We grow a lot of corn in the United States, much of which never sees the inside of a human stomach. In fact, in 2010, something like a quarter of all the corn grown in this country went to ethanol production. That's a massive amount of corn grown for gas tanks. And it's a problem.
The process of growing corn is tremendously energy intensive, and it has some far-reaching drawbacks that threaten the future of vital farmlands in the Midwest. Corn crops provide steady, reliable income for farmers. But the risks likely outweigh those benefits, at least at the quantities in which we now grow corn.
In the spring of 2009, I experienced some of those risks first hand. At Smithsonian.com, you can read a excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about the future of energy. The excerpt is about Madelia, Minnesota, a small town where local farming advocates are trying to promote a more sustainable cropping system, and a better way to grow biofuels—one that provides incentives for farmers to grow less corn, not more. Read the rest
Two years ago, if you'd asked me what I thought about something like cap and trade, or a carbon tax, I would have said that they were interesting ideas, but probably not worth the trouble of fighting for. I didn't think a price on carbon was necessary and, in fact, I was worried it could do more harm than good.
Doing the research for my book, Before the Lights Go Out, changed my perspective. There are risks to any mechanism you use to put a price on carbon (there are risks to everything we do), and it's still not something we could institute easily (thanks, politics!), but I've come to think that this one thing could be the easiest method to change the way we make and use energy. Energy—and more importantly, reducing fossil fuel use—isn't intuitive. It's often hard to see how we're using fossil fuels, and make decisions about how to use less of them. A price on carbon, however you do it, takes some of the guesswork out of that. Instead of having to become some kind of Super Green Living Expert, all you have to do is do what's cheapest.
Grist.org posted an excerpt from my book this week, and they also did a short interview with me. One of the things they asked about was carbon pricing:
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We’ve become dependent on fossil fuels for a reason — not because of any evil plot, but because these fuels are just that much more powerful than anything that came before them.
Paul Douglas is a Minneapolis/St.Paul meteorologist. Meteorologists don't study the same things as climate scientists—remember, weather and climate are different things—but Douglas is a meteorologist who has taken the time to look at research published by climate scientists and listen to their expertise. Combined with the patterns he's seen in weather, that information has led Douglas to accept that climate change is real, and that it's something we need to be addressing.
Paul Douglas is also a conservative. In a recent guest blog post on Climate Progress, he explains why climate isn't (or, anyway, shouldn't be) a matter of political identity. We'll get back to that, but first I want to call attention to a really great analogy that Douglas uses to explain weather, climate, and the relationship between the two.
You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.
Mr. Douglas, I'm going to be stealing that analogy. (Don't worry, I credit!)
A few weeks ago, I linked you to the introduction from my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, where I argue that there are reasons for people to care about energy, even if they don't believe in climate change—and that we need to use those points of overlap to start making energy changes that everyone can agree on, even if we all don't agree on why we're changing. Read the rest
Today, most of the electricity in the United States is generated in very large facilities—capable of serving millions of homes—far away from the people who will actually use that electricity. We do it this way because it makes financial sense. It's cheaper to produce electricity in bulk and ship it over transmission lines, than it would be to produce a little electricity in a lot of places.
Or, at least, that would be the case if NIMBYism didn't keep getting in the way. Not In My Backyard movements don't just affect the construction of the actual power plant. And they don't just affect fossil fuels. Transmission lines serve both clean and dirty generation and they have to cross hundreds, or even thousands, of miles to reach their destinations. Along the way, they cross lots of people's property, skirt dozens of towns, and maybe even cut through federal lands. All of that means added cost. Today, experts have told me, it's often more expensive to build the transmission lines to feed a power plant than it is to built the power plant itself.
And that opens some opportunities.
Across the United States, there are pockets of sustainable energy resources not quite large enough to support a big power plant, but potentially very useful to us, nonetheless. And the high cost of transmission means that these resources are starting to make more financial sense. Chief among these is small-scale hydropower. At Txchnologist, I wrote a piece about small-scale hydro—how it works and what we stand to gain by thinking about the scale of electricity generation in a different way. Read the rest
Would you like a signed copy of Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy?
The book comes out on April 10th and pre-orders have already started shipping. Between now and the end of April, you can earn a fun prize for telling other people about my book.
1) Tell people on your social networks that you're reading Before the Lights Go Out. This applies to Facebook, G+, or Twitter. When you talk about it, be sure to tag me in the post—@maggiekb1 on Twitter, Maggie Koerth-Baker on Facebook and G+—so I know that you mentioned the book.
In return, I'll send you a sticker with my signature and personal thank-you. You can put it in your printed book and create an instant signed copy. Or, if you're an e-book reader, you can put the sticker on ... something else. Maybe your e-book reader. Maybe your pet/baby. Either way, it's yours!
UPDATE: I had another part to this, offering cookies to people who would write reviews of the book. It was meant to be fun. But, talking to a few people, I think that cuts too close to bribery. So I'm canceling that part of the contest.Read the rest
Here are two myths you need to let go of:
The solution to high gas prices is more oil.
Climate change is something that happens to polar bears and people from Kiribati.
The truth is that fossil fuels are extremely useful and valuable. And, by their very nature, the supplies are limited. Likewise, climate change isn't just something that's going happen—it's already taking place, and you can see the effects in your own backyard.
Too often, I think, we talk about the risks of fossil fuel dependence and climate change in ways that make them seem abstract to the very people who use the most fossil fuels and create the most greenhouse gases. That's a problem. There are lots of reasons to care about energy. But I think that fossil fuel limits and climate change are the most pressing reasons. And I think it's incredibly important to discuss those very real risks in a way that actually feels very real.
This isn't about morality, or lifestyle choices, or maintaining populations of cute, fuzzy animals. (Or, rather, it's not just about those things.) Instead, we have to consider what will happen to us and how much money we will have to spend if we choose to do nothing to change the way we make and use energy.
Over at Scientific American, you can read an excerpt from my upcoming book, Before the Lights Go Out. In it, you'll read about the energy risks hanging over the Kansas City metro area—a place that, in many ways, resembles the places and lifestyles shared by a majority of Americans. Read the rest
How many batteries have you used today?
Energy storage devices have become an integral part of our lives, but they still aren't really a part of our electric grid. There are some good reasons for that—at that scale of storage, batteries become gigantic and extremely expensive. But the lack of storage on the grid has some distinct drawbacks, putting the stability of our electric system at risk and making it harder to add in lots of renewable energy generation.
Because of that, researchers are looking for ways to get the benefits of batteries without some of the detriments. There are lots of different ways to do this, but one solution is particularly awesome to describe. Hint: It involves caves.
Last Friday, I had a guest post on i09 explaining Compressed Air Energy Storage, an old technology that could be one of the most cost-effective ways to store energy at a grid scale.
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At any given moment, there must be almost exactly the same amount of electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If the balance tilts either way-even by a fraction of a percent-it could lead to a blackout. To simply keep the lights on, the grid has to be constantly monitored, with controllers predicting demand and making small adjustments, minute-by-minute, to supply. This happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
... That's where CAES comes in. CAES systems store energy underground in the form of compressed air, but to make it work you have to start with the right kind of geology.
Join me tomorrow at 11:00 am Eastern for a live chat with editors from Treehugger.com.
They'll be talking with me about my new book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.
The key message I want people to take away from this book: Our energy problems (and our energy solutions) are about more than just swapping out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable resources. Instead, what matters more is the infrastructures we live with, which dictate how we use energy, where we get it from, and how much we consume. If you want a more sustainable energy future, you'll need to focus on infrastructure. This isn't just about sources—it's about systems.
In times of tight government budgets, there's a temptation to lawmakers to leave the expensive job of scientific research to corporations. I understand that urge. I can sympathize with it. But I also think that it's perilously wrong-headed.
Privately-funded science—that is, usually, science done by corporations—is important. And it can't all be written off as inherently biased, either. The trouble, though, is that corporations have special concerns that influence what scientific research they undertake, and how they do it. In general, today, what they focus on is short-term stuff. They improve existing products. They figure out how to make nifty technology work in the real world.
What they don't do is long-term, big-picture science. This is the stuff that shapes our futures—and the futures of private corporations. If we abandon public funding for science, then we put all of that at risk.
Case in point: Since 2003, Minnesota has funded research on energy through the University of Minnesota's Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment (IREE). The scientists involved with this program do low-profile, but extremely important work, developing technologies (and methods for using those technologies) that affect every level of our energy systems. Right now, they're involved in everything from developing portable systems that turn farm waste into biofuel, to figuring out better ways to help houses use less energy. They're even collecting the complicated economic and physics data that will help us better understand the full environmental impacts of different fuels, batteries, and other energy sources and technologies. In the course of writing Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy, I interviewed several of these scientists and learned a lot about the research they do. Read the rest
Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order (in print or e-book) now. Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.
One of the things I loved about researching my book on the future of energy was getting the opportunity to delve a little into the history of electricity. Although I'd heard plenty about the Tesla vs. Edison wars—the "great men doing important things" side of the story—I was pretty unfamiliar with the impact their inventions had on average people, and how those people responded and adapted to changing technology.
What I found in my research was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, turning up letters and documents that introduced me to a perspective on history I'd not previously known. I learned about the skepticism and fear that surrounded electricity in the 19th and early 20th century. I found out that many, many of the early electric utilities went bankrupt—unable to make enough money selling electricity to cover the costs of building the expensive systems to produce and distribute it. I learned that, outside the hands of a privileged few geniuses, electric infrastructure and generation was a slapdash affair, focused more on quick, cheap construction than reliable operation—a reality that still affects the way our grid works today. Read the rest
This is one thing that changed for me during the course of researching and writing Before the Lights Go Out, my upcoming book about the future of energy. I used to approach conversations about energy from a climate-centric perspective. First, I have to help people understand the science of climate change and get them past the misinformation and blatant lies surrounding that issue. THEN, we could talk about energy solutions.
But now I think that perspective is dead wrong.
Polls show that a majority of Americans want to change the way we make and use energy. What we disagree on is why that change needs to happen. The good news: We don't have to agree on the "whys" to reach the same solutions.
My book comes out April 10th, but you can read the introduction online now. It'll give you a better idea about why I think that climate change—important as it is—is not the only way to engage Americans on energy issues.
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“Climate change is a lie.” The man leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “Climate change is a lie,” he said again. “It’s just something made up by environmentalists to scare us.”
I heard this story a few years after it actually happened, from Eileen Horn, one of the environmentalists who watched this man’s speech from the other side of a two-way mirror. At the time, Horn and her colleagues were about to launch a new nonprofit organization called the Climate and Energy Project (CEP), an environmental activism group based in the state of Kansas.