Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or nuclear power are extremely energy dense, perhaps delivering up to 1000W/m2- or 1-2 orders of magnitude greater.

Additionally, wind and solar are intermittent in that they only supply energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, and so would need a baseload back-up- typically natural gas- or a whole additional infrastructure of energy storage would be required, which is very expensive and the technology does not yet exist to do this at scale.

A third factor, which is a result of the first two, is the speed at which renewables can be deployed.

If decarbonisation is the goal, France decarbonised most of its electricity supply using nuclear power 6 times faster in the 1980s than the famous German Energiewende is achieving today:


In MacKay’s last interview given to Mark Lynas shortly before his death (below), he is very outspoken about the lack of energy literacy applied to energy policy, leading to dangerous delusions:

there’s so much delusion, it’s so dangerous for humanity that people allow themselves to have such delusions, that they are willing to not think carefully about the numbers, and the reality of the laws of physics and the reality of engineering….humanity does need to pay attention to arithmetic ad the laws of physics.

He goes on to lament the emergence of a new delusion- that the  drop in price of solar and wind in recent years signifies a greater capacity for them to replace fossil fuels- but calculates that price would have to come down by a factor of 100 to make much difference (for battery storage also)- and even if they were free, they would still be just as costly in terms of land-use. Dream on…

Solar and wind can still play a role perhaps, in sunnier parts of the world, but is likely to remain relatively small. Although fossil fuels have dropped slightly in terms of their total share of supply to the UK, they still supply 85% of our power.

Meanwhile, in Germany they are also busy closing the largest supplier of low-carbon energy they have, and one would be forgiven in thinking that the decarbonisation agenda is really just a smoke-screen to facilitate the  traditional Green anti-nuclear agenda.

To replace fossil fuels, the only option is to move forward to a more energy dense fuel, not one that is 100 times more diffuse and intermittent to boot. Based on arithmetic, rather than ideology, in the foreseeable future that can only mean nuclear power.

If you are interested in honouring the legacy of David MacKay and would like to include arithmetic and basic engineering to promote a realistic energy policy, you can do worse than to start with reading his book, or if you prefer, watching his talk from 2010:






Renewable Energy cannot sustain a Consumer Society

Continuing my series re-posting archive posts from my old permaculture/peak oil blog Zone5, which has now gone to the Great Blogosphere in the Sky….

The Peak Oil movement has done some good things: it has made us aware of how dependent upon fossil fuels we are, how many energy slaves we have working for us day and night; and how absurd it is therefore to claim that it is crazy to be using them, or that there is a simple alternative. Not.

Well the first two are true- Peak Oil really did do that for me, leading to me learn a great deal about energy of all sorts and think about energy in our daily lives very carefully. But in general, peak-oilers, power-downers and Transitioners shirk the logical conclusion that, as the old song goes, we “might as well face it- we’re addicted to oil” – and that that is not a bad place to be; instead, they either indulge in collapse-porn or fuel the deluded idea that wind and solar, combined perhaps with a return to Medieval peasant lifestyles, could realistically replace our immoral high-energy lifestyles.

Some in the peak oil/climate change movement were not so sanguine about what wind and solar could achieve however. The first book I ever read on the problems of trying to come off oil, years before I had ever heard the phrase “peak oil” was The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thomm Hartmann.
At the end of the book he explains how modern wind turbines and pv solar cells are themselves entirely dependent on cheap fossil fuels -not to mention a complex globalized industrial base- to manufacture them.
Another writer firmly in the “civilisation-is-bad-and- we- should-return to simpler-lifestyles” camp but who could see through the myth of replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar power is Ted Trainer. Below is a review of his book on the subject which formed one of my earliest Zone5 posts.

My views on the false claims made for renewables are one of the things that have not changed since those days. They have become more informed: in particular, I would refer to Colin McInnes’ analysis showing the importance of energy density: fossil fuels and nuclear power are two- or three orders of magnitude more energy dense than diffuse and unreliable wind and solar power.
If we look at the world leader in transition to renewables- Germany with its Energiewende- we can see even from a recent favorable report how this translates into real practical obstacles: firstly, to reach 100% renewables (including biomass and storage of surplus power as gas through electrolysis and methanation- an as yet hardly developed technology) is predicated on a 50% reduction in total energy consumption- almost as unrealistic as Trainer’s views;
and apart from anything else, includes covering fully half of Germany’s entire arable land in solar cells. An interesting thought experiment perhaps, but hardly practical.

Where I differ with Trainer today of course is a)his assumption that such a powerdown scenario is necessary or desirable; and
b) his views on “peak uranium” should nuclear power be pursued: predictions of “peak” are nearly always wrong because they underestimate the development of new technology, for new resource discoveries, new extraction technologies, and new efficiencies in end-use: fast-breeder reactors which are in the pipe-line are able to extract more than 90% of the energy from uranium fuel rods, as opposed to just 1-2% from current models. And after Uranium of course, there is Thorium.

I would also be strongly critical of his advocacy of “the Simpler Way”. There is no way to objectively differentiate “needs” from “wants”, and attempts to lay down the law and tell everyone else what constitutes “enough” seem paternalistic and oppressive. They are also based on deeply flawed Limits to Growth thinking, creating a sort of scarcity-consciousness which I feel all too often leads to a self-serving romanticizing of poverty. I also completely reject his idea that technology s not key- it is not the only crucial element, but for the billions of urban dwellers to have good lives into the future will certainly need ongoing technological innovation, as will farming and food production.

The moral approach to addressing poverty and inequality will certainly involve more energy consumption, not less.

Book Review: Ted Trainer – Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society

Originally Posted on 9 September 2007 on Zone5

Ted Trainer, of the University of New South Wales, has made a valuable contribution to the literature of energy and resource depletion with his new book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.
The title says a lot I think. With the focus of most mainstream debate on peak oil and energy being on the supply side- the oil is running low so what are we going to use instead?- Trainer brings a refreshing approach in which he provides a detailed and technically comprehensive analyses of existing renewable energy options- including wind, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass and energy crops, and hydrogen, as well as a look at nuclear and the issue of storing energy- and concludes:
“…we could easily have an extremely low per capita rate of energy consumption, and footprint, based on local resources- but only if we undertake vast and radical change in economic, political, geographical and cultural systems.”
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