The Surprisingly Long History of Green Energy

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Nathan Lazarnick / George Eastman House / Getty Images

An electric taxi circa 1900

Green technology has no history — which isn't to say that it has no past. For many Americans the subject sprang into being a few years ago, maybe around the time the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth hit theaters, or when they first saw (but didn't hear) a modest Toyota Prius curling around the corner. Sure, a small group of people cared about solar water heaters or wind turbines back in the 1970s, when we can remember then President Jimmy Carter telling America to turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater. But green tech is widely considered to be the stuff of the future, there to clean up an economy that has been inexorably built on fossil fuels — on coal, oil and gasoline-powered automobiles.

Except, that's not true. Before New York City ever had its yellow fleet of gas-guzzling taxis — and way before Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to force those drivers to go hybrid — there was a thriving electric-taxi company at the turn of the 20th century that served the entire metropolis. Windmills helped transform the American West in the 1800s, providing power for irrigation — and setting the stage for wind power's resurgence a century later. There was no guarantee that electricity would win out over less-polluting compressed air as a way to transmit energy over long distances. Californians were entranced by the potential of wave power in the early 1900s, and solar water heaters used to be common in the early 1900s.

Far from being a recent phenomenon, Americans have been trying to go green for decades. Yet our modern society ended up being based on the idea of cheap, inexhaustible energy from fossil fuels, a decision we're living to rue. "The fossil-fueled economy of the twentieth century had a tendency to pave over alternatives to itself, leaving only curious hints of worlds that might have been," writes Alexis Madrigal in his excellent new book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. "Green technology has been a viable set of technologies for more than one hundred years but, regardless, supplies little of America's energy."

The question Madrigal — a senior editor at the Atlantic — sets out to answer in Powering the Dream is, simply, Why? Why did the U.S. develop an energy system — and an economy — built around fossil fuels like oil and coal as opposed to renewable power, centralized electrical utilities over distributed generation? We assume that it had to be this way — that fossil fuels and suburbia were simply so superior to a greener system that their triumph was inevitable. But that's not the case. Technology doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is influenced by society — and society, as Madrigal points out, can and does change, which gives us hope for the future.

There were early prophets for what could have been a different America. Madrigal introduces us to John Etzler, a quirky writer who was "probably crazy, but not so much more than your average futurist." Etzler wrote a book in the 1830s — called The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery: An Address to All Intelligent Men — that could have come from the desk of Al Gore. At a time when steam locomotives were just beginning to be built, Etzler was hailing the ability of the wind, the sun and the waves to power a growing America.

The book was out there — Etzler included in the volume an address to then President Andrew Jackson — but in many ways he was anticipating the need for a technological solution to our energy and climate concerns, not just a philosophical one. Madrigal draws the comparison to Henry David Thoreau, whose writings — including Walden — inspired environmentalists who believed that small was beautiful and turned away from technology. That's a strategy that might work to protect Walden Pond, but it can't solve the larger global environmental challenges — climate change, the resource crisis — that now plague the planet. For that you need man-made technology — but it has to be the right kind. "The global environment has become an unintentional 'garden,' and humans have to manage it," writes Madrigal. "High-tech, low-carbon technologies seem to be the only way to preserve Thoreau's flowers."

The problem is that we've never really supported the right technologies. Madrigal shows that American policy toward green energy has been a mess, long before this new batch of Republicans went into Congress fixed on dismantling environmental protections. The 1970s saw a burst of meaningful research into wind, solar and other alternatives, all motivated by the sudden spike in energy costs and the dawning realization of the environmental crisis. But after Ronald Reagan swept into office and oil prices dropped, that research was discontinued — thanks chiefly to opposition from the Republicans — even as scientists were on the brink of breakthroughs. Meanwhile, nuclear power was the recipient of generous government largesse for decades (and still is), while utilities in the postwar era got Americans hooked on cheap power and helped enable the growth of air-conditioning, suburbia and electronic gadgets.

In fact, it's not fair to say that green power failed — given the rules of the game, it never really had a chance.

The question now is whether we can do better in the future. As President Barack Obama said in a speech last month, "We cannot keep going from shock to trance on the issue of energy security," demanding quick fixes when gas prices rise and then slipping back into complacency when they fall. From his reading of history, Madrigal suggests a policy of countercyclical investment by the government, ensuring that there is public research money and subsidies available for green energy during those fallow periods when the private markets go missing.

That money should come with certain strings, requiring green innovators to make their data public, so the movement can benefit even if a single machine fails. (The ability to learn, Madrigal points out, is the difference between failing well as an innovator and failing badly.) Environmentalists might have to make some compromises as well. If green tech is going to make a difference, it's going to need to be big — corporate big. It would be a worthwhile trade. "Green technology gives environmentalism the material means to build a better civilization as well as the political potency and clarity of purpose that comes with the need to make new things," Madrigal writes. The good thing about green history is that we're not doomed to repeat it — once we've learned from it.

Walsh's column Going Green usually appears on Tuesdays on