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Alternative Energy Gets a Reality Check

Physics professor David McKay has been trying to find the best sustainable energy source to power England. Unlike the vast majority of sustainability advocates, however, he brings some pretty cold logic to the table:

If we covered the windiest 10 per cent [of the UK] with windmills, we might be able to generate half of the energy used by driving a car 50 km [31 miles] per day each. Britain’s onshore wind energy resource may be “huge,” but it’s not as huge as our huge consumption. I should emphasize how audacious an assumption I’m making. [...] The windmills required [...] are fifty times the entire wind hardware of Denmark; seven times all the windfarms of Germany; and double the entire fleet of all wind turbines in the world.



Kay moves on to dismantle (or is it dismember?) various alternative energy models, including solar power (which requires obscene amounts of space, especially in a place as sunless as England) and biofuel, which is scarcely better.

The most efficient plants … deliver an average power of 0.5W/m2. Let’s cover 75 per cent of the country with quality green stuff. That’s 3000m2 per person devoted to bio-energy. This is the same as the British land area currently devoted to agriculture. So the maximum energy available, ignoring all the additional costs of growing, harvesting, and processing the greenery, is … 36 kWh/d per person.

Wow. That’s not very much, considering the outrageously generous assumptions we just made [in order] to get a big number.

One interesting suggestion involves using land in North Africa for solar power and routing the current over the sea, counteracting the limited space available for solar panels in Europe. This still doesn’t deliver a whole lot of energy, but it’s feasible.


Part of my respect for Dr. Kay comes from his sheer level of thinking. All of his calculations are based on the assumption that everything is used to its fullest potential– making the results even more scary. In considering hydroelectric power, Kay envisions “millions” of water pumps moving water uphill, poised to create waterfalls-on-demand should the hydro systems fail. Kay’s contribution to the clean-energy discussion is bound to generate some exceptional new ideas–and, perhaps, some much-needed perspective.

Kay’s book, Without the Hot Air, is freely downloadable (still in progress, he claims) here. Well worth a read.

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