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.
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.
Thanks for this Rod.
Dr MacKay’s work will still be appreciated for many generations. There are few who have brought maths skills firmly into the area of scientific literacy, and I doubt any have done it as ably as him.
Agreed Eamon. At the end of the day there isn’t much left to say. The doing remainsl the charge.
If Nuclear is the be-all and end-all solution for energy – fission then fusion – then how do all of the astute engineers here propose providing nuclear for every electrical power source in every African country? Each and every other third (fourth?) world countries. Is there some information that I am not aware of that makes the next generation as simple to operate and maintain as simple as the average coal or NG generating station? If not are you going to volunteer to live on site in Nigeria or any of the other third world countries and operate or maintain these plants? Where is the money coming from to build them? To operate/maintain them? From the UN Global Warming Tax? Fat Chance. That will be spent before the ground is broken. Graft, corruption, bribary will reach levels never seen before in the history of mankind.
So without fossil fuels all you have is “renewables.” And that is not going to work till you have storage for the unreliables. And storage equipment/processes, if and when ever possible [will never be economic] is going to cost 5 to 10 times as much as Nuclear.
I’m not sure who you are addressing, but I cannot recall anyone here asserting that nuclear energy is all we need. There are specific applications or locations where the best available solution–using all measures of effectiveness–is a liquid, gaseous, or even solid hydrocarbon fuel. Even with unknown technological developments in the future, that statement is likely to remain true for a very long time.
There is, however, no need to seek zero as the right level of hydrocarbon consumption even when taking into account the need to stop adding to the total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. There are some very large natural CO2 sinks and several of them are amenable to human efforts to stimulate them to increase their capacity.
My view is that nuclear fission has a large role to play in effectively lowering our annual consumption of fossil fuels to the point where extreme effort to access new resources would be unnecessary for centuries, where the owners of fossil fuel resources would cease to dominate geopolitics and economics, where the production rate of CO2 is roughly equal to the absorption rate in natural sinks, and where there is enough abundant energy available so that pollutants associated with historic fossil fuel consumption can be converted into useful material instead of pollution.
The problem from my viewpoint is this “Sustainability” doctrine that has been introduced, along with the gifting of horrendous sums of money to third world nations in the guise of “sustainability” and “Climate Change” as part of the recent Paris accord. That money is going to be wasted. wasted on “renewables” when what they really need to become productive is fossil fuel. Why are the money changers buying up the bankrupt coal mining companies and their reserves?
Go back to the first UN IPCC report. Read the definition of “Climate Change.” now read the second, third, fourth etc.
From the first
“a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over considerable time periods.”
By the time of the IPCC Assessment Report 4 (AR4) in 2007, they inserted a broader definition.
“Climate change in IPCC usage refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.”
Not that this is in the definitions. With the definition in the fourth, essentially 100% have to agree that there is climate change. Now ask ten people what climate change is. They will not be the one in the fourth report, and most will include CO2 in some fashion.
I did a word search of the fifth report (PDF) for CO2 and H20. I lost count of CO2 after about 5,000, and was only 1/3 of the way through the analysis section WG1AR5. (Actually, the search engine failed each time I tried this section at about this point. I think it got overloaded. had no problems with the other WG reports as they had fewer mentions of CO2) I found less than 500 on “H20,” “H20 Vapor,” and “water vapor” total and most of the ones on water were in the section on waste water releasing methane gas or water causing land erosion, etc. Why.
If you read the reports, the wg reports that is – Not the “Summary for Policymakers” – it does not take much to come to the conclusion that the sole purpose of the reports are to blame CO2. They look for nor at any other cause.
Now read each UN IPCC WG report and find the quantitative amount of “Climate Change” directly resulting from CO2, Solar, land use, whatever. The change in temperature is cited frequently, graphed repeatedly, and in numerous ways. but essentially nothing on how much of that change is caused by CO2. Why.
The notion that the IPCC has not bothered to assess how much of climate change is caused by co2 and/or by other forcings is a notion which exists only in climate denialist propaganda.
Here’s a summary of the IPCC assessment of science focused on determining the various influences on global temperature (or radiative forcing, to be specific) including of course co2.
Referenced link is ten years old. Also providies no measure of th amount of warming directly attributable to CO2 and the amount of warming attributable to other causes. So, it fits their “definition” (all causes) So, I am still left wondering How much of the warming since 1850 is/was caused by CO2? How much from Solar, natural recovery from the end of the Little Ice Age, Ozone hole changes, etc.? Why is this important data missing from the IPCC Report?
It isn’t missing. You just never bothered to look for it. Preferring to believe someone else telling you it is missing.
I have read the latest two UN IPCC reports m and can not find the citation. Could have missed them so please provide paragraph number for the 2015 AR5 report or any other I have all of them. And I mean in the WG report(s) not the Summary for Policymakers, which is written as propaganda by and for politicians.
So I suppose you didn’t see the news item that Kenya has entered into an agreement with the Chinese for the installation of a nuclear power plant?
How about the plant the Koreans are building in Abu Dhabi? For the UAE to, in effect, bet against fossil fuels is an interesting departure.
What about the one in the Philippines, which has stood for decades now, practically ready to start up, while the Government vaccilates?
Electrification, in general, has a galvanizing effect on the economy of a country. Power plants tend to pay for themselves quite rapidly, if you take a high-level view, for that very reason.
You make a good point that maintaining an advanced infrastructure requires a stable political and economic system, one that can support the educational needs for a cadre of trained specialists that can operate and maintain those systems. Corruption and waste will always be a part of government but there is a tipping point wherein the level of corruption and fraud makes development and maintenance of infrastructure difficult or impossible. There may be a few countries in Africa that have stable governments and societies capable of safely operating nuclear systems, perhaps some of the passively safe designs. Those countries are few and far between, but perhaps their success can spread to neighboring countries, as a slow but steady growth of both political stability and infrastructure. Perhaps too hopeful on that account, but at least we can dream.
You know, the more I think about the phrase “I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear”, the stranger it is to me.
The control of intra-atomic energy through the medium of the fission chain reaction has surely to be accounted one of the finest accomplishments of the human mind. And the fact that this purely intellectual achievement heats and lights millions of homes, and turns the wheels of industry, in countries as distant as Korea and Argentina, is a kind of double marvel.
We publish David MacKay’s book, which is how I saw your article.
We’ve also just published “The Fall and Rise of Nuclear Power in Britain – a history”
which you might be interested in. It is UK-centric, but the issues facing nuclear are the same worldwide (except maybe in China). If you’d like a review copy let me know.
Niall Mansfield, Commissioning Ed.
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