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Sustainable Energy

Sustainable Energy

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Published by Ian Hore-Lacy
Review of: Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, David MacKay, 2009,
Review of: Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, David MacKay, 2009,

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Published by: Ian Hore-Lacy on Oct 30, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, David MacKay, 2009, UIT Cambridge, UK, 250 pp + 120pp technical notes

etc. ISBN 978 -0-9544529-3-3 (paperback).

This is an unusual book in its quirky approach to the important question of energy futures. The author's penchant for using arithmetic to puncture populist balloons and expose fashionable nonsense is most refreshing. He pleads for "numbers, not adjectives" in energy debate, and insists that the numbers be relevant to the argument, not just obfuscation. So often, in public discourse, numbers are quoted misleadingly. This book will provide something of an antidote, though he misses two important electricity supply adjectives: continuous, and reliable. While the book is not unique as a source of data, it is unusual in showing how to use numbers sensibly. The data is applied with commendable logic rather than glossed over or spun to serve political agendas. It is analytical without becoming at all unreadable, and the arithmetic plus some common sense allows the reader to put a lot of energy issues and options into clearer perspective, and see behind the polarisation of much debate. It is copiously illustrated with small photos, and attractive for that reason alone. The author's framework for discussing energy policy is threefold: depletion of oil and gas, energy security, and climate change concern - the first two being presented as selfinterest and the third as ethical. His perspective is British, though much of the book is relevant to a much wider audience. The first part of the book alternates brief discussion of renewable sources and everyday uses of energy with metrics per UK person per day, and includes mention of embodied energy in both manufactures and food. The conclusion from Part 1 is that renewables can come nowhere near meeting the needs of people in a developed country, even if you ignore economic factors, as he explicitly does. Part 2 turns to look at other options. Efficiencies and improvements are very lucidly and helpfully canvassed - transport and heating in particular. The question of nuclear being sustainable is tackled in 15 pages. This is a fair treatment, though it relies a lot on uranium in the oceans to give a positive answer! And towards end of that chapter an apologetic: "Please don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to be pro-nuclear. I'm just proarithmetic."(!) Further chapters on renewables and their best location (North Africa and Saudi Arabia for solar) and intermittency (for wind) are informative and certainly extend the book's horizons. All the relevant considerations in dealing with intermittency for UK via demand management and storage seem to be covered, but inconclusively. The focus then becomes energy plans for UK. But plans for the wider world are not far behind and it becomes clear that renewables on their own are insufficient for Europe, but plausible to the author for North America, using solar power in the deserts, 2600 GWe of wind plant, and a lot of optimism. Once again, economics don·t enter the calculus, and nor it seems does the question of overnight storage for solar input. The final conclusion for Europe, North America and the World is that nuclear power clearly has a significant role, though this is mentioned only as a PS.

This is certainly a valuable book in giving fairly thorough coverage to renewable energy options without rose-tinted glasses, and with a reasonable technical understanding. The glaring weakness of most of the book is in treating electricity simply in kWh terms without any consideration of the nature of demand continuity and reliability. Arithmetic is not enough! Ian Hore-Lacy World Nuclear Association 8/7/09

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