What we need to do before the lights go out


Download Flash Player to view this content.


First aired on Quirks & Quarks (26/5/12)


Virtually every aspect of our life depends on the modern energy system, which is largely built on fossil fuels. For both economic and environmental reasons, that system will probably be profoundly transformed over the coming decades. In her new book, science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker attempts to predict just what will shape that transformation. Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us is an examination of the origins, the past, and the possible future evolution of our energy systems, and an exploration of a few ways in which the next decades might unfold.

Koerth-Baker suggests that changing the energy system will be far more complex than we imagine and is "surprisingly precarious," she said in a recent interview on Quirks & Quarks. Our current energy infrastructure is a patchwork of the several energy systems that were built across the continent as energy became more widely available and more in demand. To make matters worse, the technology hasn't really changed since 1970. "As we try to make this more stable, as we try to make it something that's more reliable and as we try to add renewable energy to a system that evolved to work with coal and natural gas and nuclear power, you run into problems," Koerth-Baker told host Bob McDonald. "The old legacy infrastructure wasn't designed to meet these 21st-century needs."

According to Koerth-Baker, there are three ways our energy system can move forward: through efficiency, through conservation and through finding new sources of energy. "It's kind of a three-legged stool. You have to have all parts to make the stool work." All three of these methods require buy-in from those consuming energy, and Koerth-Baker knows this can be a challenge. Making the right choice needs to be easy for consumers. "As long as good choices are tough to remember to do, and as long as good choices are tough in that they are actually detrimental to you, we're not going to get the kind of wide-scale changes we actually need to have happening," she explained.

To research Before the Lights Go Out, Koerth-Baker travelled around the United States looking at new and interesting ways that communities are using and conserving energy. A military air-force base in Jacksonville, Florida, painted the inside of an aircraft hangar white, which meant workers inside "get light reflected in from the outside, which makes the space bright enough that people can do their jobs without having electric lights on all day." A farming community realized the best way to conserve water quality was to grow hearty native plants and now use these plants to make biofuel -- saving energy and fuel on both ends of the system. Merriam, Kansas -- an affluent, conservative suburb that would stereotypically not be associated with energy conservation -- won a statewide contest as the community that conserved the most energy, thanks to a clever campaign that spoke to residents in a language they connected with. There are examples of this kind of innovation from coast to coast.


However, Koerth-Baker is quick to point out that individual choices are only part of the solution. These individual choices need to be embedded in systemic changes to really make a difference. "If we spend too much time trying to focus on our individual choices, we're not going to hit the energy change goals we need to hit," she said. "Our systems control the way that we use energy and they control the way that we make energy." After all, Americans used twice as much fuel than their European counterparts, in part because American systems don't make these kinds of choices easy.

This discovery was a challenge for Koerth-Baker to accept. Big change, the kind of change North America needs to prevent an energy crisis, won't come from consumers choosing to leave their lights off or take reusable bags to the grocery store (although these things don't hurt). It will come from creating a national energy plan that includes finding efficiencies, creating new energy sources and encouraging as much conservation as possible, on every level.

"The solution is changing the way we design cities," Koerth-Baker explained. "The solution is changing the incentives that we have out there that determine what choices people make."

Related links: