Book Review: Before the Lights go out: Conquering the Energy Crisis before it conquers us

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, by Maggie Koerth-Baker is about energy management and the future in the US.

Koerth-Baker’s book is about the energy crisis that is coming, and what the US should do about it. In her view, there are two big issues that will hit the world (or the US, the distinction is rarely clear) in the coming decades:

  • peak oil, where the world will start running out of oil, sometime in the next 30 years or so, and it will quickly become more expensive; and
  • climate change, where we will (hopefully) realise that our current ways of generating energy are unsustainable, and will be forced to move to carbon neutral ways of generating energy.
Koerth-Baker starts with the point that it doesn’t matter whether you think these two issues are real or not. Most people still have reasons to want to save energy. Even if you think that peak oil and human induced climate change are complete fantasy, you are likely to still be interested in ways of saving energy for religious, thrifty or even ethical reasons.
Koerth-Baker has a few key points, which are important ones, about how we should think about energy.
  • Individual actions don’t do all that much – you or me choosing to turn our lights off more often, or turn all our appliances off at the wall will not change the fact that pretty much everyone in developed countries uses unsustainable amounts of energy.
  • Systems need to change to save electricity/energy – the difference in energy usage between the US and Europe is not because Europeans have voluntarily chosen to use less energy per GDP produced. It is because their infrastructure is set up so that they need less energy to have enjoyable fulfilling lives. That’s not just about public transport, it is also about the way in which their buildings are built, the economic incentives given to their populations and many other factors, large and small (such as the way in which most European hotels have timed light switches, so the light in the hall goes on for long enough for you to get to your hotel room and goes off again)
  • Making better buildings is a huge part of saving energy – much of the energy used goes on heat and light in buildings, and the people who live and work in those buildings have little control over how much energy is used once the building is built
  • Distributed smaller scale power is a bit part of the future of electricity and power generation, and will help us make the most of a wide variety of sources of power. Once you start using solar and wind power in a serious way, it makes a lot of sense to feed power into the grid from medium sized sources – making it a two way rather than one way system.
As well as these points, Koerth-Baker gives us a (to me) fascinating look into the mechanics of power distribution. There is a huge amount of predictive modelling, as well as seat-of-the-pants management, which goes into keeping an electricity grid humming at its optimal level. Even though I’ve sat in on discussions of electricity pricing in Australia (where we’ve had a wholesale electricity market with hugely variable spot prices for some years), I found the actual practical description of the work involved in making sure there is enough electricity for air conditioners on hot days enthralling.
So given this topic is one I’m fascinated by, I should have loved this book. But sadly I didn’t. The main reason was that I didn’t seem to be the target audience. I’m someone who will read popular science on many topics, but particularly environmental topics.
But what that meant is that I felt I knew much of the material in this book already. Koerth-Baker has great slabs of introductory material on carbon dioxide causing global warming, on the basics of peak oil, the way in which various types of energy interact, which I ended up skipping much of.
So her book seems to be aimed at someone who doesn’t read as much in this area as I do. But I can’t imagine such a person buying this book. A full length popular science book isn’t bought as a casual read. I find it hard to imagine buying this book if you weren’t as interested in the topic as I am.
So if you don’t read all that much about energy, energy policy, global warming, and the profligate ways in which we use energy but really shouldn’t, but you are still interested in the topic, you will enjoy this book. But I’m not sure that there are many people in that category.