Before the Lights Go Out – Alternative Energy and America’s Grid

Fossil fuels, photovoltaics, clean coal, wind turbines, hydroelectic dams, nuclear reactors, hydraulic fracturing. For all the discussions of energy independence, sustainable energy, renewable fuels, one word is often painfully absent: grid. America’s electrical grid has evolved from Edison electric generators and a few, uninsulated, wires in New York and Wisconsin to a massive, and massively inefficient, network of power lines, control stations, and generators that crisscross the country in three power blocks. This mycelial behemoth serves one function–to keep the electrons flowing. In Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, Maggie Koerth-Baker strips the wires of the United State’s electrical grid bare, revealing how it works, how it doesn’t work, and what we can do to make it work better, increasing efficiency, decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide production, and securing America’s energy infrastructure.

Before the Lights Go Out begins with a bold and inspired move by Koerth-Baker. By choosing to focus on the development of our energy infrastructure and the challenges inherent in the current model, she bypasses the common stumbling block of “energy crisis” arguments in the United States–the unwillingness of some groups to accept the uncontroversial recognition of anthropogenic climate change. Improving the efficiency of the grid, incorporating alternative energy sources into our infrastructure, reducing waste which cost energy producers and consumer real capital, these are not goals that require an a priori understanding of climate change to make sound economic, social, and political sense. Koerth-Baker deftly skirts around the quagmire of one of our most baffling political debates and dives straight into solutions.

What struck me the most throughout this book is the fragility of the grid. From power plant to outlet there are thousands of failure points. An unpredictable spike in energy demand can send an entire region into rolling blackouts. Even unpredictable reductions in demand can cripple the grid, which now has more power than can be consumed and must be discharge, cause problems. These fluctuations in power demands lead to inefficiencies in conventional power production, coal plants must burn more, at reduced efficiency, to respond to those changes. Here is one of the most compelling benefits of alternative energy. Far from the conservative strawman argument that environmentalist want to replace all power plants with solar and wind, by allowing conventional power plants to run continuously at optimal efficiency while using alternative sources such as wind and solar to compensate for the fluctuations in grid demand, we can dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption without compromising our ability to produce consistent power.

Rare for books on the energy crisis, Before the Lights Go Out is focused on solutions, of which there are plenty–from the use of smart electronics that track the demands on the grid and turn off during peak times to major overhauls of the grid infrastructure. Koerth-Baker has taken the unpopular, but ultimately correct, stance that personal, behavioral changes are not going to dig us out of this crisis. Switching to compact fluorescent bulbs may make you feel better and save you money, but that won’t contribute significantly to a reduction in energy demand. Ironically, upgrading to more efficient “greener” appliances often results in a net increase in energy use, as consumers see energy efficiency as a license to use more energy. Only large-scale changes to the energy infrastructure will yield the necessary reductions in energy waste.

And that’s one of the key issue in this book. We can focus on reducing our energy demands or we can focus on eliminating waste in the grid. By focusing on the wasted energy rather than the utilized energy (and the amount of energy wasted by our current grid is substantial), we get to ignore the politicized and polarized arguments about energy conservation and focus on solutions. Before the Lights Go Out is an impressive resource for anyone wishing to understand our energy infrastructure. It is exhaustively researched and the hefty collection of endnotes speaks to the depth of Koerth-Bakers research.

Koerth-Baker takes us on a tour of the grid, from the plants that produce power, to the control rooms that manage how electrons flow across America. She visits rural communities developing alternate energy schemes and an energy efficient house that manages to reduce energy demands while remaining within the price range of an average income. By taking the mystery out of the grid, Koerth-Baker brings us face to face with a resource that is both invisible and ubiquitous. We could all do a little better by spending some time thinking about what electricity is, where it comes from, and how it reaches us.

UPDATE: Listen to an interview with Maggie Koerth-Baker on Skeptically Speaking