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Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

Alexis Madrigal

(Da Capo; US: Mar 2011)

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology lives up to its title.  It describes, in a personable and engaging fashion, America’s numerous attempts, ideas, and failures in the area of green technology. Refreshingly, it’s not a depressing, we’ve completely screwed up the planet kind of book. There’s an optimism that shines through and the suggestion that Americans can turn “The Dream of a More Perfect Power” into a reality.


Madrigal takes his readers on a journey, one he admits some may be unfamiliar with. He opens the introduction with the idea that many Americans think green technology is too new to have a history, but he quickly notes: 


“In 1900 people could use the sun to heat the water for a shower. They could drive across New York City in an electric taxicab… In 1945 a person could have purchased a solar house or gone to see the one-megawatt wind turbine… Green technology has been a viable set of technologies for more than one hundred years but, regardless, supplies little of America’s energy. What happened? What might have been?”



And then he invitingly suggests, “Let’s find out.”


So Madrigal begins; he details the “commercial Utopia” that was Lowell, Massachusetts in 1833. Because of waterpower, Lowell was clean and airy; its employees “wore bonnets and twirled green and blue parasols as they streamed out of red-brick textile mills”. Pittsburgh “had to run its gas lights during the daytime, as the cloud of smoke and soot that hung over the city blotted out the sun”. Granted, in both places, employees worked 14 hour days, but if the Lowell employees had any energy left, they could go “for walks in nature right outside the town, poking around the ‘rocky nooks along Pawtucket Falls, shaded with hemlocks and white birches’”. Employees in Pittsburgh could only spend their off hours walking through the “soot and ash”.


Moving forward, Madrigal explores the familiar: nuclear power, coal, steam, oil, and wind; and perhaps the less familiar energy sources—including wave motors (which are exactly what they sound like) and pond scum. He discusses near misses such as “The National Electric Transportation System That Almost Was” in a way that will make most readers sigh. He blends facts and personal observations when he notes, “The electric rail lines that united every major American city in the early decades of the 1900s… were eventually ripped out of the ground and paved over. We now live in the cities we built for our cars, locked into a transportation system that is dependent on low oil prices in a world that no longer finds that prerequisite guaranteed.”


Why so many failures and so few successes? Different reasons, but often—not surprisingly—it all comes back to money: “The way the United States has spent green-tech R&D funding has hurt the efficiency of the research. We’ve gotten less for our money than we should have. Programs that started during the boom of the late ‘70s were abandoned during the early ‘80s, even if they were promising.”  Another example of a cost issue Madrigal explores: renewable energy versus coal. People want the cheap stuff, and as Madrigal succinctly states, “Renewable energy (RE) has to become cheaper than coal.”


All these examples contribute to the main point of the book, which is, as Madrigal notes, to document “our country’s previous attempts to secure a more perfect power in hopes that future ones will succeed.” It’s that old cliché: learn your history or be doomed to repeat it.


Of course, learning about the failures is only part of the solution; being ready for a fight is another: “There will be turmoil and unrest and failure in our energy system as we try to rewrite the [industrial] constitution we signed in concrete and steel more than a hundred years ago.” Still, Madrigal clearly believes Americans can succeed. This optimism is found both in the tone and content of the book.  And nowhere is it clearer than at the end of the book when Madrigal asks:


“What better symbol could there be of who we really are—or ought to be—than a field of mirrors harnessing the sun to make huge amounts of electricity in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a fence to keep out desert tortoises who have had their homes moved to a carefully constructed new location as if they were very high-paid executive switching jobs? That’s living with our world—and it’s what a naturalized, if not natural, energy system looks like, the kind humans could live with for a very long time.”


Plus, it’s a science book with literary references. Madrigal credits Thoreau with “laying one of the foundations for the ethic of the scientific movement, suggests Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee is a model of the free enterpriser breed, wandering King Arthur’s Court, bragging that he could make ‘all sorts of labor-saving machinery’”, and summarizes Victor Cohn’s book 1999: Our Hopeful Future (published in 1956 it predicts many things about the “future”—including a world where “balding is a thing of the past”).  It’s not great literature (or even good), but Madrigal also includes a “poem” about vice grip pliers.


In the end, Madrigal writes a book that works on many levels. While not particularly scholarly, his simple statements like “Consider the dam” do ask audiences to think critically, his chapter openings (“John Etzler was probably crazy, but not so much more than your average futurist”) are catchy, and his optimism gives readers hope that it’s not too late to find greener technologies.

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