Do the math
January 22, 2009, 3:12 pm
Filed under: Books, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

Reading David McKay’s Sustainable Energy — Without the hot air (Amazon UK|US) is something I would advise people to do. You can get it free from his website, but I must say the physical object is a very nice thing to have in your hands. It’s a Smil-like work, premised on facts, a pocket calculator and a clear head. As well as leading to interesting conclusions which I shall probably blog separately, it also encourages the mindset of making sure the underlying maths behind what you are saying makes sense. Roger Pielke Jr applies this mindset to the Times:

Today’s New York Times has an editorial in which it claims that:

The plain truth is that the United States is an inefficient user of energy. For each dollar of economic product, the United States spews more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than 75 of 107 countries tracked in the indicators of the International Energy Agency. Those doing better include not only cutting-edge nations like Japan but low-tech countries like Thailand and Mexico.

This is just wrong.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on energy consumption (BTUs) per unit of GDP (PPP) shows that the United States is more efficient than about 68% of all countries. Similarly, the United States emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of GDP is better than 69% of countries.

To be sure, there are a number of countries that make excellent models for how the United States might become more efficient and reduce the carbon intensity of its economy, including Japan and Germany. However, as models to emulate, Mexico and Thailand, as suggested by the Times, are probably not the best examples.

Decarbonizing the economy will be an enormous task. It will be impossible if the problem is fundamentally misunderstood.

The key point is that you need to consider both the carbon associated with the country’s primary energy production and the efficiency with which that energy is used. So for example burning a lot of coal and then using the energy efficiently is a different problem from burning a lot of natural gas and using the energy inefficiently. There are problems in both, but they aren’t the same problems.

All this is more important but less entertaining than the tale of Congressman Eric Massa’s fuel-cell powered drive to DC, a massive math fail reported with relish on Gas 2.0

The fuel-cell car that Massa selected to drive the aforementioned 300 miles only had a range of 175 – 200 miles (depending on who you believe), and there were exactly zero (0) hydrogen fuel cell filling stations en route.

Not to let silly little obstacles like “numbers” get in his way, the good congressman decided that he could solve this problem.  He’d simply drive two (2) hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars to DC.  (!?)

I think it happened like this:  with the range problem solved, Massa could focus on the second logistical barrier standing in his way.  Namely, that he had to switch cars somewhere between New York and DC.  Massa, now faced with a problem he could understand and wrap his brain around, decided that the best way to make sure the second car would appear when he needed it was … wait for it … TO TOW A SECOND FUEL-CELL CAR BEHIND A FULL-SIZE SUV! (!!?)

It gets even better: enjoy.


3 Comments so far
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[…] a lovely post by Oliver Morton on how people are unclear on the concept when it comes to carbon emission reduction. Sadly, because […]

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Jonathan Koomey paper on the costs of nuclear

Hultman, Nathan E., Jonathan Koomey, and Dan Kammen. 2007. “What history can teach us about the future costs of U.S. nuclear power.” Environmental Science & Technology. vol. 41, no. 7. April 1. pp. 2088-2093

Best wishes,


Comment by Chris Goodall

[…] that no one recommended David McKay’s Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (Amazon UK|US, discussed here before); I guess most of the panel went bigger picture than that, but it is still a vital read for people […]

Pingback by Copenhagen reading list « Heliophage

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