Talk about sustainable energy, sure, but use numbers, not adjectives

No 125 Posted by fw, March 2, 2011

A couple of years ago, British physicist, David MacKay was so fed up with the ‘twaddle’ about sustainable energy that was being bandied about by politicians, journalists, and others that he finally decided to do something about it. He wrote a brilliant, hugely informative book, Sustainable Energy — without the hot air,. “This is a straight-talking book about the numbers”, writes MacKay, in his opening remarks. “The aim is to guide the reader around the claptrap to actions that really make a difference and to policies that add up.” (To download a free copy of MacKay’s 383-page book, click on the title above and follow the instructions).

You will also find on MacKay’s website, a 6:15-minute video, How many lightbulbs does it take to change a man?, In it he surveys Britain’s renewable power source options, and what it will take to achieve 90% reductions in energy use by 2050. Physicist MacKay manages to make a potentially complicated science story comprehensible to the rest of us mere mortals. For that accomplishment alone, I hereby make David MacKay a Right Honourable Citizen Activist.

Watch this video here. The transcript of MacKay’s narration follows:

TRANSCRIPT

How many light bulbs does it take to change a man?

I heard politicians and BBC discussing what to do about energy waste in Britain. They say things like: “Let’s reduce the number of plastic bags in supermarkets.” They say: “Switch off your phone charger when you’re not using it.”  And the idea that these are the number one things we should be talking about when we’re addressing the energy problem – it drove me crazy. This is twaddle. And it’s distracting us from talking about serious change that would actually make a difference.

My name’s David MacKay. I’m a physicist. Like everyone else I’m addicted to energy. I use electricity. My electricity is coming from coal and gas power stations. But we need to get off fossil fuels because coal, gas, oil are going to run out. So how do we get off fossil fuels?

This is a 40 watt lightbulb. If you leave it on all the time, it uses 1 kilowatt hour every day. It’s possible to express all forms of power consumption using this unit of the light bulb.

I started measuring everything around the house, around my office, and I found some surprising things. First I plugged in a phone charger and it didn’t even register on this power meter. It uses 1/100 of a lightbulb of power. So I don’t think the phone charger is going to be our number one form of energy consumption.

Just taking one hot bath every day uses the same energy as, same power, as 5 lightbulbs on all the time, non-stop. And I found I’ve been steadily using 40 lightbulbs worth of gas for heating, making hot air and hot water. And that surprised me.

Transport is one of the biggest forms of energy consumption. It uses about 1/3 of our energy. If you drive an average car 50 kilometers a day, that corresponds to having 40 lightbulbs on all the time.

Today the average British person is using 125 lightbulbs of power. That’s 125 lightbulbs on all the time non-stop. That’s huge.

I started tinkering around trying to reduce my energy consumption, seeing what happened if I unplugged electrical devices and what about playing with the thermostat. How much could I save? Turning down the thermostat one degree will make a difference. It will reduce your energy consumption by 10% or so at home. But that’s not enough to solve our energy problem. Individual actions alone won’t get us where we need to go.

But what the climate scientists advise us is we should be looking for 90% reductions. We need to be talking about sweeping national changes to the way we use energy.

So what can we do?

The power sources with the biggest potential in Britain are nuclear power and renewable power sources. The renewable with the biggest potential is wind. Two hundred people could be completely powered by one of these [wind turbines]. The government’s only given permission to put up 4 lightbulbs per person worth of wind farms. Clearly that’s not enough given that we’re using 125 today. They’re not putting them up fast enough.

This is Sizewell B [nuclear power plant]. It produces 4/10 of a lightbulb of power for every person in Britain. That’s more than all the wind farms in Britain today. If you don’t like nuclear, every Sizewell you want to get rid of, you need an extra 2,000 wind turbines. We could technically live entirely on nuclear power. You’d just need a remarkable number of nuclear power stations.

Britain’s got impressive wave and tidal resources but if you covered the entire coastline of Britain with wave machines you would only get 4 more lightbulbs of power per person from wave power.

Well it makes me pretty angry if people who are anti-wind and anti-nuclear and anti-coal, it just doesn’t make sense. What do they want to have happen when they switch the light switch on? At the moment we get 90% of our energy from fossil fuels and we’ve become used to that. Obviously if we stop using fossil fuels then everything else we do has to roughly increase tenfold to make up for the loss of the fossil fuels. So obviously audacious things have to happen. We need to be talking about a tenfold increase in nuclear, a tenfold increase in wind, a tenfold increase in everything that we currently do.

The advice from the climate scientists is we need to essentially get off fossil fuels by 2050. And that means it’s possible as long as we get building now.

  • 125 lightbulbs per person in the UK, on all day, would require
    • 399 nuclear power stations like Sizewell B
    • Or 600,000 wind turbines, which would cover half of Britain
  • There are 10 nuclear power stations and 2,408 wind turbines in Britain
  • 11 new nuclear sites and 4,462 new wind turbines have been approved

Watch for future posts on this blog drawn form MacKay’s book, a magnificent contribution towards an informed conversation about sustainable energy.

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