Maggie Koerth-Baker is a science editor at BoingBoing.net. She’s recently written a book called Before the Lights Go Out. In it, Koerth-Baker explores how our energy systems were built, how our infrastructure functions and what that all means for the future.
EarthFix: So, Maggie, why did you want to write this book?
Koerth-Baker: I started off wanting to write this book because my husband is an energy efficiency analyst. He figures out how to make buildings as energy efficient as possible for the least amount of money. And after he got that job, he started coming home with all of these stories about how his clients, the people that owned these buildings and made the actual decisions about energy use, didn’t understand all this basic stuff about energy.
I realized that there was this huge disconnect between what the experts knew and what the people making decisions knew, the politicians, the home owners, the building owners, everybody who is actually in charge of this. I wanted to try to bridge that gap.
As I started doing the research, it became clear to me that electricity was far more important than we gave it credit for. If you look at the statistics, electricity accounts for more carbon emissions than anything else, including transportation. It is also our number one source of energy use. We use more energy to make electricity than we do for anything else.
EarthFix: One of the other main points that I got from reading your book was that policy needs to change. Policy is where we need to make some of the big changes to help proceed with the energy future. Did you have that idea when you started writing, or did you come to that conclusion?
Koerth-Baker: I came reluctantly to that conclusion. In the course of doing research, I realized that energy isn’t our individual choices. It’s not really even the sources of energy that we choose to use. It’s systems that end up shaping the choices that we can make on a personal level and on a source level. And until you change those systems, it’s really hard to get that individual empowerment thing that we’re all so excited about.
Good example: I live in Minneapolis. I can go out my front door, get on the number six bus, get anywhere I want to go in the city, and we have great bicycle infrastructure. We often beat Portland in national polls of bicycle cities. And because of all of this infrastructure, these systems, I’m able to make this choice to have only one car between my husband and I. In Kansas City, where most of my family is from, they don’t have that option. They don’t have anything in the way of public transportation or bicycle infrastructure. So if I told them to just make better choices, I’d be telling them to shoot themselves in the foot. They couldn’t access their jobs. They couldn’t access their services. They couldn’t participate in their communities.
There’s really a flip-side to this idea of ‘You can save the Earth.’ That’s really empowering, but it’s also a chain around your neck. You can only work within the infrastructure you have available. If your infrastructure makes the right choice horribly bad for you, why would you make the right choice? We have to change the infrastructures. We have to change the ways our cities are designed. All of these things, and that’s how we’re going to get to real substantial energy change that actually does something about stuff like fossil fuel depletion and climate change.
EarthFix: You met so many interesting people who are doing so many good things for the energy sector. Did you have a favorite or somebody that you learned the most from that you look back and think, ‘I’m really glad I talked to them.’
Koerth-Baker: I really enjoyed meeting the people that keep the electrical grid from crashing. I had no idea going into writing this book that there are these facilities all over the U.S. where people work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, balancing supply and demand on our electric grid on not even a minute-by-minute basis, but a second-by-second basis.
Some of the new technologies they’re putting in — I was just finding out today at PNNL (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.) are able to take something crazy, like 60 samples a second of what’s going on, on the grid, and they’re using that very fast real time data to understand how the grid is working, see where there are problems and fix them really, really quickly.
And they have to work constantly because our grid is not as stable as it looks. It can go out of whack incredibly easy. Changes of a fraction of a percent can lead to blackouts. All of this stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that keeps your lights on, that keeps your computer running, that keeps your dishwasher going, is so incredibly cool to me, and I really enjoyed meeting those people and learning about their work culture and how they think of themselves as sort of these cowboys of electricity. It was just really cool.
EarthFix: Hydroelectricity is such a big part of our energy in the Pacific Northwest. You mention in the book that decentralized power is possibly the future of hydroelectricity. Could you go over that and what it means?
Koerth-Baker: Basically we are out of places in the U.S. where we can build great, big dams. There’s never going to be another Grand Coulee Dam because we don’t have a place to build another Grand Coulee Dam. That’s just not how our geography works. People in the Department of Energy, what they say the future of hydroelectricity is going to be, is it’s going to be much smaller scale. Instead of daming up rivers and building up great big reservoirs, you’re talking about using much, much smaller rivers. Like even the kinds of piddly, dinky rivers. You guys would probably call it a creek that we have in Kansas can function with these things.
It would be something like, you would make a cut in the river, and then some of the water flows out and into a power plant and back into the river again. Those are much cheaper to build. They can be built on much smaller water sources. We could increase our hydroelectric capacity by 50 percent if we tapped into those resources. There’s no way we’re going to increase hydroelectric capacity by 50 percent any other way.
EarthFix: So what’s the first step to changing everything?
Koerth-Baker: So, there’s two ways that I can take this. First. doing this research — and this is another thing that I had to change my mind on — was that I now see there being some really big advantages to these things like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes. Because when you price fossil fuels at what they’re actually worth to us, we would be sending the signal to the entire economy that we want to use less of these things.
When you have that, it incentivizes infrastructure-level changes in a way that doesn’t require the federal government to come in and say, ‘Well, that technology is going to win, and that technology is going to win,’ because we’re really bad at picking that. But we’ve seen from history, from things like a tax on CFCs and sulfur dioxide, which was put under a cap-and-trade system, that when we put those kind of policies in place, they not only work — we reduce those things immensely. We no longer have the problems with acid rain and with whole in the ozone layer that we were worried about when I was a child — they end up being just huge, huge amounts cheaper than anybody guessed they were going to be.
When you incentivize the kind of changes that we need, industry figures out how to make it cheap, and industry figures out how to do that.
The other thing, though, is that there actually are things that you can do personally. They’re just different from what you’ve been thinking of. A really good example of this is your local zoning laws. I’ve done quite a bit of this in the past year. It’s incredibly easy and remarkably painless to go down to your city councils, to your city planning commission, and get involved in debates about zoning laws and debates about urban development. That can actually make infrastructure-level changes possible because we need cities to be more dense.
We need there to be more multi-level buildings that have both residential and commercial stuff in them. Our cities are zoned right now to actually try to avoid that, and that’s a bad thing. We save huge amounts of energy just by making these kinds of changes to our city zoning rules.
EarthFix: You kind of end the book saying that the energy future is going to be a mix of past and present. How do you foresee that playing out a little bit?
Koerth-Baker: What I have seen the trends of is that we’re going to have a system that has more decentralization then we have today. That means there is going to be a lot more of these smaller things, like smaller hydroelectric, smaller sources of energy that we’re using because they give us access to resources that we can’t access on these great big scales.
But we’re still going to have the great big things, too. Because those things have benefits. It’s a lot cheaper to produce electricity, when you can, in bulk. Just like it’s cheaper for you to go buy a bulk thing of toilet paper from Sam’s Club than it is one at a time.
We’re going to end up using some of the decentralization, some of the centralization, and all of these different technologies. Some that are old: wind power and solar power are pretty old at this point. Some that are brand new. We’re going to integrate all of these things into a system that makes us more sustainable than we are today.
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