Review: Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air

Leo Hickman, The Guardian,
How did a Cambridge physics professor come to write this year’s must-read book about tackling our future energy needs?

It costs £45 in hardback. It has a crashingly dull cover and title. And it has been launched without marketing pizazz. But a new academic book written by David MacKay, a physics professor at the University of Cambridge, is being hailed by some as a “game changer”: a text that could revolutionise popular thinking about our future energy needs and how we could supply them.

First published online last summer, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air has gathered fans and accolades from all corners of the energy and climate change debate – politicians, business leaders, environmentalists. Readers have warmed to the book’s calm, authoritative voice which steers them, with the aid of wry humour and no-nonsense “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, through the options we have before us if we are ever to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

… “I was distressed by the poor quality of the debate surrounding energy,” he says, explaining why he started to write the book in his spare time four years ago. “I was also noticing so much greenwash from politicians and big business. I was tired of the debate – the extremism, the nimbyism, the hairshirt. We need a constructive conversation about energy, not a Punch and Judy show. I just wanted to try to reboot the whole debate. Most of physics is about energy, and physicists understand inefficiencies. I wanted to write a book about our energy options in a neutral, human-accessible form.”

The book’s masterstroke is to express all forms of power consumption and production – the car, the washing machine, the wind turbine, the mobile phone charger, the nuclear power station – in a single unit of measurement.
(30 April 2009)
UPDATE (May 1)
The book is online as HTML or as PDF.

Giving the Power Grid Some Backbone

Matthew L. Wald, Scientific American
The U.S. needs a high-voltage transmission system to deliver plentiful energy from wind and sunshine to power-hungry cities. At least one plan has emerged

… The U.S. has the natural resources, the technology and the capital to make a massive shift to renewable energy, a step that would lower emissions of greenhouse gases and smog-forming pollutants from coal-fired power plants while also freeing up natural gas for better uses. Missing is a high-voltage transmission backbone to make that future a reality. In some places, wind power, still in its infancy, is already running up against the grid’s limits. “Most of the potential for renewable resources tends to be in places where we don’t have robust existing transmission infrastructure,” Van Wiele says. Instead, for decades electric companies have built coal, nuclear, natural gas and oil-fired generators close to customers.

That strategy worked reasonably well until recently, when 28 state governments set “renewable portfolio standards” requiring their utilities to supply a certain portion of their electricity using renewables, such as 20 percent by 2020 or even sooner. But as Kurt E. Yeager, former president of the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., points out, such standards “aren’t worth the paper they’re written on until we have a power system, a grid, that is capable of assimilating that intermittent energy without having to build large quantities of backup power, fossil-fueled, to enable it.”
(30 April 2009)

From Smokestacks to Your Tank

Matthew L. Wald, New York Times
IF the government regulates carbon dioxide emissions, power plants and other factories will probably start removing CO2 from their smokestacks and will have to pay to get rid of it. The conventional wisdom is that it will be sequestered underground.

But one audacious concept is to recycle the carbon by turning it into liquid hydrocarbon fuels.

Chemical plants, in this vision, could generate liquid hydrocarbons by taking hydrogen from natural gas or even water and combining it with CO2 to make fuels that would cut the demand for crude oil. In effect, each carbon atom would be used twice: the first time in a coal-fired power plant and the second in a car engine.

… A crucial consideration, though, is how much energy it would take to recombine carbon with hydrogen to produce a fuel that could substitute for gasoline. Energy costs money, but it also comes with a cost in carbon emissions that could reduce or eliminate any environmental benefit to the process.

As unlikely as the concept may seem, chemists have been working on it for decades.
(29 April 2009)