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14 November 2009

Sustainable Energy- Without the Hot Air

Tag(s): Sustainability

BLOG  SUSTAINABLE ENERGY- WITHOUT THE HOT AIR

If you want to understand the issues about sustainable energy then read “Sustainable energy- without the hot air” by David JC MacKay. David MacKay is a Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge and following the publication of this book became Chief Scientific Adviser to the newly formed Department for Energy and Climate Change. You can buy the book online or download it for free from http://www.withouthotair.com/

Earlier this year I was invited by Professor Brian Collins, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Transport to a seminar on sustainable energy where Professor MacKay was one of the speakers. Afterwards I had the opportunity to discuss some of his ideas with him and was motivated to buy the book as a result.

The book is dedicated “to those who will not have the benefit of two billion years’ accumulated energy reserves” and is about peak oil rather than climate change. It is a practical evaluation of the problems raised by declining reserves of fossil fuels and it seeks to dispel some of the myths that have arisen around renewable forms of energy while still seeking to show that it is possible, though very challenging, to maintain something like our current lifestyle fuelled by a combination of nuclear and renewable energy.

We are addicted to fossils fuels and it’s not sustainable. We’re often told that "huge amounts of renewable power are available”- wind, wave, tide and so forth. But our current power consumption is also huge! To understand our sustainable energy crisis, we need to know how one huge compares with the other. We need numbers not adjectives.

The book shows how to estimate those numbers, and what those numbers depend on. Taking the United Kingdom as an example, it asks first “could Britain live on renewable energy resources alone?” and second “how can a country like Britain make realistic post-fossil fuel energy plan that adds up?” It answers these questions in detail, bringing home the size of the changes that society must undergo if sustainable living is to be achieved. It’s not going to be easy to make an energy plan that adds up- but it’s possible.

As an example of the sort of myths that swirl around in this space and make it difficult for the public to understand and therefore change behaviour here is an extract:

“One of the greatest dangers to society is the phone charger. The BBC News has              been warning us of this since 2005:

“The nuclear power stations will all be switched off in a few years. How can we keep Britain’s light on? … unplug your mobile-phone charger when it’s not in use.”

Sadly a year later, Britain hadn’t got the message and the BBC was forced to report:

“Britain tops energy waste league.”

And how did this come about? The BBC rams the message home:

“65% of UK consumers leave chargers on.”

From the way reporters talk about these planet-destroying black objects, it’s clear that they are roughly as evil as Darth Vader. But how evil, exactly?

….Modern phone chargers, when left plugged in with no phone attached, use about half a watt. …this is a power consumption of about 0.01kWh per day. For anyone whose consumption (stack) is over 100 kWh per day, the BBC’s advice, always unplug the charger, could potentially reduce their energy consumption by one hundredth of one percent (if only they would do it).

                Every little helps!

I don’t think so. Obsessively switching off the phone charger is like bailing the Titanic with a tea spoon. Do switch it off but please be aware how tiny a gesture it is. Let me put it this way:

All the energy saved in switching off your charger for one day is used up in one second of car driving.

The energy saved in switching off the charger for one year is equal to the energy in a single hot bath.”

However, Professor MacKay goes on to show that some gadgets are very hungry for power. A laser printer when on and active uses 500 watts, 5 times that of a TV, and even inactive is using 17 watts, the same as a fridge freezer, which of course is performing a useful task. I have been turning my printer off after every use since reading that.

The book is packed with such gems and should be on everyone’s Christmas list this year. It also is good at illustrating the hypocrisy of the politicians on the rare occasions that they get engaged with this crisis.

e.g. “Unless we act now, not some time distant but now, these consequences disastrous as they are will be irreversible. So there is nothing more serious, more urgent or more demanding of leadership.”

Tony Blair, 30 October 2006

A bit impractical actually…”

Tony Blair, two months later, responding to the suggestion that he should show leadership by not flying to Barbados for holidays.

Given this it is perhaps surprising that Professor MacKay has accepted the invitation to advise DECC on this issue and it is to be hoped that his views will be heard.

Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved




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