Eureka Moment

Star science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker on why the energy crisis is worse than you thought (and your hybrid won’t help)

Maggie Koerth-Baker knows how stuff works—big stuff, like the nation’s electrical grid. More important, she knows why it often does not. Raised in Kansas, she moved to Minneapolis in 2006 and began writing a popular science blog for Her book Before The Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us (Wiley, $28) came out last spring and led to her latest gig: writing “Eureka,” a new science column in the New York Times Magazine.

You visited some places for your book that most people will never see.

Like the electrical-grid control center in Texas, where they’re working 24/7 to make sure your lights stay on. Because of the patchwork way our system evolved, they have to balance supply and demand minute by minute, and there’s no storage because batteries are expensive. So you have guys on the phone asking power plants to produce more or less—it’s shockingly analog.

And we thought the energy crisis was just about fossil fuels and climate change.

There are multiple energy crises and one of them is our electrical infrastructure—it hasn’t been greatly updated since the 1970s, which affects how we can address our other problems.

Do all your lights have CFL bulbs now?

My husband is an energy-efficiency expert. So yes. But in the grand scheme of things, my personal changes don’t matter. Whether I make my house more energy-efficient, whether I drive a Prius—it doesn’t matter that much, because the problems and the amounts of energy we use are so huge. We’ll only get real change if we revise the infrastructure, because that determines the kind of choices we can make. Think about Europeans: they don’t use less energy than us because they’re better people. They’re not constantly thinking, “What can I do to save the planet?” C’mon! Their infrastructure just makes it easier to use less energy.

So what can us non-Europeans do?

Go to your local city council and advocate for changing zoning laws so we can have more mixed-use development, more dense cities, and better public transportation. Systems are local, too, and that’s what you should be putting your energy into, not what you can do in your particular house that isn’t connected to anything else.

You recently waded into the debate over a development in Linden Hills that many people thought was too big. Why?

That may just have been my Minnesota passive-aggressiveness coming out. But you don’t make more sustainable communities by having single-story buildings and little villages. You make them by having density and walkability and people living closer to their jobs and the services they use.

How does Minnesota rate in that respect?

Minneapolis, where I live, has one of the best infrastructures for transportation in the Midwest, if not the country—you can easily get around if you don’t have a car. Part of that is planning—building a bicycle network—but it’s helped by history, the little business nodes we have throughout the city left over from the streetcar era.

Do you expect your “Eureka” column will inject some rationality into the energy and climate debates?

We have always assumed that people would respond more rationally if only they were more scientifically literate. But studies say that’s not true. Our opinions are based more on emotion and cultural identification than what we know or don’t know. But it’s still important to make science education more acceptable, not because it’ll make the world better, but because it’s really interesting. It’s empowering to understand stuff that you didn’t think you could.

Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.