David MacKay’s ‘Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air’… Perhaps A Little Hot Air?

David MacKay is the professor of natural philosophy in the department of Physics at the University of Cambridge and chief scientific adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change.

He is also author of a widely cited book on energy strategy for the UK: Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air. This book is highly regarded by many, almost an infallible ‘energy bible’. This critique suggests it is nothing of the sort. Read on.

Just the Numbers Ma’am, Just the Numbers

MacKay states that “…what the climate-change discussion needs is clear, simple numbers, so that we can understand just how big our challenge is…

Numbers. Numbers don’t lie – they are solid and dependable, non-partisan. Therefore if MacKay just follows the numbers he cannot be wrong, cannot be ‘taking sides’. This is a persuasive narrative for many – especially when the conclusions that MacKay reaches with his numbers confirm what some people want to be true, primarily that renewables alone cannot power the UK and that we must have nuclear reactors.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the numbers MacKay has chosen are flawed. It is entirely possible that MacKay has made assumptions that do not stand up to scrutiny. But because MacKay has stated he’s just ‘following the numbers’ then he creates a narrative that he is a dispassionate scholar without agenda. Jim Hickey takes a detailed look at this deceptive beguiling tactic in ‘No Hot Air’ About Renewable Energy While Blowing Smoke: David Mackay plays ‘Brutus’ to the Sun’s ‘Caesar’.

The Big Claim Fails

Let’s go straight to the central claim of MacKay’s book: the UK cannot be powered by renewable energy alone. This is a momentous conclusion and would mean that the UK had no choice but to accept new nuclear in order to attempt to mitigate climate change. But is this claim correct?

MacKay claims that the UK’s energy demand figure is 195 kWh/d – but the true demand figure is 82 kWh/d and can be readily reduced with efficiency measures and EVs. Therefore the UK can quite realistically be powered by 100% renewable energy – even using MacKay’s low-ball estimate of total UK renewable energy resources.

Let’s reiterate this startling conclusion: MacKay’s central and most important claim, that the UK cannot be powered by renewable energy alone, is false.

This is supported by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission (recently shut down by the pro-nuke Tory government). They stated that:

“…it is indeed possible to meet the UK’s energy needs without nuclear power. With a combination of a low-carbon innovation strategy and an aggressive expansion of energy efficiency and renewables, the UK would become a leader in low-carbon technologies. This would enhance economic competitiveness whilst meeting the UK’s future energy needs.”

And the SDC had this to say about nuclear:

“…even if the UK’s existing nuclear capacity was doubled, it would only give an 8% cut on CO2 emissions by 2035 … nuclear power has benefits, but in our view, these are outweighed by serious disadvantages.”

So, contrary to MacKay’s claim that renewables alone cannot power the UK and that we must have nuclear, the very opposite is true: renewables can provide 100% of our energy and nukes have serious disadvantages. Note that Germany is following a 100% renewable policy. If they can do it, the UK certainly can given its much larger offshore wind resource.

For Brutus is an honourable man…

Rhetoric is a powerful tool. It is the art of persuasion and can be an artifice used to veil intent. It comes in many forms, whether the masterclass in irony that Shakespeare delivered through Mark Antony or the simple sledgehammer of the fossil fanatics in the USA – “Drill, baby, drill!” We all use rhetoric if we are arguing for or against a position. It can be honest and overt or it can be mendacious and ‘concealed’. It might be conscious and crafted or subconscious and haphazard. If rhetoric forms a clear pattern, it’s reasonable to assume that it is intentional and is intended to promote an agenda.

Here’s a selection of the rhetoric that MacKay litters his book with, either his own words or quotes from others:

  • Wind farms will devastate the countryside pointlessly.” – this is how the chapter on wind begins. Before MacKay even begins to discuss wind power, he has primed the reader that wind power brings devastation without benefit.
  • …windmills...” – this is how MacKay continually refers to wind turbines. It is technically incorrect and the label used by those who wish to mock wind power as being archaic and low-tech. Windmills mill things. Wind turbines produce energy.
  • Is someone who advocates windmills over nuclear power stations “an enemy of the people”?” Josef Goebbels would be proud!
  • I’m more worried about what these plans [for the proposed London Array wind farm] will do to this landscape and our way of life than I ever was about a Nazi invasion on the beach.” – wind turbines on the horizon are worse than Hitler’s invading army. Got it.
  • “…army of windmills”. MacKay certainly likes that wind energy = army / invasion narrative. Don’t let the kids read this terrifying book!
  • This Greenpeace leaflet arrived with my junk mail…” Have you made the subtle connection, dear reader? Greenpeace = junk.

Another soundbite from MacKay is a warning that we should  “…not be conned by greenwash…” – but nowhere does he seem concerned about the massive potential for being conned by the nuclear industry that has been sucking billions of £££s out of the public coffers for 60 years and yet still needs massive subsidies to operate.

David MacKay Hearts Nuclear

In comparison to this blatant rhetoric against wind and renewable energy, there is nothing negative directed at nuclear. All we hear about nuclear is soothing reassurances – including a whitewash of the dangers of nukes from the global warming-denying Patrick Moore who MacKay introduces as “former Director of Greenpeace International“. Moore left Greenpeace 25 years ago and they have since denounced him as a paid spokesperson for polluting companies. In fact, Moore is now employed as a lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute! He is a paid cheerleader for the nuke industry… rather different to MacKay’s portrayal of him as eco-warrior. Either MacKay has been incredibly negligent in not discovering this conflict of interest or he has dishonestly chosen to hide it.

The nuclear love-fest continues:

  • He claims that “Uranium can be used 60 times more efficiently in fast breeder reactors…” – but fast breeder reactors are, to date, a failed experiment. France shut their program down. The Japanese shut theirs down. And so did the US. Only the Russians have one functioning fast breeder reactor and it has “never closed the fuel cycle and has yet to fuel BN-600 with plutonium.”
  • He refers to nuclear waste as a “beautifully small” problem, as though volume of waste was the only consideration when it is the fact that the high-level waste from nuclear reactors must be stored securely somewhere for at least 100,000 years. This is an inconceivably long time and no one has a solution. This vast problem is simply being ignored by the nuclear industry and its cheerleaders.
  • He tells us that “the nuclear waste from Britain’s ten nuclear power stations has a volume of just 0.84 litres per person per year“. Just?! That’s 50 million litres a year – with only the current fleet. That’s not “beautifully small” when it needs to be stored safely for many times longer than the whole of recorded human history. This is an obscene legacy to leave future generations who are given no say in whether they want it or not.

Once is a Misfortune, Twice is Carelessness – But Three times or More?!

The errors and extremely pessimistic assumptions that work against renewables are legion. Here are a few more to add to MacKay’s central, failed claim:

  • His estimate of what offshore wind could provide – 120 GW for shallow waters and 240 GW for deeper waters – is massively different to other estimates. For example: Two Terawatts average power output: the UK offshore wind resource. “The theoretical resource from offshore wind turbines in UK waters is approximately 2.2 TW of average (ie continuous output) of electricity.” So, that’s 2200 GW against MacKay’s 360 GW. Slightly different. To put 2.2 TW in perspective, it is about the same as the entire planet is currently using.
  • MacKay claims that “…windmills generate 9% of the electricity…” in Denmark. This is factually wrong. Massively so. Wind power provided 24% of generation capacity in Denmark in 2008. This error has now been corrected in the errata to the book, but will clearly not be seen by many people who will be badly misinformed about the growing success of wind energy in Denmark.
  • He assumes 3 MW turbines for his offshore wind calculations when 7 MW are available today with 10, 15 and 20 MW being developed.
  • He proposes “that we assume the available fraction is one third” of total offshore sea area for wind turbines. Why? He mentions fishing boats and shipping, but the spacing of offshore turbines allows plenty of space for boats to pass between, so cutting the available resource to one third is completely unnecessary. Also, fishing is likely to improve as turbines create artificial reefs for fish and other sea life.
  • Floating turbines that can be deployed in deep water will be on the market soon and make his assumptions even further removed from reality.
  • He makes multiple claims about the unreliability of offshore wind and cites problems with the Danish Horns Reef wind farm – but fails to mention that this was the world’s first offshore wind farm. Should we not expect teething troubles with a first-of-its-kind technology? Compare the ‘teething problems’ that continue in nuclear reactors today after 60 years of massive investment and development! Given that we’ve been building ships for a few hundred years, it seems likely that we have the technological know-how to build wind turbines that will withstand life at sea.
  • Another analysis takes MacKay to task: “It is grossly misleading to compare this chemical energy with wind power or electricity due to the different energy paths, losses and potential for supplying useful work at the wheels of a car in either case.”

And so it goes on. MacKay produces a litany of false claims and bizarrely pessimistic assumptions directed at renewable energy, while offering the most rose-tinted view of nuclear energy.

The Best Sales Pitch is the One You Don’t See Coming

David MacKay’s claims that he has produced a dispassionate analysis are not borne out by the rhetoric and pattern of assumptions and factual errors in his book. It’s a deeply partisan work that pushes a clear anti-renewable and pro-nuclear agenda.

Read his book with a critical eye and some familiarity of the FUD and propaganda targeted against renewables, and you should see that MacKay is not the dispassionate energy scholar that he has successfully marketed himself as; he is simply another player in the divisive battle between clean, green, safe renewable energy and the status quo of centralised power generation from nuclear energy… or as some wag put it, “the most expensive and dangerous method ever invented to boil water“.

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4 Responses to David MacKay’s ‘Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air’… Perhaps A Little Hot Air?

  1. Just came across your critique of this book.

    I haven’t fully read it yet, but already have some serious issues with it !

    As I see it the main flaw is that the book fails to appreciate Thermodynamics, or to be precise Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). Without this, there is no energy based method for assessing the genuine economic viability of alternative technologies.

    The work of Richard Heinberg is very good, see this paper “Searching for a miracle”:


    His latest book “End of Growth” is very good too, as is much of the work on theoildrum.com website.

    What are your views on assessing energy viability in terms of EROEI?

  2. robertwebb says:

    Very good piece. Please see also: Shock: “Food supply could blot out countryside, warns government scientist” > http://bit.ly/rrTZPe

  3. Great site. I love your message” The best sales pitch is the one you don’t see coming”. That describes MacKay to a tee. His assumptions about how much area nukes use of course does not include the vast areas of land no longer fit for human habitation for eternity. Ironic after Chernobyl ,Kyshtym, and Fukushima, nuke cheerleaders never take this land into consideration in estimates of area.

  4. Pingback: The Climate Change Debate Thread - Page 3988

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