My WorldChanging “Attention Grant” — David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air”

WithoutHotAir_book.jpgWorldChanging — one of the top environmental websites — asked me for an “Attention Grant“:

At Worldchanging, one of our three main missions is to practice attention philanthropy. Attention philanthropy is a gift of notice. In a noisy world, deluged in advertising, overrun with PR flacks and crowded with the superficial, one of the biggest barriers to success for a small, good idea or noble enterprise can simply be getting noticed in the first…

Since the summer is the time to recommend books, I thought I’d recognize David MacKay for his wonderful guide: Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. MacKay has not merely written an outstanding and highly readable textbook on every aspect of carbon-saving energy — he has put it all online for free.

In this book, you will learn about every kind of low carbon energy, from wind and solar to wave and tidal from hybrid cars to efficient heating and cooling. This is a book for people who like no-nonsense numbers, people who like to do back-of-the-envelope calculations, people who want to know the difference between essentially meaningless advice, like “switch off your mobile phone charger when it’s not in use,” and the serious strategies and policies that could actually make a difference in humanity’s desperate effort to avert catastrophic climate impacts.

How can you not love a book explaining that a more realistic mantra than “every little bit helps” is “if everyone does a little, will achieve only a little.”  That is certainly a central message of this blog — see, for instance, “How the world can (and will) stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution.

Talk090313DetailSmall.jpgYes, the book is pitched towards Great Britain, but MacKay expands his horizon even to the crucial technology of concentrated solar power in his chapter, “Living on the other countries’ renewables?” I am not endorsing every conclusion MacKay reaches, but his book is a standout in a subject area that is dominated by handwaving analysis.

If you want the meat and potatoes of sustainable energy, this book needs to be on your shelf — or downloaded on your PC.

19 Responses to My WorldChanging “Attention Grant” — David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air”

  1. James Thomson the second says:

    Joe – glad you like it. I have posted links from this book on CP several times, particularly the section on CSP in the US. One of the best things about the book is the idea of reducing all sources/consumption of energy to a uniform per-capita KWh/day, this being aroung 250 KWh/day for the average US citizen.

  2. danl says:

    This has been on my reading list for a while. Heard great things, and glad to see it’s Romm-approved.

  3. Brent says:

    Does anyone know how much electricity it takes to refine a gallon of gasoline?

    Many apologies for the off topic, but I don’t know where else to look. Google turns up a crazy range: from 2.3 kWh to 28 kWh. The higher number seems unlikely, as it would mean electricity costs are a huge part of gasoline price. However, neither number seems to have any substantial authority behind it.

    Any ideas?

  4. paulm says:

    How about a category for books?

    [JR: Good idea!]

  5. Neil Howes says:

    While I agree with you that David MacKays book is well worth the read his estimates of wind potential for the UK are somewhat at odds this this study that just came out a few weeks ago.
    This report states that the UK has some of the best wind potential in Europe, and wind power has the potential to provide all the power for Europe.
    The difference seems to be assumptions about how much of the landscape will be covered with wind turbines and capacity factors at very good wind sites.

    He also seems to be overestimating the electricity required to replace oil based fuels. For example he says the typical driver will use the energy of 1gallon(4.2L) petrol(40 kWh)to drive 30miles per day. He has not adjusted the energy required to replace that ICE vehicle with an electric vehicle, which would only use about 6-7kWh to travel that distance, or about one sixth as much energy.

  6. Brent, I seem to recall reading from that it takes one barrel of oil to deliver 11 barrels. It used to be 1 to 100.

  7. John Mashey says:

    This is definiteleyworth reading, and while one can argue with individual numbers, the analysis style is very good, and it’s all in the open.

  8. Jim Beacon says:

    High praise to the author for making this important work free online — and to WorldChanging,cin for the idea of advancing “Attention Grants” (which are certainly are needed because the white noise on the internet has become a deluge) — and to Joe Romm for giving this work the attention nod.

    I love MacKay’s dedication in this book:

    “To those who will not have the benefit of two billion years’ of accumulated energy reserves”

    But I must take issue with one thing: Joe, don’t be such a climate change snob. And if Mr. MacKay suffers from the same predilection (hopefully not) then he needs to get over it too. Because “every little bit” DOES help. No need to denigrate the idea just because you personally are focused on bigger things and in a position to maybe have some influence on a larger scale. You’re an insider and tend to forget that 99.9% of us are not. Most people feel responsible but helpless in the face of the gutless inertia and maniac stupidity of the world’s so-called leaders and power-brokers in their inability to do something and *do it now* about this problem which every one of us feels when we walk outside our doors.

    [JR: I think everyone here knows that I encourage individual action and post regularly on it. I have even posted my own list of recommended actions — and lists of other experts. MacKay was specifically talking about things like the BBC focusing on things like unplugging telephone chargers.]

    So all of us “little people” want to do something and we want to Do It Now. But since most of us can’t pop for $30,000 for a hybrid or a 20 kW home solar power installation right now, what we can do are the “little things” like conserve both electrical and petroleum energy where and whenever we can in our daily lives. You’re going to dis us for this? You’re going to snort when we telling other people that they can and should do the same? You’re going to tell us our little individual efforts don’t really matter? Shame on you.

    Besides, if I do a quick back-of-the-envelope calc, it looks like if every one of the 7 billion people on this planet saves a mere 25 watts per day over what they have been using previously, that amounts to 175 gigawatts of electricity the world’s power plants don’t have to generate, per day! Sure, that savings rate does not translate through 100% into the real world because large-scale generation considerations aren’t that simple — but you take my point (I hope).

    We are all part of the problem. We all must be part of the solution. Every little bit most certainly does help.

  9. James Newberry says:

    The failure of Western thought leading to climate disaster is represented by the author’s dedication sited above: “To those who will not have the benefit of two billion years of accumulated energy reserves.”

    The so-called fossil fuels exist in the three phases of matter, and are thus obviously Materials, not energy. Energy is typically defined as “the ability to do work” and is not characterized by weight, color or material extraction. If one does not understand the scope of the problem then proposed solutions may be limited.

    I’ll look forward to reading the entire book. I hope it is of more competency than the author’s simplistic treatment of atomic fission.

  10. David MacKay says:

    To see what I think about “every little bit helps”, and “every BIG bit helps”, please do read the book – it’s free on line!
    I am a strong advocate of individual people doing things. What I think is dangerous is when they focus their attention on the wrong things – the minnows in their life instead of the shark. That is what I mean when I say “every BIG helps”. I hope you enjoy the book!

    Neil Howes’ assertions about my book, wind, that wind report, and electric cars – they are all incorrect. On wind – my numbers agree completely with that wind report’s. On cars, in chapter 3, I am quite clear that what I am discussing is the consumption of a typical fossil car today. If you actually *read the book* (instead of chucking bricks) you will see that I talk at length about electric vehicles and how much better they are. (In the chapter called Better Transport

  11. Jim Beacon says:


    *sigh*. This kind of technical nit-picking one-upmanship is part of the reason no one took the warnings of the scientific community seriously for so many decades. Tell me which is truly important — the actual *message*, which is that “We have already consumed most of what it took 2 billion years to build up” or a deep theoretical understanding of the text-book definition of energy? No one needs to know that definition to understand that we have used up most of what it took 2 billion years to create. That message is what’s important. Not everyone wants to be (or needs to be) a scientist.

  12. I found the book surprisingly dismissive of solar and wind power. I don’t know the details of wind economics, but as someone who has done more than 300 solar estimates in California, I know that you can zero out your electricity from the utility by installing solar cost-effectively.

    If you factor in the cost for the equivalent electricity that you would have bought for the next 25 years if you just keep paying for utility power; you can replace your power with solar for less money than if you did nothing:

    [JR: Hmm. CA rates are not exactly typical, and CA has a very generous subsidies. I am a fan of PV, but it’s math for residential customers is hard in most states.]

  13. Mike#22 says:

    Brent, about 10% of the energy content of crude oil is consumed at the refinery to create finished products, making oil refineries major emitters of CO2. Generally, gases produced during the refinery process are used on site to generate electricity, making oil refineries net generators of electricity. Every refinery is different.

  14. The new format is too wide and whatever it is that adjusts the width doesn’t work on my computer.

  15. Mike#22 says:

    About half way through David MacKay’s book.


  16. SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Beacon wrote: “… most of us can’t pop for $30,000 for a hybrid or a 20 kW home solar power installation right now …”

    Well, I certainly can’t afford to do that, but on the other hand I see TV commercials for $30,000 gas-guzzling SUVs all the time. And I see lots of brand-new $30,000 gas-guzzling SUVs on the roads. Somebody is buying them.

  17. Anton says:

    Hello Mr. MacKay

    Thank you very much for your research and for making this book available for free online. Your blog is very nice too!

  18. Neil Howes says:

    David MacKay’s statement (post 11) “On wind – my numbers agree completely with that wind report’s(EEA Technical report6/2009).”
    Unfortunately David’s conclusions about wind and other renewable energy are; quote
    The Bottom Line
    Lets be realistic. Just like Britain, Europe can’t live on it’s own renewables. So if the aim is to get of fossil fuels, Europe needs nuclear power-or solar power in other peoples deserts or both.”

    David calculates wind power could provide 9kWh/person/day in Europe(1,000TWh/year total) and assumes a minimum need for 80-125kWh/person/day(about 10,000TWh/year).
    The EEA study estimates a technical potential of 75,000 TWh from wind energy, an environmentally constrained potential of 39,000TWh and an economically competitive potential of 30,000TWh( mainly on-shore).

    This is a factor of X30 to X75 higher than David’s assumptions of wind power potential, and X3 to X7 higher than Europe’s expected total energy requirements. David may have qualified his assumptions of “technically possible” with what he thinks people may accept due to NIMBY concerns in other parts of the book, but unfortunately it’s the “bottom line” statement that will be the likely take away message.