Dr David Mackay’s Reality Check on Renewables

June 14, 2012

By Matt Palmer

“It is time to start having grown up conversations.” Dr David Mackay.

I first became aware of David Mackay, a professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, a few years ago when a friend pointed me to his book “Without the Hot Air“. The book, available as a free download from his site, objectively details various alternative energy options and the costs of implementing them. Dr Mackay admits he loves math, and he uses a lot of numbers to examine the challenges of switching the global energy system. He is not a detractor of alternative energy, rather his mission is painting a realistic picture of what is needed to switch the system.

Do not let the numbers detract you from reading the book, because what he examines is of critical importance any energy strategy for the future.

How can we get off our fossil fuel addiction? There’s no shortage of advice on how to “make a difference,” but the public is confused, uncertain whether these schemes are fixes or fig leaves. People are rightly suspicious when companies tell us that buying their “green” product means we’ve “done our bit.” They are equally uneasy about national energy strategy. Are “decentralization” and “combined heat and power,” green enough, for example? The government would have us think so. But would these technologies really discharge Britain’s duties regarding climate change? Are windfarms “merely a gesture to prove our leaders’ environmental credentials”? Is nuclear power essential?

We need a plan that adds up. The good news is that such plans can be made. The bad news is that implementing them will not be easy.

If you do not want to spend time reading the book, I found this new TED talk last night by Dr Mackay called “A Reality Check on Renewables”. It introduces Dr Mackay’s thesis in a short twenty-minute presentation. He makes some startling revelations about our current consumption patterns, and how that math complicates decisions that need to be made for the future. By his estimation for example, the average Canadian uses the equivalent of 200-300 light bulbs worth of energy. Alberta has the highest energy consumption rates in Canada, not including industrial use. Perspective.

A Reality Check on Renewables

Moving from an energy system that relies on energy and power dense fossil fuels, to a new system that will harness energy from sources that are more diffuse and intermittent requires big action, Dr Mackay argues. How do we do this when people and communities are rapidly becoming anti-everything? Most countries around the world, particularly in the developing world are increasing population density and energy consumption, making the math of switching energy systems more complicated.

At the top of this post I quoted Dr Mackay’s plea for a grown up conversation about energy. Yet, looking at the comment thread on the TED website for his talk, there are a lot of attacks against him, not the tone of a grown-up conversation. Talks and books like Dr Mackay’s should spur debate. Bring alternate views and opinions to the table, respectfully.

One of Dr Mackay’s most important points is that we need to reduce energy demand through reduced consumption, something we hear time and again.

If you are interested in seeing more of Dr Mackay, a You Tube search reveals a plethora of other videos and interviews.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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