'No Hot Air' About Renewable Energy While Blowing Smoke: David Mackay plays 'Brutus' to the Sun's 'Caesar'


Appearances are always deceiving. What seems, on the surface, like an even-tempered examination of an issue almost always starts from an author's personal perspectives. As a writer, I'm very certain that I make my biases clear. I want other authors to do the same.

Arjun Makhijani, whom I profiled and whose book, Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for United States Energy Policy, I reviewed, exemplifies this openness about initial position. On the other hand, David Mackay, whose very popular study, Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, in no way acknowledges in his work, which he explains is purely a numbers and logic exercise, that he is predisposed to view nuclear energy as essential.

However, this predisposition is obvious if one digs a bit. But there lies the sticking point. Most readers don't dig. Most readers see a good writer's work, and they see scientific credentials, and they see no qualifications or admissions of any particular viewpoint, and they think, 'Ah, here then is the truth.'

The point of this essay is that this premise, that an interlocutor is without prejudice, is so unlikely as to be safe to dismiss as impossible. Everyone, in the vernacular, 'has an ax to grind.'

Moreover, in the case of the brilliant, affable, persuasive, and engaging David Mackay, whose position as a professor at Oxford certainly does his credibility no harm, any premise of evenhandedness is false. Let me rephrase this and repeat: Dr. David Mackay has an explicit and demonstrable bias in favor of nukes. This does not mean that nukes are wrong, but it means that we should think about Mackay's work in a different way than many readers do.


This is not a book review; that is forthcoming in a week or two or three. Instead this is a 'taking-notice' of an important phenomenon and an evaluation of the ripples in the world that have resulted. This looks at the impact and origins of Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (SE/WHA) and draws some inferences as to the likely policy implications and possibilities that flow from Professor Mackay's efforts on the volume, now available as a free download.

I began this process in similar fashion as I undertook to review Dr. Arjun Makhijani's Carbon Free and Nuclear Free. I googled "without the hot air" + mackay + comment OR criticism OR critique OR controversy and reviewed the first 100 of 112,000 total hits. Not only did the New York Times, the London Times, Science Magazine, Harvard, MIT, and a bunch of other 'highly respected' sources take note, but they and the overwhelming majority of other cites were also almost uniformly positive in their assessments.

Moreover, several commentators very pointedly made the nuclear plug in relation to (SE/WHA), including one of the larger pro-nuclear industry groups. Nuclear Power Industry News compared (SE/WHA) to "Dragnet," promoting the notion that the book was "just the facts."

While one conclusion from such an overview is that here we can find an almost irrefutably powerful critique of renewable energy, vis-a-vis a more 'realistic' uptake of fission technologies, this essay takes a different view and makes the following arguments for readers to consider.

  • Facts relating to any complex process are never 'just facts,' and an understanding of how data and evidence operate is critical to valid and reliable thinking generally, and especially to any potential for citizen input into policy.
  • Neither science nor scientists are 'objective' in any useful sense of the word, even as all expressions of the people and the process must strive for objectivity, a key component of which is transparency and recognition of bias.
  • Dr. David Mackay, in both his penning and defense of his volume as lacking 'hot air,' does not divulge his biases, nor is his favoritism toward nuclear power generally transparent.
  • In such a context, a certain skepticism is appropriate, at the same time that the premises of (SE/WHA) do permit the social choice for a renewable energy future, making the book an important contribution to a dialog about that.
  • However, the repeated assertion that 'we must act immediately' and 'get started' eviscerates any plausible process that is not completely dominated by the pro-nuclear agenda that he has not made clear to readers.

Following these points up is therefore the key component of a rational--socially, environmentally, fiscally, and technically sound--energy policy. Lacking community input, this follow-up is arguably fatally flawed--anti-democratic, poisoned by bias, and guaranteed to yield results that have everything to do with politics and technology, and little or nothing to do with majority rule and science.


Pro nuclear people love 'facts.' Fission is a fact, as is the heat it creates, the number of Uranium mines on which it depends, and the way that water in proximity to clad tubules of Uranium, in just the right concentration of U-235, produce copious quantities of really hot water, from the aforementioned 'factual' fission, that makes turning steam turbines possible to produce huge amounts of electricity.

These statements, on the other hand, are not facts: nuclear power plants have never killed anyone; technical solutions to nuclear waste exist; nuclear technology is 'safe,' or 'clean.' At best these are plausible opinions; at worst they are distortions, lies, and hypocrisy. While this essay is not the forum to discuss all of this, all citizens need a primer on 'epistemology,' the study of how we can know something, even if only in the form of the most rudimentary introduction.

Such an overview permits us to prepare for the process of empowerment which is our only alternative to accepting the mandates of our betters--'betters' who have brought us the sub-prime blues, the BP oil spill, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and innumerable other ongoing cases of policies that serve moneyed interests instead of popular interests.

To begin, folks may want to make 'bookmarks' of one or more of the following sites. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a plethora of understandable articles about how our thinking about knowledge and the process of knowing has developed. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy parallels SEP and has a section specifically devoted to epistemology.

The beginning of (SE/WHA) proffers perhaps the most accessible, down-to-earth presentation about energy and power that I have read. It is positively brilliant about how we should consider things in regard to these matters. Then, however, without ever noting his own bias and only paying the merest lip-service to the idea that much of our data has to be tentative, Dr. Mackay gives us 200 pages of 'facts' and math that add up to nuclear.

Thankfully, one needn't look far for doubt about these 'facts.' But one must delve the web in order to find these corrections, and that is the especial problem of not 'fessing up' to front-end partiality. One non profit whose mission is tracking energy use, Energy Numbers has this to say about (SE/WHA).

"In “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air”, Professor MacKay compares an energy demand of 490 GW with his calculated British renewable resource of 450 GW, and comes to the conclusion that Britain cannot power itself from renewables. But in reality, British energy demand is 205 GW. That’s the confirmed 2008 number, from the official Digest of UK Energy Statistics. (see Table 1.1, Final Consumption minus Non-energy use). That’s less than half the demand figure used in the book, when looking at whether his calculated renewable resource is enough. When we compare the renewable resource with the current demand figure, we see that the resource is more than double current energy demand: and that’s before any energy efficiency measures. And that makes a huge difference: by using the real figure for demand, we see that the UK renewable resource is much higher than current energy demand, so Britain could comfortably power itself from its own renewables."

This is just one example: 'facts' are almost never "just facts," whatever the homespun pretensions of Joe Friday on "Dragnet."


A meme that multiplies from (SE/WHA) goes something like this: 'we believe in facts not adjectives.;' put a slightly different way: 'I don't (dislike the sun); I just like arithmetic better.' The premise here, of course, occasionally stated but generally silent, is that those behind (SE/WHA), including Dr. Mackay, are more capable of, in favor of, and generally willing to countenance, objective information than is anyone in opposition to their views.

This sort of tack would make many philosophers of science shudder, as readers will discern if they check out a basic text of recent science studies, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. This essay is not the time or place to detail such debates, but a primary fallacy of much prototypically 'American' thinking relies on this premise, that one can be completely value free and without subjectivity in seeking knowledge.

Thus, our journalism in the United States is viciously biased, for the most part, but presents a pretense of balance. Thus, policy debates in everything from mental health to school curricula proceed on the basis that 'truth' is an obtainable goal simultaneously as the purported truth seekers lie outright about their predispositions.

Among the many sites where readers can find some guidance about how to think about such issues, particularly in regard to scientific and technical understanding, are troves at the University of New Hampshire , at the University of Florida, and at the University of Delaware. As well, an interactive research forum in England provides general guidance to regular folks who are seeking to orient themselves in matters of science and society.

The key point is that all such issues combine social, economic, and political, as well as technical 'facts' and ideas. In two sections of (SE/WHA), in particular, "Can We Live on Renewables?" pp.103-112, and "Every Big Helps," pp.114-117, the reader might sigh and say, 'Well, I guess I'm just dreaming.' At least such resignation would likely follow any tendency to accept Dr. Mackay's notions about 'facts-as-facts' and his 'objectivity' about the 'numbers' in question. The next time we meet these issues, we will go into much greater depth in refuting outright the arguments in these sections of (SE/WHA). For now, readers might just refer to Carbon Free and Nuclear Free and ask, 'Who makes the more persuasive case?'


From the text of (SE/WHA) itself, which is free for the taking and has been the subject of a widespread, 'establishment' promotional campaign, one might never conclude that for years, David Mackay has insisted that 'England must go nuclear' to meet its energy and environmental goals.

The "Nuclear?" section of the book proceeds without a word that his extremely rosy assessments might have something to do with his background and beliefs. As one pro-nuclear site would have us believe, "He concludes that Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic'". The paper-of-record for 'established' England also beats this drum.

"Best Selling Guru...to Lead Climate Fight", says the Times, adding, "He has refused to be drawn into political debates about climate change policy, and refrained from backing one form of energy generation over another," repeating the quip about the professor's predilection for arithmetic.

And, to be honest, I cannot prove that the author of (SE/WHA) has for decades found himself favoring nuclear energy. However, I can show many things that incline me to believe that this is the case. And certainly, I'd expect a disclaimer about this attitude to be a part of the process of creating a volume that holds itself out as objective.

"Go Nuclear to Avert Climate Change" commands one article that summarizes Mackay's take on things. The author disagrees, saying that

"It is proposed by the U.K. government's chief scientific advisor that we should go for nuclear to avert climate change but time and uranium supplies are running short. It is at best a short-term solution for fission reactors,"

but Mackay's POV is not difficult to make out here. He is gung-ho for fission.

"Professor David Mackay: Britain 'must go nuclear' to control climate," solemnly pronounces the London Times online edition. "Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, is set to appoint Cambridge University Professor David MacKay as his chief scientific officer this week.," pronounces the pro-business Independent, adding tellingly,

"The move will be a boon to the British energy sector: industry leaders from Royal Dutch Shell, EDF Energy and QinetiQ have all praised Professor MacKay's hugely successful book, Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air. Companies looking to get involved in the Government's nuclear roll-out programme will be particularly hopeful that his appointment will quash some of the political arguments against the plans."

And I could go on. And on. But the idea should be obvious. What the reader has in (SE/WHA) is decidedly not an exclusively fact-based, objective assessment of energy reality, but a useful, persuasive, and informative piece of political policy analysis that favors one side over another.


The list of those who insist on a renewable energy future, who also praise (SE/WHA), is impressive. It includes, from the book's dust jacket, several Friends of the Earth staffers and the executive director of Pugwash, England. Many more such acknowledgments are available online, such as the nod of the World Futures Council of the European Union, among many others.

And Dr. Mackay is explicit in bowing to democracy. The English people, or any other people, can choose a renewable energy path. He and (SE/WHA) would consider such a decision foolhardy, but two of his six future-energy-scenarios exclude nuclear power plants.

This essay, which is methodological in its orientation and analytical about the nature of (SE/WHA) as a textual phenomenon, is not the juncture at which to consider these policy pointers. However, readers might consider a bit of simple mathematical calculation in preparing to ponder this issue more deeply later.

Opportunity cost is the key. If societies spend trillions of dollars on nuclear reactors, which would be essential if radioactive technology were to replace carbon, then at best a pittance is likely to be available for alternatives. Meanwhile, in the at best ten years, and historically more like twenty years between starting down the nuclear path now and getting our first 'gigawatts' from new reactors, what are citizens, and energy providers to do?

The numbers are easy: plus or minus $10 billion per reactor means a trillion dollar outlay per hundred reactors; ten to twenty years is the optimistic to historical range for bringing new nukes online. We can't afford these numbers, for the very reasons that Dr. Mackay makes clear in his estimable intro and initial sections of (SE/WHA): climate change would likely sink our ship before nukes could 'save the day.'


That the situation in regard to energy, the environment, and climate change is dire is pretty much beyond dispute. Dallying or putting off policy transformation may in fact doom our species. Action, forthright and immediate, very likely must be a priority.

However, we should carefully consider the words of Dr. Mackay in one of his promos for his book.

"The effort required for a plan like that is very large, but imaginable. Countries that claim to be serious about creating an alternative energy future need to choose a plan, stop arguing and get building."

An insistence that we need to 'agree' and then shut up is particularly egregious, given the different stakeholders' widely divergent capacities at the current moment. In fact, as Dr. Mackay is well aware, following such advice in practice guarantees that nukes will provide most electricity in the future.

Thus, we have to ponder. Can we do nothing other than 'agree,' keep quiet, and take our iodine pills to ward off at least one of the cancers associated with widespread radiation? In future essays, readers will see that Citizens Panels, Citizens Juries, and various other models of citizen involvement in policy making are workable, demonstrably apt in countries from France to Vietnam, from all over Scandinavia to Southern Africa, on every continent, though their use in the USA is, to say the least, very limited.

For purposes of formulating a response to Dr. Mackay's mandate of hasty action, right now, we might aver instead that more debate, with much more citizen input, and arrangements for speeding up the citizen learning curve, are the plan that we should embrace for the present moment.

After all, a careful reader should now be able to call into question (SE/WHA)'s vaunted neutrality. The book and its author are 'pro-arithmetic' only so as to make nukes unavoidable; they are anti-adjective only insofar as the noun descriptors might make a different perspective from radioactive-energy possible.


I insist on fairness. I also insist on reality. (SE/WHA) is a veiled insistence that nukes must have primacy, but it promises to leave space for people to choose sustainable/alternative energy, to allow explorations of a non-nuclear future to move forward, if we insist that the author and his supporters honor their explicit vows and their implicit commitments.

We too must fight for math and science over fantasy, however; we too must agree that an objective rather than an adjectival argumentation is superior. This requires that citizens either 'skill-up' to participate and play a leadership role or let the 'experts' reach the conclusions that they have already reached. Dr. Mackay's work makes this clear. If people cannot manifest policy alternatives to nuclear, then that approach will transpire. Will people make the moves necessary to make their preferences known?

The point of these preferences, however, is meaningless outside of a process orientation that includes a truly strong democratic methodology. All sorts of documentation exists that, by a two or three to one ratio, the world's peoples would choose renewable energy sources over nuclear electricity.

As I pointed out in an earlier posting, one massive study that shows this is "(a)n Accenture world wide survey (which) found that "outright support" for nuclear stood, more or less uniformly, at just under 30%," while "(a) study from Yale found 'overwhelming' backing for renewable energy among the public--90% support building more solar power facilities; 87% support expanded wind farms; 86% want increased funding for renewable energy research."

Clearly, desire does not translate into democracy. If this is not what we want, then we'd better be willing to do something about it.


When Bill Gates (http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Learning/article.aspx?ID=61&AspxAutoDetectC...)and the nuclear industry and major established organs of science and media line up behind one expression of reality, even as they completely ignore a similarly structured and documented alternate expression of reality, observers--that means us, the citizens whose jobs include making sense of what we are told--must take note and proceed warily. This extolling of one vision completely characterizes Mackay's admittedly accessible and important effort.

But the shunning of another point of view is equally characteristic of the 'established' take on Arjun Makhijani's monograph. Caveat emptor, 'buyer beware,' is good advice. The nuclear propaganda machine is subtle, including the likes of a genial genius from Oxford who would have us believe that 'we have no choice but to choose nukes.'

A comment on the New York Times blog that Dr. Mackay penned is an apt way to close this discussion. In relation to the potential output of solar sources per square meter, the respondent says,

"MacKay is off by a factor of 5 to 7. Why? It is typical for the nuclear power industry to make false claims of this sort. Perhaps we are hearing a parrot."

Photo Credits:
Nuclear Reactor Cooling Tower: Timm Suess
Uranium Mine: Alberto OG
Kunst und Propaganda: Emanuele
Wind & Solar: Matt Montagne
Jury Duty: Robert Simmons
Mad Scientist: Glen Edelson
Bill Gates: Steve Jurvetson
Parrot: Nancy