A reality check on renewables?

Having had some interesting discussions about good and bad science informing public debate recently, this TED talk appears in my inbox. David MacKay is a professor of Natural Philosophy in the Physics department at the University of Cambridge and chief scientific adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, I am not sure how much this last fact is a positive credential.

His theme: how much land mass would renewables need to power a nation like the UK? An entire country’s worth it appears. MacKay tours the basic mathematics that show worrying limitations on some of our sustainable energy options and, importantly, explains why we should pursue them anyway.

As impressive as his number crunching is, I have a few issues with his conclusions. For example, he avoids looking at the full range of renewable options: wind, solar, tidal, biomass, biogas, wave, hydro, geothermal, etc. He also uses obsolete numbers for each and assumes nothing will ever improve. Wind turbines have more than doubled their efficiency in recent years. Also note that in his final graphic he completely ignores the energy that could be generated from solar PV on every roof in the UK.

Nonetheless, he is an entertaining speaker and gives us plenty of valid food for thought.


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