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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air - David J.C. MacKay Note: if you want to read this book for free, there are now excellent HTML and PDF versions at http://www.withouthotair.com/ The print version is very well produced, however, and I didn't at all regret the £20 I paid for it.

Jessica posted a great review of Six Degrees a couple of days ago, with a memorable opening sentence:
Reading this book was like meeting someone, falling madly in love, and finding out she's got a terminal illness, all in the space of twenty minutes.
I agree. Global warming is extremely scary. But by way of introduction to MacKay's book, let me try another analogy. Suppose you'd inherited a sizable sum of money when you were 21. You got a couple of jobs, but you didn't take them seriously, because hey, you didn't need to. Now all your credit cards are maxed out, you don't dare open your mail any more, and you're really, really wishing that you'd had the sense not to go to the loan shark. You tell a friend about your troubles. Well, you say, I guess I need to get a job again and start paying off my debts.

So your friend says, what kind of job? You give him a few ideas you'd been kicking around. Maybe you could finish that accountancy course, or maybe you could go to China and teach English as a foreign language, or maybe you could play poker on the Internet. You know some Chinese, and you're quite a good poker player. Your friend asks how much you owe, and how soon you need the money. But you're so scared by your situation that you don't actually know, and you don't know either how long it takes to become sufficiently qualified to get a job as an accountant, or how to become a teacher in China, or how much money you could make playing poker, or, indeed, anything. In short, you're completely panicked. Well, your friend says kindly, let's start by figuring some of that out. Then you might be able to make a sensible decision.

Which brings us to Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. The author is a physics professor here in Cambridge, and is tired of discussions about energy policies that don't include numbers, just emotive terms. Instead of arguing for a specific solution ("No nukes"/"Don't hurt the economy"/"Green energy"/etc), his point is much broader. No matter what policy you are advocating, you have to demonstrate that it balances the books, in terms of producing as much energy as you plan to consume. This is so obviously right that I am just amazed he is regarded by some people as controversial.

McKay works out several concrete energy budgets for the UK, based on different starting assumptions. Doubtlessly critics will be able to attack specific points, say that the arguments don't apply to their own countries, and so on. That doesn't matter, and I'm sure McKay welcomes these responses. What he wants to do is get people thinking about energy policies in a responsible, quantitative way.

I've read an online summary of the book, which seems extremely practical and well thought out. Today, I saw it on sale in Heffers, and bought a copy. I'm planning to start it tomorrow. By next week, I will hopefully have a better idea of what our options are in this terrible situation we've somehow got into. I'll post an update when I've done that.

I've just finished Sustainable Energy. I started with high expectations, and it exceeded them. This is, simply, a book that any numerate person who cares about the future of the planet should read without delay.

MacKay cuts through the bullshit and posturing, and delivers clear, responsible, unbiased information, beautifully and economically presented. He is even-handed about exposing lies and misconceptions, irrespective of where they are coming from, and the list of people who give him a thumbs-up is impressive. You have luminaries of the Green movement, but also former CEOs of large oil companies. He's providing a public service here, and they all recognize it.

The book is focused on one key question: can we stop using fossil fuels, and move over to an energy economy where we get our power from sustainable sources, and consume no more than we produce? MacKay doesn't spend very long arguing that this is necessary. There is already a mountain of readily available evidence which points in this direction; if you still don't believe it, it's because you've decided that nothing is ever going to change your mind. So he takes that for granted, and starts looking at the details.

The material is divided into two main parts, together with a long technical appendix which contains the mathematical formulas and the detailed calculations. In the first part, he looks at the components of a possible energy budget for the whole of Britain. He takes Britain, because it's his country, and he knows the details best here; at the end of the book, he sketches out similar calculations for Europe, North America, and the whole world. The principles carry over easily enough. So, Britain's energy budget. As with any budget, you start with incomings and outgoings. He alternates "green" chapters (incomings: wind, hydro, waves, biofuels, solar, nuclear etc) and "red" chapters (outgoings: cars, heating, electric power, manufacturing etc). Everything is reduced to a single set of units, KWh per person per day, so that it's easy to compare like with like. MacKay is very good at making figures intuitively meaningful; I particularly liked the fact that 1 KWh is approximately the energy that a single human servant could deliver in one day. It is scary that a typical moderately affluent Brit consumes about 40 KWh per day. In other words, we each have 40 virtual servants working for us; no wonder we're living beyond our means. The "red" stack is built up assuming roughly our current energy consumption; the "green" stack is a best-case scenario, the most possible energy we could ever get out of each energy technology.

At the end of Part I, things have become clearer. First, we see that sustainable energy resources need to be country-sized. If we want to get serious energy from wind - enough to make a useful contribution - we need to cover a large part of the country in wind farms. If we're thinking about solar power, a large part of the country is covered in solar power stations. If it's waves, then most of the Atlantic coastline is wave farms. And so on. The only exception to this is nuclear. Nuclear power stations can be quite small. Because he is reducing everything to the same units, you can immediately compare the efficiency of different technologies; so, for example, you can see that biofuels produce less than a quarter of the energy per unit area of land that wind power does.

The "red" and "green" stacks only balance if we are prepared either to cover Britain in wind farms and similar, use a lot of nuclear power, or get sustainable energy from elsewhere. MacKay goes though the possibilities for "elsewhere", and only one of them makes sense: solar power in deserts. There is a lot of sunlight in deserts, and quite good technology for turning it into electricity. You're still talking about tens of thousands of square kilometers of desert, but that's reasonably small compared to the Sahara. So, solar power in deserts is potentially a very important resource.

Now that we know the rules of the game, Part II is about concrete planning. How can we reduce our outgoings, and what are our options for mixing different kinds of energy sources? Two things that would make a big difference to outgoings are moving quickly to electric cars (far more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines), and decreasing heat loss from houses. MacKay has trialled many energy saving ideas on his own house, and presents comprehensive figures; nice to see someone who practices what he preaches. The figures on these items are straightforward and convincing.

There are chapters discussing important practical questions about the different energy generation technologies. I found the discussion of wind power particularly interesting. Critics of wind power tend to say that, since it's intermittent, it wouldn't really be useful. Wind power enthusiasts say that, when you average wind over the whole country, it evens out. In fact, neither position is correct, though the first one is closer to the truth. Even averaged over a whole country (MacKay shows a graph), wind power output is wildly variable. On the other hand, power demand is also very variable. There are already implemented solutions that are used every day to cope with demand surges, like the one that happens when half the country switches on their TVs at the same time to watch a big football game. I didn't know, but there is apparently an installation in Wales, with two large lakes on different levels, which acts as a gigantic storage battery. When there is surplus electricity, it's used to pump water from the low lake to the high one. When extra electricity is required quickly, the sluices from the high lake are opened, and it powers a set of turbines. You could build more of these if you needed them.

The chapter on nuclear power is also very good. As MacKay says, nuclear is dangerous, but it's not infinitely dangerous. Other kinds of energy are dangerous too. He tries to quantify the risk from nuclear to the best of his ability, in terms of the number of deaths you could reasonably expect per unit of generated energy; then he compares with other forms of energy. It's by no means clear that nuclear is, in fact, so dangerous. He also debunks the claim that we couldn't build nuclear power stations quickly enough. MacKay presents the figures dispassionately, and adds, in a typical aside, that you shouldn't conclude that he's pro-nuclear; he's pro-arithmetic. The book, I should mention, is often surprisingly funny.

At the end of Part II, MacKay puts it all together, and constructs some energy budgets that actually balance. He tries to cater for different points of view. So, there's one budget which is driven by economic considerations, and that ends up being mostly nuclear; there's one which focuses on having no nukes, which requires a lot of solar power from the Sahara; there's one where the main theme is self-sufficiency, which means a lot of wind farms; and so on. The budgets make sobering reading. I found them, however, much more positive than negative. It does still appear quite possible to implement these solutions.

The bad news is that no mainstream politicians are really trying. They are getting away with soundbites and token gestures; I was particularly annoyed to learn that the wind turbine which David Cameron (leader of the Conservative Party) installed on his roof probably required more energy to produce than it will ever generate. These politicians are relying on an electorate who will accept their phony numbers on trust. Don't do that. Read MacKay's book, and start asking tough questions until our elected representatives produce plans that add up.

Yesterday, I bought a copy of the Star (Britain's second-trashiest daily newspaper) to read on the train. As usual, it was very entertaining. Among other things, I hadn't heard that Jordan had threatened to shave her head, that Marge Simpson would be appearing nude in Playboy, or that Liverpudlian women had the biggest boobs in England. But my prize went to the following entry on the letters page:
He just bores me stiff

I desperately need my fella to lighten up.

I want us to buy a flat and start a family, but he's too interested in interest rates and booming world population to commit.

He says we shouldn't have children because we don't know what the world will be like in 20 years.

He's also obsessed with climate change and the environment.

It bores me rigid. I tend to live one day at a time and deal with each problem that presents itself. How can I persuade him to do the same?
This highlights a problem that MacKay mentions several times: how can we make green politics more engaging at an emotional level? I thought this was one area where his analysis wasn't quite up to the level I'd come to expect in the book. One suggestion he mentioned a couple of times was for sexy celebrities to start a trend for wearing warm sweaters; that would let us all set our thermostats a few degrees lower, and significantly lower the country's energy requirements. But I have real trouble seeing his idea work in practice. I find it much easier to imagine a campaign along the general lines of "My house is so well insulated that I can walk around dressed like this!" Now there's something that might interest the Star.

This book definitely helps you make sense of the news.

Last weekend, I recall telling a friend that I'd like to see public debate in Britain about our energy policy. If we didn't, it was clear from MacKay's energy budgets that we'd soon get a massive expansion in nuclear power. Maybe it's what we need, but it would be nice at least to consider the alternatives.

This morning, the splash in the Guardian starts like this:
Families face nuclear tax on power bills

Industry promised subsidy if market price fails to encourage new plants

Government officials have drawn up secret plans to tax electricity consumers to subsidise the construction of the UK's first new nuclear reactors for more than 20 years, the Guardian has learned.

The planned levy on household bills would add £44 to an annual electricity bill of £500 and contradicts repeated promises by ministers that the nuclear industry would no longer benefit from public subsidies. There is mounting pressure on the power industry to show it can keep the lights on, with fears growing of an energy gap as ageing nuclear stations are retired and plans for new coal plants attract hostile protests.


This book helps you make sense of the news (part 2).

Another story in the Guardian. Here's how it starts:
Ed Miliband to unveil plans to fast-track new nuclear power stations

Government will identify sites around Britain suitable for building nuclear plants as part of new energy policy

Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, insisted today that nuclear power had a "relatively good" safety record in this country as he prepared to unveil plans to fast-track a new generation of nuclear power stations.