Reviewing David Mackay's Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air

Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air is an analysis of how human society uses energy and generates the carbon dioxide that is associated with global warming. Proceeding further, for each area and kind of energy use, this book reviews the known and hoped for changes in energy use that are needed for society to migrate to sustainable sources of energy.

The title has the tag line "Without the Hot Air" because this book examines a large number of the energy conservation claims that repeatedly appear as many organizations describe an energy conservation benefit in unscientific terms such as "Blah blah blah will save enough energy to power a California city for three weeks."

Besides being available as a conventional book,, the entire book is available as a pdf file and also in the form of web pages you can read in your browser.

The author, David MacKay is a professor in the University of Cambridge (England) Physics Department. He has a PhD from CalTech, he has taught physics at Cambridge since 1995 and he says since 2005 he has devoted much of his time to public teaching about energy.

The first third of the book "Numbers not Adjectives" counts up the total energy released in human society and then the total CO2 released.

  • How much of that energy is released in different countries?
  • How has this energy release changed since the 1700's?
  • What is the graph of global CO2 concentration since 1700?
  • What is the global CO2 release and absorption budget?
  • How has the CO2 release and absorption budget shifted due to combustion of wood, coal and oil since the 1700's?
  • What is the state of scientific understanding of the meaning of the CO2 concentration rise?
In chapter 2 David MacKay phrases the central question of the book:

The question addressed in this book is “can we conceivably live sustain-
ably?” So, we will add up all conceivable sustainable energy sources and
put them in the right-hand, green stack.

In the left-hand, red stack, we’ll estimate the consumption of a “typ-
ical moderately-affluent person;” I encourage you to tot up an estimate
of your own consumption, creating your own personalized left-hand stack
too. Later on we’ll also find out the current average energy consumption of
Europeans and Americans.
After these two chapters that phrase the grand problem, there are 12 chapters that describe 12 social systems that are important components in the energy problem: cars, planes, heating and cooling, food and farming are discussed.

"Making a difference", the second third of the book, systematically explores how to dramatically reduce CO2 producing energy consumption, Chapters like "better transport" and "better heating" are classic essays that describe the specific systems in detail and review the simple and sophisticated changes that can be implemented to reduce energy use and CO2 release.