"Sustainable Energy - without the hot air" - A review

I've just finished reading Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, a book by David MacKay of Cambridge University which takes a look at the actual numbers behind our energy consumption, and confronts one of the greatest dilemmas of our era - how do we tackle our massive energy needs in the face of diminishing resources?

While the majority of the newspaper headlines currently devote their environmental column inches to the problem of carbon and it's impact on global climate change, MacKay takes a less emotional approach by looking at our energy demands and contrasting them with the possible sustainable replacements for fossil fuels, focusing on the numbers rather than sensationalism.

His findings are deeply worrying. In the first half of the book he compares the amount of energy we actually use with energy that can theoretically be produced in a sustainable manner within the UK. Even with farcically large developments (a solar farm covering 10% of the country; surrounding the country in wind farms) our current demand outstrips that which can be produced.

In addition several myths that have evolved are debunked, including several posters from the London Planet Repairs campaign. MacKay shows that, while older phone chargers do indeed draw power when left plugged in, the actual effect they have is so minimal that focusing efforts on these detracts from the real problems. MacKay focuses on the mantra, 'If everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little' - Our power consumption is so high that only a major effort by everybody will produce positive results.

Whilst the first part of the book is a depressing realisation that we cannot continue as we are, and that nothing we can do within the UK can compensate for our current lifestyles, the second section examines positive steps that we can utilise to reduce our energy needs, and some serious proposals as to how we can produce the energy that we need.

Sustainable nuclear power is also discussed, and, to me, provided a sense of optimism - whilst nuclear is no panacea for a reduction in energy waste, it does offer a huge source of power with minimal waste production, albeit with a large increase in the number of power stations.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea why nuclear power has become the pariah it has. Almost all the nuclear accidents that have happened have been due to negligence, and as MacKay shows, nuclear is actually one of the safest sources of power available - second only to hydroelectric. Yes there is the issue of disposal, but all industry creates waste, and while we do have to dispose of this waste with great care, I have great faith in human ingenuity, and believe that nuclear waste is no more a negative legacy than asbestos insulation, gunpowder or the concrete monstrosities of the sixties. Future generations will probably prefer a few fields full of nuclear waste than an atmosphere filled with poison and a dying biosphere.

I think one of the things that most struck me from the second part of the book was the pathetic effort the government has put into tackling what is potentially the most important issue of our time. The amount earmarked for research into renewable energy is a paltry £12 million - the estimated cost of UK identity cards is £15 billion. The Government considers tracking it's citizens 1000 times more important than reducing it's reliance on fossil fuels.

These embarrassing figures are juxtaposed with two quotes from the former prime minister, Tony Blair:

Unless we act now, not some time distant, but now, these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible. So there is nothing more serious, more urgent or demanding of leadership.

And then in response to the suggestion he should demonstrate this leadership by not flying to holiday in Barbados:

A bit impractical actually…

This is an issue that will impact our lives dramatically, and not only us but the entire planet. Our reliance on oil has been largely to blame for the conflicts in the Middle East; Russia and the Ukraine's disagreements over gas led to the loss of heating in much of Eastern Europe. Even if you neglect the considerable risk of climate change from carbon dioxide, the impact of the exhaustion of fuel deposits has and will dominate the political issues of this century. To place such a trivial investment in examining these issues is idiotic. The quotes only remind us how hypocritical, how impotent government is in the face of multinational corporations, and how we cannot rely on our leaders to save us.

This book is a call to action for us, the wealthy consumers of the world, who for far too long have been putting too large a strain on the energy resources of the planet. The book is dedicated 'to those who will not have the benefit of two billion years accumulated energy reserves.' If you only read one book about energy this year, make it this one. This is an issue too important to ignore.