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Green Technology Is Not New: Our Forgotten History of Electric Vehicles, Solar and Wind Power

The new book "Powering the Dream" examines why we chose to abandon green technologies in the past, and which ones we are likely to embrace in the future.

Think green technology is new? Think again! In the early 20th century, electric taxi cabs zoomed along Manhattan's streets, solar heaters warmed water for showers in Southern California, and windmills drew up water in the drought-ridden prairie states of Nebraska and Kansas, helping westward expansion as much as the steam engine, but forgotten in the annals of history.

Alexis Madrigal's Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, provides both a history of such alternative energy technologies that have existed over the past century, and considers the promise green technology holds for the future.

Looking at examples of technological innovations predating the 1970s, Madrigal - Senior Editor at The Atlantic and former staff writer for Wired - reveals a history of "what was" and "what might have been." It is a history of which there is hardly any institutional memory and which, as Madrigal puts it, remains "criminally obscure." Madrigal sets the stage by opening with the fact that some venture capitalists, the very people who previously refused to acknowledge the limits of growth, have begun to factor the environment's precarious state of the environment into their entrepreneurial activities. (An anecdote that brings to mind the Stern Report.)


So what was? In the book's first section, Madrigal focuses on five different past models of energy, some still, some no longer with us: steam power, windmills, oil, wave motors and compressed air. In the 19th-century west, a dearth of water was (as it remains now) the largest factor upon which survival to growth was contingent. Windmills allowed water to be drawn up from deep underground. Innovations advanced upon existing designs. In 1854 Daniel Halladay designed the first windmill with sails or blades that self-regulated or adjusted to the direction of the wind. These innovations in design, such as changing the shape of the sails, making the mills out of steel, or adding gears, allowed an exponential growth in energy harnessed.


Relative to the growth in these technological innovations, the number of companies specializing in windmills grew, too. Aermotor, which sold its first windmill in 1882 and operates to this day, was one of the largest windmill companies, selling 20,000 windmills within 10 years of operation. Yet not everyone could afford the mills sold by these growing new companies, so many farmers in the west built their own, using materials readily available.


The book's second section explores technological innovations that almost made it, including the electrical vehicles zipping about 1890s Manhattan's streets and the solar water heaters abundant in 1950s California; as well as solar homes, plentiful until the 1940s; and the solar research institute that almost shifted our main energy source to solar in the 1970s.


In the early 20th-century, solar energy looked poised to take over the energy market in California. The California-based Day and Night Solar Heater company produced solar heaters in the 1920s in such abundance that they had to move to larger quarters twice as demand grew. But a number of developments quickly changed the direction of this energy market. As Madrigal outlines, larger gas manufacturing plants were built and the gas industry consolidated. Meanwhile, natural gas was discovered in southern California. Together, these factors led gas to be more affordable than solar energy in California.


Elsewhere, a shift from solar energy to electricity, usually derived from coal-powered plants, took place. As home developers sought to bring down the upfront cost of houses, electric water heaters took off. These heaters were cheaper to produce and sell, thus bringing down the cost of the house sold by developers. But they increased the costs incurred by the buyer as a result of running them over a lifetime were higher. This logic still dominates today and is one of the factors impeding greater implementation and use of renewable energy.

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