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.