Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (David MacKay) 4*

Tasty crunchy numbers!  The Economist describes this book as “geek heaven“; the author says he’s just trying to cut UK’s emissions of twaddle.  David MacKay, a Cambridge physicist, wades into the data with a calculator and a touch of snark.

“Every big helps,” he says, and he takes the reader on a fact-based hunt to find the places where “big” can be implemented.  He takes all energy and converts it to kWhs so that we can compare cars and pets and trans-Atlantic flights and milk.  For the record, a cat consumes 2 kWh/day, each newspaper takes 2 kWh to produce and deliver, a 30-mile car ride averages 40 kWh, and an intercontinental flight averages 30 kWh/day for an entire year.

So my last flight to the US was the equivalent of driving 40 miles every day for a year (or keeping 15 cats).  Cold hard math says that not even my meat-avoiding, car-free lifestyle really redeems my jet-fueled vacations.  Damn.  And my philosophical aversion to hairdryers (0.06 kWh per use, based on my own calculations) isn’t worth a damn either.

You can fork over $35 for the paperback, or you can download the whole PDF for free from Prof. MacKay’s website.  Data-hungry readers of my nerdly blog, this book was written just for you.

Take a browse and tell me: Does the book work for you?  Which figures are most surprising?  Will you be doing anything differently now?

Figure 11.1 from the book.


11 responses to “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (David MacKay) 4*

  1. P.S. The book is written for a UK audience, so take a few things with a grain of salt. For example, when MacKay finds that there’s not enough wind/solar capacity to run the country, that’s because Britain is freakishly temperate in every way. In the US, we’ve known for over a decade that the windy plains of the Texas/North Dakota corridor could power the entire country 5 times over. And we’ve got 250 sunny days per year in the Southwest. We’re rich, baby.
    Otherwise, his numbers square with everything else I’ve read. And he gives a big thumbs up to the Tesla Roadster. The efficiencies (measured in terms of kWh per 100 passenger-kilometers) are intriguing:
    Bicycles – 1.6 kWh (for food)
    New high-speed electric trains (full) – 3 kWh
    Subway trains (full) – 4 kWh
    City trams (actual) – 9 kWh
    London Underground (actual) – 9 kWh
    Tesla Roadster (1 person) – 15 kWh
    London buses (actual) – 32 kWh
    Full Boeing 747 (full) – 40 kWh
    Hybrid Prius (1 person) – 42 kWh
    Average car (1 person) – 80 kWh
    Hydrogen car (1 person) – 254 kWh
    Jet skis – 500 kWh
    So take your bike on the spiffy new train or carpool in a Tesla Roadster. Chicks dig it.

    • That’s a disturbingly sexy car. It’s like the offspring of a Corvette and a Mercedes SL, but electric. [wolf whistle].

      • It’s a love child between Tesla motors and Lotus. Lotus makes some fantastic small cars that ultra-light and have smaller power-plants (usually Honda or Toyota 4-cylinder) are quite energy efficient for being powered by petrol.
        The strange thing about it is that it has only one gear, so its neither automatic or manual. Flat torque across all rpm, tho. A very nice car to have.

      • I don’t even know how to drive, but I want a red one.
        This one could kill the internal combustion engine.

    • I’m surprised that the hydrogen car came out so badly… and you can have my jetski when you pry it out of my cold, wet hands.

      • The hydrogen figure is for a BMW sedan, not even a Hummer.
        The very worst in the line-up is an absurd biodiesel-fueled “ecoboat” that sucks away 800 kWh per 100 passenger kilometers.
        Personally I am convinced that America’s lack of numeracy will be the undoing of us all. On the mitigation end, MacKay has some interesting notes on using pulverized rocks to suck up CO2, although someone will have to volunteer their entire country to provide the necessary surface area. In which case, thank god for China. In 10 years, I can totally see China declaring: “Floods + famines => BAD GDP. All good citizens, paint roofs and roads white NOW. All provinces with badlands suitable for pulverized rock, raise your hands.”
        If you read about the crazy shit that happened during the Great Leap Forward, China’s execution capacity + the Virgin Earth Prize => ~3 degrees.

      • Unless you’re traveling 100 kilometers in your jetski on a regular basis, go have fun.

      • Hydrogen fuel has always been a bad idea for terrestrial transport with our atmospheric composition and our available mineral resources. 😦

  2. It makes me very angry that jet engines are so inefficient. They can be made so much more efficient with some serious design changes, but I suppose it will be a long time till those designs see the light of day. Everyone is content with super fat and slow jets since there is no real direct repercussions (other than price) for using them or are there any real alternatives available (maybe mass driver systems? low orbit rockets?).
    Although Honda is experimenting with jets that are fast and that use much less fuel. Check out the HondaJet…

  3. Without a jetski, how will I defend my clan from the fish-men who would steal our precious hydro and go-juice?

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