Thursday, October 01, 2009

Review of Sustainable Energy--without the hot air

I was surfing some energy related blogs yesterday when I ran across a link to David MacKay's web-book Sustainable Energy--without the hot air. While long in terms of pages, it is quite skimmable and packed with lots of easy to read tables and figures.

David MacKay does an excellent job of relating the enormity/difficulty of decarbonizing our energy system TO EACH INDIVIDUAL PERSON. His audience is clearly the "average" British citizen and his examples revolve around his intended audience. MacKay breaks down the mind numbingly large national energy flows to the per person level. He uses simple round numbers that cut through the complexity of a national energy system without losing the essential reality of our current energy usage and challenging prospects for decarbonizing it.

After providing a relatively thorough assessment of the British consumer's options for living sustainably--given current sustainable technology and throwing in some technologies that will likely become available in the medium term--which revolve around better (in carbon terms) transport and more efficient heating/cooling, plus "all of the above" renewable generating technologies, MacKay gives a brief overview of the rest of the world can follow suit. It is worth noting that efficiency improvements (2/3 from converting to EVs + mass transit, 1/3 from more efficient heating--a.k.a. heat pumps) are ~ equal to "realistic" renewable resources.

MacKay effectively quashes the notion of British energy independence--in the sustainable energy sense that the island is able to generate as much as it uses. But he does hold out the hope that "imported" solar energy from deserts/North Africa could balance the British carbon energy equation in the long term.

As a major solar enthusiast I was disappointed to see that prospects for solar in Britain appear limited, although importing energy from solar farms located in desserts could be the *wildcard* in allowing Brits to live sustainably (i.e. without carbon/coal).

Nevertheless MacKay's analysis appears sound. The challenges are major, but if we do the big sensible things (EVs, solar thermal, heat pumps, lower the thermostat in winter etc.) simply becoming AWARE of our horrendous energy appetites seems to have done wonders for MacKay's personal energy use and we ignore the rest (MacKay really resents people who distract him with myopic/trivial energy "fixes" or else he had a bad childhood experience with an undercharged phone) it just looks possible to leave a functioning planet to our children and grandchildren.


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At 11:22 AM, Blogger Cyril R said...

MacKay takes a sound approach in doing things quantitatively and personalizing energy use for better perspective.

There are quite a few strange things in it, though, such as the too much oversimplified way he looks at storage (a better approach would be to have less storage and some biomass for backup when the storage runs dry).

Also, in looking at the wind potential he uses absurdly old references (decades old) which are no longer relevant since new wind turbines are taller and thus access much higher wind speeds than those in the 70s and 80s. This is a major mistake since energy potential is very sensitive to the average wind speed (ie plus 2 meter/sec average wind speed matters a LOT).

The solar desert analysis looks nice though.

A great book, overall. Definately an eye opener for the amateur, and very entertaining for the expert.

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