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Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0470876251
ISBN-10: 0470876255
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Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

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 1900—nobody 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 gas–burning power plants—and 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 sequestration—buzzwords 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 that—and the results may surprise you. Before the Lights Go Out reveals what that will look like.

From the Back Cover

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


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (April 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470876255
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470876251
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #653,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on March 3, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I enjoyed reading Before the Lights Go Out and it does what it says on the cover: expose the core problems of the energy industry and how they came to be, and some solutions to the problems we face in progress, so to speak.

This book reads like an extra-long blog post on Boing Boing. The good thing about this is that it's easy to follow and explains itself with enough context to understand exactly what is going on. Footnotes are everywhere, from reference notes to parenthetical anecdotes, ranging from interesting stories in the background material to a nerdy hat tip to Stan Lee. I thought some of the notes would be better placed in the main book instead of the back, as I was highly surprised to find myself at the end of the book proper at the Kindle's 68%.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Abekin on March 21, 2012
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The author manages to take a very complex problem and break it down into a series of understandable issues all while maintaining a conversational tone. The book begins with a brief history of electricity generation for households and uses the problems found there as a reflection of our modern day energy use issues. This book delves into many different problems and provides different technologies that are already in place to help alleviate these issues. Maggie offers no simple solutions but provides plenty of information that may together provide a composite plan for minimizing our fossil fuel habit, dependence on foreign oil and green house gas emissions.

Some highlights are a neighborhood that is using decentralized hydroelectric to provide power, a farming community that is trying to halt erosion by growing native grasses that can be converted to a travelling biofuel plant and a behind the curtain look at the people that make the grid function allowing our electric life to flow.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Clark Powell on July 16, 2013
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Unfortunately for me, this is a remarkably non-technical book given the topic. Of course, even an electrical engineer like myself finds no joy in reading technical papers that are so dry that they make you want to chug water, but Maggie certainly could have gone into more detail on many topics covered. Her writing style is very verbose, yet I finished chapters feeling as though she had barely said anything since the chapter introduction. I would stop short at calling her style "condescending," although, for better or for worse, Maggie largely assumes that the reader knows nothing about the material.

Overall, I cannot recommend this book unless you know nothing about the energy economy or the power grid and need some conversational material or just want to try and gain a basic understanding of how energy is produced, distributed, and used. I do, however, commend Maggie for keeping her writing apolitical. So there's that.

The TL;DR version of the book:
We use a lot of energy, and we need to cut back (on fossil fuels, mostly) for many reasons. One person cutting energy usage doesn't make a difference, but everybody using less will.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Stewart Logie on September 9, 2012
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Trying to be chatty, it's poorly written in an annoying condescending style. How many times can you refer to "wizards of the grid"? Repetitive and long winded along with pointless personal annecdotes. Perhaps worthy of an article, but there isn't a book's worth of information here. Give it a pass.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By CQC on May 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The energy crisis the world faces is one of the greatest challenges we have before us. Here, Maggie Koerth-Baker arms readers with richly detailed stories teasing apart the complex picture of how we dug the hole we now find ourselves in.

This cracking page-turner also helps explain how even skeptics regarding the energy crisis can agree with earnest believers on how to tackle the issue. I agree with a preceding review that the below snippet is especially illustrative of how we can come together on the energy crisis: "A focus group member states categorically that he does not believe in global warming. Later, however, he details several measures he is taking to save on energy. The interviewer said: 'We came away with multiple examples where people who didn't believe in climate change were taking action anyway for other reasons. A lot of it was energy security and also conservation, which is just an ethic that we have in the Midwest.'"

I do think that two of the negative reviews of this book are ridiculous. Those reviewers basically disagree with this book because of their own biases on their respective pet issues. One was angry that the book wasn't entirely about fracking. Another was upset that the author wasn't completely damning of nuclear. Talk about myopia.

The book is wide-ranging, deeply analytical, and thoroughly readable. Take a gander now!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dan Allosso on June 7, 2012
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I'm going to be critical of this book, so I ought to say at the outset that it's a really effective introduction to the issues, and it's a good thing that Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote it! She makes several really interesting points, and raises a bunch of questions that more people need to be thinking about.

That said, I think she leans too heavily on the Progressive idea that the only way to change things is from the top down. This is old-fashioned Progressivism, from a hundred years ago (not whatever the word is supposed to mean when politicians hurl it at each other today). It includes a degree of faith in central planners and technologists that I find uncomfortable, given where they've taken us in the past. Also, I think it puts the cart in front of the horse, in terms of how social change happens.

The first important distinction Koerth-Baker makes, though, is between the difference between "what the activists thought the public believed" and what actually inspired people to change (p. 2). This goes part of the way toward mitigating her own assumptions, if the reader keeps it in mind. And it's a good point. Opinions about the sources of (or even the validity of) climate change can get in the way of finding actions people can agree to take. Do we care that some people conserve out of a sense of stewardship or nationalism or a love of efficiency, rather than because they're alarmed about global warming? Should we?

"Americans used only a little less energy per person in 2009 than we did in 1981 (and in 2007, we used more)," Koerth-Baker says. "Basically, our energy efficiency has made us wealthier, but it hasn't done much to solve our energy problems" (p. 4). And probably the increase in wealth wasn't spread too evenly across the population.
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