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on March 3, 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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on January 1, 2016
In the wake of the Paris climate summit and looking toward the 2016 election season, I would like to recommend a book that I wish every American would read: “Before the Lights Go Out” by Maggie Koerth-Baker.
Koerth-Baker is a storyteller who makes it easy for ordinary people to get their head around what is happening to the global climate and what we can do on an individual level to affect policy that will drive real change. She takes into account a variety of perspectives and allows people of disparate political persuasions to find common ground.
When people talk about ceilings for CO2 emissions and parts per billion and thresholds, what does it all mean? Read this book and you will understand. When we receive conflicting information, and hear politicians say that climate does not need to be a priority, what can we believe? Read this book and you will see how you can decide for yourself.
I happened upon this book when I had a job marketing technology to the energy industry, and it changed my outlook on life. It made me realize that if we don’t solve for climate, there will not be anything else to solve for.
We see climate disasters unfolding around us. They unfold slowly, like in Haiti and Ethiopia. They unfold rapidly, as with damage from tornadoes, hurricanes, and storms. There are and will continue to be so many climate related disasters that the collective compassion and discretionary relief funding will run thin.
The situation is not hopeless. Read this book and you will understand why, and what you can do.
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on January 5, 2018
I like this book. It gives a great overview of the creation and evolution of the National Electric Grid in the United States, and explains why trying to integrate renewable electricity sources (such as wind and solar) into/onto the current Grid is very challenging, especially on a mass scale. Will help give you understanding and a big-picture view. Important for innovators and policy-makers alike.
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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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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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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 April 4, 2012
Maggie Koerth-Baker has written a wonderful book. In "Before the Lights Go Out" she presents a whole lot of very important information about how energy is generated, transmitted and used. In the hands of a lesser writer this subject matter could be mind-numbingly dull, but Ms. Koerth-Baker's enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and ways with words made this a most delightful bit of non-fiction. On my Kindle I found myself highlighting a wide range of little nuggets of info or particularly wonderful turns of phrase.

At one point Maggie (OK, I have to call her Maggie, after reading her book I feel like I've just been on cross country car trip with a really smart friend) quotes Ogi Kavozovic: "You have to give people insights, not data." That's what Maggie does and her book is chock full of insights.

Here's Maggie explaining kilowatts & megawatts:

"This stuff can get confusing. In particular, it's often hard to wrap your head around what the steps between the scales of measurement really mean. Here's one analogy I've found helpful: the difference between kilowatts and megawatts is like the difference in salary between somebody who brings home $40,000 a year and someone who pulls down $40 million. That gives you an idea of what we're talking about, but it doesn't really tell you much about the proposed Holcomb generator. One megawatt of capacity is enough to supply all of the electric needs of 750 average American households during..."

Folksy, chatty & memorable.

And funny. Here she is writing about coal:

"In 1865, England was a coal-powered giant. It was the world's largest economy, and everything it did depended on coal. Coal ran the factories and the trains. It heated homes and cooked food. Little English children probably ate Coalios for breakfast. Yet already, some people were starting to think that England might not have infinite supplies of coal, and they were worried about what might happen if the all-important energy source ran out. The generally accepted solution: improved technology that would make more efficient use of coal."

I've been raving to my friends about this book. Consider this a continuation of that rave. I learned a lot from Maggie's book and I had a great time reading it. I think you will too.
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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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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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on April 23, 2015
Very informative and eye-opening book. It clearly illustrates a lot of the challenges we will face in terms of acquiring energy but also offers a number of practical solutions. I also like how it ties into climate change as a whole. I have been recommending this book to everyone, not just people that work in the environment/energy field.
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