Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Without the hot air

Inspired by the glowing review in the Economist, I've just been reading David MacKay's Sustainable Energy - without the hot air (available as a book through the usual sources, or as a free download under a Creative Commons licence). Like the Economist, I'd strongly recommend the book for anyone interested in sustainable energy.

MacKay might seem like an unlikely person to write such a book - a physics professor from Cambridge, he's primarily a specialist in information theory, with a sideline in international development. It's maybe that off-centre viewpoint that allows him to use some simple tools from physics and maths to address the most basic question - can renewable (or, at least, sustainable) sources replace fossil fuels for the UK?

Along the way, he demolishes some of the wilder, waftier claims of industry boosters and environmental campaigners, as well as many of the tedious objections of the climate change deniers and do-nothings.

It's mostly to do with totting up the energy consumption and potential renewable resources for the UK, based on pretty basic material considerations. There's very little about what would usually be considered as the economics of the problem - the marginal costs, externalities, public preferences, game theories, discounted cost-benefit analyses, etc - but the book is, at heart, pure economics: how we can make best use of limited resources to achieve a social goal.

I've written a longer review over at Clean Ventures.

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