What will warm us in old age?

Energy Systems and Sustainability
February 4, 2005

This is a thorough, detailed and useful text that has been produced to a high standard and at a reasonable price. It can be thoroughly recommended to any student of sustainability, energy, industrial society or technology. Its emphasis on the social, environmental and economic aspects of energy means that the sociologist, geographer or economist will find it as valuable as the student of chemistry or physics. Any understanding of the full context within which energy decisions are made requires the strong scientific basis that can be found in this text.

The text has been produced as a major component of the Open University's second-level undergraduate course "Energy for a sustainable future". Unlike other texts on energy, it gets to the heart of the matter immediately and declares that "in the long term the world will have to shift to low or zero-carbon energy sources if the impacts of climate change are to be mitigated".

The authors manage a sensitive task extremely well. They keep reminding the reader of the political and policy context within which energy questions are decided while at the same time providing a wealth of scientific information, rigorous attention to detail and hard facts that are often missing from this kind of debate.

The text is a tour de force in scope, content and reflection. Its 600 pages contain a full discussion of supply and demand, energy sources, different forms of energy and the links with population growth, development and sustainability. The treatment of coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, wave and biomass is exhaustive. International comparisons (for example, the UK versus Denmark) make explicit the politically determined nature of our energy futures.

Those students with a specific technical requirement are well served by this text. There is a full discussion (with excellent diagrams) of oil and gas engines, Stirling engines and gas turbines. The presentation and the diagrams are so clear that even the non-technical reader will be fascinated by the technology.

The discussion of nuclear power is particularly clear. This is a complex subject that generates strong emotions on both sides. In an admirably well-balanced discussion of the future of nuclear power, the authors examine the issue thoroughly, highlight risks and long-term nuclear waste storage problems and point out that nuclear power is greenhouse gas-free in the production of electricity. They still find enough evidence to come to the conclusion that "it remains unclear therefore whether nuclear power can make a major contribution to responding to climate change". This chapter should be read by all students of sustainability and of engineering.

The text delivers an authoritative and welcome treatment of the environmental and health effects of energy production and use. A survey of all energy sources shows that consuming energy is rarely problem-free, with significant environmental and health costs linked to oil, coal and nuclear fuel use and to exposure to electromagnetic fields.

Much of this is brought together in an excellent comparative assessment of electricity production focusing on the externalities (health, crop damage, global warming, pollution and land contamination). This comparison is a highlight of the book, but it does not do justice to the thorny question of relative risks. Nuclear power, for example, comes out well in the comparison of externalities - but one large aircraft hitting the storage ponds at Sellafield has the potential to wipe out much of northern European agriculture for decades or longer.

John Whitelegg is leader of the implementing sustainability group, Stockholm Environment Institute, York University.

Energy Systems and Sustainability: Power for a Sustainable Future

Editor - Godfrey Boyle, Bob Everett and Janet Ramage
Publisher - Oxford University Press in association with the Open University
Pages - 619
Price - £29.99
ISBN - 0 19 926179 2

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