Thursday, January 27, 2011

Beyond Light Bulbs, by Susan Meredith

Beyond Light Bulbs: Lighting the Way to Smarter Energy Management, by Susan Meredith

I recently took a new job at a solar company and have been learning a lot about alternative energy. I spotted Beyond Light Bulbs at Half Price Books; glancing at the introduction I saw that while the author now lives here in Austin she studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where our CTO taught. While the subject is more about modern energy management than solar specifically, the coincidences were enough for me to walk out of the store with it.

I found this to be a bit uneven, but overall does a good job of taking a complicated topic and making it accessible. Meredith outlines our obvious dependence on oil and other environmental hazards, and then describes the pros and cons of many alternative energy sources (including solar). I was a bit afraid I’d have to suffer through a lot of left-leaning propaganda, but her approach to global warming was quite refreshing. “Is there global warming or not? Is it caused by humans or natural phenomena? ... Rather than wasting our human energy debating this, ... why not find ways to reduce emissions so that we have good air quality, regardless of how our current problems were created?” Well said.

The descriptions of energy management and the problems we face therein are presented in a well-rounded form and quite useful. The author starts to lose some of her even-handedness towards the end, though. When describing how governments should get involved she does okay, but doesn’t really advocate a single approach. “Restrictive policies and standards can block energy flow. Sometimes this is appropriate. Some policies and standards channel solutions toward particular pathways. Sometimes that’s appropriate. Perhaps there are some policies and standards that need to be relaxed or removed to allow for flexibility in dealing with the uncertainty of the energy path ahead.” Unless you are of the all-government-restrictions-are-evil persuasion, virtually any view can be fit into that description! I think pouring money into corn-based ethanol is neither green nor a viable alternative to oil, but I suspect the farmers of Iowa will disagree; both of us, however, can claim Meredith’s approach fits our worldview.

Where she really goes off the rails in my opinion is her approach to world peace via smarter energy management. “1.6 Billion people in our world have no electricity! If we want to improve global relations, this is an obvious place to start.” The Peace Corps is the sort of agency to worry about bringing electricity to Sub-Saharan Africa; our government should concentrate more on reducing our hypocrisy and arrogance, instead starting to judge ourselves by the same standards we judge others. We improve global relations by being a better neighbor, not by building better light bulbs.

First Sentence:
“When are they going to make a movie that has a positive future?” my husband asked after watching yet another futuristic film showing destroyed buildings, chaos, violence, confusion, and a pervasive mood of despair.

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