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


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.

As "the U.S. domestic solar hot water industry slowly withered away," Madrigal tells us "other countries picked up where American R&D had left off" with notable expansions in Turkey, the European Union and China. By 2007, Chinese solar heater production outpaced the Americans' by 160 times. As Madrigal grimly concludes, "Like so many other renewable energy industries, a field that the United States once dominated has moved on to greener pastures. A technology invented and improved in the United State is a dim memory here and a thriving industry elsewhere."

Not only solar water heaters but also solar homes previously abounded in the U.S. Subsequent to World War II, "as rationing ratcheted up American consciousness about energy, the fuel-saving solar homes began to look particularly interesting" Madrigal explains. Yet as prefabricated construction took off in the 1940s, even the simplest elements of solar houses, for example, installing large south-facing windows, went the way of the solar water heaters. Thus, "millions of homes [have] been built without solar planning or climate considerations." As a result, Madrigal concludes, "an opportunity was lost to build a less energy-intensive stock of American houses, and we'll be dealing with the consequences of those decisions for decades to come."

The solar water heater and solar homes were not the only ventures into solar energy in previous decades. In 1973, as a result of the OPEC oil embargo that "shocked Americans out of their energy trance," the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) was born." It was to advance "all of the solar energy technologies and all aspects of the process of moving a technology through the initial research stages to utilization in the commercial marketplace." But inadequate federal funding; too broad an array of technologies to research; and an unsuited director impeded SERI's initial ability to fulfill its promise.

After a change at the helm, SERI's funding increased five-fold in two years. Research interests narrowed their focus on solar power. The cost of photovoltaic modules dropped and solar was taking hold. But SERI went even further, taking a long view and outlining its ambitious plans in a report that "sketched out an alternative vision for the American energy system that its authors felt would be cheaper and less environmentally destructive."

"Politics," Madrigal shares, "however, would intervene before Hayes's team had a chance to test their optimism. Jimmy Carter was crushed in the November election by former General Electric spokesman, Ronald Reagan." As a result of this political shift, "the brief but grand solar experiment of the 1970s was over, and more than twenty-five years would pass before renewable energy funding would reach the levels it had enjoyed before." In the book's remaining two sections, Madrigal explores, first, what he calls the "great energy rethink" or how to retool. In an opening section, Madrigal discusses thermodynamics (how heat dissipates and what work the released energy accomplishes) and, relatedly, energy efficiency. He then discusses transcendentalism, both Thoreau's Walden Pond and the Back to the Land movement, arguing that individualist or survivalist approaches will not solve climate change. "To reduce the carbon footprint of the country [U.S.] - which is more than twice the global average - society has a whole has to change." And for that to happen, Marigal argues, one must organize politically or socially.

Subsequently, Madrigal discusses technology. To be sure, efficiency and models of scale reduce costs. But technological development, Madrigal pinpoints, is as much about advances in research and design as it is about who gets funded. "The vast majority of funds disbursed by the Department of Energy [...] went to large corporations like Lockheed and Exxon." As a result, while advances could be made on scale, the number of innovators (and approaches) at work are reduced.

In the book's final section, Madrigal explores energy's future, invoking Google's 2007 formulation: "RE<C" or how to ensure that renewables are cheaper than coal. Madrigal focuses mostly on wind energy, talking about various factors that lead to or build a reliable alternative energy industry. He discusses the problem of fickle federal funding: "Businesses live in constant fear that their tax incentives or other support would be cut by capricious lawmakers, which made it harder to make sound long-term decisions ... The production tax credit, the main governmental support for the wind industry, has been extended for arbitrarily short periods of time for almost two decades." By contrast, in California, as a result of federal and state funding, wind energy was ramped up early on and by 1985 generated "almost 90% of the world's wind electricity." It was an edge that California would not hold and Madrigal discusses why.

Aside from consistent funding, record keeping is vital. Particularly, looking ahead: given the ramped up research in clean technology and the corollary likely failure of a large swatch of it, Madrigal argues for the usefulness of data, so that even when an innovation fails, lessons learned can be applied to future ventures. As an energy researcher put it in the book: "'The Danish have preserved knowledge ... codified it in reports and kept a lot of the same people employed in the industry for 20 or 30 years. That just doesn't happen at all in the United States.'" Knowledgeable workers form an important but all too often overlooked resource that Madrigal calls "human archives."

What Madrigal's volume offers is a look at an array of technological innovations, some of them crackpot and some of them very likely alternatives, for how to produce energy in an environmentally sustainable manner. It is a history well worth knowing and exploring, to avoid reinventing the wheel anew with every innovation, as advances in green technologies need to be and will be ratcheted up. Madrigal pinpoints the myriad reasons for failure: technological flaws, lacking or inconsistent federal funding; competing federally subsidized fossil fuels; and changes in political figureheads or legislation. It remains to be how the current administration will draw on each of these aspects, in order to promote clean technology and in particular renewable energy.

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