Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air

with 3 comments

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air is a popular book written by David J.C. MacKay, who is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the department of physics at the University of Cambridge. It’s currently available for download, but it is still at the draft stage.

Read some of this – isn’t it great! I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but it really looks impressive to me, it’s saying the things that I really think need to be said.

How can we replace fossil fuels? How can we ensure security of energy supply? How can we solve climate change?

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 the one ‘huge’ compares with the other. We need numbers, not adjectives.

This heated debate is fundamentally about numbers. How much energy could each source deliver, at what economic and social cost, and with what risks? But actual numbers are rarely mentioned. In public debates, people just say “Nuclear is a money pit” or “We have a huge amount of wave and wind.” The trouble with this sort of language is that it’s not sufficient to know that something is huge: we need to know how the one ‘huge’ compares with another ‘huge’, namely our huge energy consumption. To make this comparison, we need numbers, not adjectives.

“I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.”

Written by Luke Weston

June 26, 2008 at 2:45 pm

3 Responses

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  1. It’s not a bad treatment of the issue, but I do think it’s a tad narrow in its scope of what author thinks are the important variables in the debate, and thus it comes off (to me) as overly simplistic.

    I also don’t like the hubris of assuming that we have to solve the problems for ever, when it comes down to it we will have only gotten 100 years out of petroleum – but what a century. The point here being that if we are going to hit peek uranium, in say 150 years, (which of course to all of us that have followed this sector is known to be a very pessimistic estimate)so what? We will have that much more time to find another solution.

    But on the whole it’s not as full of breathless estimates, and questionable math as many other similar works.


    June 26, 2008 at 10:17 pm

  2. It is worth mentioning that this extraordinary book is also available in old-fashioned paper format, for those of us who still prefer it that way! I own a copy of it and it is very pleasing on the eye and really good quality paper/binding etc. I wouldn’t have read so much of it had I only had the pdf to look at.

    You can get it from amazon or direct from the publishers ( ) and there are rumors that eBook formats are on their way.


    February 20, 2009 at 5:54 pm

  3. Thanks for the tip, Frankie.
    I must admit I do indeed prefer reading long works of literature in the hard copy, instead of on the computer, and when it comes to really good works such as this one, I like owning a copy on the bookshelf, too.

    Luke Weston

    February 27, 2009 at 6:44 am

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