David MacKay’s sustainable energy calculations

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?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “David MacKay’s sustainable energy calculations”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Pingback: Getting Green Done

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