Saturday, May 26, 2012

Before the Lights Go Out by Maggie Koerth-Baker

If you don't think you'll get a chance to read Maggie Koerth-Baker's book Before the Lights Go Out, be sure to check out this interview with her from Minnesota Public Radio. (You can watch it or read the handy transcript.)

It covers her main arguments, and refers to some of the key examples she uses. Most important is the idea that saving energy (through efficiency, rather than conservation) requires systemic change, not just or even personal sacrifice.

To support this, she tells about the nature of the U.S. electrical grid (which wasn't designed for efficiency so much as it evolved for cheapness in the short term), why renewable sources are hard to integrate into it, how the Defense Department is doing more than almost anyone to systematize efficiency, what the deal with batteries is, and what the heck they're doing down in Madelia, Minnesota, to create energy that's "smaller than centralized but bigger than off the grid."

A key quote:

A good way to think about the future of energy is to imagine it as a three-legged stool. To keep it from wobbling or breaking, you need a strong foundation in three areas--energy efficiency, energy infrastructure, and alternative generation, all three at once (page 132).
She also nailed down a statistic I've always wondered about. You know how you hear "farming uses XX percent of our energy use" or "personal cars use XX percent" and so on? And how it seems as though those numbers always add up to way more than 100 percent? Here are Maggie's numbers: In 2009, the U.S. used 94.6 quadrillion BTUs. 41 percent of that went into generating electricity. 29 percent went into transportation. Industry used 20 percent. Residential and commercial heating, cooking, and water heating, 11 percent. (Okay, that totals to 101 percent, but that's just rounding error.)

Of the almost 40 quadrillion BTUs that we put into generating electricity, "66 percent never becomes usable electricity. Instead, it falls victim to conversion losses--turning into heat that warms up the air around a power plant, rather than actually producing electricity" (pages 14-15). Of the electricity that is generated, though, 72 percent is used in commercial, residential, or retail settings.

A chapter late in the book, called "The Default Option," discusses changes needed to make energy efficiency happen without conscious thought, to make it just the way things are. And part of that is pricing things like fossil fuels to reflect their real costs, one that "reflects all of the economic factors we don't currently consider when we use them" (page 168). Koerth-Baker went from being against cap and trade and carbon taxes before writing the book to supporting them, based on her findings.
A price on carbon makes our daily energy choices easy. All you have to do is be cheap. If you're trying to decide between two products or two way to lower your utility bill, the less expensive option is probably the one that used fewer fossil fuels and produced fewer emissions. People don't have to become energy experts; they simply have to pay attention to the good deals (page 171).
 Here's a final MaggieKB point worth remembering:
When I was little, I remember reading books about "what you can do to save the planet." The truth is, it's not the planet that needs saving. It's our way of life. More important, I'm not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share. The only way to change our energy use is to change the systems (page 28).
If you'd like some hope mixed with your reality, and you want to be a knowledgeable part of the solution, check out Before the Lights Go Out. It's worth a lot more than the paper it's printed on and the energy that went into making it.


Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Interesting. Thanks for the recommendation. I came to believe long ago that the earth will go on, but perhaps without us because we won't evolve fast enough to accommodate all the changes in our environment. But people don't want to hear that, or can't deal with it.

Ms Sparrow said...

"It's not the planet that needs saving. It's our way of life." Sometimes I think that humans are the worst thing that ever happened to the planet. The religion-inspired notion that everything on Earth is for humanity's disposal will lead us to an ultimate dead-end. Then, Earth will shrug off every vestige of our habitation and renew itself.