Sunday, 10 May 2009

Silent electric cars get a Clarkson growl

The Sunday Times
May 10, 2009
Chris Gourlay

ELECTRIC cars may be the transport of the future, but their engines will reverberate to the sound of the past.
The European Union is set to follow America’s lead in forcing manufacturers to fit the vehicles with a simulator to make the same noise as the throaty revs of a petrol engine.
The whirr of the electric motors is so quiet that cyclists and pedestrians - especially blind people - are in danger because they may not notice the cars approaching until it is too late.
Prototypes of the simulators, which mimic the sound of a family saloon but can also be adjusted to the growl of a sports car, are already being tested in Britain.
Trials are being conducted by Lotus, the sports car maker, in conjunction with Guide Dogs for the Blind. The device consists of a speaker under the bonnet and wired to the accelerator pedal, which simulates the revving sound of a petrol engine and becomes louder as the vehicle accelerates.
Supporters want the devices introduced before the increasing number of electric vehicles cause serious injuries.
The government has set aside £250m to subsidise the take-up of low-carbon vehicles nationwide.
Jeremy Clarkson, the Top Gear presenter and Sunday Times columnist, said: “The EU hasn’t done its sums. Something like 80% of the noise of cars comes from the tyres, not the engine or exhaust.
“When they call in the car industry to tell them, I expect the motor manufacturers will roll their eyes and say, ‘You hopeless money-grabbing bastards, you do realise you are talking nonsense?’ ”

Green pioneers: Nikolaos Vlasopoulos and Stuart Evans

The Sunday Times
May 10, 2009

CONCRETE is indispensible. Millions of tonnes are poured each year in Britain to make everything from motorways to house foundations. But it is also an environmental villain, accounting for 5% of man-made carbon dioxide, more than the world airline industry.
A tiny start-up called Novacem wants to change all that. It claims to have come up with a formula to make concrete that actually absorbs carbon dioxide.
The cement Novacem has developed in its lab in the basement of Imperial College’s Bessemer Building has a different chemical structure to that of traditional cement, which is the basis for concrete, mortar and other building materials. Novacem uses magnesium oxide, which together with other mineral additives, hardens by rapidly absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Novacem’s chief scientist, 29-year-old Nikolaos Vlasopoulos, developed the formula during years of research at Imperial College. It also takes less energy to produce than traditional cement, which must be heated in kilns at temperatures up to 1,600C. Novacem’s cement needs to be heated to only about half that temperature, said Vlasopoulos.
“The carbon footprint of Novacem production is between a third and a half of that of typical Portland cement. Producing a tonne of Novacem creates about 200kg-400kg of carbon dioxide per tonne, compared with about 700kg for Portland cement.”
The setting process gives the largest environmental benefit, he said. “Portland cement can absorb some carbon dioxide during setting, between 100kg and 500kg per tonne, but Novacem can absorb 2.5 times as much.
Novacem’s concrete formula has other advantages, said the firm's executive chairman Stuart Evans, a veteran engineering and IT entrepreneur brought in by Imperial Innovations, the university’s business incubator, to help commercialise the technology.
“It will be possible to recycle Novacem after a building is torn down, which makes it more sustainable. We will also be able to mix it with waste material such as aggregate, glass or plastic, which you would never do with Portland cement.”
The company is striving to make a product that is as as easy to work with as concrete, said Evans. “The cost of production has the potential to be about the same as for traditional cement and on site Novacem will use the same processes as Portland cement so construction firms will not need to change the way they work.”
Novacem is still far from proving itself commercially, however, let alone taking large amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It has created a test plant in its lab and plans to build a small industrial plant in Britain next year.
Imperial Innovations is providing half of the first £1m it needs. It will need to raise a further £3m next year to continue development. “These are challenging times in which to raise money but we are making good progress on that,” said Evans.
The company is also working with large industry partners including Laing O’Rourke, WSP Group and Rio Tinto, to help set up the first factory and evaluate the technology, said Evans. “We are a new kid on the block in what is a very conservative industry so we need partners to develop this commercially.”
There also plans to license the technology so that it will be taken up quicker, said Evans. “I am hoping there will be several plants producing Novacem within five years. We also have to think about how to sell the technology globally, especially in China, which produces 49% of the world’s cement.”
Novacem’s carbon-absorbing qualities may also enable it to take a cut of any savings its clients make through carbon credits, said Evans. Novacem could take a share in the profits firms make from cutting carbon-dioxide emissions, slotting the clause into its contracts. “If we captured 10% of the global market that would be 300m tonnes of concrete. If the cost of producing carbon dioxide is €30, then that’s €10 billion worth, which we would want a share of.”
The only other carbon-reduction options for the concrete and construction industries would be expensive and unproven carbon capture technology. “For tens of millions of pounds Novacem could offer an alternative to the billions that will need to be spent on carbon capture,” said Evans.
By contrast, creating “carbon negative” buildings could make a huge difference to the industry’s environmental record, said Evans. “The cement industry is a mature one and it does little in the way of fundamental research but there is a chance for it to make a great breakthrough here. If everyone used Novacem, instead of producing 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide they could absorb the same amount.”

Waste not: recession leads to big drop in amount of rubbish we are throwing away

Households are consuming less and recycling more, according to the latest official figures
By Rachel Shields
Sunday, 10 May 2009

England's rubbish mountains are finally shrinking, with people binning less now than at any time in living memory. New figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday reveal that the conspicuous consumption and obscene wastage that have come to characterise the nation have slowed dramatically in the face of the recession.
Last week, the latest statistics from the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) revealed that the amount of waste sent to landfill or incinerated per person in England has fallen to the lowest level since estimates were first made.
Local councils and waste management companies across the whole country are reporting a drop of up to 10 per cent in waste collection in recent months, a fall that the UK environmental charity Waste Watch estimates could result in a massive reduction of 2.5 million tonnes in waste production in 2009 – enough rubbish to fill Canary Wharf five times over.

Experts believe that a number of factors have contributed to this remarkable fall, including a shift in public attitudes away from profligate living; a drop in the amount of white goods, such as washing machines and TVs, being thrown out; and a fall in construction waste, as the recession affects the number of building projects.
"We collected 4.5 per cent less waste in the last year, which is 7,000 fewer tonnes of rubbish" said Mark Banks, waste strategy manager for Westminster City Council. "This is common across the whole of Greater London – local authorities are reporting between a 3 per cent and 10 per cent drop in waste collection," he said.
Identical situations are being reported across the rest of England. Devon County Council has seen a 3 per cent drop in the amount of waste being produced, collecting 12,900 fewer tonnes of rubbish in the past year. Leading waste management companies – such as Cory Environmental, Viridor and Grundon – which work across England, Scotland and Wales have all been hit by the slump in waste production, with waste collection drivers being laid off in some areas.
"Volumes were down by over 10 per cent in the first quarter of 2009," said Malcolm Ward, chief executive officer of Cory Environmental, which collected 3.5 million tonnes of rubbish last year. "Major factors have been a fall-off in levels of construction waste, and lower household volumes as a result of reduced consumer spending," Mr Ward said.
Environmental groups and the Government have shifted their attention from recycling to waste prevention in recent years. For example, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, launched by the government watchdog Waste Resources and Action Programme (Wrap) in November 2007, has been successful in raising awareness of the £10.2bn of food waste we throw away each year.
Defra's figures, released last week, also highlight a surge in recycling. Britons recycled 36.3 per cent of their rubbish last year, up from 30.9 per cent in 2007. However, the research reveals big disparities between levels of recycling across the country, with Londoners recycling just 27.5 per cent of their waste, while environmentally conscious residents in the East Midlands recycled 43.8 per cent.
Experts believe that while there are clear links between decreased production and consumption due to the current recession – the UK economy shrank by 1.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 – and a reduction in waste, the increase in recycling points to a wider social shift.
"Not only are people moving away from conspicuous consumption, but they are also being more responsible with what they do consume, which is why recycling hasn't fallen. It is a movement away from disposable living," said Ian Mulheirn, director of the Social Market Foundation.
Defra's figures indicate that English households were already beginning to reduce the amount of waste they produced before the country felt the full force of the recession. Household waste dropped by almost half a million tonnes in the year up to September 2008 compared to the same period in 2007, while the amount of household waste sent to landfill or incinerated also fell to just 314kg per person – the lowest level since estimates were first made in 1983.
"The trend must continue long after the economy has recovered if we are to reduce our dependence on landfill and use our natural resources more sustainably," said Sam Jarvis, head of communications at Waste Watch.
"To do this, we need to decouple economic growth from waste growth," he said.

Coming soon to your tap -recycled sewage

The Sunday Times
May 10, 2009

Lower rainfall and rising demand could lead to radical measures
By Danny Fortson

Would you like to drink water that has been extracted from the flushings of your toilet? It’s a prospect few would relish. Yet for Londoners it could become reality under a radical scheme being developed to top up the capital’s water supplies.
The idea is one of several being considered by Thames Water in its desperate effort to address the dual threats of a rising population and decreasing rain because of climate change. Today nearly all the 2.8 billion litres of effluent produced each day by the capital’s toilets, dishwashers and showers is treated and then released out to sea. Thames wants to capture some of that and pump it straight back into the system. It has quietly built a pilot plant in north London to test the technology that would make it possible.
Cringe if you like, but experts say drinking processed sewage will be a fact of life as growing populations place more stress on our reservoirs and rivers. Today only 2% of waste water globally is reused.
“Whether you like it or not it’s going to happen,” said David Stuckey, professor of bio-chemical engineering at Imperial College in London. “Even with our climate much of the country’s population is in water-scarce areas, including London. We have 12m to 15m people living in a small area in southeast England but most of our water is in the northwest.”
Thames Water is not alone. Water-starved countries like Namibia and Singapore have been recycling effluent for the past four years. The only such plant in Europe, at Langford in Essex, has been running since 2003. There, Essex & Suffolk Water takes up to 40m litres of waste water a day from a sewage works in Chelmsford, processes it, and releases it into a river before recapturing it downstream and pumping it into the Hanningfield reservoir.
Companies like Suez Environnement and GE have installed systems that recirculate waste water for irrigating crops, but their end product is not suitable for drinking.
A London scheme would be on an entirely different scale and illustrates the extremes that companies, even in moderate climates, expect to have to go to in the coming years. The Environment Agency estimates that nearly half the country, 25m people, live in areas with less water per person than in arid countries such as Spain or Morocco. By 2020 it expects the country’s water needs will have increased 5%.
Thames has begun customer surveys to gauge public opinion. Richard Aylard, head of sustainability at Thames, said: “There isn’t much of a yuck factor. Sewage reuse has been happening naturally for centuries, anywhere there is one city downriver from another.”
The scheme has the blessing of the Environment Agency and it is understoood that several other companies are considering turning sewage into drinking water. At the pilot plant at Deephams in north London, Thames is testing “reverse osmosis” technology. It works by pushing water at very high pressure through a membrane with pores many times smaller than those of human skin. The process strips particulates and toxins to such a degree that the water must be “remineralised” to give it taste. The plant has the potential to purify sewage to a standard that would allow it to be pumped in a direct loop from the sewage works back into reservoirs and aquifers.
Aylard said that if the technology proves successful it could be fitted to several of its big sewage works, including the one at Beckton in east London. The site is Europe’s largest, processing the waste water of 3.5m people each day.
Reverse osmosis has its problems. It is expensive and very energy intensive. Thames said it would be necessary to process the capital’s noxious black water, which is more dangerous than household sewage because it includes sludge from industrial sites such as metal-works and pharmaceutical plants. The Essex scheme, for example, is simpler because the sewage is from a largely residential area.
Part of Thames’s research will test whether reverse osmosis makes sense financially and environmentally. The latter is an important point. According to the Environment Agency, the transport, treatment and heating of water accounts for 6% of Britain’s carbon emissions, about three times that produced by aviation. Water companies will be included in the government’s Carbon Reduction Commitment scheme. From next year they will have to pay for the pollution they produce beyond a certain threshold, so they will be loth to build new plants that will add to their carbon footprint. In addition, the financial crisis has increased borrowing costs for water companies that rely on debt to fund already expensive investment programmes.
Aylard said the idea remains a “contingency option” and would only be resorted to in extreme circumstances, such as a severe drought or a sudden surge in population. He doesn’t expect the company to have to resort to sewage reuse for at least two decades.
Like other water companies, Thames is focusing on more low-hanging fruit first, such as plugging leaks and getting customers to use less water. Londoners are the most profligate users in the country, averaging about 160 litres a day. However, only about three litres of that is drunk. The rest goes down the plughole or the toilet bowl. What’s more, 27% is lost en route because of leaky pipes. Patching up the network will go a long way toward increasing the capital’s supplies.
And there are other membrane technologies, said Stuckey, that are far cheaper but can produce the same standard of cleanliness as reverse osmosis.
What is certain is that our profligacy with water will have to end. But we’ll still have to surmount the “yuck factor”. Stuckey said: “It’s a perception issue. But if marketing companies can convince us to buy things we don’t need, they should be able to convince us to drink water we have drunk already.”

Airdrie to get new heat and power plant

The Sunday Times
May 10, 2009
Construction is expected to create some 550 jobs and firm Airdrie North is rerouting section of Lanark to Cumbernauld road

Ian Fraser

A combined heat and power plant capable of creating sufficient energy to heat 30,000 homes, and possibly also Monklands Hospital, is to be built near Airdrie in North Lanarkshire.
Airdrie North, a division of Gillespie Investment Group, has secured permission to supply energy from a waste plant at Greengairs, near Airdrie.
The facility will process 300,000 tonnes of household waste per year and recycle a further 50,000 tonnes, diverting significant volumes of rubbish from landfill sites.
Construction is expected to create some 550 jobs and Airdrie North is also spending £40m to reroute a mile-long section of the A73 Lanark to Cumbernauld road, as part of a ‘planning gain’ deal with North Lanarkshire Council.
In the second phase of the development, which has yet to receive planning consent, Airdrie North intends to build a 185-acre business park, light industrial units, housing and nearly 50 acres of leisure space near the site.
A report into the economic impact of the plans by the development economists Roger Tym & Partners showed that the proposed second phase would create more than 4,000 permanent and 1,400 construction jobs.
Scott Gillespie, Airdrie North’s managing director, said: “The area is crying out for investment and employment. We are delighted to have received planning permission for the recycling centre which will create a significant and lasting benefit to the local area.”
He stressed that he wants to create an “exemplar centre” that will be among the best such facilities in the world. Gillespie also insisted that it would be run according to the strictest environmental regulations as laid down by local and national government.
However, many local residents remain sceptical about the plans, and North Lanarkshire council has received more than 1,000 objections to the proposed plant.
Campaigner Ann Coleman of Greengairs said: “There’s no justice, socially or environmentally, for this corner of North Lanarkshire if this incinerator is placed right across the road from the landfill site.
“Health is one of our main concerns; we’re concerned that there are no safe levels of pollutants for children.”

Villagers stun developers by demanding extra turbine

Fintry in Scotland claims to be first community in UK to run its own wind turbine to cut carbon emissions and energy bills

Kirsty Scott, Sunday 10 May 2009 00.05 BST

When residents of the village of Fintry in Stirlingshire first heard about plans for a wind farm in the hills above them, their reaction took the developer by surprise.
Instead of opposing the scheme, the villagers asked the company to build an extra turbine and sell it to them to try to make the community one of the greenest in the UK.
The Fintry turbine has now been operating for more than a year, and has already earned £140,000 for the villagers, money that has been put aside for energy efficiency schemes. Around half of the 300 households have already had roof and cavity wall insulation fitted, and some residents have seen their heating bills cut by hundreds of pounds a year. When the loan on the £2.5m turbine is paid off, Fintry could be making up to £500,000 a year from the electricity its turbine feeds into the National Grid.
This weekend, the village has been holding an energy fair to showcase new renewable energy initiatives for the residents, and to try to persuade other communities in the UK to follow their lead.
"As far as we are aware, we are the only community in the UK to have gone down this route," says Gordon Cowtan of the Fintry Development Trust, which manages the income from the turbine. "I think it's a great shame it has not happened more."
Cowtan says the villagers had already started looking into ways of being more energy efficient when they heard about proposals for the Earlsburn wind farm in the Fintry Hills.
"A couple of guys in the village had already been tasked by the community council to look at what opportunities there might be in doing something in the renewables area for the community," he says. "We were going through that process when the wind farm developer turned up and said, we're thinking about putting some turbines on the hill up there.
"Rather than saying to the developer, we don't want these things; we said, can we have some more please? They were a little taken aback. We grabbed the agenda; we saw this was potentially a great thing for the village." Only one person objected, he says.
The community worked out a loan deal with the wind farm developer, West Coast Energy, and an extra turbine was added to the 14-turbine project. The electricity it provides is sold to the National Grid and the profits go to the village, once the mortgage and maintenance payments have been made.
The community decided from the start that any money raised would be used for energy improvements, but Gordon Cowtan acknowledges that there may come a day when they have addressed all the green issues that they can, and they will have to look at other ways of spending the cash.
"If, a number of years down the line, we have solved all the energy issues of the village, then who knows what would happen then?"
There is no mains gas in the village and many residents have to rely on oil or LGP, so the trust is looking into alternative and greener heating forms. They are also considering setting up an energy supply company which could purchase energy wholesale. Many people in the village commute to work in Glasgow or Stirling, so transport issues will also be looked at, as will issues around food production. Fintry is surrounded by farmland, and has one small shop in the sports centre. Most residents travel to Stirling to shop at the supermarkets.
Tracey Tysvaer, of the Fintry Sports Club, said the turbine initiative had worked better than any of the villagers could have imagined.
"From our point of view at the sports club, we have had a huge benefit from it," says Tysvaer, who has lived in Fintry since 1993. "It has paid for energy efficient lighting and we've been able to put light sensors in, so the lights go off when they are not being used. From a personal point of view, I have had my house insulated, which has been a great help."
Bill Acton, one of the founder members of the Fintry project, says he gets dismayed when he sees developers and communities at loggerheads over wind farm projects.
"One of the problems is the reluctance of developers to really engage a community," he says. Communities, too, he says, should make sure their voices are heard early on, and look to see if there is an opportunity for the community itself.
"If the wind farm developer comes in and has got as far as the planning stage, and the community has not engaged, they have lost their case. There is no chance of any relationship other than one neither wants."
Fintry does not look directly on to the Earlsburn site, which has helped, as has the almost blanket support from villagers, but Acton says there was no reason for other communities not to copy what the village has done. Some have already expressed an interest in setting up something similar and have sought advice from the Fintry residents.
"We were very lucky," says Acton. "We have had clear passage from the community, but absolutely 100% this could work elsewhere."

You just can’t clean coal, warn activists

The Sunday Times
May 10, 2009

Tricia Holly Davis

THE government’s latest plans to turn coal into a “clean” fuel are coming under increasing attack by climate-change activists and scientists.
They say the technology to be used (see below) would miss the majority of new coal-plant emissions – if it works at all. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been proven only on small power stations that generate about 30MW of electricity, but new coal plants would produce 50 times that power. CCS-fitted plants also require more coal to operate, using up 25% to 40% of the total power generated to run the carbon capture equipment.
Even the government’s former chief scientific adviser is perplexed by the plan. “The energy needed to run CCS is significant and that of itself is a real problem,” said Sir David King.
The bigger concern, said King, is that most of the emissions from new coal plants could go unabated.

“All new coal plants should be fitted with precombustion technology, where 90% of carbon emissions are captured, if we are to meet our climate-change targets,” said King.
The government wants to experiment with different types of CCS. According to a letter from Downing Street obtained by The Sunday Times, of the four new coal stations planned, at least one would be fitted with the precombustion system. Eon has drawn up plans for a 400MW precombustion plant in Lincolnshire, though there are a number of other candidates.
Another station would be fitted for postcombustion, where the carbon is removed after the coal is burnt, capturing only 20% to 25% of emissions. The other two plants are undecided.
A Downing Street official said testing various technologies is the best way of working out the costs of CCS – currently estimated to add £800m to each new coal station. “Britain can lead the global CCS market, but we need to make it cost-effective. If we demonstrate different technologies then we have a wider range of expertise to sell to the world.”
Under the government’s proposal, no new coal-fired power station will be licensed unless at least 400MW of gross capacity is fitted with CCS. However, this represents only about 25% of the total generating capacity of proposed coal plants.
The government said the entire capacity of the plant must convert to CCS within five years of the technology being technically and commercially proven. But nobody knows how long it will take to prove CCS works on a large scale. The government is banking on it working by 2025, but it could take longer.
There is also the question of how the government will enforce its plan. It is unlikely to pull the plug if a power company argues CCS is not a commercially viable option and delays installing it.
Friends of the Earth estimates the government’s experiment could add about 4,000MW of dirty energy to the UK’s electricity mix. This would contribute double the emissions of equivalent-sized gas power stations. This is on top of the pollution caused by existing coal plants.

Yes, we can solve the energy crisis

The Sunday Times
May 10, 2009
The physicist's new book tries to make us face the facts on the energy that we use to keep our daily lives running smoothly

David MacKay

We have an addiction to fossil fuels, and it’s not sustainable. The developed world gets 80% of its energy from fossil fuels – Britain gets 90%. This is unsustainable for three reasons.
First, easily accessible fossil fuels will run out, so we will eventually have to get our energy from elsewhere.
Second, burning fossil fuels is having a measurable, and very probably dangerous, effect on the climate.
Third, even if we don’t care about climate change, a sharp reduction in Britain’s fossil-fuel consumption would seem a wise move if we care about security of supply. Continued rapid use of the North Sea oil and gas reserves will otherwise soon force Britain to depend on imports from untrustworthy foreigners. (I hope you can hear my tongue in my cheek.)
How can we get off our addiction to fossil fuels?
There is no shortage of advice on how to “make a difference”, but the public is confused, uncertain whether the schemes proposed are fixes or fig leaves. People are rightly suspicious when companies tell us that buying their “green” product means we have done our bit. They are equally uneasy about the national energy strategy. Are wind farms merely a gesture to prove our leaders’ environmental credentials? Is nuclear power essential?
We need a plan that adds up. The good news is that such plans can be made. The bad news is that implementing them will not be easy.
Can Britain, famously well endowed with wind, wave, and tidal resources, live on its own renewables?
We often hear that Britain’s renewables are “huge”. But it’s not sufficient to know that a source of energy is “huge”. We need to know how it compares with another “huge” – namely our huge consumption. To make such comparisons, we need numbers, not adjectives.
Where numbers are used, their meaning is often obfuscated by enormousness. Numbers are chosen to impress, to score points in arguments, rather than to inform. In contrast, my aim is to present honest, factual numbers in such a way that the numbers are comprehensible, comparable and memorable.
I express energies as quantities per person in kilowatt-hours (kWh), the same units that appear on household energy bills; and power is expressed in kilowatt-hours per day (kWh/d) per person. The charts (above right) illustrate a few quantities compared in these units. For example, driving an average car 50km a day uses 40kWh/d. In the graphic above on the right, some renewable resources are represented: covering 10% of the country with wind farms would yield 20kWh/d per person on average.
One reason for liking these personal units is that it makes it much easier to move from talking about Britain to talking about other countries or regions. For example, imagine we are discussing waste incineration and we learn that British waste delivers power of 7TWh (terawatt-hours) a year and that Denmark’s delivers 10TWh a year (1TWh is a billion kWh). Does this help us say whether Denmark incinerates more waste than Britain? While the total power produced from waste in each country may be interesting, I think that what we usually want to know is the waste incineration per person. For the record, that is: Denmark 5kWh/d per person; Britain 0.3kWh/d per person. So Danes incinerate about 13 times as much waste as Britons.
With simple, honest numbers in place, we are able to answer questions such as – can Britain conceivably live on its own renewable-energy sources? Will a switch to advanced technologies allow us to eliminate carbon-dioxide pollution without changing our lifestyle?
So how much energy do we use, and how much might we hope to generate from the potential renewable resources available in Britain?
In working out the consumption, we debunk several myths. For example, leaving mobile-phone chargers plugged in is often held up as an example of eco-crime, with people who switch their chargers off being praised for “doing their bit”.
The truth is that a typical mobile-phone charger consumes only 0.01kWh a day. The amount of energy saved by switching off the phone charger, 0.01kWh, is the same as the energy used by driving an average car for one second.
I am not saying that you shouldn’t switch off phone chargers. But don’t be duped by the mantra “every little helps”. Obsessively switching off the phone-charger is like bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. Do switch it off, but be aware how tiny a gesture it is. The energy saved in switching off the charger for one year is equal to the energy in a hot bath. If everyone does a little, we will achieve only a little.
Another memorable number is the contribution of long-distance flying to a person’s energy footprint. If you fly to Cape Town and back once a year, the energy you use in that trip is nearly as much as the energy used driving an average car 50km a day, every day, all year.
There are two clear conclusions from this. First, for any renewable facility to make an appreciable contribution – a contribution at all comparable with our current consumption – it has to be on a national scale. To provide a quarter of our current energy consumption by growing energy crops, for example, would require 75% of Britain to be covered with biomass plantations.
To provide 4% of our current energy consumption from wave power would require 500km of Atlantic coast line to be filled with wave farms. Someone who wants to live on renewable energy, but expects the infrastructure associated with that not to be large or intrusive, is deluding himself.
Second, if economic constraints and public objections are set aside, it would be possible for the average European energy consumption of 125kWh/d per person to be provided from these renewable sources.
The two big contributors would be photo-voltaic panels, which, covering 5% or 10% of the country, would provide 50kWh/d per person; and offshore wind farms, which, filling a sea area twice the size of Wales, would provide another 50kWh/d per person on average.
Such an immense panelling of the countryside and filling of British seas with wind farms (having a capacity five times greater than all the wind turbines in the world today) may be possible according to the laws of physics, but would the public accept and pay for such arrangements?
If we answer no, we are forced to conclude that current consumption will never be met by British renewables. We require a radical reduction in consumption, or significant additional sources of energy – or both.

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay, is published by UIT Cambridge, priced £19.99. Copies can be ordered for £17.99 with free postage and packing from The Sunday Times Books First on 0845 271 2135
DAVID MACKAY’s book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air has become an unlikely hit among economists, politicians and anyone else with an interest in energy policy and climate change, writes Dominic O’Connell.
MacKay a Cambridge physicist whose specialities are computational neuroscience, information theory and machine learning, started writing it four years ago when he became irritated by the nonsense he heard being talked about energy, and in particular renewable energy.
“I was just driven crazy by the level of the debate – it was so polarised, so extreme.” He had written only a textbook before (“well-received”, he says), but he didn’t let this relative lack of experience stop him.
He published a draft on the internet four years ago, and amended it after receiving feedback from readers. All the equations, for example, were taken out of the main text and packed into appendixes. The book is still available online free at
It was published in December but didn’t take off until earlier this year when rave reviews from and The Economist (“a tour de force”) lead to the first print run of 5,000 selling out. Another, three times the size, should hit the shops in the next fortnight.
The book is not, as MacKay points out, about climate change. It is about energy – how much we use and how much might be available from renewable resources or other alternatives to fossil fuels. Its strength lies in its down-to-earth, nonpartisan approach, and from the use of snappy, easy-to-understand examples.
MacKay debunks, for example, the idea that switching off electrical appliances when not in use will make a big difference. Turning off your mobile-phone charger between charges for a year, he said, saves the same amount of energy required for one hot bath. As well as setting out the problem, he comes up with some possible solutions – it is not a pessimistic book.
He said if politicians want to enlist his services in formulating policy, he won’t say no. “I would be happy to get on a train and go to London. I am keen to help.”