Technical Matters

MacKay, David JC, 2009, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, UIT, Cambridge

David MacKay is a professor of Physics at Cambridge. Behind this great book is his concern that, when talking about renewable energy, journalists and others throw pseudo statistics about with little comprehension, or perhaps intention, of understanding the relative magnitudes involved. So the book is a systematic attempt to put everything in a common perspective, using a common set of units. In so doing it debunks a number of common myths – for example that a few wind turbines will make much difference. Like most people who actually know some physics, rather than just talk from ignorance, he is fairly sanguine about the use of nuclear power and the corresponding waste disposal problem.

Although his analysis is generally applicable across the world his examples are focused on the UK. Towards the end of the book he sets out a number of possible scenarios that could eliminate the UK’s dependence on fossil fuels. Interestingly all the scenarios require either nuclear power or vast solar power stations (typically covering an area the size of Wales) in the Sahara desert.

For me one of the most important general conclusions is that solar energy is incredibly diffuse. So whatever means we use to collect it – Photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, biomass – will require enormous tracts of land, though wind turbines do not necessarily exclude also using the land for other purposes. This can be seen in the following diagram:

Renewable energy flows per metre squared

Gilbert, Natasha, October 2009, The Disappearing Nutrient, in Nature/Vol 461/8 October 2009, Macmillan, London

Martin, Richard, 2013, Super Fuel: Thorium, the green energy source for the future, Palgrave Macmillan, NY

The present nuclear fuel cycle, based on uranium, was developed primarily to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. It was then adapted for peaceful purposes for electrical generation. This book, informative but journalistic in style, makes the case that a completely different fuel cycle, based on thorium is possible. This would be inherently safer, could not be used for making weapons, and presents fewer problems of waste disposal. Moreover thorium is more abundant than uranium. Unfortunately early research on the thorium cycle in the US was discontinued many years ago. However other countries, notably India, may have an interest in further development of this technology.

Rockström, Johan et al., September 2009, A safe operating space for humanity, in Nature Vol. 461, 24 September 2009, Macmillan, London

Randers, Jorgen, 2012, 2052; A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, Chelsea Green, Vermont