Synopses & Reviews
What you need to know now about America's energy future
We all know America has an energy problem—even if we can't all agree on what, specifically, the problem is. Rising costs, changing climate, peak oil, foreign oil, public safety—the issues are complicated, the solutions even more so. In Before the Lights Go Out, Maggie Koerth-Baker finally makes some sense out of the competing agendas and reveals the practical, multifaceted plan that will save America's future.
"With spark and brilliance, Maggie Koerth-Baker reveals the thrumming, secretive inner workings of the U.S. energy grid. The wizard behind the curtain turns out to be a bunch of guys in light blue dress shirts, drinking RC Cola and sweating out a surplus that's threatening to crash the western seaboard. Using the raw resources of carefully gathered facts and years of experience, Koerth-Baker builds a narrative that flows and illuminates like the river of electrons that I now understand to be electricity. In her capable and stylish telling, energy isn't just policy and data; it's people and history, happenstance and compromise. It's a fine, cracking read."
—Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Packing for Mars
"Maggie Koerth-Baker is one of the most innovative science writers at work today. Rather than settling for cheap flash, she burrows deep into many of the biggest mysteries in science and technology and comes out with wonderfully clear explanations. In Before the Lights Go Out, she digs into perhaps the most puzzling—and urgent—stories of our time: Where are we going to get our energy from in future decades? Her investigations take us from the early days of firewood and coal to the cutting edge of smart grids and carbon capture, and leave us well-equipped to take on this great challenge of our civilization."
—Carl Zimmer, contributing editor, Discover; author of Science Ink
"None of this stuff is, in and of itself, sustainable. Not coal, not nukes, not solar, not wind. But some combination of various systems, various compromises and improvements and treaties between mutual belligerents, taken together, hold out the promise of a world where we and our descendants continue to enjoy comfort and prosperity. This isn't a book about turning down the thermostat in the winter and putting on a sweater: it's a book about making houses that are better, that warm the rooms where people are and keep the heat in, and, in the process, cost us all less, reduce the pressure to secure oil through military adventurism, and begin to curb our atmospheric CO2 addiction. This is an optimistic book. Not a book that says it'll all come out all right, but rather a book that says that it might come out all right. It's a book we need to read."
—Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother
What you need to know now about America's energy future
""Hi, I'm the United States and I'm an oil-oholic."" We have an energy problem. And everybody knows it, even if we can't all agree on what, specifically, the problem is. Rising costs, changing climate, peaking oil, foreign oil, public safetyif the fears are this complicated, then the solutions are bound to be even more confusing. Maggie Koerth-Bakerscience editor at the award-winning blog BoingBoing.netfinally makes some sense out of the madness. Over the next 20 years, we'll be forced to cut 20 quadrillion BTU worth of fossil fuels from our energy budget, by wasting less and investing in alternatives. To make it work, we'll need to radically change the energy systems that have shaped our lives for 100 years. And the result will be neither business-as-usual, nor a hippie utopia. Koerth-Baker explains what we can do, what we can't do, and why ""The Solution"" is really a lot of solutions working together. This isn't about planting a tree, buying a Prius, and proving that you're a good person. Economics and social incentives got us a country full of gas-guzzling cars, long commutes, inefficient houses, and coal-fired power plants out in the middle of nowhere, and economics and incentives will be the things that build our new world. Ultimately, change is inevitable.
- Argues we're not going to solve the energy problem by convincing everyone to live like it's 1900 because that's not a good thing. Instead of reverting to the past, we have to build a future where we get energy from new places, use it in new ways, and do more with less.
- Clean coal? Natural gas? Nuclear? Electric cars? We'll need them all. When you look at the numbers, you'll find that we'll still be using fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables for decades to come.
- Looks at new battery technology, smart grids, passive buildings, decentralized generation, clean coal, and carbon sequestration. These are buzzwords now, but they'll be a part of your world soon. For many people, they already are.
- Written by the cutting edge Science Editor for Boing Boing, one of the ten most popular blogs in America
First the bad news: over the next twenty years, the United States must cut 20 quadrillion BTUs from its annual consumption of fossil fuels, more than 25 percent of the energy currently being used. This is a matter of both economic and environmental necessity. The good news is that we have the technology to pull it off. But where should we start? What exactly needs to be done? How much will it cost? And won't such a drastic reduction in energy use destroy the American way of life?
In Before the Lights Go Out, science blogger and journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker presents a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which America produces, distributes, and consumes energy. She explains how our current systems developed, points out their strengths and weaknesses, and offers candid assessments of the time, the difficulty, and the expense involved in making radical changes to the energy systems that have shaped our lives for a hundred years. And the new world that results will be neither business-as-usual nor a hippie utopia.
Drawing on more than two years of research and interviews with experts on everything from our electrical grid and electric cars to fracking and passive buildings, Koerth-Baker explains what we can do, what we can't do, and why "the solution" is really a lot of solutions working together.
This isn't about planting a tree, buying a Prius, and proving that you're a good person. Economic and social incentives got us a country full of gas-guzzling cars, long commutes, inefficient houses, and coal-fired power plants in the middle of nowhere, and economics and incentives will build our new world. Ultimately, change is inevitable. If we don't control it, it will control us.
Koerth-Baker argues that we're not going to solve the energy problem by convincing everyone to live like it's 1900nobody wants to do that. Rather than reverting to the past, we will be building a future where we get energy from new places and use it in new ways and do more with less. But for all the new technology, we'll still need coal-fired, nuclear, and natural gasburning power plantsand we'll still be pumping gasoline into our (far more fuel-efficient) cars for many decades to come.
She also looks at new battery technology, smart grids, decentralized generation, clean coal, and carbon sequestrationbuzzwords now, but they'll be a part of our everyday life soon.
Yes, solving the energy problem is more urgent than ever before. Yes, we have the technology to do thatand the results may surprise you. Before the Lights Go Out reveals what that will look like.
About the Author
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net, one of the ten most popular blogs and the number one science blog in the world. A former editor for Mental_Floss, she has contributed articles to Scientific American, Discover, and other magazines. She is the coauthor of the Mental_Floss book Be Amazing.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Choice and Change 1
1 Making Apple Pie from Scratch 9
2 One in a Quadrillion 22
3 The Efficiency Paradox 36
4 The Emerald City 52
5 A Box Full of Lightning 67
6 Good and Good Enough 84
7 The View from Merriam’s Peak 102
8 The Take-Charge Challenge 121
9 The Olive Green Revolution 135
10 The Default Option 150
11 Home Fires 173
12 Bigger Little 186
13 Good Citizens of the Grid 211