- A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich - 

One of my winter diversions while growing up on the frigid Northern Great Plains in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s involved frequent doses of the TV series Dragnet.  The detectives’ obsession with details always offended the person being questioned.  Every show opened with Detective Joe Friday querying a potential suspect to the point of discomfort.  As they departed the scene his partner delivered the deadpan line, ‘Just the facts’ and another exciting episode unfolded.  

Similarly, Cambridge physicist David J.C. MacKay’s tome, SUSTAINABLE ENERGY – WITHOUT THE HOT AIR, presents ‘Just the facts’ about renewable and other energy sources in a comprehensively detailed yet eminently readable manner.  Refreshingly, in addition to quantifying the energy potential of everything from biomass to wind, MacKay takes it one step further, making all of his calculations transparent and all of his references available.  As an added bonus, MacKay gives the book away for free.  Deals like this make energy research fascinating, fast and fun.

 MacKay’s obsession with the facts likely stems from his profession as a physicist.  Physicists prefer facts over opinion.  Tangible, quantifiable and measurable data comprise the physicists’ world. 

In his preface MacKay states:

“I’m concerned about cutting UK emissions of twaddle – twaddle about sustainable energy.  Everyone says getting off fossil fuels is important, and we’re all encouraged to “make a difference,” but many of the things that allegedly make a difference don’t add up.”

MacKay not only cuts the ‘twaddle,’ he annihilates it.  He provides the actual energy usage, consumption and production numbers for the United Kingdom in a straight-forward and easily digestible manner.  He makes estimates based on known facts.  He realistically incorporates conservatism into his estimates.  He shatters myths. 

Fossil fuels currently provide 90% of the energy in the UK.  Using facts, estimates and equations, MacKay convincingly quantifies current and future UK energy needs and seeks pragmatic ways to produce a significant chunk of that energy while minimizing CO^2 emissions.  No small task.

According to MacKay, climate change via global warming constitutes a grave future threat that must be controlled by limiting emissions of CO^2 now.  Early in the book MacKay makes the case regarding climate change - referencing a seminal 1979 US National Academy of Sciences report.  The salient findings include: 

• Doubling the atmospheric CO^2 level from the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm to 560 ppm would cause an increase in Global Average Annual Temperature of 1 degree C (currently the atmospheric CO^2 level hovers at 389 ppm); and
• The increased GAAT of 1 degree C would cause positive feedback and further increase GAAT 2-3.5 C.

Regardless of the validity of these apparently untested conclusions, significantly minimizing CO^2 emissions requires gargantuan effort.  MacKay quantifies that effort.

The types of cuts in CO^2 necessary -- if the AGW theory holds true -- to ensure that earth’s increased GAAT doesn’t exceed 2 C (the point which scientists claim any further increase would cause “lots of bad consequences”) are substantial as shown in MacKay’s Figure 1.8.  Regarding these substantial emission cuts – which, according to the climate scientists, do not guarantee a world free from the ravages of global warming - MacKay notes

“These possibly-safe emissions trajectories, by the way, involve significantly sharper reductions in emissions than any of the scenarios presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), or by the Stern Review (2007).”  

MacKay defines sustainable energy as any resource capable of producing energy for at least 1,000 years and producing minimal CO^2 emissions.  Ignoring industrial energy requirements, MacKay conducts the following exercise:   estimate the amount of sustainable low CO^2 emission energy needed to replace all of the energy currently used for residential heating, electricity and transportation.  The results are sobering.

Using the UK as an example, MacKay builds his case that freedom from fossil fuels, which currently provide 90% of UK’s energy, requires a lot of something else.  The more diffuse the energy source, like solar, wind, tides and waves, the greater amount of  land or sea area needed to produce large amounts of electricity.  An energy dense substitute like nuclear requires significantly less land mass but has other perceived drawbacks. 

By estimating energy usage and production for a variety of circumstances MacKay painstakingly pieces together the energy independence puzzle.  Focusing on the primary sustainable alternatives available to the UK -- wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, tides, waves and nuclear – MacKay conducts a series of “back of the envelope” calculations. 

MacKay analyzes the potential contributions of the various renewable, sustainable energy technologies and tallies their amounts in easy to compare figures.  Using graphics to illustrate the results of his calculations, MacKay produces 5 distinct plans creatively titled for easy recognition. 

For example, Plan N is for the NIMBY’s who don’t want a lot of windmills nor do they want any more nuclear. Accordingly, Plan N requires a huge amount of solar, -- which UK doesn’t have -- to be imported from somewhere else, in this case North Africa.  In contrast, Plan E, where “E” stands for Economics, concerns the production of lots of electricity and relies on the energy market created by the leveling effect of a significant (i.e., $100/ton) carbon tax.  According to MacKay, “when ‘clean coal’ and nuclear go head to head on price, it’s nuclear that wins.”

MacKay recognizes that each of the 5 plans come with pros and cons and compels the reader to develop his own if he doesn’t like one of the plans.  However, MacKay cautions the reader, “make sure it adds up.”  

The sheer magnitude of the amount of facilities (wind, solar or nuclear) needed to replace fossil fuel in the UK, a nation of 60 million people, staggers the imagination.  Expanding the replacement of fossil fuel to the entire developed world boggles the mind.

MacKay’s treatise could likely become the Bible of the entire sustainable energy community.  Impeccably referenced, footnoted and sourced, SUSTAINABLE ENERGY allows anyone to resize his calculations for their own conceptual energy production application – be it wind, solar, biomass, tides, wave or nuclear. 

In essence, MacKay’s thorough and thought-provoking examination of the physics surrounding sustainable energy indicates that easy answers to the energy dilemma elude us.  Anyone who says otherwise is just blowing hot air.

David J.C. MacKay
366 pp. UIT Cambridge, Paperback, 2009
Available free online from www.withouthotair.com



DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST:  TALKING SUBSTANCE IN AN AGE OF STYLE - A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich - In graduate school way back in 1977 my Molecular and Microbial Genetics professor possessed a speaking talent that transcended academia.  His lectures seized our collective minds as he recounted realtime recombinant ...
About Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  Following graduation he switched gears and began a lifelong study of ionizing radiation and its beneficial applications to humanity.  During the course of his study he worked as a staff Health Physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission specializing in the licensing and inspection of uranium recovery facilities.  He transferred to the Department of Energy where he worked as a Health Physicist at the Randy BrichNevada Operations Office and later to the Richland Operations Office specializing in environmental monitoring, dose reconstruction, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review E-mail Randy Brich>> randy@nuclearstreet.com

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