Q&A with Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker (Photo courtesy Leah Shaffer)

Dealing with the looming energy crunch is more than doable, says Maggie Koerth-Baker, author of the new book Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. We already have the technologies to get started.

All we need to do now is change everything.

Koerth-Baker, a science editor for the website BoingBoing, who was born and raised in Kansas, and now lives in Minneapolis, wrote the book from the perspective of a Midwesterner.

“This is a book about what everybody is doing, not just something for California hippies,” she said, seated in a coffee shop across the street from the old house that she and her energy consultant husband have refitted with pre-programmed thermostats in almost every single room, in her walkable Minneapolis neighborhood, on a busy bus line. “I wanted to talk about how this affects the Midwest, how people in the Midwest think about this stuff, and what they’re doing.”

Before the Light Go Out is not just another rave about electric cars and rooftop solar cells. Koerth-Baker does talk about those things, but above all she takes a long, hard look at the underlying mega-structures that connect all the sexy gadgetry.

“We talk so much about individual technologies, but we don’t talk so much about systems”, she said. “But if you don’t understand how the systems work, you’re not going to understand what the actual problems are, or the solutions.”

Q: Your overarching message is: If we want to do what’s good for us, we have to change everything.

A: Instead of just patching bits and pieces into this system, we have to change the system itself. It’s like your house. You can make your house more energy efficient by replacing a boiler or a dishwasher with something more energy efficient. But if you build a house that makes it really easy for you to save energy, simply because the house itself doesn’t need to use as much, that solves the problem better than just replacing every appliance.

Changing the system is easier said than done. Can we do it?

That’s where I start to get sort of pessimistic. I think we have the technology to do this, and there’s still the possibility that we have the political will to do it. But even if we do that, it’s a coordination job unlike anything we’ve ever done before. Think about the Apollo project. That scale of integration and coordination needs to happen now, but on a much broader level. It would be very, very difficult. I think we’ll do something, but I don’t know if it will be everything we’re capable of doing.

One of the central claims in your book is that you don’t have to believe in climate change to want to do something about energy.

In order to do everything that we can do, you’re going to have to have people buying into climate change more than they do now. But I think that there are a lot of changes that we can make without that kind of public consensus. We don’t have to just sit around twiddling our thumbs until we can get everybody to accept climate change. We can start making changes based on what we can agree on.

Meanwhile, polls show that fewer people believe in climate change now than just a few years ago.

I think there’s a lot of fear behind it. James Inhofe, the Senator from Oklahoma, was on The Rachel Maddow Show recently, where he was talking about how he used to accept climate change, but he decided that he didn’t anymore, because if you believe that climate change is real, and that you had to do something about it, it would just be too expensive. For most people, it’s probably not as conscious as that, but there is a lot of that same reaction. It’s overwhelming. The solutions to this are not easy – they’re hard to wrap your head around, because it’s not just “Replace fossil fuels with magical fuel X.” I think a lot of people get freaked out, and would really just prefer that we don’t have to do anything.

Why did you decide to limit yourself to current technologies for the book? You hardly wrote anything about hydrogen, let alone nuclear fusion, which some scientists claim is now really only ten years away.

I want people to understand that we don’t have to wait for technologies to appear. We already have the technology we need to start making a big difference. While I think we should be doing the R&D on some of these long range things, I think it’s incredibly foolish to sit around hoping that you’re going to have a magic bullet that’s going to solve all your problems.

I think that’s the other reaction you get from people. If they don’t retreat into thinking there’s no problem, they retreat into thinking, “Oh, nuclear fusion will just solve it, and it’s just ten years away, so I don’t have to do anything.” I think it would be great if fusion worked. We should keep trying all these things. But it’s really short-sighted and stupid to count on it.

There is always a lot of talk about giant solar farms and electric cars – the sexy stuff, so to speak. You focus on the things in between: transmission, storage and load management.

My husband is an energy analyst. He figures out how to make buildings as energy efficient as possible for the lowest amount of money. Over the years he kept coming home and talking about things he realized people weren’t getting as he explained how energy worked to his clients. It just started to occur to me that there’s a big gap between what energy experts know and what the general public knows. And as long as the general public doesn’t know what happens between their light switch and the wind farm, they won’t be able to understand what our problems are. A lot of people think about that as boring, so we kind of gloss over it, but it really determines what we can and can’t do with our energy system.

At the same time, more than a few people within the environmental movement believe that climate change and peak oil will lead to a collapse of the current system, and that we will be forced to live in small scale, agrarian communities, closer to the 19th century than the 21st.

I don’t think that’s constructive. A lot of the stuff that I’ve read from that movement is way too excited about the end of the world.

You can’t help but get the feeling that some of the so-called collapsitarians want to be right so badly that they’re almost looking forward to the end of society as we know it.

Yes, and that bothers me. Also, a lot of times, they don’t look at energy the right way. They tend to think that small towns are the most sustainable way to live. No, they’re not. Dense cities are. The people that use the least energy in America right now live in New York City. We have to pay attention to those facts.

We don’t apply the same standard of evidence-based reality to energy, sustainability and the environmental movement that we do to other things. A lot of it comes back to culture and lifestyle. I think it fits in with this very baby-boomer hippie idea of what is good for the environment, but that doesn’t necessarily match up with the data.

In your book, you make short shrift of the idea that getting a Prius and LED light bulbs are sufficient to do one’s part to save the plant.

It was disappointing for me to find out that your individual choices don’t really matter that much. It all comes back to systems. The reason why Europeans use less energy than us isn’t that they’re more moral or just better people, but because they live in these systems that make it easy to use less energy, where you don’t have to think about it. If they had the systems we have, they’d use every bit as much energy as us.

It’s all about incentives, you write. So what are the best incentives to change things in the Midwest?

“This is where it gets tough, because I’m not a policy wonk. I know that if we had more public transportation in the Midwest, fewer people would drive and they’d drive fewer miles. There’s been some good data that show that if you change zoning laws, so that people can build multistory, mixed use buildings, and add more public transportation to that mix, the vehicle miles traveled fall dramatically.

Right now I can get on the bus and go anywhere in Minneapolis, so my husband and I only have one car. But I can’t tell my friends in Kansas City to only have one car, because, frankly, their bus system sucks. If they had just one car, they’d be cutting themselves off from services they need, their community and their jobs. It wouldn’t be fair to expect people to hurt themselves for the environment. We have to make it so that they don’t have to do that.

The conundrum is: How do you get people out of their cars and exurbs, and into buses and dense urban neighborhoods? A carbon tax comes to mind.

I have come to think that that is absolutely necessary. When people ask me, “What is the one change we could make?”, it’s that. I don’t know if “tax” is the right word, but you have to put some kind of price on carbon, and value it at what it’s actually worth, both terms of its value and its cost. All the other stuff that actually needs to happen would follow from that.

Saving money is a better motivator than saving the planet?

For some people it is. I think we have to be careful about how we use that motivator, though, because a lot of the things that we have to do aren’t going to save people money in the short term. But it’s going to save them money in the long term, because of the things you wouldn’t have to deal with in terms of climate change and peak oil.

“Governments make change mandatory, then businesses find a way to make it cheap”, you write.

They do. We saw that with sulfur and CFCs.

There’s a palpable fear among many entrepreneurs and politicians that a carbon tax and/or a cap-and-trade regime would destroy business.

Those other things didn’t. This would be bigger, obviously, but we have seen that when we make these kinds of mandates, it’s cheaper and easier to solve the problem than we thought it would be, because innovation is driven by the incentive to save money. I absolutely believe in the power of business to do that.

Will we have to build new nuclear power plants to buy ourselves time until green technologies mature enough to be scaled up in sufficient ways?

I have started describing my relationship with nuclear as “frenemies.” I think there are some serious issues that have to be addressed in terms of how we do regulation, and I think we need to figure out what the hell we’re doing with the waste. But I don’t think we can get rid of the nuclear power we have. And we’d probably be better off with more nuclear than with more coal and natural gas.

Look, we’re not going to be all solar and all wind any time soon, so you’re going to have to make choices. We have to have mature, non-crazy conversations about what risks we’re willing to take, and which ones we’re willing to live with. Because they all have risks. Coal kills 25,000 Europeans per year.

People are justifiably horrified when nuclear accidents happen, while coal largely flies under the radar. But coal’s human cost, as you describe it in your book, is staggering: Almost ten 9/11s per year, in Europe alone.

The number one problem with coal is respiratory issues — particulate matter in the atmosphere. And you’re also talking about radiation. Coal contains radioactive material, and it does the exact same thing in terms of cancer that a nuclear accident would. So you have to account for that. When you have fossil fuels burning at ground level, you also get ground-level ozone, and that, combined with really hot days, can lead to cardiovascular problems. There are a number of ways in which these things happen, but they happen in ways that we just don’t connect back to the source.

There are several different studies with different estimations of how many people died a result of Chernobyl in all the years since it happened. The lowest is, like, 10,000, the highest is more than 800,000. We can argue about which of those studies is correct, but the point I like to make is that in all but one of those studies the death toll from Chernobyl is still lower than the death toll over the same time period from coal.

If all the things that you’re hoping for in the next few decades actually do happen, what will the Midwest look like?

I think we’ll have denser cities. And we’re going to need better ways of transporting people from city to city. When you’re talking about farmland, you’ll have to have personal transportation. You’re not going to replace that with a bus or a train. But you need some way that those people can take their car shorter distances and then meet up with public transit from there. I think buses or trains could work, or even some kind of van pool, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, Western Kansas. If we’re all going to the same places, at the same time, than why don’t we pool our resources together?

We’ll also start looking more at: What can our communities do? What resources do they have that can be used for energy? In the book I talk about the idea of having one of those maps from grade school social studies class, where you have water resources over here, and you’ve got wind or trash over there. And then you could try to combine all those resources, based on what’s available.

The Plains states are these great wind systems. Every major area has its landfill that we should be using for landfill gas. Some places can have way more small-scale hydro development than they have now. There’s a ton of different things you can do just based on what’s available in your area.

How about people’s daily lives? Will we all have the proverbial electric car that sits hooked up in the garage and feeds power from our rooftop solar panels back into the grid?

For starters, we’re going to have to think about how our houses are built. If we’re going to make our cities more energy efficient, we’re not going to have houses that are built like they were in the 1950s, with super thin walls, and single pane windows.

You can’t go knocking them down, though.

That’s true. You have to work with what there is. But one of the nice things we have in the Midwest is that we have tons of these 1920s and ’30s houses that have a lot of energy efficiency built into them already. My own house has really good thermal massing because of the stucco walls. Older houses are also generally built with windows that give you heat gain in winter, and light during the day. They’re designed for a way of life where you didn’t have energy so easily accessible. So we can use a lot of that to our advantage now.

Also, battery facilities are going to be all over the place, we’ll have to have energy storage everywhere. And your house is going to have some sort of smart panel where you can be a demand-response customer to the grid, and where you can program that stuff into your house.

We’re just going to have people thinking about energy differently, and we’re going to find ways to do this. Because we have to, for one thing, but also because the Midwest comes from this farming-community background. We value frugality, and we don’t waste stuff just because we can. We want to be responsible with what we have, and I think we’ll find ways to do that.

Maggie Koerth-Baker will appear at an Earth Day Tweetup with Will Steger and Sean Otto at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul on April 21 (click on “events”), and will be interviewed as part of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Bright Ideas” series on April 24.

Tom Vandyck is an international freelance writer based in St. Paul. In addition to being syndicated by the International Features Agency in Amsterdam, his work has appeared in the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor.

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