David MacKay’s sustainable energy calculations

May 25, 2009

in Geek stuff, Science, The environment

For all the readers on this site interesting in climate change, policy, and technology, David MacKay’s book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air is a text that could be very profitably incorporated into our discussions. It seeks to evaluate whether (and how) society could operate without fossil fuels. It does so systematically, with all work shown, allowing you to question the methods and perform your own calculations for different circumstances. Another nice feature is that it is available online for free, though you may find it worthwhile to buy a professionally printed and bound copy.

The book is all about what is physically possible, rather than what is economical. As such, it sets a kind of base standard for sustainability. It evaluates whether something can be done at any cost, a pre-requisite to it being possible at a reasonable one.

To begin with, here is the methodology (p. 22 -28). It explains the exercise being undertaken and explains the key units to be used. The main unit of power selected is the somewhat unusual kilowatt-hour per day (kWh/d) per person (/p). While watts are more conventional, this unit does have some virtues in making things easily comparable and comprehensible. After all, if a kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity costs me about five cents, it is easy to start thinking about the economics of an activity that requires 30 or 40 kWh/d.

Here are a few chapters that touch directly on debates that have occurred (sometimes raged) on this site:

All the other chapters are relevant, as well, but these seem especially likely to inject some new information and thinking into long-running discussions.

The United Kingdom seems to be spoiled with people who are willing to perform comprehensive analyses of how their whole societal energy system could be rendered comparable with a stable climate (George Monbiot’s book is another example). It almost seems worth going through this entire text and re-performing the calculations with Canadian figures as inputs.

Somewhat short of that, would anyone be interested in going through the book chapter by chapter?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter May 26, 2009 at 10:36 am

I would be willing to read it for July’s book.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 11:22 am

It really does speak to many of our discussions.

For instance, this chapter provides a detailed explanation of why making planes slower doesn’t make them more energy efficient.

Peter May 26, 2009 at 11:44 am

I’ve already downloaded it, but I am still pushing through Collapse for June.

Milan May 26, 2009 at 11:59 am

Collapse is what I am reading for June, as well.

Milan May 28, 2009 at 8:52 am
Milan June 1, 2009 at 10:14 am

It is interesting to note that this site is now mentioned on the website for MacKay’s book, in the ‘reviews’ section.

. June 7, 2009 at 9:28 am

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air: the Freakonomics of conservation, climate and energy

By Cory Doctorow on Science

David JC MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air” may be the best technical book about the environment that I’ve ever read. In fact, if I have any complaint about this book, it’s in how it’s presented, with its austere cover and spartan title, I assumed it would be a somewhat dry look at energy, climate, conservation and so on.

It’s not. This is to energy and climate what Freakonomics is to economics: an accessible, meaty, by-the-numbers look at the physics and practicalities of energy. MacKay, a Cambridge Physics prof, approaches the subject of carbon and sustainability with a scientific, numeric eye. First, in a section called “Numbers, not adjectives,” he looks at all the energy and carbon inputs and outputs in Britain and the rest of the world: this is how many kWh of energy are needed to power all of Britain’s vehicles. This is how many kWh you would get if you covered the entire British shore with windmills, or wave-farms. This is Britain’s geothermal potential. Here’s how much carbon vegetarianism offsets. Here’s how much carbon unplugging your idle appliances saves (0.25%, making the campaign to switch off energy vampires into a largely pointless exercise — as MacKay says, “If everyone does a little bit, we’ll get a little bit done”). This is the carbon-footprint of all of Britain’s imports, gadgets, office towers, and so on.

. June 11, 2009 at 5:11 pm

A plan that adds up, for Scotland, England, and Wales. The grey-green squares are wind farms. Each is 100 km2 in size and is shown to scale.

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