The world lost a genius that it really needed this month, Sir David MacKay of Cambridge University. MacKay was a guru of statistics and information theory and had in the last decade brought his laser-like data analysis skills to the problem of peak energy and climate change. After the publication of his book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, which he made freely available online, he was made Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change in Britain. He’s also made a fantastic piece of software called the Global Calculator that lets people all over the world have intelligent conversations about sustainability planning.
Quantifying Energy Savings and Renewables
MacKay’s pet peeve was greenwashing – talking about small steps we can take towards a sustainable future without quantifying just how small they are. Small steps such as adjusting our thermostats and biking instead of driving can be important. But some small steps, like unplugging our power strips when not in use, are so small that they do basically nothing while giving us the impression that we’ve got everything under control because we’re “being green.” MacKay famously pointed out that unplugging your phone charger for a day saves only 0.01 kWh per day, which is also what you use driving for one second in an average car.
Is it okay to be against coal, against oil, against nuclear, possibly against windfarms ruining your view, and yet to still drive around, keeping the thermostat cranked to 70 degrees? MacKay says absolutely not. In his TED Talk, his key phrase is that “we need an energy plan that adds up,” and we need to talk clearly and calmly about the quantities of energy we are using and producing uses fossil fuels and alternatives.
Peak Energy vs. Climate Change
Unfortunately, there are two forces at work that make our lifestyles unsustainable. The first is that we’re past the peak of our oil and gas production, and pretty soon we will run out of affordable supplies of these unique resources that allow us to fly in jets and make everything out of plastic. MacKay says we get 90% of our energy from fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal). So right away you can see the big problem of what we’ll do when it runs out, since renewables take tons of land mass and we have not been doing the necessary planning to get large enough amounts of them online. The second problem is that fossil fuels cause CO2 emissions, or even worse, methane emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and cause climate change. So to avoid that, we should not use up all the oil, gas and coal we can find, even if it is still cheap.
The main answer is two-fold: do everything you can do reduce your energy use – stop driving and flying, get a smaller house and heat it less, make all kinds of efficiency and insulation improvements, etc. Then do all you can do promote alternative energy sources that are least bad – solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, etc. Working blindly in these directions isn’t enough, either. We need to know our quantitative goals for energy use reduction and alternative energy production. That is MacKay’s “energy plan that adds up.”
I plead guilty as charged to being wishy-washy and lacking numbers in my goals and projects. I’m going to read MacKay’s book and learn to quantify everything in kilowatt-hours. After seeing four amazing spaces on the NW Green Home Tour this weekend in Seattle, I am inspired and ready to go. Requiescat in pace, Sir MacKay. Those of us remaining on Earth will try to do you proud.