Skip to main content

Sustainable Energy-without the hot air

Sustainable Energy without the hot airCambridge physicist David MacKay is receiving heaps of praise for his new book, "Sustainable Energy-without the hot air." Described by boingboing as "the Freakonomics of conservation, climate, and energy," The Guardian has declared the book "this year's must-read." And when I saw this blurb among the endorsements from academics,
I took it to the loo and almost didn't come out again.
- Matthew Moss, Private Secretary to the Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge
I knew I had to take a look. (Naturally, I jumped ahead to the chapter on nuclear energy.)

With clarity and objectivity, MacKay walks the reader through detailed explanations of nuclear fission, uranium, thorium, land use, and safety. And in a section called Mythconceptions, he dispels several of the popular arguments against nuclear power.

Building a nuclear power station requires huge amounts of concrete and steel, materials whose creation involves huge CO2 pollution.

The steel and concrete in a 1 GW nuclear power station have a carbon footprint of roughly 300 000 t CO2.

Spreading this “huge” number over a 25-year reactor life we can express this contribution to the carbon intensity in the standard units (g CO2per kWh(e)),

carbon intensity
associated with construction
= _______300× 109 g_______
106 kW(e) × 220 000 h

= 1.4 g/kWh(e),

which is much smaller than the fossil-fuel benchmark of 400 g CO2/kWh(e). The IPCC estimates that the total carbon intensity of nuclear power (including construction, fuel processing, and decommissioning) is less than 40 g CO2/kWh(e) (Sims et al. 2007).

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.

Sustainable Energy can be downloaded for free at MacKay's site here, though the quality of this remarkable book really deserves remuneration. And besides, who would want to read "the unlikeliest beach book of the year" on their laptop Kindle?


Anonymous said…
So is he against nuclear power? Does the book propose a plan?
David MacKay said…
The book contains six plans. Read the friendly book :-)
Bill said…
Several. From Chapter 27:

"Producing lots of electricity – plan EE stands for “economics.” The fifth plan is a rough guess for what would happen in a liberated energy market with a strong carbon price. On a level economic playing field with a strong price signal preventing the emission of CO2, we don’t get a diverse solution, we get an economically optimal solution that delivers the required power at the lowest cost. And when “clean coal” and nuclear go head to head on price, it’s nuclear that wins. (The capital cost of regular dirty coal power stations is £1 billion per GW, about the same as nuclear; but the capital cost of clean-coal power, including carbon capture and storage, is roughly £2 billion per GW.) Solar power in other people’s deserts loses to nuclear power when we take into account the cost of the required 2000-km-long transmission lines (though van Voorthuysen (2008) reckons that with Nobel-prize-worthy developments in solar-powered production of chemical fuels, solar power in deserts would be the economic equal of nuclear power). Offshore wind also loses to nuclear, but I’ve assumed that onshore wind costs about the same as nuclear.

Here’s where plan E gets its 50 kWh/d/p of electricity from. Wind: 4 kWh/d/p (10GW average). Solar PV: 0. Hydroelectricity and waste incineration: 1.3 kWh/d/p. Wave: 0. Tide: 0.7 kWh/d/p. And nuclear: 44 kWh/d/p (110GW).

This plan has a ten-fold increase in our nuclear power over 2007 levels. Britain would have 110GW, which is roughly double France’s nuclear fleet. I included a little tidal power because I believe a well-designed tidal lagoon facility can compete with nuclear power.

In this plan, Britain has no energy imports (except for the uranium, which, as we said before, is not normally counted as an import)."

The whole book's available on-line for free at
This book is at the top of my reading list for my Dartmouth ILEAD course, Energy Policy and Environmental Choices: Rethinking Nuclear Power, described at the course web site

I also have written to Energy Secretary Chu recommending MacKay's book.

You can read more reviews and order the book on
perdajz said…
The chapter on nuclear power is a fair, reasoned, if not entirely novel, elucidation. It's a pretty good compilation of ExterneE and Paul Scherrer work, and I really like the deaths/per-Gigawatt plot, which must be a stunning surprise for the antinukes. Although much of this is nothing new, the seeming popularity of this book makes it important.
Jennifer Scott said…
Dr. MacKay makes an important point about the magnitude of the nation’s energy needs and the capacity of today’s low-emission energy sources to meet them. The logical takeaway from his analysis is that to meet energy demand while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the United States – through our leaders in Congress – need to take multiple steps to boost energy diversity. First, we need policies that provide greater access to domestic energy resources such as petroleum and lower carbon natural gas. Expanded domestic energy supply, especially offshore, is essential to keep energy affordable as we develop low-emission sources and technologies; to free up some of the money saved to go toward clean energy development; and to help prevent the migration, or “leakage,” of industrial production, greenhouse gas emissions and jobs to more carbon-intensive nations. Leakage would subvert the nation’s entire GHG reduction effort because global emissions would increase, rather than decrease, as the U.S. loses GDP and jobs. Second, we need policies that encourage energy efficiency and conservation so that we can reduce energy use, save financial resources, and relieve some of the pressure on existing energy supplies. Third, we need large-scale public and private investment in low-emission energy sources and technologies such as renewables, alternatives, nuclear, carbon capture and sequestration and combined heat and power, to bring about transformational change to energy markets and create low-emission energy capacity.

Popular posts from this blog

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…

Sneak Peek

There's an invisible force powering and propelling our way of life.
It's all around us. You can't feel it. Smell it. Or taste it.
But it's there all the same. And if you look close enough, you can see all the amazing and wondrous things it does.
It not only powers our cities and towns.
And all the high-tech things we love.
It gives us the power to invent.
To explore.
To discover.
To create advanced technologies.
This invisible force creates jobs out of thin air.
It adds billions to our economy.
It's on even when we're not.
And stays on no matter what Mother Nature throws at it.
This invisible force takes us to the outer reaches of outer space.
And to the very depths of our oceans.
It brings us together. And it makes us better.
And most importantly, it has the power to do all this in our lifetime while barely leaving a trace.
Some people might say it's kind of unbelievable.
They wonder, what is this new power that does all these extraordinary things?

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…