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Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

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Few today realize that electric cabs dominated Manhattan's streets in the 1890s; that Boise, Idaho, had a geothermal heating system in 1910; or that the first megawatt turbine in the world was built in 1941 by the son of publishing magnate G. P. Putnam--a feat that would not be duplicated for another forty years. Likewise, while many remember the oil embargo of the 1970s, Few today realize that electric cabs dominated Manhattan's streets in the 1890s; that Boise, Idaho, had a geothermal heating system in 1910; or that the first megawatt turbine in the world was built in 1941 by the son of publishing magnate G. P. Putnam--a feat that would not be duplicated for another forty years. Likewise, while many remember the oil embargo of the 1970s, few are aware that it led to a corresponding explosion in green-technology research that was only derailed when energy prices later dropped.In other words: We've been here before. Although we may have failed, America has had the chance to put our world on a more sustainable path. Americans have, in fact, been inventing green for more than a century. Half compendium of lost opportunities, half hopeful look toward the future, Powering the Dream tells the stories of the brilliant, often irascible inventors who foresaw our current problems, tried to invent cheap and energy renewable solutions, and drew the blueprint for a green future.


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Few today realize that electric cabs dominated Manhattan's streets in the 1890s; that Boise, Idaho, had a geothermal heating system in 1910; or that the first megawatt turbine in the world was built in 1941 by the son of publishing magnate G. P. Putnam--a feat that would not be duplicated for another forty years. Likewise, while many remember the oil embargo of the 1970s, Few today realize that electric cabs dominated Manhattan's streets in the 1890s; that Boise, Idaho, had a geothermal heating system in 1910; or that the first megawatt turbine in the world was built in 1941 by the son of publishing magnate G. P. Putnam--a feat that would not be duplicated for another forty years. Likewise, while many remember the oil embargo of the 1970s, few are aware that it led to a corresponding explosion in green-technology research that was only derailed when energy prices later dropped.In other words: We've been here before. Although we may have failed, America has had the chance to put our world on a more sustainable path. Americans have, in fact, been inventing green for more than a century. Half compendium of lost opportunities, half hopeful look toward the future, Powering the Dream tells the stories of the brilliant, often irascible inventors who foresaw our current problems, tried to invent cheap and energy renewable solutions, and drew the blueprint for a green future.

30 review for Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

  1. 5 out of 5

    Maarten Markus

    Very intreaging take on the non-linearity of green-tech in the United States. Its great to go back to thise key figures and moments in green tech history. We might take wind mills for granted now, and hoe great is it that Madrigal shows us what amazing roads have been paved by entrepreneurs centuries ago. And the realistic point that the better idea doesn’t always make it. This book gives the historic account that has led to the current eco-practices. It’s just very good that this book has been Very intreaging take on the non-linearity of green-tech in the United States. Its great to go back to thise key figures and moments in green tech history. We might take wind mills for granted now, and hoe great is it that Madrigal shows us what amazing roads have been paved by entrepreneurs centuries ago. And the realistic point that the better idea doesn’t always make it. This book gives the historic account that has led to the current eco-practices. It’s just very good that this book has been written!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Justin

    If the future of clean energy technology hopes to successfully enable our society's transition away from fossil fuels it will have to remember all the moments when a more perfect power stood poised to usurp a constant flow of coal and oil only to find itself denied the spotlight. The American story is one of a philosophy reinforced through access to cheap energy and burgeoned by technological innovation. In Powering the Dream, Alexis Madrigal provides a conscience for the green energy sector, on If the future of clean energy technology hopes to successfully enable our society's transition away from fossil fuels it will have to remember all the moments when a more perfect power stood poised to usurp a constant flow of coal and oil only to find itself denied the spotlight. The American story is one of a philosophy reinforced through access to cheap energy and burgeoned by technological innovation. In Powering the Dream, Alexis Madrigal provides a conscience for the green energy sector, one that threatens to be swept away in a bubble of financial instrumentation hoping for a breakthrough rather than sustained investment and incremental improvement. Where software and computing has been continually enhanced through reaffirmations of Moore's Law, will applying the same philosophy to energy lead to suffering Moore's curse? Though few advocating for an innovation based solution to climate change through access to the infinite power of the wind and sun realize they are echoing the words of an early 19th century techno-utopian they do so all the same, carrying John Etzler's biases and assumptions along with them. The innovative and shiny energy technologies touted by politicians and slick commercials as solutions to our ability to `win the future' have been with us for our history as a nation. We had electric cars with a streamlined swap-out infrastructure for fresh batteries at the end of the 19th century and megawatt scale wind turbines in the 1940s. The history of fossil fuel alternatives reveal a world of missed opportunities and frustrating political shortsightedness. When fundamental rules of the global energy paradigm changed in the 1970s the problem of depleting fossil fuels was recognized and the United States responded by founding the Solar Energy Research Institute, developing technology to drop the cost of electricity generated by photovoltaics from $100/watt in 1970 to $10/watt in 1973 and establishing efficiency standards for appliances. The National Renewable Energy Lab's Aquatic Species Program built a catalogue of algae that could have provided a foundation for commercial scale algal biofuels with only the equivalent of $100 million in total funding, to put that in perspective Exxon made $142 million on each day of 2008. When federal support for the program dried up in 1981, the project was scrapped, knowledge faded away and many of the algal strains selected for their efficiency were lost. A decade of progress was undermined when the Reagan administration cut federal funds that would have allowed the clean energy sector to survive American ignorance towards energy when it comes cheaply. While federal policies threw up roadblocks, so did state level politics. Solar thermal power provides the greatest hope for inexpensive and reliable utility-scale energy from the sun, a company named Luz built many plants based on the technology in the 1980s. Just as Luz was at the point of enabling solar thermal electricity to compete with fossil fuels on price, unfortunate timing in the California legislature killed the laws allowing Luz's business models to work. The company went bankrupt and the solar thermal industry stalled for decades. Through these unfortunate stories we see that energy technologies aren't selected for efficiency and rationality but shifted through bizarre economics that destroyed knowledge and postponed innovation, costing valuable time in the race to beat the depletion of global oil fields. The search for a technological breakthrough that magically makes the blowing wind or the sun's luminosity into a miracle energy source is exposed in the absurdity of Kenetech's rise and fall. Claiming a rapid advance in turbine technology that would allow wind to compete with fossil fuels, Kenetech raised tremendous capital through grandiose promises and collapsed when its poor product literally fell apart. A rapid boom and bust cycle for Kenetech exemplified the American wind sector, all while years of sustained Dutch investment had created a robust wind industry in the Netherlands with a reliable product. Has the American approach to innovation and business finally met its match with the challenge of energy? Or, did more than a century of attempts at alternative energy build the foundation for a national energy revolution? Powering the Dream doesn't explicitly come down on either side of these questions but outlines a fascinating and overlooked history of failures and successes as they were impeded by regulatory frameworks and politics. Where our view of environmentalism is often limited to a perception of pristine nature fighting fossil fueled industrialization, perhaps green energy will finally succeed by uniting the patience of the ecologist with the creativity of the engineer.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ushan

    There is nothing new about using renewable energy other than hydropower in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of wind-powered pumps went up through the American West in the second half of the 19th century, pumping out water for irrigation. Two decades before the Wright brothers, a windmill engineer ran thousands of experiments in a wind tunnel, and came up with a superior windmill design; his employer is still in business. The first megawatt-scale wind turbine in the world went up in Vermo There is nothing new about using renewable energy other than hydropower in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of wind-powered pumps went up through the American West in the second half of the 19th century, pumping out water for irrigation. Two decades before the Wright brothers, a windmill engineer ran thousands of experiments in a wind tunnel, and came up with a superior windmill design; his employer is still in business. The first megawatt-scale wind turbine in the world went up in Vermont in 1941; unfortunately, it only took 1100 hours of operation before one of its two blades broke. In the 1980s, under Jerry Brown's first governorship, California enacted insane tax credits for windpower developers, based on how many turbines that produced any electricity they put up, not on how much electricity the turbines actually produced. In 1981, a survey of the wind turbines on the ground found that their average lifespan was just seven hours: the tax credit could make the developers put the turbines up, but could not make the turbines actually work. By 1985, three mountain passes in California generated 90% of the world's wind electricity, killing thousands of birds each year; an official of the Audubon society once called the wind turbine a "condor Cuisinart". In 1992, Merrill Lynch managed the IPO of a wind turbine company and at the same time acted as an investment analyst touting its bright prospects; the IPO raised over $90 million; in 1996, the company went bankrupt. The company is mentioned in the 2001 European Parliament hearings on ECHELON, when its German competitor claimed that the American company stole its turbine secrets with the help of the NSA in order to patent them in the United States first. There is now a decade-long wind energy boom in the United States, thanks to a tax credit of about 2 cents a kilowatt-hour that was included in Barack Obama's stimulus package and survived the fiscal cliff negotiations; an end of the credit would have meant an end of the boom. This book also discusses solar and wave power, which also have had early promoters, spectacular failures, and now barely survive thanks to government subsidies. Wind power is a much more mature technology now than it was in the 1980s. There are now multi-megawatt turbines with blades longer than 50 meters made of composite materials; they do laser ranging of wind-carried dust in order to anticipate the incoming gusts. Generating electricity from wind produces no acid rain, smog, airborne soot or radioactive waste; a wind turbine does not have a radioactive core that can melt down; there are no wars to conquer wind-rich nations. Wind is intermittent; therefore, wind energy is unsuitable for base load power generation; it is suitable for peak load generation if the wind actually blows during peak demand. If it doesn't, perhaps the energy can be stored; this book mentions an Alabama company that pumps compressed air into a salt cavern when electricity is cheap, and drives a turbine when it is expensive. No one knows when the wind industry will be able to stand on its own feet, if ever, and how long the taxpayers will be willing to subsidize it while it doesn't; the same is true of the solar industry. However, if the problems are resolved, it will be a grand triumph of science, technology and environmentalism.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Book Calendar

    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 po 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/

  5. 4 out of 5

    Joni Baboci

    Madrigal's book in my opinion was just OK. I did read it to the end but it took a bit of patience to do so. It is basically a broad history of renewable energy and its development within the United States. There is a single mention of Denmark and it's powerful wind turbine producing industry but other than that it is extremely US-centric. Furthermore it is mostly a historical book with few if any technical explanations regarding the technologies it describes. More analysis of the development and Madrigal's book in my opinion was just OK. I did read it to the end but it took a bit of patience to do so. It is basically a broad history of renewable energy and its development within the United States. There is a single mention of Denmark and it's powerful wind turbine producing industry but other than that it is extremely US-centric. Furthermore it is mostly a historical book with few if any technical explanations regarding the technologies it describes. More analysis of the development and functioning of said technologies (even as simple as the description of solar-concentrating technology in chapter 14) and not simply their social impact and history of political lobbying would have made the book much more interesting in my opinion. It continuously centers on the differences between the Carter administration (renewable energy start-up paradise) and the Reagan administration that followed it (renewable energy start-up hell). Arguments and facts are uselessly repeated a couple of times over the book making it seem even longer than it should have been. The best part was chapter 14, describing the extremely interesting ideas of Luz by Arnold Goldman. That chapter in and of itself made me give the book it's second star. The nuclear and wind chapters are tedious and again focus on policy decisions that made those two types of energy make it or break it. The second half of the book basically has no structure to guide the reader but rather a pseudo-chronology of facts and ideas which fails to properly address the issues it tries to analyze. The more i read the book the less interesting it got. If you really want to read a political history of green energy technology you might like it, otherwise I would not recommend it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David Bruns

    I saw Alexis Madrigal speak at a renewables conference at the Univ of Minn and bought his book on the spot. The book is an eclectic collection of historical examples of renewable projects (what Madrigal calls "green technology") and a look toward what might be. What seems at first like a random walk through "green" history, ends up in an interesting place: most of what we consider to be cleantech today - solar, electric vehicles, wind power - are not new technologies. They were all put into commo I saw Alexis Madrigal speak at a renewables conference at the Univ of Minn and bought his book on the spot. The book is an eclectic collection of historical examples of renewable projects (what Madrigal calls "green technology") and a look toward what might be. What seems at first like a random walk through "green" history, ends up in an interesting place: most of what we consider to be cleantech today - solar, electric vehicles, wind power - are not new technologies. They were all put into common usage in specific locales over the past century, but were never adopted nationally for a whole host of reasons. Over time, as the gas combustion engines, coal fired power plants and electric hot water heaters became mainstream, the rest just faded away or was relegated to the unpractical environmentalists. It can and should be be different now. No one is willing to accept that our standards of living should decline in order to have a "greener" world, but there is a middle ground between the environment and our lifestyle. A worthy read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Magnus Barber

    This turned out not to be the book I thought it was going to be. From the descriptions, I thought it would be a romp through amusing Victorian engineering attempts at green power that ultimately failed. Although there certainly were some interesting old engineering ideas (and not all failures), that's just the beginning of the book. It really buckles down and goes to great lengths talking about wind, solar and nuclear power in the US from the 1960s onwards - engineering challenges, politics, fac This turned out not to be the book I thought it was going to be. From the descriptions, I thought it would be a romp through amusing Victorian engineering attempts at green power that ultimately failed. Although there certainly were some interesting old engineering ideas (and not all failures), that's just the beginning of the book. It really buckles down and goes to great lengths talking about wind, solar and nuclear power in the US from the 1960s onwards - engineering challenges, politics, factoids.. I probably would have enjoyed the book more if it spent more time on steam punk trivia, but ultimately I felt like I learned a few interesting and useful things so maybe that's a worthwhile tradeoff when it wasn't quite as entertaining as I'd expected...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Michael King

    Definitely an interesting topic, this book charts the surprisingly long history of green energy and explains how we got to where we are today. While it contains a lot of interesting background on early attempts at wind energy, solar power, and electric vehicles and at times succeeds in showing how certain technologies rose and fell over the decades, often for reasons unrelated to cost, efficiency, or overall benefit to society. That said, the author's writing can sometimes seem disjointed, repet Definitely an interesting topic, this book charts the surprisingly long history of green energy and explains how we got to where we are today. While it contains a lot of interesting background on early attempts at wind energy, solar power, and electric vehicles and at times succeeds in showing how certain technologies rose and fell over the decades, often for reasons unrelated to cost, efficiency, or overall benefit to society. That said, the author's writing can sometimes seem disjointed, repetitive, or unfocused, leaving the reader grappling for a greater narrative or overarching message.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Randi

    Loved learning how some of our "new," green technologies aren't really new at all. This book provides a great history of milestones in solar and wind power and gives you a clear understanding on how the initiatives from the Carter and Nixon administrations failed in later years. The only problem I have with books dealing with green technology are that they can quickly become dated. But this one provides enough of a history that I don't think it'll be a problem down the road. Loved learning how some of our "new," green technologies aren't really new at all. This book provides a great history of milestones in solar and wind power and gives you a clear understanding on how the initiatives from the Carter and Nixon administrations failed in later years. The only problem I have with books dealing with green technology are that they can quickly become dated. But this one provides enough of a history that I don't think it'll be a problem down the road.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Filipe Dias

    Browsing through centuries worth of the process of generating work from renewable and non-renewable resources, gives a wider point of view on this essential requirement of civilization. The purpose is to give an overview of the difficulties and ingenuity developed from small scale needs to world networks, why it is how it is and how our life is dictated by and how we understand what energy means to us. It is however very US-centric, which limits its appeal and usefulness.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    Pretty neat social history of energy technology successes and failures in the US. This book real drives home the point that most of these energy decisions were not based on technological (dis)advantages, but rather on larger social and political situations. Fun and enjoyable read.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Datesman

    Good historical information. The concluding section is interesting, but should have been stronger.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ronan O'Driscoll

    Good take on green technology. Particularly liked the lessons from the past.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Craig

    Read to help prepare myself and students for 2014-15 Academic Decathlon program. Has some good information, but not as solid as the first couple of books I read on the subject.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jay

    As with most of the books that I read in my History of Energy course in Spring 2013, we didn't read the entirety of this book, and I was unable to finish it before I was forced to part with it. As with most of the books that I read in my History of Energy course in Spring 2013, we didn't read the entirety of this book, and I was unable to finish it before I was forced to part with it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Science For The People

    Recommended on Skeptically Speaking show #90 on December 17, 2010. http://skepticallyspeaking.ca/episode... Recommended on Skeptically Speaking show #90 on December 17, 2010. http://skepticallyspeaking.ca/episode...

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Hiskes

    Brings historical perspective to a field that needs it. And gave a good anecdote for my wave-energy feature (http://sustainableindustries.com/arti...). Brings historical perspective to a field that needs it. And gave a good anecdote for my wave-energy feature (http://sustainableindustries.com/arti...).

  18. 5 out of 5

    Max

    definitely some enlightening facts but also some redundancy. Not quite finished so I'll finish the review later. definitely some enlightening facts but also some redundancy. Not quite finished so I'll finish the review later.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tomy Riando

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nick

  21. 4 out of 5

    Mclean27

  22. 5 out of 5

    Simon

  23. 4 out of 5

    Hans

  24. 5 out of 5

    Annette

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mclean

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kate Gardiner

  27. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tom Hanson

  29. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  30. 5 out of 5

    Aaron W Saint

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