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.

John Ericsson photo by Matthew Brady, 1863

Ericsson was a naval engineer who invented the first ironclad, the USS Monitor, and like Mouchot, was convinced that civilization need not expire with the end of fossil fuels. Ericsson invented solar machines that he tested on the roof of his Manhattan townhouse in the 1870s and 80s.

Within a few decades, the dependence on liquid fuels like kerosene and gasoline led to a very similar reaction from a different group of inventors and engineers. Once again, the “peak” of a fossil energy reserve was in question. Although today we’re familiar with “peak oil” fears, the same concerns surfaced throughout the 20th century.

As a result, testing and racing of various fuel types was common at the dawn of the automotive age. William K. Vanderbilt (right) preferred alcohol fuel (ethanol) when he raced between 1904 and 1910 because — despite its somewhat lower BTU value — ethanol had higher octane and could run a lighter, more powerful engine.

The limitations of making ethanol from food crops were well appreciated even since the 1920s, and the idea that cellulose would be the foundation for replacing petroleum was championed by Henry Ford, Isaac Asimov, and even, 90 years ago, by the scientist who founded the Cellulose Chemistry division of the American Chemical Society – Harold Hibbert.

“It looks as if in the rather near future, this country will be under the necessity of paying out vast sums yearly in order to obtain supplies of crude oil from Mexico, Russia and Persia,” Hibbert said in a 1921 scientific journal article.  “It is believed, however, that the chemist is capable of solving this difficult problem…. (and) it would seem that cellulose in one form or another is capable of filling that role.”

In 1925, Henry Ford told reporters:  “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything.” Ford’s optimism about cellulosic biofuels was unusual for the auto, oil and chemical industries, which had all placed their bets on leaded gasoline and foreign oil.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov found all this fascinating.  “Cellulose can be broken down into glucose molecules,” Asimov said in a 1986 article, “and the glucose solution can be fermented into alcohol…  (and) used as a liquid fuel.” The advantage?  “Cellulose is self-renewing if we are carful to conserve our forests, so the fuel we get from it could last indefinitely, whereas oil from the ground must be completely used up eventually.” (Asimov also found it hard to resist the science fiction notion that we need to beware of mutant microbes that might get outside their tanks and dissolve the forests.)

Another challenge to established energy technologies came in the form of wind power. Windmills had been a fixture in the European and American landscape for centuries.

Wind power for electricity is a fascinating story, one told through the experience of the Jacobs brothers and many others who saw wind power challenging the utility monopoliies. The problem of how to match steady demand with intermittent supply was a preoccupation, and one British scientist, J.B.S. Haldane, suggested in 1924 that they could cover the British landscape with windmills generating both electricity and hydrogen from electrolysis of water when demand was low.

Today, European power companies find they can make extra money in Europe by “conditioning” and managing intermittent energy streams. In the US, utilities are still claiming it’s not possible.

US public opinion polls of the late 20th and early 21st century show a consistently strong preference for renewable energy. Yet when the benefits of the energy technology accrue to its feudal lords, and the risks are borne by the public, is it any wonder that the feudal lords insist that only traditional coal, oil and nuclear technology is feasible?

These days, we think we’re all very advanced when it comes to technology, but the social construction of energy technology has lagged far behind the capabilities of technology itself. Under the current system, the people (and their government) can’t even regulate the most obvious threats to public health and the environment, much less channel energy technology into healthier and more positive paradigms.

Clearly, we need to rethink energy and the social construction of technology. Recovering our memory, in the form of history, is one positive step we need to take.

— Bill Kovarik, PhD


About Bill Kovarik

Bill Kovarik is a journalist, historian and Professor of Communication at Radford University in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwestern Virginia. He has worked with wire services, daily newspapers, national news magazines, environmental publications and new media projects. He teaches science and environment writing, journalism, web design, media history media law, and peace studies. His latest book, Revolutions in Communication, spans six centuries from the Gutenberg Bible to the Wikileaks controversy. He is working on openly licensed textbooks in First Amendment law and visual communication.
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1 Response to The surprising history of sustainable energy

  1. Pingback: Individual Topical Review Paper: Renewable Energy (Draft) « christinatwc

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