I have used “Green Obsession” to describe the ridiculous fascination the American public has with renewable energy and activities that are supposedly environmentally friendly. From its inception, this blog has maintained the opinion that no new energy technology, no matter how green, will ever be adopted on a meaningful scale unless it proves less expensive than competing conventional energy technologies. No matter how satisfying going green makes us feel, it is the rare technophile who will make long-term lifestyle changes required to adopt renewable energy technologies that cost more than the status quo.
A lot of these “feel good” behaviors people think are green actually cause more harm than good. Let’s drive an extra 15 miles to the natural food store in our SUV to buy environmentally friendly organic vegetables while ignoring that we just needlessly burned a gallon of gas in the process. You might as well order a diet coke to go with your supersized fries.
Pointing out the flaws in people’s ridiculous and erroneous thinking about renewable energy is what Cambridge physics professor David MacKay does in his recently posted CNN commentary, “Let’s get real about alternative energy.” At the companion Web site, http://www.withouthotair.com/ , readers can follow a free download link to MacKay’s book, “Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air,” which outlines his arguments in greater detail.
I especially like that MacKay uses quantitative calculations to support his arguments, driving home this point by naming the first section of his book “Numbers, Not Adjectives”. MacKay uses quantitative comparisons to show how much (or how little) various activities and technologies impact energy consumption and conservation. Moreover, he casts these quantitative arguments in language suitable for a general audience, making energy concepts accessible. This approach is a welcome and refreshing contrast to the qualitative techno-babble typical of the energy industry.
I thought the most powerful among MacKay’s conclusions was the following. To make a contribution in generation capacity comparable to current consumption, renewable energy infrastructure must become “country-sized”. The given example is covering 75% of Britain with biomass plantations to meet a quarter of the UK’s energy needs. With this perspective, “Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air” makes an important contribution to educating the public about the real constraints, hardships, and drawbacks associated with adopting renewable energy.