Our May installment of the Bright Ideas series features Maggie Koerth-Baker, the science editor at Boing Boing. She talks with host Stephen Smith about her vision of America's energy future, including how economic and social incentives lead to our current high fossil fuel consumption and how similar incentives can help us change.
Stephen Smith: Today on MPR Presents, it's Bright Ideas: Fresh Thoughts on Big Issues from Minnesota Public Radio News. I'm Stephen Smith. Each month, I invite a guest to the forum here at Minnesota Public Radio headquarters to talk about important issues and ideas before a live audience.
My guest this time is Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor at the enormously popular technology and science blog Boing Boing. Maggie Koerth-Baker is a Minneapolis resident and the author of the new book "Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us."
In 13 lively chapters, she lays out the energy problems we face and potential solutions that are both doable and tremendously challenging. Please welcome Maggie Koerth-Baker. [applause]
Smith: So you start your book with a story of a guy in Kansas, your native state, who says climate change is a lie made up by environmentalists. Yet this man has his own interesting approach to energy conservation. Tell us about him and why you started with him.
Maggie Koerth-Baker: This was one of the things that really started to change the way that I thought about energy. I met some people from the Climate and Energy Project, which is a nonprofit in Kansas. When they had started up, they started out by doing several focus groups out of Kansas City and Wichita, trying to find out what people actually thought about energy and climate instead of telling people what they thought the people thought. So, when they did these panels, they kept coming up with the same thing guys like that who would think that climate change was some socialist plot. But when you asked them about energy, they had swapped out their light bulbs for CFLs. They were driving Prius's. They were really excited about wind power. They wanted to build backyard solar systems. They were really interested in energy, even though they weren't interested in climate change.
That really got me starting to think about how we communicate the science of climate change and the science of energy change and how we try to talk to different groups of people. I think that the problem is right now we're not trying to talk to different groups of people and we're ignoring these guys that care about energy but care about it for different reasons than I might, as somebody who is really worried about climate change.
Smith: You concentrate primarily in your book on electricity and the problems, among other things, of the grid that brings electricity to us. Why did you choose that instead of, for example, also including or concentrating instead on transportation? What raises the electrical charge above all others?
Koerth-Baker: The electric thing became my focus when I looked at data from the Energy Information Administration, which collects all this information on how much electricity and energy are used every year and how much is produced and where we get it from, all these different statistics. They compile all of this stuff. When I started looking at it, what I found was that we actually use more energy to produce electricity in this country than we do for anything else, including transportation. But transportation becomes our focus, I think, because that's the thing we actually have an intimate day to day relationship with. I go to the gas station and I spill gasoline on my shoes on a fairly regular basis. But electricity is...
Smith: You're not spilling that.
Koerth-Baker: No. I hope not. It's just these magical elves that live in your wall and you just expect it to happen and you don't even think about it.
Smith: Yet it's also an enormously wasteful system, right?
Koerth-Baker: It's incredibly wasteful.
Smith: I think you write that 66 percent of the energy used to produce electricity actually never becomes usable?
Koerth-Baker: Yeah. That's simply because of the way that the machines that produce that electricity work. You have some of that energy actually turning into electricity, but some of that energy just gets lost to waste heat and dissipates out into the buildings where the generators are and just never gets used.
Smith: Well, how does that happen? Is it that it's leaking out of the power lines?
Koerth-Baker: No. Actually, there is some waste from the power lines, and that is also just leaking out of the power lines in the form of heat, basically.
But there's also some at the site of the generators. You have a mechanical system and no mechanical system is perfectly efficient, turning all the energy you put into it into energy you want to get it. That's just the second law of thermodynamics. So, as these mechanical systems of electricity generation operate, they lose some of that energy to heat, that just ends up heating the building around them where the generator is. Sometimes you can capture that. There are systems called combined heat and power. Those are the things that are often used at universities, where they will produce electricity but also at the same time capture that heat and use it to heat up buildings, to do the heating systems.
Smith: Is anything being done to try and make that part of the grid more efficient, more effective?
Koerth-Baker: There definitely is. I was actually in Colorado at Colorado State University a couple of weeks ago, looking at these giant generator systems that they're testing out there that are trying to make way more efficient generators than have ever been used before. They've been developing newer and better ones over the last 15 or 20 years. But it's one of those things that happens slowly because these are all really expensive systems. So, you don't just replace one as soon as the newest thing comes out. It's not like an iPhone. You wait for it to die on you before you actually go and spend the money on a new one.
Smith: Well, let's zoom out for a moment and talk about why you wrote this book in the first place. You are the science editor of this very popular blog called Boing Boing and you write about a whole bunch of stuff. Why did you choose to write about America's energy problem and what to do about it? It's taking on a big subject.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah, it really is. Partly it has to do with the fact that my husband works in the energy industry. He's an energy efficiency analyst for buildings. So what he does is figure out how to make buildings as energy efficient as possible for the least amount of money. When he got this job, he started coming home and talking to me all the time about all these different things that he was learning and all these different things he was trying to communicate to his clients. I started to see that there was this huge gap between the stuff that experts like him knew and the stuff that the people actually making the decisions about what they were going to put into their building or what policies they were going to set, or even whether they were going to turn the light switch on or off in their own house, what they actually knew about energy.
There was just this huge gap because when you become an expert, I think you end up in this bubble where you forget that a lot of the stuff that you just take for granted as basic information isn't widely known.
I would find myself reading these news stories in the newspaper about, "Here's a new solar panel that's going up. Here's somebody who built a wind turbine." And there didn't seem like there was any information giving you the context to connect those things or tell you what they actually added up into.
So you got left with this really confusing feeling of all of these different ideas being tossed at you but not really knowing what they mean or how they fit together, like this really broken puzzle. I really wanted to try to correct that.
Smith: We're going to ask our listeners to follow us through a puzzle which has some complications to it. Right?
Smith: There's no way around that. Let's try and take some of those things on. One of the things that you write about is that, as much as we would like to identify single solutions to things, the silver bullets that some people call them, that one of the challenges is that everything works in terms of shared systems. Right?
Smith: Explain what shared systems are and why we have to pay attention to them.
Koerth-Baker: Shared systems are infrastructures, and that's not just the wires that connect us to power plants and to each other. But that's a lot of different infrastructures. It's our transportation infrastructure. It's the infrastructure of how your house I built. All these different things end up influencing how you use energy and the decisions that we all make about energy on a daily basis. One of the things that I found out in the course of doing this research is that the average American uses twice as much energy as the average European. But when you actually look at what's going on there, it's got nothing to do with the Europeans being better people than we are or being more moral than we are or more green.
Smith: Or being colder.
Koerth-Baker: Or being colder. [laughs] It's because their infrastructures are set up in a way that it's easier for them to make these choices. Often they can make these choices without actually even having to think about it. The example that I've been liking to use is that I live in Minneapolis I live right near the number six bus line I can get on the bus and I can go anywhere in the city that I really want to go. Between that and this great bicycle infrastructure that Minneapolis has, my husband and I get away with only having one car between the two of us.
Smith: A hybrid, no doubt.
Koerth-Baker: No. A 1999 Ford Escort. [laughter]
But that's not how most people live. If I went down to Kansas City where a lot of my family is from, they don't have a bus system worth speaking of. They don't have that transportation oriented bicycle path system. So if I told them, "You should just own one car and you should drive less," I'm telling them, "You can't access your job very easily. You can't get to the services you need and want. You can't participate in your community in the way that you want to participate." That ends up basically telling them to shoot themselves in the foot. I don't think that's fair.
I think we talk really often about energy as if it's something that we can all solve individually by just being good enough people, but that's not really how these systems work. There's too much that's happening on this big scale, the shared system scale that we have to correct if we're going to actually make the large scale changes we need to make.
Smith: So you've written that -- I don't know if it's because of, but in addition to the fact that things are complicated and we have these shared systems we have to pay attention to, there's no killer app.
Koerth-Baker: No, there's really not. I would really love to be able to tell you that next year we're going to have cold fusion or that in five years we'll have all the thorium reactors we need and that will solve our energy problem. We'll just have to swap out one source of energy for another. But there's really not anything reliably on the horizon that we know for certain is going to work, that we know for certain is something that's going to become commercially viable, that we can just trade out.
Smith: In terms of energy production, electrical production, we're going to need to continue, as you write, to rely on coal, which is dirty.
Smith: Nuclear power, which some people describe as clean, but many people find frightening.
Smith: Natural gas, and then adding in some portion of solar, wind and other solutions. But the dirty things really for the next 20, 30, 40 years, are going to remain the primary source of our energy.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah, that's absolutely true. This is one of the things that I have a really hard time conveying to people. We want to think of short term changes as being something that happens quickly, but when you're talking about infrastructure, short term is a really long time. Short term is 40 years. When you're talking about long term, that's 100 years. When we go in and actually start putting our effort into changing our energy system, that's one of the reasons we have to do it soon, because it takes so long for this stuff to happen even if we're focusing on it. The longer we put it off, the longer and longer it's actually going to take to get anything accomplished.
Smith: Well, let's talk about one of the things I really found interesting that you described in your book. It was the challenge of mixing in especially wind power into the electrical supply system and having it match the demand system. I think lots of people would think, why aren't we using more wind? There's a lot of wind out there, just throw up some more turbines. It's got to be cleaner. It may not be cheaper yet, but it will be eventually. But there's a problem of supply and demand, of balancing the system. Can you explain that?
Koerth-Baker: Yeah. I have to back up a little bit from wind to actually explain why this happens. The electric infrastructure that we have is not a perfect system. It is not an ideal system. It is a system that evolved, rather than was designed. It was pieced together from this little patchwork of individual electric grids that weren't connected to each other many of them until the 1970s. We haven't been a national grid system for very long.
All of these little things came together with priorities of being built quickly and being built cheaply. They didn't necessarily come together with the priority of being built to be the absolute best system it could be or to plan for the future.
We have this system that evolved to be used with things like coal, natural gas, nuclear power and hydroelectric power. All of those things to varying degrees can be controlled. You can call them up and you can say, "I need you to produce more electricity or I need you to produce less electricity." They can all respond to that to varying degrees.
Smith: They can throw more coal on the fire. They can crank up the gas. They can let the nukes go crazy, the atoms.
Koerth-Baker: Well, hopefully not that. Wind and solar are different. Wind power, if there is not enough wind, you can't ask that wind farm to make more electricity than it can make. This ends up affecting the grid in some interesting ways. The grid itself is not a stable system. Even if there were no wind and solar on the grid at all, the grid would not be terribly stable. It's something where we have no storage. There's no electric storage really to speak of on our grid. We have to balance supply and demand, and have them balanced almost perfectly every minute of every day forever, and do that all manually.
The only way we can really do this is by having these guys who work in these centers all across the US whose job it is to call up power plants and have them produce more or produce less people. Or call up these people called demand response customers, somebody like a large factory, and tell them, "Well, we have too much demand and not enough supply, so you're going to have to shut down power for a few minutes while we get things back under control."
They have to just constantly do this balancing act.
Smith: What do they do if there's too much? Can you dissipate it somehow?
Koerth-Baker: If there's too much coming, basically, yeah. What they'll do is just essentially run it into a grounding line so that it just goes away. But they don't like to do that because that's wasted electricity. That's wasted energy that you could be using for something. It's a frustrating thing, especially when it comes to wind and solar, that we want that power. We would rather be using that than coal. But if we have too much wind and no demand for it, we can't do anything with it.
Smith: Then the other problem with wind is that if you have way too much wind, what happens to the turbines?
Koerth-Baker: If you have way too much wind, actually you have to shut the turbines off, because they can't keep spinning without being damaged.
Smith: They fall apart.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah, there's a narrow range between not enough wind and too much wind. That's the only place that they can function at.
Smith: Has anybody suggested...? What is the technology now or the looming technology in terms of storage? You write about, for example, there's some storage going on in Luverne, Minnesota?
Smith: Which is down where there's a bunch of wind farming going on.
Koerth-Baker: Wind farming, yeah. It's a test system where they have a very large battery. It's about the size of a semi truck. It costs several millions of dollars. It has to be shipped over from Japan. Those batteries are not made anywhere in the western hemisphere.
Smith: What are they used for? Are they used just for this?
Koerth-Baker: That is primarily what they are used for.
Smith: The Japanese are using them?
Koerth-Baker: The Japanese are using them for wind backup. We have them a couple of other places in the US for either testing for wind backup or for, for instance, there's a tiny little town in South Texas that's not very well connected to the grid. That has a couple of these things set up in basically a house so that they can supply electricity for themselves when their one line connecting them out to the rest of the world fails.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah. That's specifically what these batteries are used for.
Smith: Why not use a whole bunch more of those? What's wrong with that?
Koerth-Baker: They're so expensive and that really ends up becoming a major detriment to them. For 100 years, we've gotten by with this relatively cheap system of having all these guys that we're paying. It's hard to talk utility companies into moving to something else, even if that something else is going to be better for the system as a whole.
Smith: Let's talk about some other storage that you write about in your book. It's storage on the other end, which is the storage of well not the other end, but the storage of other kinds of energy. There's something interesting things that are going on in ways that people are talking about burying energy in the ground.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah, this is really cool. One of the things that people have found is that there are ways to store energy that don't necessarily involve building giant, expensive chemical batteries. One of those things is something that's been used for generations. It's called pumped hydro.
Smith: Pumped hydro?
Koerth-Baker: Pumped hydro. You build a couple of reservoirs at different elevations. At night, when electricity is really cheap because there's not much demand for it, you use electricity to pump water up from the lower one to the higher one. The next day when demand is rising, you run that water down the hill and use that to create electricity. That's been used by utility companies, even before there was any wind on the grid. It's also something that can be used for wind. One of the fun things about wind is that in a lot of these Plains states where we get most of wind from in the US, wind blows more at night than it does during the day, but electricity demand is lowest at night than at any other time.
Smith: We need it during the day, right?
Koerth-Baker: We need it during the day. That can help you shift that power potential that we have to a time when we can actually use it. Another really cool thing is called compressed air energy storage. The way this works is, at night you have the wind blowing. You use these wind turbines to generate electricity that powers an air compressor.
This air compressor fills porous rock underground with compressed air. The next day when wind demand rises, you basically just run the system backwards and let that compressed air out. It runs a generator.
Smith: The earth as a balloon.
Smith: How scalable is that? Are these nice, tiny, little projects that are good for a small community locally? Can you run a whole state on compressed air stuck in the ground?
Koerth-Baker: You probably can't run a whole state because you can't really run a whole state on anything. Most states depend on a couple of different power plants to begin with. That's just the scale that things operate on. But these compressed air energy storage systems can be scaled up to things that are quite large, enough to power a couple hundred thousand homes for a few hours, at the very least.
There are currently only two of them in the entire world. One is in Germany. One is in Alabama. Neither of them are used for wind backup right now, but there are a couple more that are under construction or under development, I guess, down in Texas. Those would be used for wind.
Smith: Why Alabama?
Koerth-Baker: I actually don't know the answer to that.
Smith: That's OK. There must be a Germany Alabama connection.
Koerth-Baker: There's obviously a lot of kismet going on there.
Smith: The other thing that you talk about in terms of storage on the clean side would be the batteries, the compressed air and that stuff, the water running up and down. The other thing that you say we need to figure out a way to store better are the dirty products that are created by coal power plants. Obviously the nuclear storage unit has been one that people have been wrestling with for a long time. But there is a particular technology around coal that people are experimenting with anyway.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah, that would be carbon capture and storage.
Smith: Carbon capture and storage, so carbon is the evil thing obviously that coal plants produce. It is the evil actor in climate change and global warming.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah, and I guess I wouldn't call it evil because I don't like demonizing inanimate objects, but it's the thing that we have trouble with. This is actually the same technology when people are talking about clean coal. This is what they're talking about. You capture carbon dioxide off of the smokestack and you compress that until it basically turns into a liquid. If I you compress a gas enough, it will liquefy. Then you essentially pump it into a hole in the ground. That's the entire plan.
Smith: To begin with, are there enough holes in the ground for all the carbon we'd produce?
Koerth-Baker: I don't know the answer to that. The thing that I have learned is that what's really interesting about this is that it's a little bit less crazy than it sounds. They pick these holes based on what's going on with the geology underneath of them. They pick them because these are places where... For instance, the place that I visited for the book is in Alabama. It's a testing site.
Smith: Alabama again?
Koerth-Baker: Alabama again. It just all comes back to Alabama. They have these coal bed seams that are buried very deep underground and not at a point where it would be very easy to access them to every actually mine the site. These coal bed seams are trapping methane, natural gas, chemically connecting it to the coal. What they're doing with the carbon dioxide is, when they pump the carbon dioxide down, it's more attracted to the coal than the methane is. It basically takes the methane's place. Then the methane comes back out and they're able to capture that to actually use it. They couldn't get to it before.
The carbon dioxide ends up locked to the coal the same way that natural gas has been locked to it for millions of years down there. But we actually get the natural gas to use.
Another place I went to recently was at the University of Illinois where they had another one of these projects, which is one of the largest in the world that they're working on. At that site, they're actually working with this porous sandstone that you would have the carbon dioxide flow into.
The goal is, basically, you keep it down there for a couple of hundred years and after that point it starts to actually turn into rock. It starts to turn into more of this porous rock that's already down there.
Smith: Naturally, everybody's wondering about leakage. This stuff leaks. It's hard to know that what's underground is entirely sealed off.
Koerth-Baker: They do a lot of research on these sites before they choose them. They choose sites that have natural cap rocks to them, so the one in Illinois has two or three layers of cap rocks, actually. So it would have to break through some serious natural barriers to actually get anywhere. The problem is, and a place where people are actually worrying about it leaking, is from the wells where they shoot it down to begin with, because that's the place that you're most likely to get some bridge happening.
Smith: The Deepwater Horizon issue in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us that wells are where leaks come from.
Koerth-Baker: Exactly. This is one of those things where it's not a terrible idea, but it's not an idea that's totally without risk. And so, it's one of those things where you have to look at the benefits to us, look at the risks to us, and really start having these mature conversations about how we're going to deal with our energy problems, that we're not really wanting to have. I feel a lot of times we want there to be a perfect solution, so we want to just go all the way to wind and solar immediately because they won't have any problems and everything will be great. Or we want to just get rid of all of the natural gas or all of the coal or all of the nuclear. But we can't really do all of those things immediately. And so, we're going to have to make some really tough choices about the risks that we're willing to live with.
Smith: Let's talk about the question or what you describe as there being this disconnect between conservation and...What was the phrase I just used?
Koerth-Baker: There's a difference between conservation and efficiency.
Smith: Conservation and efficiency.
Koerth-Baker: Yes. This is one of those things that I picked up when my husband got his job as an energy efficiency analyst. So, I, to a certain extent maybe I'm a little biased toward energy efficiency. But I think that it does some stuff that's really amazing.
Because conservation, the entire point of it is that you just use less which works for some things because there's plenty of places where we're wasting energy we don't need to be wasting. We can turn a light off in a room we're not using and that's fine.
But efficiency is more powerful, I think, in a lot of ways because it allows us to get the same services that we were getting before but just for less energy. So instead of having to sit in the dark, for instance...
Smith: Or in the cold, or...
Koerth-Baker: Or in the cold, I could have a house that was designed to get really good day lighting so I could shut my lights off but still have a comfortable light level in the room that allowed me to get my work done without having that light on to begin with. That would be a really good example of efficiency.
Smith: Give me some others.
Koerth-Baker: Another one that I like quite a bit is something that relates back to the transportation infrastructure we were talking about before. You could say "Don't drive your car," and then you just sit at your house. Or you can start structuring the infrastructures a little bit differently so that it's easier to make that choice not to drive but to still get to your job or still get to the services you need to access. One way to do that would be...I work from home. I just walk downstairs. This is one of the really great things that Internet enables me to do, is I don't actually have to go to an office every day to get my job done.
Another way that you could do this is through public transportation or through bicycle networks or through car sharing. Just all these different ways that you can get one more car off the road but not really be punishing anyone for less energy use.
Smith: You talk about the Department of Defense as being a place where this is being emulated in a... You call it the "Olive Green Demonstration Project."
Koerth-Baker: Yeah. The Department of Defense is actually really on the forefront of both renewable energy generation and energy efficiency. This is something that they've been all over for a decade or more. They've made really huge strides on it, especially...
Smith: Why? To begin with, what motivated them?
Koerth-Baker: It's really all about these very practical things about how they can get their jobs done. When you're talking about military bases here on U.S. soil, you're talking about...We need those people in case of an emergency but in emergencies you usually lose power. So if they're dependent upon the exact same grid that we're dependent on, in an emergency they might not be able to help us. So it's in their best interest to actually become more energy independent and be able to have these things like...I think the U.S.'s largest solar facility is on a military base in Arizona for that very reason.
And then, there's also just cost systems. The military, obviously, has had budget cuts over the last 15 years, just like everything has had budget cuts. This is one of the ways that they found to save some of that money because one of the things that I thought was just absolutely astounding is that up until about a decade ago, most military bases only had one energy bill for the entire base.
So bearing in mind this is people's offices and people's homes and none of them got electricity bills. They never knew how much energy they were using. They never knew how much it cost. They never knew...
Smith: Therefore zero incentive to do anything except leave the windows open in the winter.
Koerth-Baker: Right. Exactly, so you would have people doing things like having the air conditioning on and, oh, it got a little too cold in here so I'm going to open a window, too. That stuff was rampant. One of the things that they've done is gone through and started to transition a lot of these bases over to either having a much more metered system like we're used to or to at least having people get a bill and have to pay out of their housing allowance, even if they don't have a meter on their home, have this divided up in a way that there's some accountability going on with it. It's really starting to change the way that people think about energy in the military.
One of the bases that I went to...I would say, first of all, that the Navy and the Air Force have been the biggest drivers of this. I'm not exactly sure why that it is compared to the Army, other than it might be just that they're a little bit smaller entities and they're also not necessarily working with a bunch of 19 year olds so it's a little easier to manage what's going on.
But the Navy base that I visited in Florida had done some really interesting things with energy efficiency. One of the things that just drove home the idea of energy being systems and not sources to me was when they took me on this tour of their new energy efficient aircraft hanger, which sounds a little bit ridiculous, but it's reasonable.
Smith: We'll follow with you.
Koerth-Baker: And you drive past this thing. It's painted white inside. Because it's painted white inside, you have light from outside reflecting off the inside of the building so they don't have to have any overhead lights on but there's still enough light in there that they can get their jobs done. And then, 50 feet away, there's an older aircraft hanger that is painted beige inside. Even with all the lights blazing it still looks really, really dark and uncomfortable to work in. That was a huge example, to me, of the power of energy efficiency and the power of systems to really change how you use energy and to give you these benefits of what you're wanting from energy. The comfort, the cleanliness, the convenience, but without having to use as much to get there.
Smith: The military, of course, is a command economy, if you will, and so those kinds of things can be directed. You identify in your book that solutions, the big solutions that we really need as a society to get to where we need to go in terms of energy sustainability are not things that can be done through volunteerism.
Are going to require central planning or high level planning. Is it going to come from presidential edict? Are we going to somehow rely on congress, which famously is having a hard time getting anything done? Tying their shoelaces is a challenge.
Koerth-Baker: Honestly this where I start to get a little pessimistic because ... We really do have a big challenge because there are things that we can all do personally to change the way that we use energy. To a certain extent, little things matter, but they don't matter in that my personal changes by myself, not connected to anybody else. Those aren't going to get us the massive energy change we actually need to make the difference we have to make to put a halt to climate change. It doesn't scale up that way because my choices that I make at home, there's no way for me to necessarily connect them into what everybody else is doing. There's no way for me to necessarily be influencing everybody around me or having everybody else around me influencing me.
And so, that's where a lot of this top down stuff really becomes necessary to get over some of these hurdles. This is actually one of the things that I changed my mind about in the course of writing this book. If you would have asked me two or three years ago what I thought about something like cap and trade or carbon tax, I probably wouldn't have thought it was worth the trouble, that it maybe wasn't something that was worth it or that it wasn't something that was really a good idea.
One of the conclusions I came to in the course of this research was that some price on carbon is going to be necessary.
Smith: A price that we consumers know about.
Koerth-Baker: Yes. I don't know necessarily the best way to do that. Economists argue back and forth about whether cap and trade or carbon tax are the best way to approach it, but some price placed on carbon that actually values carbon at what it's actually worth to us. Because if you think about it, what we pay right now for fossil fuels is actually an artificial price. It's really based on this incredibly simple supply and demand. It doesn't take into account how valuable those fuels are to us. These are some of the most powerful fuels we've ever discovered on Earth ever. There's limited supplies of them. Maybe we should be thinking more about how we use them.
It also doesn't take into account all these external costs we face when we do use them. Burning these things, it's not just about seemingly esoteric stuff like climate change. It's very direct deaths to human populations.
Smith: Like respiratory illnesses and the other things that have been linked to it.
Koerth-Baker: Respiratory illnesses, cancers. I think there was a study that I saw that I was reading that coal use in the European Union kills something like 25,000 Europeans a year. That's something that we don't' value in how we price our fossil fuels.
Smith: Are you imagining you go to the grocery store or to some store, and in addition to the per unit cost that you might see on the sticker on the shelf, there's going to be a coal equivalent cost? How do you imagine that working on a day to day consumer basis?
Koerth-Baker: I don't even think that it needs to be something like that, although from a very dorky perspective, I think that would be really interesting. I don't know that that's going to matter to everybody. I think where this becomes really valuable is that it embeds information about how much fossil fuels you're using simply into the price of the product. Right now, you can go and download all of these different iPhone apps that will try to help you figure out what's the greenest product you can buy out of these 15 products. But it becomes so complicated.
When you start trying to make decisions about energy, it's not intuitive stuff. Things that you think are good are not, and things that you think aren't good are. If you just had the amount of fossil fuels used for that product embedded in the cost of the product, the only decision you have to make is, which is cheaper? That's a heck of a lot easier.
Smith: One of the things you say and I take it that this must have been something that you arrived at as well over the course of writing this book that we also need to accept the fact that we really only at the moment have good solutions, not great solutions. It sounds to me like you're saying that we need to be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the mediocre.
Smith: How did you arrive at that? Doesn't that sound dispiriting?
Koerth-Baker: It can be dispiriting, but I think it's also just an expression of reality. I have some friends who started on Twitter calling themselves "new optimists" with this idea that we were talking about, about how American perceptions of technology have changed over the last century.
You went from having early 20th century technological boosterism, where everything was 100 percent good and yay, let's just do everything we can possibly do and not really care about the consequences. After "Silent Spring" and after the environmental movement started, you got this complete flip flop of that idea, let's just not do anything because we're going to screw things up.
We need to start taking what I would say is a more healthy relationship with technology, to where we start thinking of this as, everything we do, even not doing anything, has unintended consequences. Some of those unintended consequences are going to be things we don't like. But we are better off if we look at our options and choose our options, rather than just letting things happen to us.
Things will just happen to us. Changes will just happen, even if we do nothing. We're better of doing something. Better is better. Even if it's not perfect, any incremental movement towards better is a good thing.
Smith: I want you to talk, though, about you're not completely dismissive of people taking matters into their own hands. You offer a couple of examples that I think you admire because they're on amore community or regional basis, if you will, less of what I'm doing in my backyard. A place that you go to and you describe as Madelia, Minnesota, I want you to explain what the Madelia model is and why you like it.
Koerth-Baker: This was an idea to create biofuels on a regional basis using things that were grown in this several county community in rural Minnesota.
Smith: We're talking ethanol?
Koerth-Baker: Not actually ethanol, what we would call cellulosic ethanol. It's not being made out of corn. It would be made out of things like perennial prairie grasses. This really started from the same place that the military stuff started from, from this practical these are problems we need to solve; these energy solutions are part of our solution to other problems.
Smith: What was the problem?
Koerth-Baker: One of the things you find if you look at the way we grow corn in America today is that it has not been very good for our farming resources. It has not been very good for soil and it has not been very good for water quality. All of those things are important to actually having a future for farming.
If you look at Iowa, there's actually a place on a rest stop in Iowa where you can go and see this visual representation through these tall pillars of how much topsoil has been lost from that state since the 19th century, beginning of corn farming. It's something like eight vertical inches of Iowa have blown away.
Smith: And washed away. It's both.
Koerth-Baker: Yeah. That's a huge problem if you're a farmer. That was a huge problem for Linda Meschke, who is the woman that started this Madelia model idea, who was in fact a farmer.
Smith: She's not your typical groovy green advocate.
Koerth-Baker: No, she's a good old gal. She's a conservative farm lady. She cares about this because she wants there to be land for farming and wants there to be water for farming, for future generations. What there wasn't was a reason for people to grow something other than corn. Part of what she acknowledged from this practical perspective is that you need to provide people an incentive to grow something. If they're getting paid well for this other thing, they need to be paid well for something new.
The Madelia model was really about trying to find a way for people to get paid for growing things that actually improved the soil, which would be things like these perennial prairie grasses that produce these really great networks of roots underground. They nourish the soil rather than taking nutrients away from the soil. They can actually help clean water before it flows into estuaries into creeks.
What she's trying to do is make there be a reason for farmers to plant these prairie grasses on land that's doing particularly poorly or on the borders around their farmland or against creeks and rivers. They can then harvest that and sell that along with the same way that they sell their corn.
Smith: Has it worked?
Koerth-Baker: One of the things that they have had actually gone into play last fall was a project with the University of Minnesota that is based on this portable system called a microwave pyrolysis system. It basically starts with microwaves, which are just like a microwave oven only a little bit larger. You can toss in everything from corncobs to prairies grasses to any organic material into this thing. It heats it up to the point that it starts to release gas from it. Then you can get that gas and use that as basically synthetic natural gas. This little machine produces both a liquid, which is condensed out of the gas, and enough gas to run itself. You can take this from farm to farm and have people producing basically the equivalent of their own heating oil out of this stuff that they've grown on their own land.
Smith: I think you say it's like the old threshing machines where a team of threshers with their equipment would go from farm to farm. You've got the microwave gas producing composting beat?
Koerth-Baker: Yeah, [laughs] I really like that aspect of it, too, because it really brought up that sense of community and it really brought up that sense of history that I think is something that would make it more appealing to farming communities in a way that just saying, "Hey, this is green" might not.
Smith: Ultimately, if someone reads your book, what is the takeaway? What is the takeaway that you're hoping that they will have? How do you want to change their perception, the average person's perception, of what needs to be done both systemically and individually to create a sustainable energy future?
Koerth-Baker: I think there's two key things that I'm really hoping people come away from this book with. One of those is that this is something for everybody. There are lots of different reasons to care about energy. Just because you and I might have different reasons for why we care about it, that's fine. Let's talk about what we can do together and what agreements we can come to and compromises we can make to actually get something accomplished.
Smith: I don't have to believe in global warming to believe in the need for sustainable energy.
Koerth-Baker: Absolutely. It doesn't mean that I'm going to stop telling you that you should believe in global warming, but it does mean that we can have a conversation that's respectful and that actually tries to get somewhere. The second thing that I think people really need to take hold of is the idea that energy is more than just sources; it's systems. There's only so much that we can do on an individual basis until we get these systems changed.
I see that first point really flowing into the second point because we have to get people from all different sides of the political spectrum talking to each other and coming to these compromises, so that we can actually get those big systems level changes made. If we can't talk respectfully to people we disagree with on some issues, we're not going to get the systems changes that we need.
Smith: Let's take some questions from the audience.
Mary: My name is Mary and I'm from Texas, though I live in Minneapolis and have been for 10 years. My question, Maggie, is you mentioned guys at the centers managing the supply and demand, and guys who are paying. My question is, what role do you see increasing the number of women in engineering will play in securing a balanced energy future?
Koerth-Baker: I think that's an excellent question. I said guys specifically not just as a generic guys, but because the grid control center that I went to was predominantly dudes. That is an issue, as you know, that science and technology and engineering, they're very guy oriented fields. I think we need more people in those fields.
I think that the place where there are people who might be interested in that stuff who are not already signing up for it is probably coming from the female half of the population. Having more women getting into that engineering would be a really good way to get more people into that engineering, which is what we need. I think that would be an excellent thing.
Eric: Hi. My name is Eric. I live in Minneapolis. A quick point from something that was mentioned earlier, the reason the compressed air storage is happening in Alabama is because of a geological formation down there that makes it conducive. It's the same way you do pumped hydro at an abandoned mine. You already have one of the reservoirs.
But the question I had was when you're looking into this, do you see the improvements, the new technologies coming out as being viewed as more of a, oh, that's interesting but it's scary as opposed to what we've had, which is more comfortable. We know it's bad but it's just so comfortable. Do you see that coming into play with people thinking, "Oh, the wind turbines are going to be blowing over. The solar panels aren't going to work all the time," when there theoretically should be a system in place that can manage that?
Koerth-Baker: I think that there's a little bit of that but there's also a little bit of the opposite. I think that we have both a problem with some people feeling like if the technology isn't perfect, I don't want to make the trade, even though it's going to be better than what we already have. I think we also have some people who see new technology as being talked about, that a new solar cell that's being developed in a lab somewhere, and assume that that's going to be in their hands in a year because they're used to that timeframe happening with their cell phones or their iPads.
That's a really hard thing to get across to people, is that even if you want this right now, it's going to take a while and it might not actually get to you any time soon, if ever, because it might not end up being something that makes sense to make on a large scale.
I think that the miscommunication that we have and the misunderstandings that we have are really misunderstandings about how science works. I think that we can solve those things by doing a better job of science education so people understand the process of how technology develops and what technology is supposed to do, so we aren't constantly trying to sell something as either completely perfect or it's going to be here tomorrow, and can actually talk about how this process really works.
Smith: I'm going to ask you about your process, your daily work process. Are you working from home because that was an energy efficient thing to do or because Boing Boing doesn't have an office in Minneapolis?
Koerth-Baker: Boing Boing doesn't have an office.
Koerth-Baker: Anywhere. It's a completely virtual company. We have two people in San Francisco, two people in L.A., a guy in Pittsburg, a guy in London, and me. So we're spread out all over the place.
Smith: You have how many people reading you on a regular basis?
Koerth-Baker: Five million.
Smith: Well, that's not terrifying, is it? [laughter]
Koerth-Baker: No, not at all. That's not at all terrifying. Yeah. [laughs]
Smith: So you're at home. How are you figuring out what to cover day to day? I'm just a little curious about your journalistic process. You're at home writing to five million people, just like, what is on Maggie's mind today or...?
Koerth-Baker: A little bit. What I do for Boing Boing, there are two things that I do. One of them is an aggregation process. So I find really cool science writing or science videos or science related awesomeness on the Internet that people may not otherwise know about and bring it to them. I usually try to add some perspective or context to that also, like try to tie it into the bigger picture or into things we've already talked about on Boing Boing, so it's not just cut and paste from other people's stuff.
But then the other thing that I do is original content. So this is just the reporting or book reviews or interviews that I would do as a journalist for any publication. Those are something where it's come from the more stories I do, the more story ideas I have, and also just from reading a lot of other people's stories. I get story ideas by reading articles and thinking what questions aren't they asking, and then being able to come back around and write about it.
One of my favorite stories that we had on Boing Boing last year was from this study where some scientists in California had picked up trace elements of radioactive sulfur from Fukushima. This was all in the news as just like, "Oh, this happened, but don't worry. It's small enough doses that it's not going to be a big deal for you. It's just, hey, this thing happened, Fukushima." That's a buzz word. You'll click on the link.
I actually went back and read the paper. In the course of reading the paper that this was based on, I realized that Fukushima wasn't really the story at all. This was not about nuclear power. This was about coal power, because the reason those guys were looking for sulfur to being with was because what they study is sulfur emissions from coal plants in China, trying to figure out how those things move around the globe and how they affect climate all over the globe.
Because one of the things that climate scientists think has happened is the reason we've gotten such a huge increase in global warming in the past three years, is because Europe and the US cleaned up their coal emissions a great deal. We don't have as much sulfur going into the atmosphere as we used to, because sulfur reflects heat back out into space and it's something that can contribute to cooling the planet.
Smith: Unanticipated consequence of doing well, of doing good.
Koerth-Baker: Right, exactly. So there's a lot of questions about what's going to happen when the Chinese people decide they don't want this sulfur coming out at them and how that's going to affect climate change when they clean up their sulfur. What this Fukushima thing actually did was basically almost stick a tracking device on sulfur. So you knew this radioactive material came from this place in Asia at exactly this time, and this was when it reached the United States.
For the first time, we had data to be able to make better models of how sulfur of any kind travels around the world.
Rich: My name is Rich. I live in Arden Hills. It's a two-part question about hydroelectric sources. One is, are there new advances in collecting energy from hydroelectric power? And the second part of it is, have we optimized in the US collection of electricity from hydroelectric power?
Koerth-Baker: That's a really good question. One of the things that I learned that I did not know when I was researching this book was that we are actually out of really good places to build giant hydroelectric dams in the US. We're never going to have another Hoover Dam because we don't have a place to build another Hoover Dam. So what the Department of Energy thinks we need to do and what I think makes a lot of sense is start building hydroelectric power at a smaller scale than we do today. So something that can serve thousands of homes or hundreds of homes instead of millions of homes.
Those are done with really different technology. Instead of flooding out a valley and building a dam, you have either a falls that the water runs over, like it does here at St. Anthony, or you have a cut in the river where part of the river will flow through the power plant and then back into the river again.
Those things are cheaper to build. They're better for the environment. They displace fewer people, obviously. So they're a little bit easier to get moved ahead and they enable us to capture natural resources that we can't get if all hydroelectric has to be gigantic.
This is really a big deal in states like Kansas, that has never had a place to build a giant hydroelectric dam. I think Kansas right now produces enough hydroelectricity every year for about 800 homes. But if you captured all the potential from that smaller scale hydroelectric, Kansas could be producing clean power for 300,000 homes.
Smith: Micro hydro.
Nick: Hi, my name is Nick from St. Paul. I know in St. Paul, when a tree gets cut down, it's burned right over here at the district heating plant. They heat three million square feet of buildings and produce 25 megawatts of electricity. I don't hear anything about that in the zeitgeist of energy efficiency. I think it's been going since 1985. So I was wondering, is there any push to have something like that in any other places in the country?
Koerth-Baker: Yes and no. There is a lot more push to try to get combined heat and power systems like that built. There are only certain places where you can build them, because after a while it becomes not particularly energy efficient. If the places you're trying to heat are too far from the place where you're collecting the heat, it's not particularly efficient to do. It works really well for a downtown area or a college campus or a corporate campus, things like that. It doesn't work really well for a whole city.
But there are a lot of places where we could get more of these combined heat and power systems in. And it's something that people are really pushing for because it's something that gets back to what we were talking about to begin with, the energy lost from just producing electricity.
Claire: Hi, I'm Claire and I live in Minneapolis. Question to build off of your discussion of systems and changing our energy systems. I was curious as to your thoughts on distributed power and the role that distributed power could play and/or should play as we're thinking about what these systems might look like.
Koerth-Baker: And what that basically boils down to is, here in the US right now we make most of our electricity at these giant power plants that serve millions of homes and are really far from the people that actually use the electricity. Going to a more decentralized system or distributed system is really about producing power closer to the people that actually use it. That ties into the hydroelectric stuff that we were talking about a minute ago. It also goes all the way down to the tiny end of the scale of somebody putting up a solar panel on their roof and producing electricity that way.
I think that everybody pretty much agrees that decentralizing power to some extent is going to be a necessary thing and going to be a really, really good thing for our energy system because it's going to add in...not only allow us to access resources we can't access right now, but it's also going to make our system stronger.
Because right now, if you knock out one power plant for whatever reason, and that power plant might be in southwest Kansas, you've lost power in seven Western states. Whereas, if you have more distributed generation going on, it's a lot easier to tie some of these places back into power supplies that are stable and that are running. So you don't necessarily lose power to as many places for as long from one power outage. That's a really important part of keeping the system we're dependent upon running.
I do think that there is pretty good evidence that we're going to have to continue to have shared systems as a part of decentralization, that it's not going to be every man for himself thing. That just boils down to, I can have a garden in my backyard but my chances of feeding myself and my entire family for a full year based solely on what we grow in that garden are pretty damn slim.
So we have to have these interconnections and we have to have this ability to share resources so we have that redundancy, so that we don't have to go without.
Smith: Maggie Koerth-Baker, thank you so much. [applause]