Sunday, April 24, 2011
Powering The Dream The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alexis Madrigal
This is a history of alternative energy technology. It is a story of failure as much as it is a story of success. We learn that the ideas behind green technology are not new. There are many historical examples of early green technology in this book. For example, an attempt to build a 1 megawatt wind turbine was done in 1951. We also learn that many of the failures are not about the technology. It is as much about politics, philosophy, and business practices whether or not a new technology fails. The first battery operated cars hd horrible customer service and maintenance.
Alex Madrigal also compares other energy sources to renewables. Most notably he describes how the nuclear industry created a view that it was our future. We get a sense that history repeats itself with different energy sources being touted at different points in recent history. The historical examples are not what you might expect.
We learn that there were solar water heaters in 1930s, solar homes in the 1950s, wind energy was used in the American West to pump water, there was a wave energy demonstration plant in 1906 in San Francisco, compressed air was considered as an alternative to electricity as a way to store energy, and that historically green energy was part of a number of philosophical movements like transcendentalism. This is a very different picture than what is presented in the mainstream press.
In this book, green energy is as much a state of mind as a technology. For example, Google has a program called RE
We learn that only after many tries did wind become a viable renwable energy source, and that Luz solar concentrating power went through a variety of different companies selling the same technology with slight improvements over time.
The black and white photographs in the book are quite interesting. There are pictures of the first solar hot water heaters, first 1 megawatt wind generators, articles about wave generators from 1906, and pictures of other energy technnology.
This is an excellent book both from the viewpoint of a history of technology, and as a review of the philosophies underpinning renewable energy. I especially liked the first book on renewable energies title, The Paradise Within The Reach of All Men, Without Labour, by Powers of Nature, and Machinery An Address to All Men by John Etzler written in the 1830s, which described early forms of wind, wave, and solar power. It reminded me of Lewis Mumford's ideal of a "technic civilization" built on wind and wave power.
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor for the Atlantic. There is a blog which is related to this book on the history of renewable energy. http://www.greentechhistory.com/