“Renewable” Energy – How Plausible? Judge by What Criteria?


Commenting on my previous entry, Damon Hart-Davis cited a superb on-line resource for discussing energy issues, “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David J.C. MacKay, Professor of Natural Philosophy, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge. It’s a rough draft of a free online book to be completed this year. The book is “Britain-centric,” but is still highly useful for everyone. The main theme is this:


“We often hear that Britain’s renewables are ‘huge.’ But it’s not sufficient to know that a source of energy is ‘huge.’ We need to know how it compares with another ‘huge,’ namely our huge consumption. To make such comparisons, we need numbers, not adjectives.”

And numbers he’s got: Professor MacKay runs them on the various potential alternative energy sources. His standard is, can an energy source provide the magnitude of power needed to allow all six billion humans to enjoy – on a sustainable basis  – a standard of living (meaning a level of energy consumption) roughly equivalent to modern European nations today?


His figures suggest that two “alternative” energy sources have the potential to really, truly supplant fossil fuels in our energy future: Concentrating solar power in deserts, and breeder reactors powered by uranium extracted from sea water. (Note to T. Boone Pickens: MacKay’s figures show that wind-power is extremely problematic at best.)


BTW, Prof. MacKay is not a free-market idealist like myself – he doesn’t engage the laws of economics nearly as much as he does the laws of thermodynamics. But that’s OK – it doesn’t detract from his clear thinking about the physical realities and constraints that underlie all economic concepts.


As my previous posts have suggested, I think the whole global warming thing is deeply misguided, if not a complete hoax. Nevertheless, over the next couple centuries mankind will have to wean himself from the fossil-fuel “subsidy” that got industrial civilization rolling. In the context of Prof. MacKay’s clear-thinking and quantification, I think the following items should be “givens” in any discussion of this energy-future issue:


A.  The solution will not include quickly reducing the world’s population by an order of magnitude (i.e., kill off 6 billion people at some point in the next century). Personally I would be happier with a population under 1 billion, but without a holocaust it won’t happen for at least a few hundred years (and I know you share my abhorrence of holocausts).


B. The solution is not to return to a pre-industrial civilization living standards, which means pre-industrial levels of energy consumption. Prof. MacKay notes that Britons consume c. 125 kWh/day per person, and for the whole world to do the same energy production will have to double. Cut that in half and you’re still light years from pre-industrial levels. Two points:

   It would really suck to go back to that miserable standard of living.

  –  With a current world population of 6.68 billion we could not avoid a holocaust if we tried to do so (thus violating stipulation No. 1).


C. The ultimate solution should enable all the world’s people to enjoy European-level living standards, which probably is possible with half the 125 kWh/day per person consumption level of Great Britain. (The US is double that, BTW.)


Here’s the bottom-bottom line: Fossil fuels can be replaced and it will still be perfectly possible for every person on the planet to enjoy the comforts, conveniences and broadened horizons that industrial civilization has provided for the populations of developed countries, for thousands of years to come. We’re not “all gonna die!” even without fossil fuels.


5 Responses to ““Renewable” Energy – How Plausible? Judge by What Criteria?”

  1. Damon Hart-Davis Says:


    Yes, I reckon that we could almost all be entirely comfortable on half-current-EU levels without much pain at all. We sliced a huge chunk off our primary energy usage at home for example http://www.earth.org.uk/saving-electricity.html , and I hope there’s stuff that we can do in other areas, eg by adjusting our diet for less red meat and more veg and chicken for example. Good for our health apart from anything else.

    So I’m putting in loft insulation, letter-box draft-excluders, door curtains and fixing double-glazing in mid-summer http://www.earth.org.uk/towards-a-LZC-home.html#todo ! All relatively cheap stuff that should eat into our 10MWh/year space- and water- heating gas consumption.



  2. jmchugh4u Says:

    Right – just as comfy with half the kW (sounds like a TV commercial). Except I don’t think any changes in behavior are necessary at all (not that too many of us Yanks in particular would be harmed by cutting some calories and fat grams). Those home improvements you cite don’t require any behavior changes, for example. A VW Passat wagon is no less comfy than a big SUV.

    Actually, the record with such things is that you may well turn the thermostat up a bit more in winter now that you’re so efficient, and still consume substantially less. I put in a bunch of curlie-cue lightbulbs and now during the dark season have more lights going in my house – while using less juice overall.

    That said, there are lifestyle changes that higher energy prices will incentivize – living closer to work a biggie. See my prior post about revenue-neutral carbon taxes to see how to accelerate this process, if that’s you’re goal.

  3. jmchugh4u Says:

    PS. Speaking of revenue-neutral carbon taxes, someone should advise Prof. MacKay on this concept for his book. Public policy options to reach the goal he pursues is not the subject of his book, but he does cite it in a laundry list of these, including the dishonest and destructive cap-and-trade. His book presents such clear thinking on the physical side that it would be a shame to not add some equally clear thinking on the economic/human side.

    Carbon taxes are the only honest, transparent and genuinely effective means to align the interests of consumers and producers with the goal that Damon Hart-Davis and Prof. MacKay think are vital – quickly reducing the use of fossil fuels. (I don’t share their urgency but have no problem with it if accomplished in a way that doesn’t wreck the world economy.)

    In addition to not harming the economy, the neat thing about carbon taxes is that once those aforementioned incentives are aligned you will see millions, billions of experiments as consumers, producers, innovators and investors all seek ways to optimize the mix of more efficient production and more efficient consumption. You also avoid corrupt fiascos like the absurd and corrupt ethanol boondoggle, because politicians (and rent-seeking special interests) have no role in the process once that tax-substitution schedule and rates are enacted.

  4. Jason Gillman Says:

    Energy consumption taxes ARE appropriate, however the use of such measures need to be used consistently with the manner in which they are accumulated. IE; Gas taxes for roads, reserves etc…

    As for solutions, I do support large rewards by private enterprise and even government (as it DOES affect our national security) for major new breakthroughs in better managing our energy and resources.

  5. “More Energy Research” is Bunk « Jack McHugh’s Blog Says:

    […] will transition to non-fossil energy over the next 100 years or so, we won’t abandon the comforts, conveniences and broadened horizons that industrial civilization and its huge […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: