David MacKay: the final cut

Sir David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air died of cancer on 14th April 2016. Mark Lynas interviewed Sir David on April 3rd and has provided a very fitting tribute. The video, is twenty-three minutes long and there is a lot to like.

David was an occasional commenter on Energy Matters. Here’s a selection of his more recent comments:

27 November 2015 on Electricity and the Wealth of Nations

Great article! I love the exploration of detailed cases.

20 November 2015 on A Big Lull

Great graphs! I think I spotted a typo “mimumum” in one of them. Perhaps fix this when adding Portugal and Spain to this magnum opus 🙂 Thanks

27 June 2015 on Renewable Energy Storage and Power to Methane

Great post! You could extend it into a third country by looking at the German Energiewende (which means “Energy banana”); I recall that the Energy banana depends very heavily on synthetic methane. I don’t know if they have detailed where they would get the required carbon atoms from.

In the German transport sector there seem to be two camps: VW Audi assert that they will make zero-carbon cars powered by synthetic methane; and BMW assert that they will make zero-carbon cars powered by fossil-free hydrogen.

Since a hydrogen store is likely to be more efficient (having fewer chemical steps) than a methane store, it might be a good idea to look further at the question of how much hydrogen can be stored. Perhaps multiple TWh of hydrogen _can_ be stored in salt caverns? (I don’t know why CAT asserted that only ‘small’ amounts could be stored thus.)

20th May 2015 on The Thermodynamic and Economic Realities of Audi’s E Diesel

Helpful post, thanks! I am delighted to see (in Figure 1) that Audi are now promoting an honest zero-carbon way of making liquid fuels. About 2 years ago when I heard them talking about this, they were calling it “climate neutral” but were I think sourcing the CO2 from a fossil-fuel-burning power station, which in my view meant it couldn’t at all be called zero-carbon. So well done Audi for having integrity and having a go at air-fuel synthesis. Yes, of course it requires lots of energy to inefficiently make liquid fuel [in fact your calculations indicate a remarkably high efficiency!], but this is exactly the sort of option that is required on the table if one seriously wants genuine climate change action, not just fake green fluff.

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23 Responses to David MacKay: the final cut

  1. Joe Public says:

    Prof Sir (or should that be Sir Prof?) MacKay’s illuminating lecture on “A reality check on renewables”

    “How much land mass would renewables need to power a nation like the UK? An entire country’s worth. In this pragmatic talk, David MacKay tours the basic mathematics that show worrying limitations on our sustainable energy options and explains why we should pursue them anyway.”


  2. James Arathoon says:

    Sad news. I saw him speak and spoke to him on a couple of occasions.

    In way of tribute I want to give a small calculation inspired by a recent visit to the Carbon Capture research facility at Imperial college (run in partnership with ABB)

    Our extended 1930’s solid walled house has been insulated with external insulation to the gable end wall, with some internal insulation front and back. The rear elevation is to the south. The gas usage for this last year to the 30th April was 12807 kWh with a modern condensing boiler installed. I say this because gas usage could not be reduced significantly more without significant further capital expenditure, with a dwindling return on investment.

    If you take the CO2 emissions as 0.185 kg per kWh, the emissions are 2.4 tonnes per year.

    One option might be to collect this waste CO2 stream and recycle back to methane at a fourth generation high temperature nuclear reactor facility. This would require a new waste CO2 grid built where the population densities are high enough.

    Lets say the cost of the above gas is 5p per kWh and the standing charges £100 per year, giving a total notional bill for 12807 kWh of £740 per annum.

    Lets say that a new waste CO2 collection system costs 1/3 of this figure to build and run. i.e. £247 per annum. Lets say the price of carbon is set at £30 per tonne (0.56p per kWh). Then we would get back 2.4 x £30 = £72. The net cost for CO2 waste collection being (£247 – £72) = £175 per annum.

    Meaning the total bill for natural gas and methane collection would be (according to this estimate) £915 per annum.

    Obviously there are then follow on costs to capture the CO2 and convert it back to methane which will cause the price of natural gas to rise as more and more synthetic (and bio-methane) is substituted for fossil methane, between now and 2050. The energy cost of carbon capture might be 20 to 30% of end user energy consumption, at a financial cost of £128 to £192 per annum. The critical element in all this is how cheaply we can build and run a new generation of high temperature nuclear reactors e.g. molten salt reactors.

    A clear benefit of using fourth generation nuclear to convert CO2 to methane is that these nuclear power stations can be operated completely independently of the energy demand on the electricity grid; being run all year round (apart from preventive maintenance periods) in a predictable fashion that investors like, with excess natural gas produced in the summer months being stored for the winter months.

    Basically DECC has never encouraged scenarios like this to be fully debated and so we are locked into a mad programme of building more and more expensive electricity grid infrastructure with ever smaller load factors, as politicians convince themselves that the natural gas grid needs to be decommissioned by 2050 to meet our net carbon emission targets. It is tempting to put some of the blame for this blind-sight on David Mackay, but the main problem was that other people in government were not engaging properly with his method. It is important to realise that David Mackay provided a great starting point and framework for debating future energy generation scenarios, and not a complete and final analysis, as some have been led to think.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Or you could install electric resistance heaters like the French and Norwegians have. Almost 100% efficient if I recall. Or, to get extravagant, install air source heat pumps.

  3. Matthew Nayler says:

    Sir David wrote a great book about what the laws of physics say about the potential for sustainable energy. I wish someone would write a companion volume on what the laws of geology say for the availability of the raw materials that a world full of PV, wind turbines, lithium batteries etc etc would require. Low energy density = high materials intensity. Mike Ashby put a toe in the water with his second edition of ‘Materials and the Environment’ but has anyone gone any further and I have missed it?

  4. Euan: I know I’m not supposed to eulogize David Mackay, but indulge me for a moment.

    I’d always thought of him as an incorrigible green, so I was surprised when I woke up one day to find a comment from him on one of my posts (forgotten which one), and even more surprised to find that he agreed with me. How, I thought, can this be? So I did a little more reading and found that David Mackay was not cut from the same cloth as most of his contemporaries. He saw not only the potential of sustainable energy, he also saw the problems of developing it, just as we do, and usually from an engineering rather than the computer modeling perspective so beloved of the sustainability scenario gurus. It’s a pity there weren’t more like him.

  5. I have collected various obituaries and tributes to David MacKay along with some comments of my own here http://scienceforsustainability.org/blog/2016/0414_MacKay/

  6. stone100 says:

    David Mackay’s views on climate change seem a lot more pessimistic than those in posts on here going by this presentation he posted up http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/mackay/presentations/html/Climate2015.html#34

  7. Owen says:

    At the start David says that there is enough solar energy to power all our needs by a factor of X.

    But what would be the factor of mines you would have to open up to build all the solar panels compared to say no of coal mines to do the same thing ?

    I would at a guess say 2 times the size of China

    • Surely the distinguishing feature of MacKay’s work on sustainability – and of this blog – is not guessing but finding reliable sources of data and working out the numbers?

  8. Owen says:

    David McKay could actually count which is a rare thing among greens.

    But I am surprised he didnt adcovate for restrictions on output of SUVs, flights etc. The de-carbonisation argument seems to always focus on electricity.

  9. steve says:

    The final part of the interview will be difficult for DECC. He sees no point in wind and solar if the base of nuclear and carbon capture ever works. This is for the UK- solar may be fine for sunny countries. We are about to build many more very expensive 600 ft turbines in the middle of the seas, and are taking orders from Swedish wind installers, when they are dismantling their offshore after 13 years. Almost as embarrassing as when he told the BBC that the minister said “Shit.” when he told him that that burning American trees at Drax didn’t actually save any pop gas. Also, perhaps the EU may have a second thought about its directives.

    When anyone shows himself to be an honest green, we need to look at the other part of his ideas. However, his expertise was not in climate or geology but the Sustainable Energy calculations.

    A great loss to the UK when it needed people like him more than ever.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      David Mackay was not a Green but a physicist and engineer. He rarely missed an opportunity to distance himself from Greenthinking. But I was astonished at what he had to say in this interview. Here we have perhaps the world’s most famous and respected energy analyst, former advisor to the UK government, condemning government energy policy. When are they going to wake up?

      I’d disagree with him on CCS. If you are going to go the high nuclear route it seem to make more sense to combine it with diurnal storage as Andy Dawson showed on this blog last week. I don’t think the level of pumped storage required would place undue stress on the UK environment. CCS is just another one of these green elephants.

  10. steve says:

    Bearing in mind the eventual need for heating and transport,I remember the reason for storage heating in the 60/70s when the UK was pressing ahead with nuclear. The old heaters ran out on a cold afternoon but better insulation an control would perhaps still be a cheap way to relieve night load and relieve day use. Back to the 60s?

  11. Andy Dawson says:

    For those that might be interested, the Guardian has belatedly published a story on Lynas’ interview with McKay.

    As you’d expect, some of the more pro-renewables figures are doing their best to trash McKay’s reputation.

    All are welcome…..Euan, you’d be particularly pleased to know you’ve just been described as a ” geologist who worked in the Fossil fuel industry and only left because his business failed”

    • Euan Mearns says:


      Strange that since the company in its new form is still trading today.

      Someone posted a link to your post Andy which has drawn 26 hits from Hte Grundian today.

  12. GeoffM says:

    David wrote in his blog a year or 2 ago that he was preparing a big article which would examine the suitability of a solar-powered UK. For months I kept checking to see if it was posted, but alas events took a different course.

    • stone100 says:

      This sort of fits that bill perhaps? http://www.inference.eng.cam.ac.uk/sustainable/book/tex/RSsolar.pdf
      “Taking the United Kingdom as a case study, this paper describes current energy
      use and a range of sustainable energy options for the future, including solar power
      and other renewables. I focus on the the area involved in collecting, converting, and
      delivering sustainable energy, looking in particular detail at the potential role of
      solar power.”

  13. David Porter says:

    Reference to David MacKay in my book ‘Electricity supply: the British experiment’:

    “In 2008, there was a glimmer of hope for those who favour simple explanations, but not at the expense of losing sight of the facts when Professor David MacKay published Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. Professor MacKay wrote his much-acclaimed book because he was fed up with judgements about energy technologies being steered by adjectives, rather than facts and figures and concerned that people are expected to have views on energy policy without access to a simple mathematical understanding of the issues. Among the large number of endorsements for it was this one, from Professor Martin Rees FRS, then President of the Royal Society:

    ‘Energy policy is crucial for the world, and a wide public should be engaged in debate and decisions on these issues. But such debate must be grounded in realistic numbers and good physics. All the key principles are clearly and accessibly explained in this book. David MacKay has performed a great service by writing it.’

    I invited Professor MacKay to be the Guest of Honour and speaker at the Annual Lunch of the Association of Electricity Producers on 5 November 2009. The big audience – a wide range of electricity generating interests and an even wider range of guests – enjoyed his short talk very much and he was a great pleasure to talk to over lunch. The Professor’s refreshing approach to the big issues enables debate to start on common ground, even though, with the best will in the world, before coming to conclusions, we must wrestle with so many different assumptions and our prejudices are rarely buried entirely.

    It was encouraging that Professor MacKay was taken on as an adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but as Margaret Thatcher famously said in her television interview with Brian Walden, ‘Advisers are there to advise, Ministers are there to decide’. “

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