Canadian Consulting Engineer

Comment: Taking Baby Steps in the Sun

The book was hailed as a "tour de force" by the likes of the Economist and Guardian when it came out in 2009. I have only just managed to read David JC MacKay's Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air (MIT Press), but I recommend it to anyone...

May 1, 2011  By Bronwen Parsons

The book was hailed as a “tour de force” by the likes of the Economist and Guardian when it came out in 2009. I have only just managed to read David JC MacKay’s Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (MIT Press), but I recommend it to anyone who has the faintest interest in renewable energies and our global future. The Cambridge University professor has managed to synthesize an enormous amount of information to try to figure out whether it is possible for us to kick the carbon habit and rely on renewables.

The book is amusing, cheerful and highly readable. The man is a mine of knowledge — and he can write. At the same time his proposals are careful and detailed, and he ends with a whole section of technical chapters crammed with more calculations for the comfort of engineers. The 370-page volume can be downloaded for free at, though the actual book with its many photographs and drawings, is surely more of a pleasure to read.

MacKay is focused on the U.K. and some of his solutions are familiar and domestic: turning down the thermostat, a tight building envelope – and also heat pumps. But MacKay is not one to shy away from the big picture. Perhaps the most surprising (whackiest?) idea he supports is to have vast solar energy parks in hot desert countries like Libya (not such a good idea right now). These parks might cover thousands of square kilometres and consist not of photovoltaic panels, but of “concentrated solar,” which he describes as combinations of moving mirrors, molten salt, steam and heat engines to generate electricity.

In Canada the solar industry is just starting to take baby steps. Ontario is walking fastest, thanks to the feed-in-tariff program introduced two years ago. According to a report by the U.S. Interstate Renewable Energy Council, by 2009 Ontario was already the third largest market for solar PV installations in North America, ranking only behind New Jersey and California. Projections for Ontario this year are to have 455 MW installed, with plans for 2700 MW by 2015.


Ontario’s FIT program has drawn scores of manufacturers, contractors, developers and other entrepreneurs into the industry, anxious to capitalize on the program. But what has it meant for consulting engineers? Surprisingly, the list of members in CANSia, the Canadian Solar Industries Association based in Ottawa, includes only a handful of the larger consulting engineering companies.

Hatch is one of the firms most deeply committed to solar. So far they have been doing a lot of work for projects in the planning stages, doing feasibility studies for owners and developers, due diligence on behalf of project financiers, energy production modelling and the like.

If we really want to stop global warming – and MacKay very matter-of-factly shows why we must – then the energy industry should devote more attention to that big light in the sky. As the Hatch website points out, the potential is enormous: “Our planet receives more energy from the sun in an hour than is used in the entire world in one year.”   Bronwen Parsons



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Green, Alternative Energy

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