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Craig K. Comstock

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A Way of Talking About Energy

Posted: 04/ 5/2012 11:11 am


When we stop to think about it, we don't want to leave a world of climate woes to the grandchildren, or children, but we don't want meanwhile to give up the comforts of a way of life largely built, so far, on fossil fuels. What to do? A group of people who foresee hard times now feels ignored or misrepresented by many who just want to restore the system that brought "prosperity," who in some cases even imagine they see a "hoax" to impoverish us or an excuse for government meddling or both.

A new book called Before the Lights Go Out brings a new tone to the debate. The author's voice represents the mid-west at its best (she grew up in Topeka, lives in the Twin Cities). In her book we are given not What's the Matter With Kansas, the title of a brilliant, acerbic and funny book about subordinating economic interest to various social values that politicians claim to uphold, but rather, what's right about Kansas.

The tone is commonsensical, fair and balanced in a way that Fox News falsely claims to be; in the best American style, the tone assumes that we can succeed. Nobody knows to what extent that's possible, but success depends on acting as if it were possible. As the British journalist George Monbiot has observed, nobody ever demonstrated for austerity. But efficiency is a different story, as are the many initiatives the author visits.

With Before the Lights Go Out as a title, the author is not in denial, but she isn't in a total panic either. With a background in reporting on science and technology at BoingBoing, she focuses primarily not on climate change, but on energy, and in particular, on how we can get it while not wrecking the environment. She knows big changes are necessary, but assumes they are possible, as it was possible for the U.S. to help bring victory in the Second World War.

With her focus on the electrical grid, she avoids the callow assumptions of some critics that alternative sources based on solar photons and on wind can easily replace dirty coal or somewhat less dirty natural gas. It's characteristic of a grid that it must produce the same amount of power as is being used by diverse customers. Like actuarial tables, utilities have data on surge periods in the daily use of power, on the effects of weather, holidays, and special events, but they must still scramble to increase supply by quickly firing up fossil-fuel-driven plants, and to reduce load by phoning big customers who have agreed to go offline in return for a fee.

Unfortunately, solar doesn't work at night, or wind power when the air is calm. Most alternative sources are intermittent or generate when the normal load is low, or both, which brings up the need for storage. The author reports on pumping water up when power is available, or compressing air, or charging batteries. She pays special attention to battery technology, noting that if and when we have a fleet of electric cars, they could be charged when the wind rises, at night, and drawn upon, to some extent, during the day when the cars rest in parking lots and their drivers are at work or in shops.

She tells about major household appliances that monitor slight fluctuations in the frequency of power (a sign of imbalance) and switch off and on as necessary to help keep the load matched to the supply. This is one meaning of a "smart grid."

The author keeps talking about "incentives," more than "regulation." It's true that people prefer to get something by acting smart than to be prohibited from acting in a way that becomes anti-social. But this requires a shifting of incentives, which are often now invisible, and which are now enjoyed by entities that parrot free market ideology while accepting tax breaks, subsidies, and government contracts and licenses.

Is change possible?

Time will tell whether a down-to-earth tone and a focus on using our ingenuity to shift to clean energy will overpower the fossil fuel interests, here and abroad. Meanwhile, Before the Lights Go Out models a way of approaching the issue that may appeal to people secretly afraid that any consideration of greenhouse gases would leave them, as President Reagan memorably put it, in the cold and the dark. It needn't, argues the author.