David MacKay, author Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, final chat with Mark Lynas

On April 3, 2016, Mark Lynas met with David MacKay, the author of Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, to give him the Breakthrough Institute’s 2016 Paradigm Award. After the brief ceremony, the two influential British thinkers chatted about David’s career, his love of arithmetic, his concerns about humanity and his famous book.

Perhaps the best remembered quote from Without the Hot Air is the following.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.

Dr. MacKay is a practical-minded computer scientist, engineer and physicist who became so frustrated by the inconsistencies and innumeracy revealed in most energy related conversations that he began doing the math in an organized fashion. That led to a series of lectures and eventually to publishing a seminal book designed to help people quantify the cost, schedule, and resources needed to implement various energy scenarios.

One of his key instructional techniques is to convert all energy numbers (heat, electricity, transport)–both on the supply and demand side–to a common unit of kilowatt-hours/person/day.

He is not opposed to any particular prescription, but he is strongly opposed to ephemeral efforts that distract and confuse the public without adding up. One of his major points is that even a large number of individually small actions often do not result in a large final answer. In the video, he says “2 plus 2 plus 2 plus 2 plus plus plus simply does not add to 125 or 250.”

As a British citizen and former energy advisor to the UK government, MacKay’s initial point of reference is solving the UK energy supply challenge. He reminds us that winter happens, that solar energy is 9 times less in December than in July, and that there are often lengthy periods of still, cold days in one of the darkest countries on the planet. Energy consumption in the UK peaks in the winter, making any investment in solar energy redundant and economically wasteful. The energy supply system must be sized to be able to provide peak demand without any assistance from solar energy systems whether they are thermal or photovoltaic.

The same truth exists for countries or states at similar latitudes with similar climates, including Germany, Canada, and Vermont.

When Dr. MacKay’s selection as the winner of the 2016 Paradigm Award was announced, the plan was for the award to be presented at the Breakthrough Institute’s annual Dialog, scheduled for June 22 – June 24. Unfortunately, and–in this case quite sadly–the best laid plans often need revision. On April 14, 2016, just 11 days after accepting the award and talking on camera with Mark Lynas, Dr. MacKay died after a long struggle with cancer. He shared some thoughts about his situation with the world through his long running blog Everything is Connected.

If you have not heard of Dr. MacKay, I highly recommend that you read his book (which is available in a highly readable on line format for free) and take the time to watch his TEDx Warwick talk about sustainable energy.

Atomic Show #252 – Security, Future of Energy, HEU

On the evening of April 10, 2016, I met with two good friends and fellow nuclear energy bloggers for a wide ranging discussion about nuclear energy. We talked about the following topics: Nuclear energy’s role in the future of energy supplies Impact of the Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Obama Demonization campaign being waged […]

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The Worth-It Threshold – When gas or gas + renewables is as bad for climate as a coal plant

WIT Graph

The following article dovetails nicely as support for several articles that are in the queue. Those articles will describe a global case of ill-advised groupthink about a future energy supply system consisting of unreliable wind and solar power generation. My interpretation is that the “100% renewables” goal is a seductive mirage that has been carefully […]

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Mr. Atomic Goes to New York for The Future of Energy – Part 1

On April 4 and 5, I had the pleasure of attending the 9th annual The Future of Energy Summit organized by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and held at the Grand Hyatt next door to New York’s Grand Central Station. The organizing theme of this year’s event, The Age of Plenty, the Age of Competition […]

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California’s “fix” for global warming is one step forward, two steps back

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. 

The March/April 2016 issue of Mother Jones includes a thoughtful piece by Gabriel Kahn titled Dreamers of the Golden Dream: Does California have a blueprint to fix global warming?. Regular Atomic Insights readers will not be surprised to find that I’ve already decided that California’s chosen path for reducing CO2 emissions and dependence on fossil […]

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Another day, another model “proving” capabilities of weather-dependent power

On January 25, 2016 the NOAAnews (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency news) web site published a brief article with the following alluring headline: Rapid, affordable energy transformation possible NOAA, CIRES study: Wind, sun could eclipse fossil fuels for electric power by 2030 As the headline creator hoped, I couldn’t resist reading more. I was shocked, […]

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Vermonters say they want industrial wind to go the way of the billboard

As a native of South Florida, I’ve probably logged at least a million miles driving on its interstate and U.S. highways. Most Americans have probably had at least a small taste of that experience. The contrast between Florida’s highways and those in Vermont is stark; Florida’s are littered with billboards. They often advertise products or […]

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Assembling reliable off grid power system for emergency preparedness

Many advocates of unreliable power sources like wind and solar blithely toss out the concept of “storage” as the panacea that makes their favored energy sources viable competitors in the potentially lucrative business of supplying on demand power. I’m skeptical because I have some experience with operating and budgeting for power systems that use batteries […]

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Reliable partnership between natural gas and renewable energy

Naomi Oreskes is the Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She is also the author of the December 16, 2015 opinion piece published in the Guardian titled There is a new form of climate denialism to look out for – so don’t celebrate yet. […]

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Don’t Nuke the Climate – A Response to NIRS from Rauli Partanen and Janne M. Korhonen

By Rauli Partanen and Janne M. Korhonen Earlier this year, we wrote a piece called “A most unwise campaign.” Writing as independent researchers, members of the Finnish Ecomodernist Society, and in association with non-profit organization Energy4Humanity, we criticized some of the claims prominently made in support of one of the staples of established anti-nuclear activism: […]

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Solar and wind tax credit extensions will put more nuclear plants at risk

Update: (Posted 4:40 pm December 18) It’s too late. The House and Senate passed the spending bills and went home for the holidays. Sorry to have been too late on this one; the several thousand page bill was just released a couple of days ago. It took a little time to read and understand the […]

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Why does large hydro count as renewable in some propaganda but not when counting for quotas or subsidies?

A question that critical thinkers interested in energy policy debates should think about is the fuzzy definition of “renewable energy.” It is a term whose definition shifts depending on the goals of the person or publication using the term. That feature should cause truth seeking people to avoid its use. At Atomic Insights, we prefer […]

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