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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2012
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
on March 21, 2012
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
on July 17, 2013
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
on September 10, 2012
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
on May 2, 2012
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
on June 7, 2012
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. The way changing energy use affects the growing inequality of American life is outside the scope of this book, but it's probably important to think about.

One of Koerth-Baker's big points is that the energy system is very complicated. The national electrical grid, which she spends most of her time on, is limited by the haphazard way it was built. Electricity is not stored, but is generated and used in real-time. This means central managers in several key locations have to balance supply and demand. This means it's difficult adding local alternative sources to the grid. It seems intuitive, until you remember that if these local sources remove demand from the grid, they're self-balancing.

Rural America didn't get electricity, she reminds us, until the government stepped in. And life will go on, whatever society does: "it's not the planet that needs saving. It's our way of life. More important, I'm not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share" (p. 28). Koerth-Baker insists we "won't get a 21 quadrillion BTU cut in our energy use in eighteen years by relying on everyone to do his or her small part on a voluntary basis" (p. 31). And she may be right, but that doesn't exactly square with the changes she reports in places like the military, without accepting some big assumptions about what initially motivated the changes and why individuals responded to the institutional initiatives the way they did.

Energy isn't obvious, Koerth-Baker reminds us, and it's hard to see in spite of being all around us. "People don't make a choice between `undermine the efficiency and emissions benefits produced by my utility company' and `go without a DVR,'" she says. "They simply decide how they'd prefer to watch TV and don't have the information they need to make an energy-efficient choice even if they wanted to" (DVRs use as much energy as refrigerators! p. 158). Koerth-Baker wants to try to maintain current standards of living by becoming more efficient at a systemic level: "Conservation says, `Don't do it.' Efficiency says, `Do it better.' That's a really, really, really important distinction, because it gets to the heart of where we--human beings, that is--have been, where we're going, and what we're afraid of," she says (pp. 143-144). We can't seem to get to the point of admitting that things can't go on as they have - can't acknowledge the elephant in the living room. So we're left with improving the efficiency of the system; rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

"You have to give people insights, not data," she says, quoting Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Opower (p. 164). And it would definitely help to make efficiency (or even conservation) the default option, as Koerth-Baker suggests. But she also says, "There were downsides to the rural Industrial Revolution, but given the benefits industrialization brought his family--free time, health, educational opportunities, financial security--I don't know that my grandpa would have traded those drawbacks for a less energy-intensive world where he'd have had to work harder at an already hard job and maybe not done as well" (p. 144). Okay, that's true as far as it goes, but it assumes the only choices her grandpa had are the ones she has in mind. This is anachronistic, and it hides the fact that her grandpa dealt with limited information, and that these really big systems she puts so much hope in pretty much guarantee that regular people are not going to be able to see all the externalities and effects of their choices. But not telling people and relying on the technocrats is not the option people like the folks at Opower seem to be trying to choose.

At one point, when Koerth-Baker is arguing for carbon taxes, she says "A price on carbon would tell us what we want to know instantly, with up-to-the-minute accuracy--like trading out that beat-up Rand McNally for an iPhone" (p. 171). The core of my problem with this book is right here. An iPhone? Wouldn't another metaphorical option be using the old map (which, after all, still gets most of the roads right), with a few penciled-in corrections and additions? Wouldn't that be the best way to do efficiency and conservation?
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Although Koerth-Baker doesn't cover fracking -- itself a highly controversial alternative - this book is still an excellent introduction to a very important subject.

One of the most interesting passages in this book appears in the very first chapter. 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. Prudence came up a lot, with people saying, `Well, even if we aren't sure, maybe we should take action just in case.' One thing that was said in all [focus] groups was, `We need another Apollo project,' this fiercely nationalistic response where even if we don't believe in global warming, we still want to lead the world in fuel-efficient vehicles. We want to be number one."

Former Mayor Blumberg has often made the very same political point. People are always interested in the short term impact of dirty water or air, increased energy costs, and other issues have on them. It is much harder to get a political consensus on the long term issues -- the possibility, or probability, if you prefer, that large sections of New York City will be underwater in fifty years. After all, very few of the decision makers will be alive at that point.

Koerth-Baker focuses on the practical; how do our energy systems really work today, and what we'll have to do to keep them working in the years to come. Throughout, she emphasizes "what's in it" for all of us in the short run, while keeping her eye on what fifty years from now might have in store.

She also points out that none of the possible energy sources we know today are totally sustainable or enough to maintain the world at its present or increasing levels, at least indefinitely. But, she tends to be optimistic, to believe that some combination of coal, nuclear energy, wind and solar power can do so. It is well worth reading her findings, necessary even, I believe, to make sense of this highly contentious issue.

Robert C. Ross
March 2012
revised February 2015
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2013
As my title suggests, this book is more rhetoric and folksy writing fit for a stump speech than it is informative. On the plus side, the author has a very easy-going tone and is easy to read. On the negative side, I really didn't learn much at all from this book, except about Appleton really. She likes to repeat herself and go on and on in loose terms without much data. If it weren't for the figures of "quadrillions of BTUs" she would have about no data at all. Her folksy approach leads her to try and explain otherwise easy concepts with childish analogies that try too hard. She doesn't sink into patronizing or anything like that, but she also doesn't give nearly enough credit to her readers. This leads to even more fluff and less substance. If she assumed that her readers would understand more deeply, she could have written a lot more useful of a book. This even leads her to say things like: "Today, almost all of the energy we use [...] comes from fossil fuels. In fact, that's been true for a very long time. The United States was founded on wood power." Umm... unless you're trying to burn the petrified forrest, wood isn't a FOSSIL fuel. Sure, we know what she means that we've been burning derivatives of biomass for a very long time, but saying grossly incorrect things doesn't help her. She can write in an easy-going tone while still being correct and while providing real information. I won't even get into her using her childhood experiences to try and explain electic systems or not really going into detail about the electric grid beyond child like awe. Very disappointed in my purchase.

Unfortunately, I haven't read enough books of this type to provide better recommendations, I can only say that you should avoid this one and look elsewhere. Good luck.
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on May 31, 2012
Before the Lights Go Out is about energy. People have very different and conflicting ideas about energy. They disagree about how it should be produced, how it should be used, and what are the side effects of energy consumption. Koerth-Baker has three big ideas. First, instead of focusing on how we disagree, we should focus on the one thing we agree on. Some care about how using fossil fuels are causing climate change while others, who may find that idea foolish, still care about energy because they want energy to continue to be affordable. Some are concerned that our country needs to be self-sufficient, or they are concerned about pollution, or conserving finite resources. In other words, for a variety of different reasons we all care about energy. Secondly, we need to produce energy efficiently. We don't want to give up our life styles. We aren't about to give up the things that make our lives comfortable. Koerth-Baker has spent over two years researching how we are going to meet our growing appetite for energy while limiting the amount of greenhouse gases we put into the air. Lastly, to achieve efficient energy we must make systemic changes in how energy is produced and used. The answer is not simple and involves making choices, but she feels that it is possible to achieve. The book has no charts or graphs and a few would have been helpful. It also lacks a concluding chapter to recap where we are now and where we need to be in the future. Nevertheless it is an informative and very readable look at the critical issue of energy.
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on November 29, 2013
If you are the average Jane or Joe, anxious about the environment and seeking more understanding of 'energy issues', this book is a terrific beginning. If you are an engineer, or possibly if you just sleep with one, you may already be familiar with the topics Maggie explains so cogently. I was not. There are a lot more of *me* out there than there are engineers. I purchased a copy for my library and one for my mother to present to her book club. More people need to be knowledgeable on the complexities and ramifications of the energy choices we face today. This book is an excellent starting point.
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