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The price for alternatives

May 14, 2009
“Assuming we are serious about getting off fossil fuels, the scale of building required should not be underestimated. Small actions alone will not deliver. Our failure to talk straight about the numbers is allowing people to persist in wishful thinking.” ...

Assuming we are serious about getting off fossil fuels, the scale of building required should not be underestimated. Small actions alone will not deliver. Our failure to talk straight about the numbers is allowing people to persist in wishful thinking.” –Professor David MacKay, University of Cambridge

The good folks from CNN posted a commentary from the good professor above online yesterday, and his remarks – excerpted from his book "Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air," which is available free on his Internet site – are really long overdue as we debate the future of alternative fuels and power sources in America.

In very blunt and simple terms, Professor David MacKay states what should be extremely obvious truths about energy policy in our country – that using anything other than coal and petroleum to power our homes, businesses, factories, and vehicles is going to cost a LOT more than expected and require massive changes to the lifestyles of every single person in America, especially the wealthier segments of society.

“We need to introduce simple arithmetic into our discussions of energy,” he said. “We need to understand how much energy our chosen lifestyles consume, we need to decide where we want that energy to come from, and we need to get on with building energy systems of sufficient size to match our desired consumption.”

MacKay – a professor in the department of physics at the University of Cambridge, studied natural sciences at Cambridge and then obtained his PhD in Computation and Neural Systems at the California Institute of Technology – is also pretty brutal when it comes to the value all the “soft” energy savings being bandied about on Capitol Hill these days; things like unplugging cell phone chargers, for example.

“Take, for example, the idea that one of the top 10 things you should do to make a difference to your energy consumption is to unplug your cell-phone charger when you are not using it,” he said. “The truth is that leaving a phone charger plugged in uses about 0.01 kWh per day, 1/100th of the power consumed by a lightbulb.”

This means that switching the phone charger off for a whole day saves the same energy as is used in driving an average car for one second, MacKay said. “Switching off phone chargers is like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon,” he stresses. “I'm not saying you shouldn't unplug it, but please realize, when you do so, what a tiny fraction it is of your total energy footprint.”

MacKay expresses energy consumption and energy production using simple personal units, namely kilowatt-hours. So, for example, one kilowatt-hour (kWh) is the energy used by leaving a 40-watt bulb on for 24 hours. “The chemical energy in the food we eat to stay alive amounts to about 3 kWh per day. Taking one hot bath uses about 5 kWh of heat. Driving an average European car 100 kilometers (km), which is roughly 62 miles, uses 80 kWh of fuel,” he said. “With a few of these numbers in mind, we can start to evaluate some of the recommendations that people make about energy.”

In total, the European lifestyle uses 125 kWh per day per person for transport, heating, manufacturing, and electricity. That's equivalent to every person having 125 light bulbs switched on all the time. The average American uses 250 kWh per day: thus, 250 light bulbs.

As a thought-experiment, MacKay postulates that technology switches and lifestyle changes could halve American energy consumption to 125 kWh per day per person. That’s a BIG leap, but let’s follow along anyways. How big would the solar, wind and nuclear facilities need to be to supply this halved consumption? For simplicity, imagine getting one-third of the energy supply from each, he said. The results:

• To supply 42 kWh per day per person from solar power requires roughly 80 square meters per person of solar panels.

• To deliver 42 kWh per day per person from wind for everyone in the U.S. would require wind farms with a total area roughly equal to the area of California, a 200-fold increase in United States wind power.

• To get 42 kWh per day per person from nuclear power would require 525 one-gigawatt nuclear power stations, a roughly five-fold increase over today's levels.

Remember, that is IF each and every American cuts in HALF their energy consumption. No more big mansions in Malibu; no more private jets; no more limos for the Academy Awards. In fact, no more Academy Awards event – uses too much energy. [You can hear the denizens of Hollywood screaming now.]

“The sober message about wind and solar applies to all renewables,” MacKay said. “All renewables, much as I love them, deliver only a small power per unit area, so if we want renewable facilities to supply power on a scale at all comparable to our consumption, those facilities must be big.”

Then there’s energy for vehicles. MacKay took hydrogen power as an example of the whole truth not being adequately shared for discussion. “The truth is that, in energy terms, today's hydrogen-powered vehicles don't help at all,” he said. “Most prototype hydrogen-powered vehicles use more energy than the fossil-fuel vehicles they replace. The BMW Hydrogen 7, for example, uses 254 kWh per 100 km, but the average fossil car in Europe uses 80 kWh per 100 km.”

The issue here, though – and I want to make this very clear – isn’t that we should give up on pursuing alternative energy options. I for one firmly believe we need to vastly reduce our petroleum use, even if it costs us a lot of money and effort in the process, for reasons of energy SECURITY. We rely far too much on supplies from unstable areas of the world – in many cases, our petroleum comes from nations that would like nothing better than to destroy us. Taking America out of this loop to me is vital to our safety.

That being said, though, we must also realize the total costs and pay them: we can’t shade the truth. If we’re serious about doing this, as Professor MacKay said, we must commit to it 100% and make the changes necessary – redirecting federal spending on a massive scale, making big changes to our everyday lives.

In particular, such an effort poses a major problem for President Obama, as Time magazine reports in a recent story that members of his own party are already watering down many of his current initiatives left and right. Trying to shift our nation's energy matrix on the scale required to make alternatives truly work might prove too much given the realities of the current political process.

“I hope the numbers above have shown, supplying energy to match our demand is not going to be easy,” said MacKay. “The public discussion of energy options tends to be emotional, polarized, mistrustful and destructive. I hope that focusing attention on the numbers may make it possible to develop honest and constructive conversations about energy.”

That hope might be far-fetched, but it’s possible. We’ll see what happens.

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