We're avid readers here at Evergreen, and we've been telling everyone about Maggie Koerth-Baker's new book on the future of America's energy system.  Here's why.

"It’s easy to come away from daily news reports on America’s energy crisis with nothing but a bunch of new buzzwords to memorize and the vague sense that we’re all totally screwed.”
– Maggie Koerth-Baker, author of Before the Lights Go Out

As storms and heat pummel the East Coast, forest fires rage in the too-dry West, and oil prices jitterbug across our bank accounts, it’s hard not to think about this winter, and next spring, and what happens when the looming energy crisis gets real.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is way ahead of us, and her intensely readable Before the Lights Go Out is the perfect way to get up to speed.  Like her posts on BoingBoing.net, the popular blog where Koerth-Baker serves as science editor, Before the Lights Go Out makes sophisticated concepts accessible.  From peak oil to Passive Houses, from electricity to emissions, Koerth-Baker explains the state of our energy system – past, present, and future – in prose that is clear, calm, and constructive.

Before the Lights Go Out traces the circuitous path from America’s first electrical power plant – bought on a whim by an Appleton, WI millionaire in 1882 – to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas – the futuristic control center where a handful of energy “wizards” constantly tweak electric supply and demand to keep the grid balanced.  What it reveals is an energy infrastructure cobbled together over more than a century, full of what Koerth-Baker calls “kludgey temporary fixes that became long-term staples.” 

That’s been mostly okay, because our demand for electricity has grown as slowly as our ability to supply it.  Over time, America’s energy needs have changed dramatically, and our energy sources have, too.  Our current grid is limping along with these new developments, but if we want an infrastructure that can really support our energy future, Koerth-Baker argues that we’re going to have to be organized about it. 

She suggests that America’s energy future hinges on our ability to balance the tripod of efficiency, infrastructure, and alternative energy generation.  We need to lower our energy needs with efficiency measures that slash waste and get the most bang per BTU; we need natural gas, cleaner coal, and nuclear power to keep the system stable while we build the grid of the future; and we need alternative sources of power to feed into a smart grid with enough storage capacity to decouple supply and demand.  Because the current grid has no storage capacity, electricity must be generated and consumed in real time, and demand puts an artificial, but essential, limit on how much supply we can handle.

Creating this grid won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be cheap, but it is possible, and it will be fascinating.  The innovative projects Koerth-Baker describes – Passive Houses so efficient that they don’t need heating systems; native grass cultivation that slows erosion, improves soil quality, and serves as super-local energy sources; crowdsourcing with electric car batteries – each offer “a solution, not the solution.”  The fossil fuel era spoiled us with a powerful, reliable, relatively inexpensive source of energy, but the next generation of power will be far more diverse.

Koerth-Baker’s great accomplishment is making this future sound exciting rather than terrifying.  Energy change is happening.  The sky may, in fact, be falling, but we can catch it, and if we’re willing to embrace the change our energy systems need, we can even lift it up for good.