Eye-opening micro-histories about American energy past, with an eye to the future, from Atlantic senior editor and technology writer Madrigal.
The author presents a host of good ideas and missed chances in the history of energy production, many of which were in the realm of renewal/sustainable. Madrigal seeks to understand why certain choices were made. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, electric and gasoline-powered automobiles were vying for market dominance. Gasoline won out because it fit snugly with the public attitude for autonomy, set in gear by the massive popularity of the bicycle, which “laid the cultural, infrastructural, and legal groundwork for the privately owned, gasoline-powered vehicle’s dominance.” It got people wanting to travel where they pleased on their own schedule, and the network of bike-repair shops became auto-repair shops. Madrigal covers a dozen other energy schemes with the thoroughness of a convert to each—why the wave motor, windmills, compressed-air systems and solar homes burned brightly for only a short while, but also (and this is critical) why they are now ripe for rediscovery. The author provides vest-pocket biographies of energy mavens, including Palmer Putnam and his giant windmill and physicists like Arthur Rosenfeld, who “broke the psychological link that generations had made between increased levels of fossil-fuel use and economic growth.” Madrigal also offers a digestible course on the economics of renewable energy, and he raises the red flag of such environmentalists as Kim Delfino of the Defenders of Wildlife: “California is starting to see a new kind of ‘gold rush,’ but this time it is going to be our wind, sunlight and public lands public lands that are up for grabs”—another government-to-corporate giveaway.
A well-told cautionary tale about the need for widespread renewable-energy production.