worth mentioning that this extraordinary book is (1) now finished (do update your link!) and (2) also available in old-fashioned paper format, for those of us who still prefer it that way! I own a copy of it and it is very pleasing on the eye and really good quality paper/binding etc. I wouldn’t have read so much of it had I only had the pdf to look at.

    You can get it from amazon or direct from the publishers ( ) and there are rumors that eBook formats are on their way.

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