When David MacKay wrote his critically acclaimed book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, little did he know that he would be setting himself up for a lengthy stint of service within Whitehall’s corridors of power.
The University of Cambridge professor put pen to paper in 2008 after becoming frustrated at what he saw as the half-truths and hot air surrounding the sustainable energy debate. MacKay set about taking an academic approach to the subject, using forensic numerical analysis to cut through the contradictory statements issued by government, media and lobbyists, and in doing so bringing some much-needed clarity and objectivity to the issues at hand.
Such was the positive response to the book that MacKay found himself a wanted man, and soon after publication he was appointed as chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. He was suddenly in a position of real power: MacKay’s job included ensuring that DECC’s policy-making was underpinned by the best engineering advice and that the department had a plan for meeting its 2020 and 2050 emissions targets. It was a rapid ascent that thrust him firmly into the spotlight.
Now, halfway through his five-year stint at DECC, MacKay admits the change of career initially caught him by surprise. But he says that he certainly doesn’t regret it. “I didn’t intend to become a senior civil servant when I wrote the book.
“At first, everyone in Cambridge said I would find it so frustrating. But the truth is that I’m having a great time. I feel valued in the department – it’s an exciting place to work, and it’s full of smart, committed people. It’s a really rewarding role. It remains a very fulfilling job,” he says.
MacKay’s tenure at DECC comes at a time of some tremendously complex challenges in the area of sustainable energy. There are many thorny questions that need answering. How, for instance, does the UK wean itself off of fossil fuels and move towards becoming a low-carbon economy? What will be the best mix of technologies that will allow the UK to cut its carbon emissions while guaranteeing security of supply? And how do we ensure that we have enough engineers coming through the academic base to avoid a future skills crisis?
MacKay believes that the answers to such questions can come only from informed debate. And that means putting numbers, rather than emotions, at the heart of the matter.
So in his early days at DECC, MacKay and his team set about developing a tool that employs real data to enable users to study the various sources of alternative energy, allowing them to understand the consequence of the choices made. The 2050 pathway tool is a web-based model that lets users create their own UK emissions reduction route-map, and then see the impact of their actions.
On the demand side, for instance, the user can make choices about the amount of energy the UK consumes. For example, it is possible to choose how far to insulate houses, how much more efficient to make lighting and appliances, or to decide how we travel and in what kind of vehicles.
On the supply side, it is possible to choose how the UK produces its energy. For example, the user can choose to build up to 40,000 offshore wind turbines or up to 50 3GW nuclear power stations, or can allocate up to 20% of the land to growing bio-crops. At all times, though, numbers underpin the consequences of the actions taken.