Sunday, April 24, 2016

David MacKay, 1967-2016


Mark Lynas has just published the last interview with David, eleven days before his death. In this frank account of energy policy, MacKay has something to say about the prospect of solar, wind, CCS, nuclear.... and the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

See the context on Mark Lynas' blog here
including David MacKay's famous Global Calculator.

Last week David MacKay died who was an incredibly creative scientist, and advisor to the UK government. While I did not have the opportunity to meet him in person I was impressed by his book 'Sustainable Energy -- Without the Hot Air'. The book is freely available online ( MacKay takes a pragmatic approach to climate policy and asks what types of our activities use what amount of energy and how we could make a difference. He develops a number based approach, equating every energy type to a the equivalent of a 40W light bulb which is always on. On average a person in Britain uses the equivalent of 125 light bulbs.

MacKay reveals some interesting facts about the contribution we could make to energy consumption (mobile phone chargers are not a good place to start). He also shows the challenge posed by the decarbonization goals. Even if we covered all of the British coastline with tidal energy systems we would only reduce the number of light bulbs per person by 4. If we were serious about eliminating the equivalent of all 125 light bulbs half of Britain would be covered with windfarms (we need 600,000 of them). Alternatively we could build 300 nuclear power plants.

The Telegraph has an obituary here:

The energy debate in the UK, and across the globe, has lost an important voice of reason.


Werner Krauss said...


thanks for sharing this! I am not familiar with his work, and the interview and the links you provide are really inspiring. I was stunned how exactely he could present in words and gestures the dilemma of the current debate on energy. "They don't do the numbers right" is one of the common sighs of the natural scientists. When asked about his opinion about the eco-modernist manifesto, he seems to welcome it on the one hand (those guys do the numbers right!), but on the other he fears that it causes polarization instead of consensus, and consensus is what we need, in his opinion. It is interesting to see how the political - consensus - suddenly seems to erode the certainty provided by numbers. The conflict, the predicament is reflected in his lively facial expressions. In the Guardian article he is quoted with "I am not pro-nuclear, I am pro-arithmetic" - again, there it is, in a nutshell, the dilemma between the world of numbers and the world inhabited by people with their opinions, interests and concerns.

So thanks for sharing, I will for sure read his book (free download!) with great interest. Maybe this is the best thing one can do to honor someone who went far too early.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

What I like about his approach is the seemingly low level arithmetic, back-of-the envelope calculation which can be grasped by anyone. In the the debate about climate policy it is much more useful knowledge compared to the highly sophisticated modelling exercises about future climates that do not give us any guidance on action. MacKay's approach does this.

When you say "It is interesting to see how the political - consensus - suddenly seems to erode the certainty provided by numbers"

I am not sure I follow.

Do you mean that he deplores the fact that the solar lobby is more powerful than the nuclear lobby? His numbers show that the UK will not be able to decarbonize in the basis of renewable energy. Only carbon sequestration and storage plus nuclear can achieve this in the coming decades. Other countries offer different opportunities, so again he offers a pragmatic outlook. To prescribe the UK solution to the world would not work (this is his disagreement with the Breakthrough guys).

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Ted Nordhaus has posted this on the Breakthrough blog:

He writes about his first encounter with David in 2009: 'He pushed a copy of Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air into my chest and told me, in his trademark manner (simultaneously respectful, polite, and direct) that while I was right that climate mitigation would require a clean energy revolution, I needed to stop banging on about renewable energy.
Along with Stewart Brand and Michael Lind, David was among the first people to bluntly tell me that if I were really serious about climate mitigation, I would need to learn to utter the N-word: nuclear energy.'

Werner Krauss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

schade, traurige Nachrichten.

Interessant finde ich, wie national die Menschen denken. Scheint aber der Zeitgeist zu sein.

Aber wenn man ehrlich ist, dann ist die britische Energiepolitik eher schlechter als die deutsche, bspw. Nun ja, aber immerhin denken sie wenigstens über Emissionseinsparungen nach.


Doug Cotton said...


In an email Hans wrote ...

"The essence of science is to be able to have a discourse and discuss pro and cons about hypotheses and theories especially if you claim that the organization you represent has the intention to reach a standard that is at a scientific level. I have found that leading members of PSI show little will to discuss scientific matters and to leave out personal emotions making it close to impossible to have a meaningful dialog.

"Doug Cotton might behave in a miserable way showing his anger towards certain scientists and PSI. Still, the book he has published contains many arguments which deserve a serious and thorough investigation. This is why I have recommended a number of Australian politicians to read what he writes. Much of it is essential in the debate of the IPCC false claims and even the future economies of western countries and even more. "


You can't assume (like Postma and Bright-Paul) that the mean of 168W/m^2 could produce a mean temperature above 233K (-40°C) just because the radiation is variable and can reach over 1,000W/m^2 for a very small portion of Earth's surface. The variability actually leads to a LOWER mean temperature than that for steady flux. How would you explain Venus surface temperatures with your conjecture anyway?

That's why the correct paradigm had to be discovered, as I did -

IT’S ABOUT TIME all you CLAUSIUS FANS got it into your heads that (for NON-RADIATIVE HEAT) the Clausius corollary of the Second Law* only applies in a horizontal plane wherein gravitational potential energy does not change and thus does not affect entropy. THIS IS OVERWHELMINGLY IMPORTANT IN REGARD TO PLANETARY TEMPERATURES.

It is NOT radiation that supplies all the necessary thermal energy to maintain a planet's surface temperature - it is free (or "natural") convective heat transfer happening at the molecular level and carrying out the SECOND LAW* process of MAXIMUM ENTROPY PRODUCTION. But you will need to study my paper that arrogant people at PSI rejected in 2013.

* Second law of thermodynamics: “In a natural thermodynamic process, the sum of the entropies of the interacting thermodynamic systems increases.” There's nothing in there about heat from hot to cold.