Sustainable Energy: Without the hot air

Simple is effective

Simple is effective

In the past two months, I've had two people recommend the book Sustainable Energy: Without the hot air by David MacKay to me.  I visited the website on the first recommendation, but was initially turned away by the design ( I know, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover :) ).  On the second visit, I actually read the opening few pages and I was hooked.  I could have read the whole book on the website, because Dr. MacKay - a physics professor at the University of Cambridge - put the whole book online for free!  But because I like to have hard copies of books to keep around for reference, I decided to buy the book on Amazon and it just came in the mail.

The reason I was hooked is because David sounds like he is a wiser, more British version of myself.

From his introduction:

The heated debate (renewable energy) is fundamentally about numbers. How much energy could each source deliver, at what economic and social cost, and with what risks? But actual numbers are rarely mentioned.

And in discussing the mantra "every little helps" he writes:

if everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little.

Which is similar to what I write in my About Us section and what Thomas Friedman discusses in his new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

In discussing who bears responsibility for tackling climate change:

but ethical discussions must be founded on facts

MacKay says the goal of his book:'s intended to illustrate how to use approximate numbers as a part of constructive consensual conversations.

And in summing up his first section on Motivations:

This book is emphatically intended to be about facts, not ethics.  I want the facts to be clear, so that people can have a meaningful debate about ethical decisions.

Brilliant!  This is also the goal of Mapawatt Blog (although you will also get a healthy dose of my opinions).  The goal is to help educate you, the individual, so you can call b.s. when a politician spouts some campaign trail rhetoric about Climate Change or Renewable Energy.  I've tried to do this in my blogs What is a kWh or Lighting Cost Comparison or the importance of energy data and the EIA.

Last year I was at a meeting of individuals whose goal was to bring about sustainable change in our community.  I brought up the issue of how important it was for people to understand a "Watt" and a "kilowatt-hour".  Some people at the meeting thought that they didnt need to do this, that this should be left up to the engineers and scientists, the experts on Energy.  Like MacKay does in his new book, I completely disagree.  He writes, "The climate change problem is principally an energy problem."  And the most important concept in evaluating energy is understanding the principles.

If there's anything the recent financial meltdown on Wall Street taught me, it is that "the experts" are not really experts.  A group of people that is usually wrong (see "experts" and talking heads on TV) should not be listened to.  It is up to the individual to educate themselves on the issues, because politicians, media, "the experts", are usually only speaking for their best interest. As MacKay says in his opening pages:

In a climate where people don't understand the numbers, newspapers, campaigners, companies, and politicians can get away with murder.

The biggest problems of the 21st century in regards to the Environment rely on actual numbers and calculations.  It is up to us to get educated and help come up with realistic solutions.  David MacKay's book and this blog will help get you there.  It is up to you to use them!

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very illuminating book. Reminds me of a recent New York Times article stating that energy star savings are not always achieved. I believe that much of the mistakes occur from failure to realize that energy runs downhill, in other words it eventually turns into heat. Most savings estimates ignore the fact that this heat is useful in warming the home in the winter , fall, and summer. The ignoring of this fact overstates the cost savings of new appliances and, unless you have free energy, should be considered. Today with the strains on family budgets coupled with the hype to buy new appliances from television shows such as Get It Sold, How Much is My Home Worth, and other shows on HGTV, Planet Green etc. While I support wise investments in energy efficiency, I am also aware that a rational home owner decision must include a realistic estimate considereing relevant factors such as mentioned above and it also should consider cost of many years includiong expected replacement of the new appliance. Twenty years ago , refrigerators and st\poves were built to last thirty years. Now according to conmsumer reports theirt lives are often less than ten. while such concepts do not matter to many in our wasteful unsustainable society, it should matter to families who are concerned about the environment and providing the best lives for themselves and their children. I am totally irritated by those that believing buiying a new car every 4 years actually improves the environent, or purchases new appliances, every five or ten years believing somehow that junking them and buying more energy efficient appliances actually protects the environment. Reduce, reuse, and recycle are the rules for sustainable living, but too often we emphasize reuse and recycle in order to rationalize conspicuous consumption. As others have said the greenest brick is the one already in the wall. Lets start doing some realistic calculations to decisions. Otherwise we will achieve negative energy savings by having to work more with its related energy demands to pay for conspicuous consumption and poor decisions.
Good point Ed! I just heard about this company yesterday,, which buys electronics from companies that want to get rid of them, and sells those electronics to companies who want to buy re-used products. Not only do they provide a Sustainable "waste stream" but they also create a business that improves the lives of those involved.

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