28 Feb 2011

The Mackay Calculator gets even bigger

I've probably made a complete fool of myself, but vanity got the better of me last week and I agreed to test drive Prof. David Mackay's 2050 Pathway calculator. That's the spreadsheet (dressed up as a series of checkboxes and natty graphs) which he has created to try and tease out just how we might go about making the UK a low carbon sort of place by 2050 (just in time for my 97th birthday).

The results of my haphazard navigation are about to go on public display at the DECC website and, worse still, I am meant to be taking part in an online debate with some other guinea pigs on Thursday and Friday this week. It's being hailed as an energy-literate conversation, but trying to get to grips with this project is enough to make anyone feel like a numpty. You can't help but come into an exercise like this without carrying baggage, and I anticipated it being a showdown between pro- and anti-nuclear camps, but the funny thing is that, if you tweak the calculations a little, you can very easily arrive at a situation where we are literally swamped with low carbon electricity and are desperately exporting it to all and sundry. You can do this with or without nuclear power, so this particular aspect of the debate rather palls into insignificance.

Much more worrying, for me, is the decision on what to replace oil and gas with. At the moment, Mackay reckons it's biofuels or heat pumps, but of course I don't really warm towards either. That's my baggage. And also, I suspect, the reason I have been asked to guinea pig this stage of the project. "That Brinkley," thinks the Prof, "he hasn't a good word to say about biofuels or heat pumps, and he's always criticising the Renewable Heat Incentive, so let him try and work out how to get to 80% carbon reduction without them, ha!" Indeed, I'm not sure I can, so my immediate instinct is to call foul and to complain that there aren't enough checkboxes for the hydrogen economy which I imagine may ride to the rescue with a train load of fuel cells. Well, 2050 is still a long way off: it's pretty much all speculation, isn't it?

You can of course tweak the demand side as well, which I did with abandon. This makes everything about fifteen times more complicated, but it still leaves a big gap around heating, even if you max out every lever you have.

There's certainly some food for thought here. Take a look after Thursday and see what you make of it. It's going to be somewhere around here.

Mackay gets a nod as well today on a fascinating article about thermal underwear on the Low Tech site. No, really, it is fascinating. What interests them here is the Professor's claim that the average temperature in UK homes was 13°C in 1970. They ask how he knows this. In fact, this claim is expanded upon in the 2050 Pathway explanatory text which suggests the following:

The mean internal temperature of UK homes during the winter months was 17.5°C in 2007, compared with 16°C in 1990.

In fact, Mackay shows a graph of average internal temperature from 1970 to 2050. All good stuff, but just where does this information come from? And can we believe it?

In the meantime, it's off to Ecobuild where I'll be on Tuesday and Wednesday. In fact, I am on the rota to populate the PassivHaus trust stand on Wednesday afternoon, 2-4, so do drop by if you want to upbraid me.


  1. Dave HoworthMarch 03, 2011

    Mackay has blogged about the new version. In his post he says:

    "We're also publishing a simplified "My2050 simulator", aimed at engaging a wider audience in this open-source conversation about energy policy."

    But that simulator is based on Flash! There's evidently some misunderstanding about what open-source is in government, but I guess we already knew that. I wish DECC would follow the same guidelines as No 10.

  2. Alan ClarkeMarch 10, 2011

    "In fact, Mackay shows a graph of average internal temperature from 1970 to 2050. All good stuff, but just where does this information come from? And can we believe it?"
    One source of this temperature data is rather circular - look at average SAP for UK housing stock and total heating energy consumption and deduce that as SAP has increased lots and heating energy use hasn't decreased our room temperatures must have been increased by x degrees C.
    This all relies on SAP calculations being an accurate reflection of the heat loss of a house of course. What hard evidence exists shows that actual building performance is some way off SAP predictions and the accuracy may be worse as SAP moves out of its "comfort zone" of traditional houses towards lower energy designs.
    The net result of this is that the evidence for such greatly increased room temperatures doesn't really exist.

  3. Does `average internal temperature' simply mean averaged across the population studied or does it also imply averaged across all the rooms in each house? If the latter then it isn't a very meaningful number.