Laurent Franckx: Review of “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”

In March 2011 Laurent published an in-depth review of David MacKay’s essential reference. He brought to my attention in his comments on my little review David MacKay: Sustainable energy without the hot air. I recommend Laurent’s review to you. Here’s my comments:

(…) I’ve read your review twice, and am working my way through your other posted reviews. I agree in general with your review of Mackay’s book, which is a remarkable contribution to the literature on energy policy.

You make several good points on the economic realities of energy policy, such as

MacKay barely touches upon the energy and non-energy resource cost of creating the infrastructure that will provide all this renewable energy. This is not a trivial matter.  

I have just one quibble with the way you characterize the book as concluding that “yes, it is physically possible to fulfil a country’s energy needs with renewable energy”.

Adding to MacKay’s physics analysis a view of political economy and economic efficiency, my conclusion was rather the inverse. Specifically, that “renewables” as popularly defined could make a useful but small contribution to a zero carbon 2060 future. There are a number of special cases, such as availability of buffering hydropower, that allow wind and solar to compete. But Kholsa’s “Chindi test” of “cheaper than coal” and nearly-zero-carbon is only satisfied by nuclear power.

MacKay was very careful to avoid “picking winners” in his text. But I think you can see his mind in the quote I chose to head this post:

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic. — David MacKay

Of course I cannot speak to what Dr. MacKay actually thinks. In his own words, his Q&A site includes the following:

You say I am pro-nuclear; I don’t quite agree; the way I would put it is “I am in favour of any plan that adds up”; and I think we should push for a plan that adds up, not half measures and figleafs. I would be perfectly content with a renewable-only plan. I don’t think we should allow religious dogmatism about any one option to prevent us making a plan that adds up. All technologies have risks, and many human activities make toxic waste. I discuss nuclear waste in the book. It’s not infinitely dangerous. It is dangerous. Where to put it? Well, there’s lots of choice, but here’s one idea for the UK – we already have armed guards and security fences around Balmoral, and the public aren’t allowed in there. So we could kill two birds with one stone. The entire UK’s high-level nuclear waste for 50 years could easily be stored in a very small area (one square km is more than enough). The high level waste remains intensely nasty for roughly 1000 years. It’s definitely nasty, but as I say in the book, I think it’s a relatively small problem, compared with the much greater bulk of other wastes, and compared with the challenge of making an honest plan that adds up. In Britain today, there are anti-wind people, anti-tidal-barrage, anti-nuclear, and anti-coal campaigns. We can’t be anti-everything. We need a plan that adds up. Not wishful thinking. Honest numbers.

In his comments he avoids any discussion of next-generation nuclear technology — which consumes as valuable feedstock what is today called “nuclear waste”. I think that exclusion is entirely appropriate to the purpose of his book. But IFR is a real technology. In 2060 it will not even be controversial.