Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, has written a history of renewable energy in Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. From homemade windmills in the 1850s to corporately run solar plants in the 1970s, Madrigal says the history of renewable energy offers powerful insights for building a successful alternative energy economy today.
Green Blog contributor Lindsey Hoshaw recently met up with Madrigal in New York for some questions. Here is an abbreviated version:
Can you talk about why you focused on the history of green technology more than on the future?
I felt a journalistic responsibility to expose the history because no one else was doing it. A lot of historians talk about investigating the past like a foreign country and really trying to grasp the strangeness of (it). We have a lot of implicit assumptions about our energy system and why it is the way it is….I wanted to go right at those things and figure out if they were good assumptions or bad assumptions.
You say the prime actors in the green tech movement aren’t activists, what do you mean by this?
The current investments in green technology right now aren’t coming from Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. Although those places do great work, this isn’t what they’re built to do. Corporations, venture capitalists, utilities - these are the people who know how to get power plants built. You have to choose who you want to construct solar plants: would you pick the person who’d never done it before but is ideologically committed or the person who knew how to build a power plant?
In your book, you talk about how even in the 19th century some of these projects weren’t successful, I’m thinking of the water-powered mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, so in the last 150 years what do you think we’ve learned as producers and consumers?
What did we unlearn is almost more interesting. In the decades after World War II we unlearned [designs that worked best for the local climate] that allowed southern homes to stay cooler in the summer and northern homes to stay warmer in the winter and we replaced those things with cheap fossil fuels. And that was a trade off that at the time made a lot of sense to people. Part of investigating the past as a foreign country is to try and think about the motivations of the people who were there and not bring your notions of what they should have done (to) it. We often forget the problems they were trying to solve because we see the problems they created.
You talk a lot about Thoreau and you write, he “found it silly… ‘to prescribe for the globe itself,’ [but] today there is no other way forward to stave off climate change;” so I wanted to know if you could talk about that.
A lot of his notions of economy and wanting to spend your time living rather than making and spending are all fascinating but he also had a very local and regional understanding of the environment. If you need to change the world’s entire energy system, it’s harder to apply that kind of activism. Today we find ourselves in this totally preposterous position of needing to solve something literally at the scale of the entire earth. People haven’t quite realized what that means.
Was there anything that surprised you when you were doing research for the book?
Almost everything (laughs). A moment I can remember is when I went to The Library of Congress’ American Memory collection and I typed solar energy into the search box and the only good hit was a picture of an old dilapidated plant. The caption said, “one of the sole remaining solar hot water heaters from an industry that boomed before World War II,” and I thought, industry that boomed before World War II, what is this? Because many of the practitioners in the field don’t know any of that history either, it really is up to historians and writers to uncover (it).
Is there anything else you want to add?
I feel like Boston has so many universities; I would just make a plea to the environmental and American historians that energy has been left out of the picture a lot of the time in looking at the past. You get so much environmental history about every scrap of land in America and then some of the most important energy technologies, no one has written anything about them from either a technological or a cultural perspective. So that needs more work.
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