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Book Review of: Who Turned Out The Lights

Your Guide to the Energy Crisis

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Review of Who Turned Out the Lights, by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This book is a nice change from the agenda-driven works that have dominated the literature on energy policy. But there are some problems, which I will discuss later.

Overall, the authors do a great job of assembling and explaining the facts related to energy policy (government, private, and personal). They did very little advocacy and instead tried to present a balanced view. If you want to make up your own mind about things and don't have time to wade through a few dozen books on energy, then get this one book. Just understand it has some errors in the details (discussed later).

While most nonfiction titles consist of 10 chapters, this book consists of 16. The authors begin (in the preface) by talking about why they wrote the book, who they are, and what their goals are. They tell us they aren't experts, so they had to see what the experts had to say. Some of their sources were not good, but most were.

In the first chapter, the authors talk about the importance of the topic. They list six reasons, but my list would be a bit different from theirs. Still, they get the book off to a good start by laying this foundation.

Chapter Two discusses how we got where we are today and why this problem isn't new. Chapter Three extends this discussion a bit.

Chapter Four discusses some "flawed ideas," one of which irritates me highly. When people talk about increasing supply so we can achieve "energy independence," my first reaction is to try to sell them some beachfront property in Arizona. The authors explain why this idea is loony, and they hit some other ill-founded notions. Much of this kind of nonsense undergirds the bad public policy that we've been plagued with for the past few decades.

Chapter Five lays out 10 facts you need to know. I agree, these are critically important to know. And I like the way the authors explained them. One thing they hit upon is you can use more energy even if you are more energy efficient. A friend of mine lives way out in the sticks and drives his Prius 40 miles one way just to get groceries. If he lived in town and drove a Hummer he'd use less fuel, so he isn't as "green" as he thinks he is.

Chapters Six through Ten each discuss an energy source. The authors do a good job here, except they don't understand power generation and distribution enough to be talking about the use of solar and wind. They misunderstand how net metering really works or how power is actually used on the grid once generated. Having attended multiple IEEE seminars and conferences on these topics, I'll just sum it up by saying the reality and the common rhetoric on "alternative energy" are severely in misalignment.

In Chapter 11, the authors talk about our wasteful housing and they are right on target. A bigger home is a liability, not an asset, beyond a certain size. In addition to wasting energy, it follows Boyle's Law. The amount of junk will expand to fit the house. Unless you are a no-clutter person, you will never have more room simply by having a bigger house. Going from 1,200 square feet to 4,000 square feet would leave the typical homeowner with just as much "closet shortage" and "lack of space" as before but at a much higher cost of heating, cooling, lighting, and cleaning.

Chapter 12 is about the automobile. It's mostly well done, but something the authors don't understand is battery technology. Currently, the only way to give a car decent range without far more battery weight and volume is with lithium batteries. There's only so much lithium in the world and  mining it isn't a clean thing. Electric cars don't solve pollution or energy problems. They merely transfer them, while incurring new ones. The solution is to drive less. A lot less. The authors talk about this, too, which is good. As far as what you personally can do to reduce your footprint in this area, this is excellent coverage.

Chapters 13, 14, and 15 examine various solutions. Unfortunately, the authors view much of this through the lens of only the horizontal part of the political spectrum. The reality is that our most important issues have nothing to do with left versus right. Draw a vertical line with liberty at the top and statism at the bottom, and now you have a representation of politics as it's practiced. You have four quadrants. But it's really the position vertically that matters. The authors make no mention of the vertical axis. Even so, they provide some good information here.

Chapter 16 should have tied the book together and provided some conclusions. It seems to be just some final thoughts that didn't fit anywhere else. It lists six realities, and the first one advocates using CFLs. I address that below.

The problems

Now, on to those problems. Please understand these are not fatal flaws to an informed reader. The authors aren't stupid or ignorant, but their information sources have limited what they can see and thus how they view things.

They frequently quote from the New York Times in general and Thomas "Reality is not an option" Friedman in particular. They also talk about Al "Colossal Carbon Footprint" Gore as if he's somehow a contributor to serious discussion or actually cares about the planet he plunders.

Some of the areas where their skewed worldview shows up are as follows:

CFLs

The authors start out by saying they aren't experts. That'strue, as they actually advocate the use of CFLs in the home. A compact fluorescent makes certain engineering compromises to get that tiny ballast. So right away, it's not as efficient as other fluorescent lighting methods. The real problem with CFLs is there is almost no application in a home in which a CFL will not waste more energy than its incandescent counterpart.

Any nonlinear load (such as a CFL) will use more energy to get started than it will to run. The many comparisons of CFLs to incandescents do not take this into account. The extra energy can be measured (in terms of inrush current) or calculated (if you know the impedance, capacitance, and inductance of the lighting unit). To "recover" this startup energy via its lower usage during running, a CFL will have to run longer than an incandescent until it actually saves energy compared to the incandescent. I don't know how long exactly, but I can tell you I performed the calculations for a 60W incandescent vs. "standard" 60W fluorescent  (four lamps, each 15W) and the number was almost exactly four hours. Since a CFL operates at a lower efficiency, it may need to be on longer than four hours.

If you are leaving any light on for four hours, what you really need to do is shut it off. Where do you use lights in a home? Bathroom, bedroom, living room, kitchen--how much time do you spend in each room with the lights on? So, no, please do NOT use CFLs in your home. We can't afford the waste and pollution.

Police protection

Somewhere in the text, the authors talk about "police protection." This is purely fictional. Courts have repeatedly ruled the police are not required to protect private citizens, and thus suffer no liability if they don't. Companies like Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Remington, and Glock provide the tools for citizens to protect themselves. These safety tools are readily available, as is the training to use them properly.

Electrical transmission lines

The authors are completely misinformed on this subject. The conductor is copper or aluminum, period. There are no "better lines" we can install, though we can replace conductors in which the insulation is degraded. It's not like we aren't doing this; there are companies that specialize in detecting the corona that indicates degraded insulation in high voltage wires. There aren't advanced materials, etc., that we can use to replace our overhead or underground lines so they magically are more efficient. I would suggest the authors look through back issues of Transmission & Distribution World, instead of the disinformation spewed by the New York Times.

SUV profits

The authors mention that profits on some SUVs were "more than $9,000 by some estimates." Well, yes. Try $15,000. And this is not from an estimate. When Jacques Nasser was President of the Ford Motor Company, he ended the production of the Ford Probe and his reason was quoted in several business publications. Basically, he said the profit on a particular model of SUV (I forget which one, but I think it was the Explorer) was $15,000 but they were selling Probes for $14,000 and that just did not make sense to him.

Kyoto

The authors point out that President Bush didn't sign this treaty, but fail to point out what a farce that treaty was. Even if we ignore the absurdity contained in the treaty (look up the diesel requirements, for example), we can't escape the fact that not one signatory has kept its promises. That treaty wasn't about reducing carbon emissions. It was about stealing from specific countries, one of which is the USA.

Cap and Trade

The authors didn't do their homework on this scheme, either. They talk about it as if it's benign. It's not. The mudstream media like to portray the resistance against this lunacy as "right wing" when in fact it has nothing to do with right vs. left but everything to do with theft. That's all it's about--coerced wealth transfers. The potential for abuse is without limit. If adopted, it will make the AIG fiasco look like a positive development for the economy by comparison.

Government energy savings programs

The authors miss the real problem. We don't need to improve the buildings that federal employees report to. We need to eliminate the buildings by downsizing the federal government. Dramatically. And this is entirely doable with no diminution of the  "services" now provided by the federal government (such that they are).

The GAO reports, for example, that IRS employees spend half their office time surfing p*rn and gambling sites. But these same people have had time to run scams like the Hoyt Fiasco and the Amcor Debacle. A 50% layoff would not hurt the IRS one bit; they can still keep up their 94% error rate on notices sent out--with only half as many people in half as many buildings. Or pass the Fair Tax and abolish this resource-wasting den of criminal activity completely.

I think if you pick nearly any government agency, you will find bureaucratic bloat that can easily be cut in half. So we eliminate half the federal buildings and immediately see a 100% improvement in energy usage. As a side benefit, let's consider the studies done in the early 1980s showing that each federal job costs us 50 jobs in the private sector (for a variety of reasons). The job losses that have mounted month after month since 2008 would be reversed rather quickly, and eventually those government employees could be absorbed into the larger, more vibrant economy.

But wouldn't the increased prosperity create more energy demand? Yes, but as the authors point out, dragging down an economy isn't a reasonable solution. Another "but" here is the relief granted by this reduction in overhead would also mean that innovators would have a market for green products and green solutions--improving our energy density and making us more efficient. We could then export those products to China and make 1.3 billion people more efficient. What's not to like?

Unfortunately, the authors miss this elephant in the living room by never talking about this solution.

My final criticism of the book is the authors overdo the pop culture. They make a huge number of references to movies, television, and rock music. They assume their audience is in the same cultural groove they are in, and this is always a mistake in a book. While these references do add color, the authors make far too many of them. It's annoying.

While my comments of a critical nature take up much of this review, you have to understand the overall text is accurate. On this kind of topic, nobody is going to get everything correct. Except for the CFL issue, the errors don't undermine the purpose of the book or mislead the reader toward some agenda.

So at the very least, we can say this book does no harm. For most readers, it will do a great deal of good. An understanding of the issues, and the facts behind them, is something the vast majority of Americans do not have. We are drowning in a sea of disinformation.

The authors did a great job of addressing the major points every individual should understand about energy. I think this book, even with its flaws, is a positive contribution to the literature. It's an easy read, and it pretty much covers everything except as noted above. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

 

 

 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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