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Sustainable Energy - without the hot air




Sustainable Energy - without the hot air
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John Peacock FRS
Professor of Cosmology
Head of the Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh

Most scientists today live in a form of denial; we know that human existence faces huge problems in the very near future, and yet we mostly ignore these. We continue to work on scientific topics selected simply by personal interest, and we continue this indulgence with our carbon-intensive lifestyles, flying off to the latest conferences. But David MacKay has shown his colleagues how it should be done, and applied his intellect to dissect the question of how we can possibly obtain the energy to continue to live as we have done. This is a wonderfully clear-eyed book, which slays the myths and wishful thinking that obscure the main issues in energy sustainability. It doesn't preach, but it forces the reader to think honestly about the energy we use, and what changes of lifestyle would be needed to match various possible sources of supply. The conclusions are in many ways depressing, in that a typical British lifestyle uses far more energy than can realistically be supplied by "nice" sources such as hydroelectric power. This leads the argument in some controversial directions, such as nuclear power. Many readers will place greater weight than MacKay on the possibility of an off-scale disaster such as a further Chernobyl, but the main thing is to be clear about the facts: as MacKay says, "I'm not trying to be pro-nuclear. I'm just pro-arithmetic." This quote sums up the tone of the book perfectly: at every turn, we are given a lucid (and often humorous) dissection of the limitations of a given source of energy, and it is then left to the reader to decide how things should add up. A particularly nice feature is that the book is supplemented by a series of appendices that explore the basic physics of energy generation. So we can see from first principles why flying will never get much more efficient, and that in the long term we will have to learn to do without it. In the end, this is what makes the book inspiring rather than depressing: the sheer intellectual curiosity to understand how things work has given us the problems of the technological society, but it also gives us the tools to see the possible ways out. Everyone has a duty to engage with these issues, and David MacKay's beautifully written book will help both general readers and scientists come to terms with what has to be done.

John Peacock FRS
Professor of Cosmology
Head of the Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh

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