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Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air

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Addressing the sustainable energy crisis in an objective manner, this enlightening book analyzes the relevant numbers and organizes a plan for change on both a personal level and an international scale—for Europe, the United States, and the world. In case study format, this informative reference answers questions surrounding nuclear energy, the potential of sustainable fossil fuels, and the possibilities of sharing renewable power with foreign countries. While underlining the difficulty of minimizing consumption, the tone remains positive as it debunks misinformation and clearly explains the calculations of expenditure per person to encourage people to make individual changes that will benefit the world at large.

384 pages, Paperback

First published December 1, 2008

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About the author

David J.C. MacKay

2 books44 followers
David MacKay was a Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and then obtained his PhD in Computation and Neural Systems at the California Institute of Technology. He returned to Cambridge as a Royal Society research fellow at Darwin College. He was internationally known for his research in machine learning, information theory, and communication systems, including the invention of Dasher, a software interface that enables efficient communication in any language with any muscle. He has taught Physics in Cambridge since 1995. Since 2005, he devoted much of his time to public teaching about energy. He was a member of the World Economic Forum Global agenda Council on Climate Change.

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Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.6k followers
November 9, 2009
Note: if you want to read this book for free, there are now excellent HTML and PDF versions at http://www.withouthotair.com/ The print version is very well produced, however, and I didn't at all regret the £20 I paid for it.

Jessica posted a great review of Six Degrees a couple of days ago, with a memorable opening sentence:
Reading this book was like meeting someone, falling madly in love, and finding out she's got a terminal illness, all in the space of twenty minutes.
I agree. Global warming is extremely scary. But by way of introduction to MacKay's book, let me try another analogy. Suppose you'd inherited a sizable sum of money when you were 21. You got a couple of jobs, but you didn't take them seriously, because hey, you didn't need to. Now all your credit cards are maxed out, you don't dare open your mail any more, and you're really, really wishing that you'd had the sense not to go to the loan shark. You tell a friend about your troubles. Well, you say, I guess I need to get a job again and start paying off my debts.

So your friend says, what kind of job? You give him a few ideas you'd been kicking around. Maybe you could finish that accountancy course, or maybe you could go to China and teach English as a foreign language, or maybe you could play poker on the Internet. You know some Chinese, and you're quite a good poker player. Your friend asks how much you owe, and how soon you need the money. But you're so scared by your situation that you don't actually know, and you don't know either how long it takes to become sufficiently qualified to get a job as an accountant, or how to become a teacher in China, or how much money you could make playing poker, or, indeed, anything. In short, you're completely panicked. Well, your friend says kindly, let's start by figuring some of that out. Then you might be able to make a sensible decision.

Which brings us to Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. The author is a physics professor here in Cambridge, and is tired of discussions about energy policies that don't include numbers, just emotive terms. Instead of arguing for a specific solution ("No nukes"/"Don't hurt the economy"/"Green energy"/etc), his point is much broader. No matter what policy you are advocating, you have to demonstrate that it balances the books, in terms of producing as much energy as you plan to consume. This is so obviously right that I am just amazed he is regarded by some people as controversial.

McKay works out several concrete energy budgets for the UK, based on different starting assumptions. Doubtlessly critics will be able to attack specific points, say that the arguments don't apply to their own countries, and so on. That doesn't matter, and I'm sure McKay welcomes these responses. What he wants to do is get people thinking about energy policies in a responsible, quantitative way.

I've read an online summary of the book, which seems extremely practical and well thought out. Today, I saw it on sale in Heffers, and bought a copy. I'm planning to start it tomorrow. By next week, I will hopefully have a better idea of what our options are in this terrible situation we've somehow got into. I'll post an update when I've done that.

I've just finished Sustainable Energy. I started with high expectations, and it exceeded them. This is, simply, a book that any numerate person who cares about the future of the planet should read without delay.

MacKay cuts through the bullshit and posturing, and delivers clear, responsible, unbiased information, beautifully and economically presented. He is even-handed about exposing lies and misconceptions, irrespective of where they are coming from, and the list of people who give him a thumbs-up is impressive. You have luminaries of the Green movement, but also former CEOs of large oil companies. He's providing a public service here, and they all recognize it.

The book is focused on one key question: can we stop using fossil fuels, and move over to an energy economy where we get our power from sustainable sources, and consume no more than we produce? MacKay doesn't spend very long arguing that this is necessary. There is already a mountain of readily available evidence which points in this direction; if you still don't believe it, it's because you've decided that nothing is ever going to change your mind. So he takes that for granted, and starts looking at the details.

The material is divided into two main parts, together with a long technical appendix which contains the mathematical formulas and the detailed calculations. In the first part, he looks at the components of a possible energy budget for the whole of Britain. He takes Britain, because it's his country, and he knows the details best here; at the end of the book, he sketches out similar calculations for Europe, North America, and the whole world. The principles carry over easily enough. So, Britain's energy budget. As with any budget, you start with incomings and outgoings. He alternates "green" chapters (incomings: wind, hydro, waves, biofuels, solar, nuclear etc) and "red" chapters (outgoings: cars, heating, electric power, manufacturing etc). Everything is reduced to a single set of units, KWh per person per day, so that it's easy to compare like with like. MacKay is very good at making figures intuitively meaningful; I particularly liked the fact that 1 KWh is approximately the energy that a single human servant could deliver in one day. It is scary that a typical moderately affluent Brit consumes about 40 KWh per day. In other words, we each have 40 virtual servants working for us; no wonder we're living beyond our means. The "red" stack is built up assuming roughly our current energy consumption; the "green" stack is a best-case scenario, the most possible energy we could ever get out of each energy technology.

At the end of Part I, things have become clearer. First, we see that sustainable energy resources need to be country-sized. If we want to get serious energy from wind - enough to make a useful contribution - we need to cover a large part of the country in wind farms. If we're thinking about solar power, a large part of the country is covered in solar power stations. If it's waves, then most of the Atlantic coastline is wave farms. And so on. The only exception to this is nuclear. Nuclear power stations can be quite small. Because he is reducing everything to the same units, you can immediately compare the efficiency of different technologies; so, for example, you can see that biofuels produce less than a quarter of the energy per unit area of land that wind power does.

The "red" and "green" stacks only balance if we are prepared either to cover Britain in wind farms and similar, use a lot of nuclear power, or get sustainable energy from elsewhere. MacKay goes though the possibilities for "elsewhere", and only one of them makes sense: solar power in deserts. There is a lot of sunlight in deserts, and quite good technology for turning it into electricity. You're still talking about tens of thousands of square kilometers of desert, but that's reasonably small compared to the Sahara. So, solar power in deserts is potentially a very important resource.

Now that we know the rules of the game, Part II is about concrete planning. How can we reduce our outgoings, and what are our options for mixing different kinds of energy sources? Two things that would make a big difference to outgoings are moving quickly to electric cars (far more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines), and decreasing heat loss from houses. MacKay has trialled many energy saving ideas on his own house, and presents comprehensive figures; nice to see someone who practices what he preaches. The figures on these items are straightforward and convincing.

There are chapters discussing important practical questions about the different energy generation technologies. I found the discussion of wind power particularly interesting. Critics of wind power tend to say that, since it's intermittent, it wouldn't really be useful. Wind power enthusiasts say that, when you average wind over the whole country, it evens out. In fact, neither position is correct, though the first one is closer to the truth. Even averaged over a whole country (MacKay shows a graph), wind power output is wildly variable. On the other hand, power demand is also very variable. There are already implemented solutions that are used every day to cope with demand surges, like the one that happens when half the country switches on their TVs at the same time to watch a big football game. I didn't know, but there is apparently an installation in Wales, with two large lakes on different levels, which acts as a gigantic storage battery. When there is surplus electricity, it's used to pump water from the low lake to the high one. When extra electricity is required quickly, the sluices from the high lake are opened, and it powers a set of turbines. You could build more of these if you needed them.

The chapter on nuclear power is also very good. As MacKay says, nuclear is dangerous, but it's not infinitely dangerous. Other kinds of energy are dangerous too. He tries to quantify the risk from nuclear to the best of his ability, in terms of the number of deaths you could reasonably expect per unit of generated energy; then he compares with other forms of energy. It's by no means clear that nuclear is, in fact, so dangerous. He also debunks the claim that we couldn't build nuclear power stations quickly enough. MacKay presents the figures dispassionately, and adds, in a typical aside, that you shouldn't conclude that he's pro-nuclear; he's pro-arithmetic. The book, I should mention, is often surprisingly funny.

At the end of Part II, MacKay puts it all together, and constructs some energy budgets that actually balance. He tries to cater for different points of view. So, there's one budget which is driven by economic considerations, and that ends up being mostly nuclear; there's one which focuses on having no nukes, which requires a lot of solar power from the Sahara; there's one where the main theme is self-sufficiency, which means a lot of wind farms; and so on. The budgets make sobering reading. I found them, however, much more positive than negative. It does still appear quite possible to implement these solutions.

The bad news is that no mainstream politicians are really trying. They are getting away with soundbites and token gestures; I was particularly annoyed to learn that the wind turbine which David Cameron (leader of the Conservative Party) installed on his roof probably required more energy to produce than it will ever generate. These politicians are relying on an electorate who will accept their phony numbers on trust. Don't do that. Read MacKay's book, and start asking tough questions until our elected representatives produce plans that add up.

Yesterday, I bought a copy of the Star (Britain's second-trashiest daily newspaper) to read on the train. As usual, it was very entertaining. Among other things, I hadn't heard that Jordan had threatened to shave her head, that Marge Simpson would be appearing nude in Playboy, or that Liverpudlian women had the biggest boobs in England. But my prize went to the following entry on the letters page:
He just bores me stiff

I desperately need my fella to lighten up.

I want us to buy a flat and start a family, but he's too interested in interest rates and booming world population to commit.

He says we shouldn't have children because we don't know what the world will be like in 20 years.

He's also obsessed with climate change and the environment.

It bores me rigid. I tend to live one day at a time and deal with each problem that presents itself. How can I persuade him to do the same?
This highlights a problem that MacKay mentions several times: how can we make green politics more engaging at an emotional level? I thought this was one area where his analysis wasn't quite up to the level I'd come to expect in the book. One suggestion he mentioned a couple of times was for sexy celebrities to start a trend for wearing warm sweaters; that would let us all set our thermostats a few degrees lower, and significantly lower the country's energy requirements. But I have real trouble seeing his idea work in practice. I find it much easier to imagine a campaign along the general lines of "My house is so well insulated that I can walk around dressed like this!" Now there's something that might interest the Star.

This book definitely helps you make sense of the news.

Last weekend, I recall telling a friend that I'd like to see public debate in Britain about our energy policy. If we didn't, it was clear from MacKay's energy budgets that we'd soon get a massive expansion in nuclear power. Maybe it's what we need, but it would be nice at least to consider the alternatives.

This morning, the splash in the Guardian starts like this:
Families face nuclear tax on power bills

Industry promised subsidy if market price fails to encourage new plants

Government officials have drawn up secret plans to tax electricity consumers to subsidise the construction of the UK's first new nuclear reactors for more than 20 years, the Guardian has learned.

The planned levy on household bills would add £44 to an annual electricity bill of £500 and contradicts repeated promises by ministers that the nuclear industry would no longer benefit from public subsidies. There is mounting pressure on the power industry to show it can keep the lights on, with fears growing of an energy gap as ageing nuclear stations are retired and plans for new coal plants attract hostile protests.


This book helps you make sense of the news (part 2).

Another story in the Guardian. Here's how it starts:
Ed Miliband to unveil plans to fast-track new nuclear power stations

Government will identify sites around Britain suitable for building nuclear plants as part of new energy policy

Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, insisted today that nuclear power had a "relatively good" safety record in this country as he prepared to unveil plans to fast-track a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Profile Image for Hákon Gunnarsson.
Author 29 books131 followers
March 28, 2021
This book can be read here for free: http://www.withouthotair.com/

It’s not the most lively book I’ve read, but it is still a very good one about sustainable energy. Parts of it is by now outdated, such as the numbers dealing with how much energy comes from solar, and wind, but that’s because more then a decade has passed since this book was published. It would be great if it would be updated, but that is unlikely as the author David J.C. MacKay died five years ago from cancer. Even if the outcomes are by now outdated, the methods he used to calculate this still stands up. So it’s an interesting, and informative book that one can use to understand how to calculate this stuff.
Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,026 reviews1,181 followers
July 2, 2011
Windfarms are becoming big business in Australia and a Senate enquiry report has just come out looking at the implications, including, most importantly, health.

You can see the whole thing here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committe...

The aspect of health that is most likely to be affected by windfarms is the psychological and physiological debilitation resulting from noise pollution and the report observes, in attempting to hear from all interested parties:

The Committee did not receive any evidence from people who are living near the turbines and who are receiving recompense for the use of their land. The reasons for this are unclear. Several witnesses claimed that the host landholders are subject to 'gag' orders under the terms of their contracts with the developers. This was denied by the industry...

The report goes on to discuss the technical aspects of what is happening:

Noise measurement
2.32 The measurement of noise as used in the Standards is dB(A). This measure was explained as being appropriate because it simulates human hearing. Dr Warwick Williams, a Senior Research Engineer at the National Acoustic Laboratories, explained that the A-weighting heavily discounts the low frequencies and the very high frequencies. A-weighting discounts infrasound as it is below the level of human hearing.

2.33 Many persons who complain of the noise produced by wind farms refer to noise that lies within the low frequency range, and to infrasound (sound of less than 20 hertz). As discussed earlier, the 'thump' which apparently is produced by wind turbines and which causes distress to some people is a low frequency sound. According to the Sonus report, over large distances, whilst the absolute level of sound in all frequencies declines, the relative level of low frequency noise increases compared with mid and high frequencies. The Sonus report states that low frequency sound can be easily measured, and 'the C-weighting network (dB(C)) has been developed to determine the human perception and annoyance due to noise that lies within the low frequency range'

2.34 Mr Huson submitted that neither the C-weighting nor the A-weighting is appropriate for the measurement of very low frequencies:

If we were to investigate lower frequency sound levels from wind farms we cannot use the C-weighting or the A-weighting since these attenuate low frequency sound <20 Hz significantly. The G-weighting is designed to quantify infrasound below 20 Hz.

2.35 Dr Geoff Leventhall, a British acoustics consultant, informed the committee that:

...as environmental noise control criteria are A-weighted, they tend to under-rate potentially problematic low frequency environmental noise. This has led low frequency problems to be left to continue, whilst higher frequency problems are fixed more quickly. As a result, where genuine low frequency noise problems have occurred, their continuance leads to the development of undue stress in those affected. There is also a body of very stressful, unsolvable noise problems, described as “low frequency” by those affected, where detailed investigations cannot discover a specific noise source.

2.36 The Noise Management Services report commissioned by Mr and Mrs Dean on the noise impact of Waubra Wind Farm suggested that:

There are many possible ways that low frequency sounds may influence the ear at levels that are unrelated to hearing sensitivity. As some structures of the ear respond to low frequency sound at levels below those that are heard, the practice of A-weighting (or G-weighting) sound measurements grossly underestimates the possible influence of these sounds on the physiology of the ear. The high infrasound component of wind turbine noise may account for high annoyance ratings, sleep disturbance and reduced quality of life for those living near wind turbines.

I don't understand why Australia seems to be moving away from solar, when it would seem to have the perfect conditions for it, and towards something that if nothing else, is both visually and aurally offensive.

I am also curious to know why it is that wind farms are set up in populated areas, sometimes in scenes that were previously of breathtaking beauty, rather than in all the empty bits. Is it because infrastructure exists in populated areas? I guess that's the obvious answer.

The report is 132 pages long. I have quoted just a tiny bit of it.



Been mulling this over for a while.

One of the ideas that comes from the advocates of nuclear generated power is that when we have an accident that will just be collateral damage.

This is from Manny’s review:

The chapter on nuclear power is also very good. As MacKay says, nuclear is dangerous, but it's not infinitely dangerous. Other kinds of energy are dangerous too. He tries to quantify the risk from nuclear to the best of his ability, in terms of the number of deaths you could reasonably expect per unit of generated energy; then he compares with other forms of energy. It's by no means clear that nuclear is, in fact, so dangerous… MacKay presents the figures dispassionately, and adds, in a typical aside, that you shouldn't conclude that he's pro-nuclear; he's pro-arithmetic.

It is kind of chilling reading it put like that, wouldn’t you say?

Maybe we do all agree that what’s happening in Japan is just arithmetic. But it is arithmetic we only want to see on Fox TV news. We don’t actually want to be there. A nuclear wastedump? Go THERE? Check me out now p-lease.

But this is Japan:


Isn’t it beautiful? This IS Japan. It is Hakodate, the same town we were in six months ago, it was flooded by the tsunami, the fishing industry is dead, but still, there is this.

Coming from Australia means I come from the country that is selling uranium while having as little as possible to do with it in our own country. Nuclear power? You must be joking. Australia has obvious alternatives in solar and wind, since most of the country is an uninhabitable desert of sun and wind. But I gather that in Europe nuclear power makes sense, you all believe in it over here. But if you believe in it, then part of that belief has got to be that you WILL go to Japan and see what it really is, not just what Fox News tells you it is.

Will you go to Japan? Now? If not, why not?

I’ve been discussing this lately with people partly because a friend runs an international music festival in Hakodate. Post-Japan almost all the overseas acts have pulled out. So, I did what an Australian would. I started writing to musicians in Australia asking if they would consider going. This is not good timing as the festival is in a few months and of course most musicians have their schedules organised a year or more in advance. But still, the very first person I wrote to replied straight away with yes, she would.

Then I noticed that our Prime Minister is in Japan at the moment, the first overseas leader to visit. She was just involved in a fund-raiser there with a name which will mean more to the average goodreader: Kylie. Quoting from ABC news: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/20...

Kylie Minogue, in town for a series of concerts, was also guest of honour at the fundraiser, which raised about $140,000 for a Red Cross tsunami appeal through ticket sales alone.
She is one of the few international acts who decided to continue the Japanese leg of their world tours, with many others cancelling because of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

I don’t know what this says about Australians compared with the rest of the first world. I can’t help compare with this, from a blog here: http://concordnanae.com/:

Dear friends and family,

As of March 24th I will be taking a temporary leave of absence from my job in Nanae, Japan. The current plan is to abscond to Hawaii on standby, with the intention to return to Japan on April 3rd. If, however, the nuclear crisis in Fukushima remains as nebulous as it is right now, I will likely extend my stay and will consider returning to Concord to continue my work as Coordinator of International Relations from there in our American sister city.

Experiencing this terrible tragedy firsthand has been a life-changing experience. I have grown as a journalist, a government employee, and most of all as a person, and have been awakened to the full depth of my appreciation and love for Nanae. My heart remains with the Japanese people during this tense time, and I ardently hope that we will be reunited very soon.

That was April 3 and the blog hasn’t been updated since.
Kind of ironic that this is from somebody whose job title is ‘Coordinator of International Relations’. I just don’t quite get how the words fit in with the actions.

There are millions of people in Japan who have to live with the consequences of arithmetic, who are what we like to call collateral damage. I’m wondering if the difference between them and the first world people who are happy to support the idea that nuclear catastrophe is arithmetic, is that we all have the agency to flee it. Maybe it is the rich people of the world who see nuclear power as necessary and the defects as collateral.

Of course, complicating this view is that the Japanese themselves are still remarkably isolationist. I have no idea if they even notice that we are not going there, and if they notice, I don’t know if they care.


Later still.

Written at the risk of incurring the ire of Paul.

The issue was raised on Manny's review of this book as to whether it was possible to sell the idea that we should be wearing chunky warm sweaters and that if only we'd all do this, practically all the problems facing us would be solved. Or something like that...sorry, I like to be extravagant.

Can warm jumpers look sexy? If I was a boy I'd think all these were:



She's so gorgeous I have to give you this one too:

When I was little I really wanted to grow up to be Julie because it seemed like the obvious way to get Christopher Plummer to fall in love with me:

Well, I don't see why the good example of these girls can't save the planet for us. If anybody can.



"If some sense of moderation cannot check the raging avarice which without concern for mankind increases and grows by leaps and bounds--we will not say from year to year, month to month, or day to day, but almost from hour to hour and even from minute to minute--if our regard for the people's welfare could tolerate unmoved this mad licence from which in such a situation the people suffer in the worst possible fashion from day to day, some ground perhaps would be found for concealing the truth and saying nothing. . . ."

I guess that might have been written yesterday, but actually it was Diocletian during the fall of the Roman Empire.

What is the difference between us and all the other civilisations that have, at their apex, destroyed themselves? Ours is the only one that built the capacity to take the whole shebang with it. It must be really irritating to people who live in straw huts and walk everywhere that they are going to go too.



Look at this:

Campaigners also mislead. People who want to promote renewables over nuclear, for example, say “offshore wind power could power all UK homes;” then they say “new nuclear power stations will do little to tackle climate change” because 10 new nuclear stations would “reduce emissions only by about 4%.” This argument is misleading because the playing field is switched half-way through, from the “number of homes powered” to “reduction of emissions.” The truth is that the amount of electrical power generated by the wonderful windmills that “could power all UK homes” is exactly the same as the amount that would be generated by the 10 nuclear power stations! “Powering all UK homes” accounts for just 4% of UK emissions.

That's a fabulously dishonest piece of promotion, I must say.

What about this statistic:

p. 100

The financial expenditure by the USA on manufacturing and deploying nuclear weapons from 1945 to 1996 was $5.5 trillion (in 1996 dollars). Nuclear-weapons spending over this period exceeded the combined total federal spending for education; agriculture; training, employment, and social services; natural resources and the environment; general science, space, and technology; community and regional development (including disaster relief); law enforcement; and energy production and regulation.

I've read this paragraph a dozen times and I'm still gobsmacked. It's like some bizarre sci-fi story. The idea that it is the real world, the real expenditure of a Western democracy, beggars belief.

Another fascinating statistic:

p. 221

According to the Stern review, the global cost of averting dangerous climate change (if we act now) is $440 billion per year ($440 per year per person, if shared equally between the 1 billion richest people). In 2005, the US government alone spent $480 billion on wars and preparation for wars. The total military expenditure of the 15 biggest military-spending countries was $840 billion.

There is some discussion here of the nature of the market and whether it can be the tool via which climate change is meaningfully brought about.

pp. 224-5

What should we do to bring about the development of non-fossil energy supply, and of efficiency measures? One attitude is “Just let the market handle it. As fossil fuels become expensive, renewables and nuclear power will become relatively cheaper, and the rational consumer will prefer efficient technologies.” I find it odd that people have such faith in markets, given how regularly markets give us things like booms and busts, credit crunches, and collapses of banks. Markets may be a good way of making some short-term decisions – about investments that will pay off within ten years or so – but can we expect markets to do a good job of making decisions about energy, decisions whose impacts last many decades or centuries?

If the free market is allowed to build houses, we end up with houses
that are poorly insulated. Modern houses are only more energy-efficient thanks to legislation.

Well, not really. The market, like the democracy is no more than the reflection of our wishes. We can't blame the market, any more than we can blame our politicians. Both are doing what we want.

What we have to change is not the market, not the politicians, but ourselves. The rest will follow. But unfortunately we all have the pathetic 'little old me can't do anything on my own and so I will do nothing' attitude which lets us carry on doing the wrong thing ad infinitum. And so everybody does nothing, whereas if they all did something, that would add up to quite a bit. It is plain wrong to say that doing something isn't enough. Just setting an example is something. Fighting the good fight is something. And that will be catchy. If we do the right thing, the politicians and the market will do the right thing too. Stop blaming systems and institutions and others. Take responsibility, each and every person. It is your fault, my fault, our fault.

If we want the market and the politicians to do the right thing, at least behave in a way that lets them understand that.

Still, the fact is that democracy is uniquely unqualified for the task at hand. The whole point of democracy as it is played out in practice in most of the world is that I say 'yes' and you say 'no'. It is how it works. Well, if you call that working. Nothing, including as we can see now, the end of the world, is going to change that.

We need a benevolent dictator, somebody at the top of the world whom we permit to be in charge. It is obvious from reading this book that if we did that now, with not much money and not much time invested, there is the distinct possibility that we would save ourselves. I'm voting for Bill Clinton. If he sorted out the US economy, surely this will be a piece of cake for him. Even when he's lying you feel like you can trust him. He has an equally good micro and macro eye. He knows an awful lot. He's fair.

And, just addressing the girls in the audience, who wouldn't want to not have sex with him? Or is that just in my head because I'm not getting enough?

25 reviews12 followers
August 23, 2019
If there is one question this book answers, it is this - Can we even sustain out current lifestyle with renewable energy? You may not like the answer. For anyone even remotely serious about climate change, this book clarifies all the skepticism around it, with data. SEWTHA is an excellent resource to understand how different strategies for renewable energy play out, and how beneficial they are. David creates 2 stacks - one for consumption and one for production and illustrates how we can reduce consumption and increase production.

Inspired by this book, I wrote an article doing all the calculations for India (David does it for UK). https://the-ken.com/story/india-green...

I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Aaron Gertler.
194 reviews70 followers
January 24, 2017
Sometimes, you just want numbers. And in this case, the numbers are free. Free!

Worm, my favorite book of 2014, featured (mild spoiler) a man whose power was organization: The bigger and more complicated the plan, the better. He becomes a villain when the government rejects his brilliant strategy to solve world hunger.

David MacKay is the nonfictional version of this. He tells you facts, then more facts, then combines the facts into a plan that would clearly work, if only everyone would cooperate! 

He isn't as frustrated as I am, unless he hides it very well behind his graphs. He just gets on with the facts, at a rate of approximately 0.8 facts per sentence. (Many of the non-factual sentences are quotes from other writers who make things up, and require correction from Mr. MacKay.) If two sources disagree, MacKay breaks down their claims into a single question, answers the question, and moves on. He even uses colored fonts to make his numbers easier to read!

I'm a little bit in love with this man, and judging by his miraculous Amazon reviews , I'm not the only one. And his book, again, is free. Please join me in my devotion.
Profile Image for Guy.
155 reviews66 followers
January 26, 2010
An excellent book that lives up to its title if not its aim. If you want to understand what a comparably affluent, post-carbon, green future based on renewable energy might look like... and what we'd have to do to get there... then read this book. It makes clear that the problems (global warming, peak fossil fuels) we are faced with will require country-sized solutions (literally!)... and that most of the energy sources that are touted as solutions are in fact of negligable impact (biofuels, I'm looking at you).

Ultimately, though, the message is a positive one because he shows that we can dramatically reduce our primary energy expenditures without loss of quality of life (transportation and household heating and electricity), and that there are a couple of energy sources that are both practical and affordable replacements for fossil fuels -- nuclear power and concentrating solar power in deserts (coupled with long-distance high voltage DC power lines). Whether or not we are intelligent enough to implement these solutions before we wreck the climate and endure significant economic decline is another question.

I'd have given "Sustainable Energy..." five stars if I thought that it would be read and understood by enough people to give it a chance of achieving its main goal, which is to introduce facts and numbers into the sustainable energy debate... but I fear that being a Cambridge Physics professor (as MacKay is) is not enough of a draw these days to get many people to buy (or download -- it's free on the Net) it. However, if you are reading this review, haven't read this book, and are interested in a clearly presented, rationally argued, and surprisingly humourous analysis of what we need to do on the sustainable energy front, why, and what the consequences would be... then what are you waiting for? Buy/download this book.
Profile Image for Helen (Helena/Nell).
136 reviews114 followers
November 29, 2010
Available free from http://www.withouthotair.com/

Hey, my first free book. It took me a very long time to get around to reading it, and even now there's bits where I crumbled because it was a bit hard for me. But I think it's an amazing piece of work. Mackay has the ability to cut clean through obfuscation and do simple things with numbers. I wish I could do this. He put me in a position where I could think about some of the things that have been baffling me for years.

And he has a sense of humour.

AND he's on Youtube.

And he can write.
Profile Image for Suhrob.
400 reviews51 followers
January 4, 2011
Available for free: http://www.withouthotair.com/

Highly recommended! Book is highly accesisble and provides a great introduction to the topic. If you belong to a group of people not believing in (antrophogenic or not) global warming you still can read it - the issues is carefully decoupled from global warming.

It's crucial that we educate ourselves about this topic.

I've read the book after seeing a talk from Hermann Scheer (who passed away this year). Although I have to learn about his work, Scheer seemed as a no-bullshit, intelligent proponent of solar energy. He challanged my (admitedly weakly informed) opinion, that it just won't work out - so I wanted to learn more about the issue and picked up MacKay's book.

The aim of the book is to take into consideration all current (and near future) fossil/renewable sources to see whether they can possibly cover our demands. He does so using simple, back-of-the-envelope calculations. Calculations are for Britain specifically, but a recipe for other countries is provided.
Global warming issue is almost omitted - the reasoning is that a transition to sustainable energy is necessary independently from the global warming issue. I think it's a good approach and could (hopefully) get the book into hands off GW-denier crowds, too.

The argumentation is very clear and unbiased in my opinion. As MacKay puts it: he is pro-arithmetic, rather then a priori pro- any specific policy. The writing is light and very readable, there are some jokes and there are many pictures and especially the plots are uniformly well done, providing excellent visualization for the data and concepts. I'm really inspired by the plots on the purely formal side - this is some seriously great data visualization.

Bottom line:
Absolutely recommended. Get it for free or buy it. You won't regret it. We have to learn more!

Profile Image for Bartosz Pranczke.
32 reviews33 followers
November 4, 2019
This book feels like an engineering textbook. And this is exactly how we should approach the subject. Data, numbers, and calculations without ethics and interests. I'd love to live in a world where this is the way we talk about serious issues. But I understand this also makes this book probably unreadable or unenjoyable for the majority of our society.

This is also one of the saddest books I've read.
It was released in 2008 and sustainable energy was a serious issue then. In the book, there are 5 plans what we can do to improve the situation by 2020. As I read the book in late 2019 I can say, that we haven't done much and the problem is even worse nowadays.

I like how even though the author tries to have a sustainable strategy, he gives also all the trade-offs. We now have plenty of activism (like, let's plant millions of trees) that are not aware of trade-offs and whether their strategy solves the bigger problem. This book teaches how to evaluate the reasonableness of any environmental idea/initiative.

After reading this book I thought that Davi MacKay is exactly a person who can make a difference in the way we tackle the problem of sustainable energy and I should follow whatever he writes. Sadly, I learned that he died 3 years ago.
Profile Image for Brahm.
468 reviews55 followers
February 3, 2022
This would be a great "first book" on energy if it's a topic of interest. MacKay is trying to get to the bottom of two questions:
1) What would the future energy makeup of the UK look like if we weaned off fossil fuels?
2) How can we show these calculations in the least complicated and most transparent way possible?

The main body of the book is only 260 pages, in fact it's even shorter as in addition to a long technical appendix, each chapter has a few pages of easily-skipped/skimmed endnotes if you're just interested in the main body. This snarky Brit spends the first couple chapters helping the reader understand the problem of energy balance and orienting on some common units, settling on "kWh per day".

Part one of the book is alternatingly building up the UK's energy consumption and possible production from sustainable sources, as he tries to answer the question, "CAN we produce all of our required energy sustainably?" The balance sheet continues growing with each chapter: the production and consumption bar graphs continue growing as new categories are added.

Part 2 is reconciling of production and consumption and how fully-"sustainable" energy balance might be possible, exploring some of the pros and cons of different sources. For example, would we rather build 100 km^2 of solar in the North African desert and pipe it up to the UK, or 10x our nuclear footprint?

MacKay is not biased to any energy source, exploring the pros and cons and giving the reader the tools to put together their own energy balance. The conclusion one quickly reaches is one can't be NIMBY against wind AND solar AND nuclear AND think you can get off fossil fuels.

Here are a smattering of random takeaways from this book:
- "If everyone does a little, we'll only achieve a little" (p3)
- Flying is insanely energy-intensive, while simultaneously being near its efficiency limit (we can improve by a few percent, but not an order of magnitude). One intercontinental flight per year is about the same energy footprint (converted to kWh/day; not the same as carbon footprint) as driving an average gas-powered car 50km/day, 365 days/year.
- One key metric for sustainable sources is "energy yield ratio", which is how much output do you get from an energy asset divided by the energy cost to produce that asset. For photovoltaic (PV) solar installed in Central Northern Europe with a 20-year lifespan it's about 4, whereas wind turbines with a 20-year lifespan it's 80. While I am sure the energy costs to manufacture PV solar are dropping, this further squelches my desire to do PV solar in Saskatchewan.
- "Wind turbines kill birds!" argument demolished. Turbines kill 30,000 birds per year in wind-heavy Denmark. However, car traffic kills an estimated 1,000,000 birds/year in Denmark. And cats in the Britain kill 55,000,000 birds/year.
- "Every BIG helps" (chapter 19, p114). Great chapter shutting down the "if only millions of people made this small change" fallacy. We need big changes.
- Heat pumps are awesome and most climates should use them for energy-efficient heating and cooling. Sadly the Canadian prairies are too cold for them to work, last time I looked into this.
- Chapter 24 is a pretty fair and balanced picture of nuclear. MacKay treats nuclear's sustainability as a question mark, letting the reader draw their own conclusions. I like the stat on nuclear waste on p170. In the UK, the nuclear industry creates 25 ml of waste per person, per year. The country as a whole creates 85 kg per person, per year of "hazardous waste". MacKay asks, "Is it impossible to imagine making another one-square-kilometer spot - perhaps deep underground - off limits for 1000 years?"
- I had never thought about the difference between photovoltaic solar and concentrating solar. PV solar are the expensive panels full of circuits and rare earth metals. Concentrating solar is a bunch of normal mirrors that track the sun to focus energy on a big tank of water or molten salt. They are more energy efficient and much less capital-intensive. Writes snarky MacKay, "My guess is that by 2050, mirrors will still be cheaper than photovoltaic panels, so concentrating solar is the technology on which we should focus".
- Tidal energy is another renewable I knew nothing about. I need to go back and read this chapter again, but it looks promising. Different from wave energy, which is more cumbersome.
- Planting trees is good, but as a carbon sequestration method, it's not great. Trees are only a carbon sink if we protect or store all of that wood and never burn it. p246
- Chapter 27, "Five energy plans for Britain" is a great, brief synthesis of everything the reader has learned as MacKay proposes 5 very different plans for a fossil fuel-free future, exploring some of the pros and cons of each. He writes:
If you don't like any of these plans, I'm not surprised. I agree that there is something unpalatable about every one of them. Feel free to make another plan that is more to your liking. But make sure it adds up!

MacKay re-runs the numbers from Chapter 27 for all of Europe and concludes that Europe can't live on its own renewables, so if the aim is to get off fossil fuels Europe needs nuclear power, or solar in other people's deserts, or both. America might be able to do it with solar in their own deserts (plus a ton of energy storage infrastructure), but it would require blanketing an entire state in mirrors.

I took off one star because some parts of the book were still a bit dry, and I thought MacKay fell into the trap he warned against on page 3 of "thinking little" a few times. The book is also a bit dated (published 2009), but it's a great foundation and licensed under a Creative Commons license. I would be interested in an updated version looking more closely at North America.

If you're interested in sustainable energy, this is where to start.

Available free online: http://www.withouthotair.com/
8 reviews
August 31, 2020
I skimmed this book for the first time in college, as a supplementary reading for a course. This book was the one which started my journey into sustainable energy. This time I liked this book so much more because this book is not only full of clear, concise information but also it presents a way of teaching facts that are contrary to the common belief, especially climate change.

An easy yet eye-opening read. The only thing I don't fully subscribe is to the author's strong optimism. (Still, the author has been as unbiased as possible in presenting the facts).
Profile Image for Nick.
19 reviews24 followers
April 18, 2010
The import of this book is best summed up in Mackay's own words:

"This heated (environmental) debate is fundamentally about numbers. How much energy could each source deliver, at what economic and social cost, and with what risks? But actual numbers are rarely mentioned. In public debates, people just say “Nuclear is a money pit” or “We have a huge amount of wave and wind.” The trouble with this sort of language is that it’s not sufficient to know that something is huge: we need to know how the one “huge” compares with another “huge,” namely our huge energy consumption. To make this comparison, we need numbers, not adjectives."

This is an extremely important book in making these facts clear so that a democracy can make informed choices about the environmental/energy choices that we face. Our governments wont be this straight with us, nor will industry. Mackay's book is understandable for the layman and uses simple numbers / analogies with more detail given in the appendices ffor those who want to follow up. So glad that this is now getting a wider audience and Mackay himself is growing in influence. Numbers not adjectives!
Profile Image for Tuan Anh Le.
44 reviews
February 1, 2023
Nice book that taught me how to estimate my energy consumption in terms of 40W-lightbulb-equivalent using back of envelope calculations. Great as a starting point to any discussion about sustainable energy.
Profile Image for Tim.
372 reviews32 followers
August 25, 2011
This is a terrific book for anyone interested in learning about the shape of our world's energy production. What's unique about the book is how MacKay analyzes the problem of sustainable energy. His calculation is emphatically not the state of the art; it is, in fact, deliberately crude. Any old university, environmental group or coal power trade organization is likely to have more sophisticated energy models and predictions -- with their own assumptions buried deep within. MacKay's book aims to arm his readers with the ability to separate hype and spin from scientific facts.

MacKay (a physicist by trade) approaches sustainable energy as a series of Fermi Problems, or "back-of-the envelope" calculations. This approach seeks to take a complicated problem and boil it down to its essential core. As the saying goes, "as simple as possible, but no simpler."

To solve such a problem it helps to clearly state assumptions, identify the right physical quantities (and their units) and ultimately arrive at an "order of magnitude" estimate. Physicists in particular are trained in this way of thinking and often use it as their first crack at a research problem. The process won't necessarily get the "right" answer, right away, but by doing it you learn the structure of the problem and better understand how your simple model might be made more accurate.

MacKay's goal with this book is to assess whether it is even technically possible (economics and politics aside) to live on sustainable energy. The energy system is, of course, quite complicated, but MacKay breaks it up into numerous bite-sized problems, with each bite yielding an estimate of part of our energy consumption or production. Wind, solar, biofuel, nuclear, cars, heating, gadgets, etc. are all subjected to this analysis.

The book can be read on many levels. The main narrative is suitable for interested layfolk who aren't scared off by equations. Many of the most fun Fermi problems are contained in the appendix, which should probably be read by any physical science students studying for their doctoral candidacy exams. The figure captions and endnotes also provide a wealth of additional information, such that the book has that multi-threaded feel you get from browsing wikipedia for an hour.

MacKay ultimately concludes that yes, it is indeed possible to switch to sustainable energy. He even provides 5 different possible plans for Great Britain. But he cautions that none of them will be easy and all will require the citizenry to start saying "yes" to change, rather than complaining about how ugly windfarms are.

For MacKay, it remains an open question whether the political barriers are surmountable and whether human societies will choose sustainability as a preemptive strike against ecological collapse. This crucial political and economic question is left as an exercise for the reader.

[PS- I forgot to mention this book is available for free at http://www.withouthotair.com/.]
Profile Image for Shoti.
105 reviews2 followers
August 11, 2018
Reliance on fossil fuels for energy production can present multiple problems. First, fossil fuels are a finite resource. Second, capricious changes in foreign politics can jeopardize security of energy supply and economic stability. Third, fossil fuels alter the climate and cause global warming (unless someone happens to deny human-caused global warming). An obvious solution could be the broader use of sustainable energy sources within a country's energy production. The author, Professor Sir David MacKay, who was a physics professor at the University of Cambridge, found the state of British public debate quite miserable about the possible role of sustainable energy sources. He observes that statements often lack numbers, e.g. “Nuclear is a money pit” or “We have a HUGE amount of wave and wind.” Even when numbers are used they are often chosen to impress rather than to inform, e.g. “14 billion pounds of trash are dumped in the sea every day.” He decided to seek a reasonable answer to the question of whether a country like Britain could conceivably live on its own renewable energy sources.

The book consists of two parts. In the first one he prepares a balance sheet of Britain's current energy consumption versus conceivable energy production by sustainable sources. For energy consumption he aggregates the estimated energy needs of cars, airplanes, heating and cooling, lighting, electronic gadgets, food production, manufacturing and transportation of consumer goods, public services. He then compares that with the UK’s capacity to produce energy through the most devoted use of all conceivable sustainable energy sources such as wind (onshore and offshore), solar (solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, solar biomass, food), hydro, waves, tide, geothermal. Obviously, he uses a bunch of assumptions and simplifications to arrive at numbers, both for energy production and energy consumption, which can be measured against each other. Further, he decidedly disregards economics and politics. Whether a particular sustainable energy source is economically viable is an important question but MacKay exclusively focuses on the technological feasibility of sustainable energy production. As if an imaginary British government had decided to fully rely on sustainable energy, and sustainable energy only, regardless of costs. Consequently, the author envisions solar photovoltaic farms of half the size of Wales or wave farms covering 500 km of coastline. Is it realistic to fully disregard economics and politics? Not at all. However, the author's goal, to know whether it is technologically feasible to get off fossil fuels and continue on renewables only, justifies his peculiar approach.

So, what’s his conclusion? Is it realistic to believe that Britain could live on renewables? Well, with the current level of energy consumption and assuming a further steady increase prospectively it does not seem plausible - at least not the way we currently live. In the second part of the book, MacKay looks at what changes are needed by keeping our lifestyle but reducing its energy intensity through efficiency and technology. He presents an array of ideas and possibilities about how we could reduce energy consumption in transportation (electrification of transportation), heating and cooling (electrification along with use of heat pumps which are four times more efficient than ordinary electric heaters). He elaborates on how nuclear energy could help, as well as the use of sustainable energy produced by and imported from other countries (especially those with massive solar power capacity in their deserts). Again, he does not limit his brainstorming by political considerations so he is ready to envision how two solar farms, a square of size 600 km by 600 km each, based in North Africa, could help solve the energy problem of Europe and North Africa. Finally, he assesses the possibility of living on sustainable energy sources in Europe (where the average energy consumption is 125 kWh per day per person), in North America (with an average energy consumption of 250 kWh per day per person - yes, that is exactly the double of the European use!), and the whole world (80 kWh per day per person). The bottom line in the case of Europe is that, just like Britain, Europe can’t live on its own renewables only. So, if the aim is to get off fossil fuels, Europe needs nuclear power, or solar power produced in other people’s deserts, or both. North America, thanks to the massive potential of its own solar power, could live on its own renewables only. North America needs to put solar power to good use in its own deserts, or consider nuclear power, or both, to be able to get off fossil fuels. For the whole world, non-solar renewables may be huge but to be able to get off fossil fuels the very extensive use of solar power, or nuclear power, or both, is inevitable.

One of the most interesting chapters is the one on fluctuations and storage of energy produced through sustainable sources. Contrary to fossil-fuel power plants, most renewables are not turn-off-turn-onable. According to MacKay, pumped storage systems could use cheap electricity (e.g. when there is plenty of sunshine, more than what is needed in the electric grid) to shove water from a downhill lake / sea / ocean to an uphill lake / reservoir. When energy becomes valuable the water, cascading from uphill to downhill, could make turbines turn just like in hydroelectric power stations and generate energy when it is most needed. Another original idea of MacKay is to use electric vehicles to balance out fluctuations in energy supply and demand. Supposing a widespread use of electric vehicles combined with smart chargers, which would be aware of the value of electricity at a given time, the chargers could guzzle electricity ‘whenever the wind blows’ and switch off ‘when the wind drops’.

Reading this book can be very entertaining, as well as rather challenging, depending on the approach. The book contains plenty of computations, detailed footnotes, technical explanations, equations, so one can easily spend weeks, if not months, by digesting all those in detail. Alternatively, one can skip the detailed computations, read the conclusions only (this is what I did), and greatly enjoy the book's humorous and light tone all the way.
Profile Image for Andrej Karpathy.
110 reviews3,470 followers
November 3, 2012
This book offers a great overview of issues surrounding Energy policy in the UK (and the world). There is a lot of analysis of the various renewable energy sources and their potential of helping us replace fossil fuels over the next few decades. Economics of every choice is only briefly touched on, however. Still, the book offers a nice and fairly exhaustive exploration of our options and lays out most of the issues surrounding the implementation. David MacKay (author) is also first and foremost a revered scientist who studies this because he cares, which in my view makes him easier to trust on facts, figures and opinions.
Profile Image for Cathy.
57 reviews2 followers
February 14, 2013
A wonderful, calculation-based overview on moving toward greener energy sources. The physicist author sets aside all social debates on choosing cleaner power sources, so the book is strictly focused on the physical possibilities for decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions. It does an excellent, clear job of explaining options to the lay reader. In order to understand why cleaner energy options are not already in place, the reader would need to search elsewhere, though, for sources on the economy and politics of our choices.

You can find the whole text online, too: http://www.withouthotair.com/
98 reviews5 followers
April 4, 2018
Manny wrote a beautiful sentence outlining the summary of the book.

Reading this book was like meeting someone, falling madly in love, and finding out she's got a terminal illness, all in the space of twenty minutes.

We know that there is no way we can sustain our energy needs by burning more fossil fuels. This book carefully analyses each renewable energy source, and stacks them against the fossil fuels that we burn. Unfortunately, any single renewable source like solar or wind is not sustainable in the long run, what we need is a combined effort to effectively use them all. The book uses statistical and quantitative analysis to compare different energy sources and does a good job at providing an unbiased overview. Unintentionally, the book is sometimes funny in it’s harsh criticism. Recommended read!
Profile Image for Adam Marischuk.
222 reviews22 followers
April 4, 2020
Professor MacKay died in 2016 from stomach cancer and the website that offers this book for free has not been updated since then (http://withouthotair.com) which is unfortunate to say the least. It seems to me that the website was designed to encourage people to buy and read the print book. Perhaps some enterprising engineer, computer technicial or physicist could take up the mantle and cleanup the webpage.

There is a lot to enjoy in this book. The graphs are excellent and pertinent. The way the numbered chapters bounce back and forth from energy consumption to energy production is a little like watching a basketball game as the scores on each side gradually move upwards. The supplemental chapters (lettered) go into further detail for the curious reader and often are more interesting than the less detailed summary chapters.

The book is intended to throw cold water on some of the more extreme environmentalist positions of renewable energy by calculating the prospective energy production from renewables and (together with efficiencies) whether it is possible to completely divest from fossil fuels.

In this way he hoped to shock the radical environmentalists and jolt those who believe 'every little helps' ("if everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little" page 3).

However, there are three major flaws in the book as of 2020. One is chronological and the other two are philosophical.

The chronological flaw is simply that the book is over a decade old and that much has transpired in that time. The professor can't be criticised for that; however, England's population has grown by 12% to 67 million (mostly due to immigration) while at the same time the CO2 immisions have decreased by a third (mostly due to turning off the coal power plants and reductions in consumption due to efficiencies). Brexit has happened, GDP has grown 20%. Oil has gone from $80 a barrel to a peak of $131 (2011) to the current $20 (2020). China has surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions. The United States is now an energy exporter. The Arab Spring failed. Trump was elected.

It is fun to see which predictions were accurate (closing coal power), inaccurate (closing nuclear, the wider use of electric vehicles, telecommuting and video conferencing...I write while working fromhome due to the coronavirus) and hilarious ("This crisis is coming soon...when oil extraction can't meet demand-perhaps as soon as 2015 or 2025" quoting David Goodstein page 2).

But his list of consumer goods is irredeemably dated: Portable CD player, bedside clock radio, radio cassette-player, video recorder, answering machine, cordless telephone. How much of current energy consumption is associated with these products is likely equal to my grandmother's energy consumption.

The first philosophical flaw is an economic one. Despite his protests that this is not an economic book "Please remember, this is not a book about economics" (p. 214), it is still clearly lacking in that area. MacKay wants to throw cold water on the notion that every little (bit) helps, but his solution is the most drastic, heavyhanded centralised planning imaginable. Chapter 29 (What to do now) is particularly egregious, all of his solutions require strong (in my view excessive) government involvement in the form of a) taxation b) regulation c) nationalisation:

three motivations for getting off fossil fuels: the end of cheap fossil fuels; security of supply; and climate change. (222)

the price of carbon dioxide must be such that people stop burning coal without capture(222)

oil and gas is of secondary importance because the supplies of both oil and gas are expected to decline over the next 50 years (222)

So what do politicians do?...The first step towards this goal is for the government to finance a large-scale demonstration project (222)

Experts say that a long-term guaranteed carbon price of somethings like $100 per ton of CO2 will do the trick (223)

As fossil fuel becomes more expensive (223)

If the free market is allowed to build houses, we end up with houses that are poorly insulated. Modern houses are only more energy-efficient thanks to legislation. (225)

many manufacturers supply us with stuff that has planned obsolescence (225)

Here are some further examples of failures of the free market (226)

Government interventions are necessary...Support for research and development? Tax-incentives favouring new products (227)

government should simply ban the sales of the Dino-gizmo (227)

So some sort of intervention is required...for example, government could legislate a huge tax on inefficient appliances; ban the sale of all fridges...require all flats... or introduce a system of mandatory... (228)

The second is an environmental one. The carbon boogeyman is assumed to require the most drastic action, the complete divestment from fossil fuels...yet... over a decade later the only thing that has got noticably worse are the shrill cries of doom from environmentalists. I've lived through enough apocalypses (the Malthusian trap, the hole in the ozone, acid rain, swtiching to lead-free fuel, Y2K, peak oil, hurricane Katrina, NSA spying, Islamic terrorism, Brexit and the election of Trump) to conclude that revolutionary action seems to never be required, as evolutionary change is more than sufficient. The world is gradually improving, with the exception of places with strong government controls, like Communist China, North Korea, and Venezuela. All of these apocalypses (including the present coronavirus) usually end up more like the Mayan 2012 calendar than anything else.

Profile Image for Farid Hasanov.
80 reviews13 followers
February 21, 2020
Great book for anyone, who is interested on how alternative energy supply and potential benefits can be quantified. Reader can get an understanding, perhaps approximate, of how much energy can be derived from the renewable sources, how this compares to the current demand(author has taken as an example England - but the physics of process remains the same everywhere), and how much area will need to be covered in order to satisfy the daily needs of typical person. That's definitely the type of information, that needs to be fed to any politician, economist or whoever who is making policy decisions regarding energy infrastructure. Highly recommended
8 reviews
August 2, 2021
very in-depth book that does as the title suggests - provides lots of calculations and then based on the numbers critiques whether or not a particular field or piece of tech will be useful in the pursuit of eliminating carbon emissions.

personally found it to be a bit of a slog with lots of numbers flying everywhere but it’s the kind of book I’ll probably re-check occasionally to remember a specific term as a base for future research
Profile Image for Daniela.
37 reviews35 followers
September 12, 2021
Just a few days after watching Seaspiracy, the ending of this book hit me like a huge epiphany.

Avoiding dangerous climate change is impossible – dangerous climate change is already here. The question is, can we avoid catastrophic climate change? Yes. But only if we start to be aware of the mammoth in the room and wise and curageous enough to take relevant actions. Actions that truly add up!


“Have no illusions. Don’t be distracted by the myth that every little helps. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes.”
Profile Image for Chris.
57 reviews9 followers
February 5, 2020
Great analysis on energy consumption / production, technical where it needs to be but not excessively so. Five stars.
Profile Image for James Dixon.
11 reviews
September 9, 2022
Didn’t realise this was a textbook when I added it to my want to read, nor when I ordered it, lol.
Profile Image for Connor.
15 reviews
April 17, 2023
Anyone with even a vague interest in energy should read this book. Incredibly accessible given the difficulties of transitioning to renewables it captures the challenges and considerations extremely well. Later chapters dive into the technical details and calculations for those that want. Becoming progressively more complex as it progresses, the book allows the audience to explore the topic in as much or little depth as they’d like
7 reviews
May 7, 2021
One of the finest pieces of non-fiction I have ever read. David MacKay is a piercingly clear writer; if you want to understand climate change and energy, this book is a great place to start.
June 4, 2022
Very entertaining and informative book. Even if all the scenarios were heavily based on assumptions, it does give a decent picture of the herculean task we have ahead of us. More than trying to solve the problem, I think this book really helps with framing the problem and how to look for answers. Even with all the advance in technology, this book remains actual. There’s not been a breakthrough so far that would make me bin this book and even if there was one, I think this book can still be very useful.
Profile Image for Victor Samuel.
13 reviews
October 29, 2013
We’ve heard the buzz of energy saving. “Plugging off your unused charger can save the planet,” says a green-colored poster in your town. Or your colleague bragged, “I became veggie because of scientific reason: energy and carbon footprint.” Then questions might have popped in your head. “Is it true? Can all those things save the world? Or are they just another hoax made up by environmental hippies?”

We’ve also heard conflicting claims from experts within the energy debates. “All we need are renewables,” says environmentalist A; “nuclear is inevitable,” says physicist B; “we must produce more oil,” says politician C—leaving us puzzled.

David J.C Mackay—engineering professor in the University of Cambridge and scientific adviser to the United Kingdom—has brought numbers into the debate. “Renewable resources are ‘huge,’” he wrote, “but our energy consumption is also ‘huge.’ To compare ‘huge’ things with each other, we need numbers, not adjectives.” He repetitively underlined his key message: we need a plan that adds up—factually. And he guided us on how we can construct one.

He addressed the issue on different levels: (1) individual level (does driving an electric car or being a vegetarian really save energy?); (2) national level (can the United Kingdom live by renewables?); (3) continental and global level (can we meet the European or the world’s energy demand if we cover the whole Sahara with solar cells?).

I like three features of the book. First, it is free. Mackay made it freely downloadable and allowed us to use all of his material (except the cartoons). Second, it involves scientifically sound arguments but is amazingly easy and fun to read. He used everyday values, like calories of butter for estimating fuel energy content. Last, it purposefully guides the laypeople. He performed easy calculations with rounded numbers so the readers can reproduce them in their own context. He also remained ethically neutral and let the reader judge based on facts, not hot air. He spared us the technicalities by compiling it in the appendix, which he claimed any high-school student in natural sciences can enjoy.

To sum up, the book empowers people—students, activists, politicians—to bust the myths and generate meaningful opinions regarding energy policy. If all those debates and statements still baffle you, Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air is all you need.

Profile Image for Ushan.
801 reviews67 followers
December 27, 2010
David MacKay FRS is a professor of physics at Cambridge University who has written a very good textbook on information theory. He was bugged by the omnipresent illiterate claims about energy and the environment, for instance, that one can save a significant amount of energy by unplugging the mobile phone charger when it is not being used (yes, you'll save about as much energy in a day as a car consumes in a second), and decided to write a book that would get the facts straight. In this book, Professor MacKay asks the question: can Great Britain be self-sufficient in sustainable energy? He examines the energy used by the average Briton for ground transportation, air transportation, TVs and other gadgets, manufactured products, food, and HVAC, and the energy that can be produced by hydroelectric plants, onshore wind turbines, offshore wind turbines, tide turbines, biomass, solar photovoltaic plants and solar thermal plants. At first, it seems that the total sustainable energy is far smaller than the total consumption, even if you turn the island and its nearby waters into a huge wind farm. His solution is to electrify transportation, promote public transportation, use heat pumps for heating and cooling (in Great Britain, unlike California, heating is needed much more often than cooling), and use batteries of electric cars to store intermittently produced wind energy, possibly having two electric grids, a reliable one and an intermittent one. If Britain doesn't want to turn herself into an island-sized wind farm, she can build many more nuclear plants, or build solar plants in the Sahara and bring electricity to the island through high-voltage DC lines (so instead of politics of Iraqi oil and Russian gas there will be politics of Libyan sun).
57 reviews14 followers
September 5, 2016
A book I should have read a long time ago before wasting so much time on wishful thinking about renewable energy such as offshore wind, solar etc. The author compares our energy sinks on the one side (transport, heating, manufacturing etc) and our sustainable (lasting at least a 1000 years), zero carbon energy sources on the other, by converting both to a simple common metric (kWh/person/day) and see if they add up. The goal is to see whether we can maintain our current levels of energy use (European average is 125 kWh/person/day) using sustainable energy sources. The book primarily deals with Britain but parallels can be drawn for most countries. Definitely a perspective changing book for me.

As a fun exercise, I thought I'd do a similar calculation for solar energy in India with a target of 125 kWh/person/day. (My source is Wikipedia, not the best source)
India currently has 1.252 billion people and an area of 3.287 million km2 which gives us around 2625 m2 per person.
Solar energy in India gives us 0.2 kWh/m2 of used land area. So if we completely cover 10% of India (all of Maharashtra) with solar panels, it gives us 52.5 kWh/person/day, a third of our target. Clearly, we need to back solar up with other power sources. I hope to update this review (if and when I feel the motivation) with the numbers for offshore wind farms, and nuclear too.
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