An Excellent Book on Energy: Before the Lights Go Out…

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On Sunday, I interviewed Maggie Koerth-Baker, the author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. The interview was live on radio, but you can listen to it here as a podcast.

Maggie is the science editor at Boing Boing, a journalist, and has had an interest in energy and the related science and engineering for some time. Her book is an overview, historical account, and detailed description of the energy systems that we use in the United States, outlining the flow of watts, CO2 emissions, methods of making more watts, what we use it all for, and more. Maggie focuses on the electrical power grid, which is actually responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than internal combustion powered transport (cars, trucks, etc.), but she does touch on the latter. She focuses on the US but she draws from overseas examples in discussing what is normally done, what is not normally done, and what we might do in the future. She develops compelling and sometimes startling imagery and provides interesting and lively metaphors useful in describing and understanding sometimes very abstract problems related to making, delivering, and using energy.

Here’s the bottom line. If you want to have an intelligent conversation about energy, especially related to current problems and needs in the US and especially related to the electrical grid, you have to either know all the stuff that is in Before the Lights Go Out, or read the book before you engage in that conversation, or, if you can’t manage either of those, then maybe you should just shut up. Seriously.

I’ve been engaged in conversations about energy at a significantly heightened pace over the last several months, for various reasons, and I’ve found that the stuff that comes out of people’s mouths (my own included) is very often either very out of date or was never very correct to begin with. Maggie’s book is a very engaging way of fixing that. If you read the book, you will be caught up.

I caution those of you who might listen to the podcast that we only touched on part of what is covered in the book! You can’t just listen to the interview and skip reading the source material! Having said that, I’m not going to go into great detail here either. Listen to the podcast, get the book, read it, and report back. You will probably have interesting questions and additions to add to the comment section.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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7 thoughts on “An Excellent Book on Energy: Before the Lights Go Out…

  1. Unfortunately the paper version seems to be temporarily out of stock in the (European) Amazon UK – have to check later.

    Meanwhile I hope it is not inappropriate to recommend another highly acclaimed[*] book: “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David J. C. MacKay, since 2009 the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Department of Energy and Climate Change of the UK.

    It can be bought – or downloaded free from here:

    [*] Quite remarkably the book seems to be endorsed by just “anyone”, be it Greenpeace-people or executives of Royal Dutch Shell etc …

  2. Unfortunately, David has a pro-nuclear axe to grind and therefore makes many incorrect assumptions in order to preclude any other option other than nukes.

    Examples are:

    0) uses an incorrect total power use that is much larger than actually needed
    1) old design turbine that is less efficient
    2) uses a larger distance between masts than necessary to increase the land cost
    3) pretends that the land between the masts are unusable for any other purpose
    4) divides that by a quarter to say “We wouldn’t want to have a quarter of the land taken over by windmills!”
    5) divides by another quarter because that figure still meant we had enough land to do it

    The book, rather ironically, is almost entirely hot air.

  3. Ok one of the GP has turned his coat or something, didn’t know about that – sorry. And seriously I don’t know the actual standing on the other environmentalists on that list either.

    Doesn’t matter much – for me (a physicist myself) the study still seems quite balanced and level headed – with real numbers. He presents five different schemes (for the UK) for the year 2050 which all have the current energy consumption halved from the 2008 levels – IMO that is far from insignificant drop – and two of those scenarios don’t contain nuclear. What I took from the book was that the long term solution would be solar and neither wind nor nuclear – however nuclear would be the best short term alternative for the fossils.

    In the book pages there are links to FAQ – where the author says that he has checked real data from 50 UK wind farms since writing the book and increased his power density estimate for 25 % (from 2 W/m² to 2.5). Here is the link to his associated blog entry, answering more or less directly to the “accusation” list of yours above:

    Specifically, for me his first large answer in the comment section below seems not to be coming from someone that is somehow fundamentally against wind. BTW it’s been a while since I read it, but I really don’t remember him ever saying (pretending) that the land between the masts can’t be used for any other purposes – could you please specify?

    Thus far I have to rely on his data more than blank statements by “someone-in- the-net” – so if you or anyone else knows a relatively easily available criticism to the work, I would seriously appreciate a link, thanks.

  4. I think the problem with “Hot Air” is the figures are his, and perhaps not ones which experts in the field recognise. Remember that the author is not an energy specialist, and does seem to dismiss wind in favour of nukes with a wave of the hand.
    The bit that really made me wonder is his argument that nuclear waste was but a small problem. Since UK governments have trying to find a waste dump for at least thirty years, and have ended up bribing the area around Sellafield to take the stuff, despite the geologically unsuitability of the area, you have to wonder about his general analysis.
    He does say good things about efficiency, etc, but there is still a whiff of “then a miracle occurs”. However, he has managed to parlay his book into a new job. Which shows that hacks and politicians are impressed by his ‘balance’.
    Try reading Walt Patterson, he’s been writing about energy for years from a UK perspective, and like Lovins, is unloved by the nuclear industry.

  5. I’ ve just had a quick look at the net, and there is a blog spot from 2011 by Chris Vernon which takes on McKay in relation to his figures for wind, which seemingly have not changed since 2009.
    I would have posted a direct link, but I’m using my IPod touch, and I have as yet no idea as to do that….

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