An academic view of energy – Sir David MacKay, 1967-2016

“It’s so dangerous for humanity… that people are willing not to think carefully about the numbers and…the laws of physics and the realities of engineering”, as passionately stated by Sir David MacKay in his last public interview a month ago, sums up well what he stood for in the linked fields of energy and climate change. And trying to help people to think carefully is exactly what he did at all stages in the journey he describes, from order-of-magnitude academic calculation on the feasibility of global solar power, through a series of lectures at the University of Cambridge on energy physics that then turned into his revolutionary (free) book, which in turn led to his appointment as DECC Chief Scientific Advisor and then on to the Global Calculator project.

This is exemplary academic practice: applying scientific rigour to relevant and challenging problems yourself and then explaining your reasoning in a way that empowers others. But reasoned arguments that lead to conclusions that people don’t like are not always popular! In the transition between academic freedom and civil service reticence on the eve of his appointment to DECC in September 2009 some of his forthright statements were used by the (then) Opposition press.  As noted in the Telegraph for 11 September 2009, “Prof David MacKay, the newly appointed chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), warned that the UK is on course to begin running out of power within seven years because new energy sources are not being built fast enough.” But hindsight suggests that David was spot on with regard to timing, based on Ofgem’s current security of supply assessment for winter 2016/17.
David was also quite correct in his assessment of the alternatives in the same article: “If we don’t want to industrialise the whole countryside [with renewables], then we have a big building project to build the alternative to renewables, which is nuclear and so-called clean coal, which is as yet an unproven technology.” He certainly did his best to help get CCS proven though, helping to keep support going through the uncertainties of an unexpected Coalition government and the failure of the first CCS Competition. The reason finally became clear in his last interview – his assessment that nuclear and CCS would be the cheapest combination for UK electricity supply, given the seasonal variations in UK energy demand, and that CCS is essential for global climate change mitigation.  And he was obviously very disappointed that neither of the recent CCS FEED studies that he had helped to start are now going ahead.

Interestingly the two themes of CCS and long-term energy storage for intermittent renewables that David was still thinking about so recently are perhaps starting to come together, with renewed interest in interseasonal hydrogen storage in salt caverns. Of course, this raises the question of how much of the hydrogen would be from renewable or nuclear sources and how much from CCS. David himself would certainly have estimated relative costs based on scientific principles and had some recommendations. But, as he said about UK energy system options in general, his experience at DECC had taught him to be “content with any plan that adds up” and actually delivers a solution that addresses the danger from climate change. Perhaps David’s best legacy is his personal demonstration of the importance of academics keeping engaged with the energy debate and being absolutely clear about the need for objective scientific rigour and open, informed debate despite the often frustrating realities and limitations of the political process.