By Maggie Koerth-Baker
Wily, 320 pages, $27.95
It should be easy to write about energy. Few things are so central to modern life, and few things have so much influence on our future. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, experts estimate, the United States will have to shrink its annual fossil-fuel consumption by about 16 percent over the next two decades. Given these enormous stakes, shouldn’t there be fascinating stories about the ways we create, distribute, and use power?
But it turns out these energy systems so essential to all of us are something like Victorian wallpaper. They’re complicated, they’re boring, and they’re hard to care about—because, ironically, they’re so omni-present that it’s almost impossible to imagine life without them. As Maggie Koerth-
Baker, author of Before the Lights Go Out, puts it, “Electricity is an intimate part of our daily lives that is simultaneously very distant from our thoughts.”
A lot of writing and public discussion about energy focuses on small-scale, easily understood advancements in technology. Super-efficient lightbulbs, fancy new hybrid cars—such innovations are important in many ways, as are all of our individual efforts to use less and conserve more. But big, lasting change of the sort we need, Koerth-Baker argues, depends not just on a single technology or a set of voluntary actions but on a diverse array of technological innovations and local and national policies aimed at reforming the energy systems around us.
I experience this need for reform every day: My family and I live off the grid in rural western Colorado, in a tiny, super-insulated straw-bale house powered by solar panels. (It’s one of what Koerth-Baker calls “off-the-grid hippie compound[s] made out of Coke bottles.” Minus the Coke bottles, that is.) If I stayed home all the time, my carbon footprint would be enviably small. But the systems I live within make it difficult to do so. Because I live far from a city, I often fly or drive long distances for business. Because my town has no public transportation and no bike lanes, I often drive a car to the grocery store. Despite our best intentions, the infrastructure around us limits the changes each one of us can make.
“I’m not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone,” says Koerth-Baker. “The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share.”
In Before the Lights Go Out, Koerth-Baker makes those mind-bendingly complex schemes both comprehensible and interesting to the rest of us. She is well equipped to explain her subject. A science journalist and the science editor for the influential blog BoingBoing.net, she knows what she’s talking about, and she has a chatty, disarming style. With wisecracks and clever metaphors, she efficiently demystifies energy systems from top to bottom. The author imagines a nuclear fission reaction as a row of Jenga towers, and shows that the electrical grid is operated not by invisible wizards throwing switches but by regular people wearing button-up shirts and ID tags. (One utility employee jokingly calls himself and his colleagues “DOUGs,” or Dumb Old Utility Guys.)
And the electrical grid itself, she points out, is no shining technological wonder. “There are inefficiencies,” Koerth-Baker writes. “There are kludgey temporary fixes that become long-term staples. If it looks as if we’re making it up as we go, it’s because, in a lot of ways, we’re making it up as we go.”
Koerth-Baker, who grew up in Kansas and lives in Minneapolis, makes a particular effort to show that energy innovation is not, as she puts it, an exclusively “lefty, coastal, pinko thing” but is in fact thriving in the Heartland. She visits a cozy, super-efficient “passive house”—one that uses as much as 60 percent less energy than a standard house—in Urbana, Illinois, and talks to utility engineers in Texas who are dealing with the hiccups and bumps of integrating wind power into the electrical grid. She chronicles an energy-efficiency competition among several Kansas towns of different sizes and political inclinations, and visits a Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, that has made great strides in energy efficiency through top-down policy reforms.
Koerth-Baker also delves into nerdy practical problems such as expanding battery-storage capacity for renewable energy, and capturing and storing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. She explains these complex challenges in refreshingly simple language and gets excited about their potential solutions.
But Koerth-Baker is no idealist. She actually makes a case for “cleaner” coal, and argues that, when it comes to energy systems, “big-ish can be beautiful.” But she is almost unfailingly optimistic. “I’ve seen a lot of evidence that has led me to believe we have the technology to save ourselves. If we can be smart about strategy, we’ve also got the money,” she writes. There’s only one remaining question, she concludes, and it just happens to be the biggest one of all. Do we have the willpower to make it happen?
This story originally ran as “Bright Ideas” in the May-June 2012 issue.