Tim's Reviews > Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David J.C. MacKay
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it was amazing
bookshelves: enviro, favorites, science

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/.]
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