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Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air

It’s fair to say that dwindling energy resources and ever growing demand is eventually going to shape up to be one of the greatest challenges ever to face all of mankind.  We know we need to act, and we’re starting to realize that we’re already behind the ball.  Unfortunately, now is a confusing time to be alive.  The lip service is building and it’s coming full force from every direction.  We’ve got “ideas” coming from our politicians who in many cases have “solutions” probably designed to garner votes than to actually solve anything.  We have activist groups who have answers that fit their agendas but put up barriers to ideas that don’t fit their ideals.  We have folks like T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore claiming to have it all figured out – but a look into their investment portfolios makes one wonder what it is they’re trying to solve.

What’s missing from all these ideas and plans being thrown around?  How about some cold hard facts?  Some actual numbers?  When they say “we have huge wind and solar resources,” wouldn’t it be nice to know what exactly “huge” meant?

That’s where Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air comes in.  This is a near completed book in progress by David J.C. McKay out of the University of Cambridge Department of Physics.  Skeptical about his motives?  Don’t be.  The book is for the most part free of agendas, politics, ethics, and is totally free of charge.  While still an unfinished work, you can download a draft in PDF format from his website right now.  This is simply an indispensable guide to one of the biggest problems humanity faces. This book is nothing but the numbers.  McKay asks the big question you never hear brought up: is it even possible?  Can we continue our standard of living, continue advancement of our civilization, and do it all sustainably?  What are the actual physical limits of renewable energy sources?  What are the hidden costs of different solutions, like land use, raw materials, and even safety?

McKay’s target audience with this book is quite simply everybody.  He breaks it all down in such a way that if you can handle some basic arithmetic, you’ll be armed with enough knowledge to put together your very own energy plan… getting there is another thing all together, but at least it’s a start, and certainly a way to help wrap your head around the problem.  Who knows, maybe some of our elected leaders can even understand it!  (If you can handle more than basic arithmetic, there’s several more technical appendixes to delve a little deeper into the physics of it all.)

The book is split into two parts.  The first is an itemized list of all the things we use energy for – and an itemized list of every way we currently know how to generate energy.  Everything is converted into the same units (kilowat hours, per person, per day, on the average) so that every last energy-using detail of our lives can be compared and contrasted in a no-nonsense apples to apples fashion.  Every energy generating technology we have is put into the same terms, along with the consequences of using them.  Some of the numbers will surprise you… and lots of the numbers show how we might be falling for hype or barking up the totally wrong trees in many ways.  In terms of absolute energy expenditure – would you be surprised to learn riding the bus uses less energy than the food calories (depending on your diet) you’d burn by walking the same distance?  Or that no less than 20% of the UK’s land mass would need to be covered head to toe in windmills just to equal the energy used in by average folks driving their cars there?  Not to mention, the sheer volume of steel and concrete to pull off such a thing is almost absurd to serve a daily-driver fleet that’s already more fuel efficient than ours in the U.S.

The second part of the book is where some answers start to roll in and we get to see what an energy plan needs to look like.  No matter the plan, the mantra is simply, “make it add up.”  Of course, a plan that doesn’t add up is doomed from the start!  McKay starts with the sum energy use from part one, and first attacks it with feasible ways to start increasing efficiency in the near term.  Since most renewable sources we have produce energy, the basic theme is to electrify things that depend on fossil fuels. He floats some pretty exciting and realistic ideas along the way to not only save energy, but to overcome some of the issues with the intermittent nature of renewables.  Imagine storing extra wind energy from a gusty period by pumping water up a hill into a reservoir.  If the wind dies down, let the water flow back down and spin hydro turbines.  (Granted, pumped storage isn’t an entirely new idea – it is already being used in some places.)  Or how about an even more novel approach: an electric grid that communicates with appliances – shift the AC frequency down a little when demand is low, shift it up a little when demand is high – effectively communicating with smart appliances that can detect those shifts.  Imagine your refrigerator sensing low demand, so it chills down a few extra degrees while power is abundant.  Demand rises and it backs off.  The net effect?  Something as ubiquitous as a refrigerator now acts like an energy storage device (aka, a battery) to help smooth out that electrical load.  Once efficiency is addressed, McKay puts together five example hypothetical energy plans combining all the sources of energy, and “makes it add up” to demand to show in plain black and white what it will take to meet those new and improved demands.  The hypothetical plans have different goals ranging from the totally green plan, to the bar none cheapest plan.  The range of these plans is the light at the end of the tunnel; we will have to compromise, but we do have options, and with this perspective we can quantify the compromises.

The beauty of all this is that the numbers are so easy that after going through this book, you can come up with your own back of the envelope calculation and illustrate your own plan.  Maybe you really oppose coal or nuclear?  Crunch the numbers yourself and see what it would truly take to get it done without them.  Point is, you’ll actually have some numbers, which is more than most of the “Hot Air” that’s been blown around so far has done for us (if that were a viable energy source, we’d have already solved this thing!)

So if you want to intelligently contribute to the energy debate, this is a must read… despite the fact the book isn’t even 100% finished yet. If you prefer though, you can sign up at McKay’s website to be notified when the final version is released and give it a read then. He promises that the completed version, like the current draft edition, will always be available free of charge.