Pump Up the R&D

22 Apr

first central station.jpg Science blogger Maggie Koerth-Baker has a new book available, and she plugged it on the latest Skeptically Speaking. From the book blurb at Amazon, this works as a synopsis of the podcast, too.

In Before the Lights Go Out, science blogger and journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker presents a comprehensive analysis of the ways in which America produces, distributes, and consumes energy. She explains how our current systems developed, points out their strengths and weaknesses, and offers candid assessments of the time, the difficulty, and the expense involved in making radical changes to the energy systems that have shaped our lives for a hundred years. And the new world that results will be neither business-as-usual nor a hippie utopia.

Drawing on more than two years of research and interviews with experts on everything from our electrical grid and electric cars to fracking and passive buildings, Koerth-Baker explains what we can do, what we can’t do, and why “the solution” is really a lot of solutions working together.

This isn’t about planting a tree, buying a Prius, and proving that you’re a good person. Economic and social incentives got us a country full of gas-guzzling cars, long commutes, inefficient houses, and coal-fired power plants in the middle of nowhere, and economics and incentives will build our new world. Ultimately, change is inevitable. If we don’t control it, it will control us.

Koerth-Baker argues that we’re not going to solve the energy problem by convincing everyone to live like it’s 1900-nobody wants to do that. Rather than reverting to the past, we will be building a future where we get energy from new places and use it in new ways and do more with less. But for all the new technology, we’ll still need coal-fired, nuclear, and natural gas-burning power plants-and we’ll still be pumping gasoline into our (far more fuel-efficient) cars for many decades to come.

She also looks at new battery technology, smart grids, decentralized generation, clean coal, and carbon sequestration-buzzwords now, but they’ll be a part of our everyday life soon.

One follow-up on the price of gas at the local pump. Koerth-Baker calls for pricing externalities into the pump price. I have no serious objections to that, even if drivers complain about fuel costs. (Of course, I don’t own a car – and as long as I live in Korea I doubt I will again, nor do I want one.) But, if even the petoleum industry is serious about moving to a post-petro economy, why wouldn’t it and other resource-based corporations want such pricing, too? The extra revenues would muzzle environmentalists and also allow the corporations to fund R&D, to invent renewable forms of energy and corner existing non-petro industries.

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