The surprising history of sustainable energy

There’s nothing new under the sun — least of all, the idea of solar energy.

1883 solar demonstration in Paris

During the 1860s and 1870s, when “peak coal” fears swept across Europe, many people thought that civilization itself could be extinguished. Scientists and engineers insisted that solar energy could extend the industrial revolution indefinitely after coal ran out. (Similar ideas about sustainability are found throughout the history of the industrial revolution.)

French professor Augustine Mouchot predicted in 1873:

“The time will arrive when the industry of Europe will cease to find those natural resources, so necessary for it. Petroleum springs and coal mines are not inexhaustible but are rapidly diminishing in many places.  Will man, then, return to the power of water and wind? Or will he emigrate where the most powerful source of heat sends its rays to all?  History will show what will come.”

Meanwhile in America, John Ericsson pursued a similar path.

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Political attacks on renewable energy

There’s a Washington Post story about “questions being raised” concerning President Obama’s support for renewable energy.

It’s an unusual story from an unusual angle.   By seeing the debate through one lens,  Carol D. Leonnig, Joe Stephens and Alice Crites missed the bigger story about the clash of basic philosophies.

For example, where exactly does the attribution stop in this paragraph?

“This month, a congressional energy subcommittee chairman accused the administration of picking clean-tech “winners and losers” by pouring government money into a sector best determined by free-market forces.”

Does the idea that technology is “best determined by free-market forces” belong to the chairman or to the reporters?

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Wind — top down engineering versus crafts tradition

In the summer of 1979, engineers from US aerospace and energy agencies assembled a $50 million utility-scale wind turbine on an alpine meadow overlooking the college town of Boone, North Carolina.  The 100 foot blades on the Mod-1 turbine poured two megawatts of electricity into the grid – enough to power about 800 homes. Hopeful politicians hailed wind energy as a new way to fight dependence on foreign petroleum, and the message resonated with a public still suffering from the insecurities of the Arab oil embargo.

NASA's 2 MW, $50 million wind turbine, built 1979, torn down 1983

Yet as the blades began turning in the Appalachian wind, engineers from NASA, the Department of Energy, and General Electric had already realized that the optimism was misplaced.  They knew the Mod1 had serious design flaws, such as its strong low-frequency sounds and easily cracked aluminum blades. The wind turbine was dismantled within two years, and most of the subsequent experiments in the MOD series were similar failures. By the turn of the 21st century, the hope of creating an American wind turbine manufacturing industry had all but collapsed.

Around this same time, at a high school near the west coast of Denmark, a very different kind of wind project was under way.

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