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Book Review: Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Energy by Alexis Madrigal

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Alexis Madrigal’s Powering the Dream smashes the myths and misconceptions of green energy perpetrated by the press and politicians. The reader gets an extensive history of alternative energy dating back over a hundred years to a time before oil. Madrigal also educates us on current alternative energy research, and provides insights on future possibilities. More importantly, he points out mistakes from the past that current researchers should avoid.

Everyone needs to understand alternative energy solutions. Gas prices will continue to rise as shortages occur. Congress continues to debate alternative energy resources, especially nuclear power and natural gas. Electric cars, solar energy, and wind appear in media articles on a regular basis, but none of these ideas are new. Madrigal explains it all to the reader from the beginning to the present as well as future possibilities.

The narrative begins at the TED Conference 2007 (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This conference invites the best minds, innovators, and technology gurus to participate. At the conference, John Doerr, a venture capitalist who recognized the importance of Amazon and Google early, gave an invigorating talk on the need for green energy and his concerns about global warming.

Doerr’s basic premise stated the Earth and our children need clean alternative energy. However, alternative energy only works, if investors and companies see the feasibility and economic benefits. The current green energy movement differs from previous generations because capitalists see a chance to earn income. The movement does not rely entirely on government research funds and ecological sentiment. This time around, economy and ecology drive the search for alternative energy resources.

Madrigal believes the country lacks a historical perspective on green energy. New green era researchers spend too much time reinventing the wheel. They make the same mistakes, and investigate ideas that have already failed. Some may have been ideas that failed due to bad science, while others may have been good ideas that failed because of bad policy or bad execution. In order for the country to advance alternative energy, researchers need to determine the inflection points at which good ideas went bad, and avoid them.

While coal is cleaner now than in 1833, Madrigal reminds the reader that coal was a filthy fuel, and people were dying from polluted air. In 1833, Pittsburgh relied on coal-powered factories. The city residents suffered from dirty, smelly smog. On the other hand, Lowell Massachusetts utilized water wheels to power the textile mills. As he puts it, “Lowell was a commercial utopia,” because of its clean and cheap energy.

However, even Lowell paid an ecological price. In order to supply this “cheap” energy, the Merrimack River needed to be dammed, diverted and controlled. The changes devastated the fishing and farming industries located along the river. While the textile industries blossomed, other sources of incomes and the environment suffered. The cost of an energy resource involves more than just the product being purchased.

In Powering the Dream, this scene plays out many times. Green energy often sees environmentalists pitted against ecologists. They debate which energy resource creates the least amount of ecological havoc. For instance, nuclear energy doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, but nuclear waste storage doesn’t have a safe solution. An additional detriment of nuclear power plants involves nuclear meltdowns. Another example is solar energy. Solar energy farms produce lots of clean energy, but they cover large tracts of lands. In some cases, the farms cause harm to indigenous animals and plants. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating project in the Mojave Dessert has been a test case for future alternative energy plants.

Historically, the expansion westward of the United States required energy. Madrigal discusses a number of inventions and solutions used prior to the availability of oil. They used solar, steam, wind and waves. Windmills provided energy for hundreds of years, and he provides an elaborate description of the history of windmill innovation.

In 1865, oil became cheap and available. The United States economy grew at a rapid pace. Oil surpassed and eliminated alternative energy competitors until World War II. The war machine required all the available oil, and people needed to conserve. Once again people invented alternative energy solutions, but when the war was over, oil became king, and society stopped using them.

From World War II through the early 1970s, oil continued to provide a cheap energy resource, and the economy boomed. By this time, the U.S. met its oil demand through imports. The oil producing countries limited their supply of oil to the United States, and the economy suffered. The government designed policy to conserve and find alternative energy resources. They enacted the Solar Energy Research Development Act of 1974 forming the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) to investigate alternative energy.

Instead of continuing to fund SERI, the government switched to policy favoring conservation and energy efficient products. The United States’ economy continued to grow and rely on oil. SERI turned out to be a short-term solution that few remember. Once again the U.S. finds itself at a crossroads. It depends on limited foreign oil supplies that are shared with emerging economies like China.

In the thirty years since the Solar Energy Research Development Act, very little has been accomplished on a large scale with alternative energy research within the United States. Other countries such as Israel and the Netherlands have instituted successful wind and solar energy programs. Madrigal describes these successes in detail, and hints the U.S. could learn from these programs.

Three thoughts to ponder from Powering the Dream. Funding for alternative energy research has not been sustained. The United States has amnesia in regards to successful alternative energy projects from the past. While many groups agree that alternative energy sources are needed, they can’t seem to agree on the best approach, stagnating the process.

Alexis Madrigal did a lot of research for this book. The bibliography contains an extensive list of documents on alternative energy research. The bibliography and notes alone make the book worth buying. He is a senior editor for The Atlantic magazine, and a visiting scholar at University of California at Berkley. He is a former staff writer for Wired. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University.

(Windmill and water wheel pictures by Bruce G. Smith.)

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About Bruce G. Smith

I'm a part time writer with a few articles published here and there. In addition to writing, I'm into nature and architectural photography.
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