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Powering the Dream

Alexis Madrigal
Da Capo, 400 pp., $27.50

Here's a shining vision: great turbines harness the tidal power of the Pacific coast, meeting 100 percent of San Francisco's energy needs. Whole subdivisions of New York and Chicago are built with solar heating. The Great Plains are blanketed by 800,000 windmills. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducts "a bioprospecting effort like no other in our nation's history," finding ways to create biodiesel from the fat that algae accumulate in their cells.

The future? No, the past. San Francisco experimented with tidal turbines in 1895; New York and Chicago built their solar homes in 1947; the Plains were covered with windmills in 1950; NREL launched its pioneering work on algae in 1978. To Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at the Atlantic, each of these stories is a parable, each carrying the same message: we have been here before, and often. The history of American society is in large part the history of technology, and the great underlying question is whether we can understand "what forces drove what, who benefited, what was gained, and what was lost."

Madrigal asks why our dreams of renewable energy have run repeatedly into blind alleys -- until, perhaps, now. Each of these visionary episodes ultimately foundered because it could not be scaled up to the mass market. Sometimes that was because the technology didn't advance rapidly enough; sometimes it was because governments lost interest; sometimes it was because powerful vested interests strangled the new baby in the cradle. (That one has never gone away, of course.)

The story of Miami, where 80 percent of new homes built between 1937 and 1941 came with solar water heaters, is probably the most eloquent of Madrigal's case studies. What happened here was that the initiative was crushed by the greater power of electric utilities and real estate developers. The initial purchase price of a conventional electric home was marginally lower, even though it would cost the homeowner more over time.

For a brief period in the 1970s, all the right stars seemed to be coming into alignment. The first Earth Day and a slew of new environmental laws had brought a new consciousness to the land. The first oil shock was an urgent wake-up call about our addiction to fossil fuels. Jimmy Carter was elected. Miraculously, Denis Hayes, one of the creators of Earth Day, was appointed to head the federal government's new Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) -- by a Republican energy secretary! Imagine that. But then Carter was no more, off came the solar panels from the White House roof, and SERI's budget was cut in half. Under President Reagan, coal, oil, and nuclear became the flavors of the month, and we're still digging ourselves out of the wreckage.

But we now have another moment of opportunity, Madrigal says. The reasons are various: climate change is our generation's oil shock, only bigger; the federal government is again interested in subsidizing alternatives; venture capitalists are ready to invest billions; and we have renewable projects on the drawing board, and even operating in the field, on a much larger scale than ever before.

Scale: that's the key word, and it's where Madrigal's argument gets most interesting. Without achieving scale, the price of renewables will never come down enough to compete with coal (which benefits, of course, from massive hidden subsidies, since the environmental and public health damage it causes has never been factored into its cost). Renewables must be cheaper. Google has a formula for this: RE < C.

To any serious student of energy markets, the need for scale is self-evident. But to many environmentalists, Madrigal argues, it may be counterintuitive -- even culturally repellent. It may mean placing our renewable energy future in the hands of people like the venture capitalist John Doerr, who says, "I'm a raging capitalist. My job is to make a lot of money." And realizing our dream may mean accepting massive industrial projects like BrightSource's 400-megawatt Ivanpah thermal solar array in the Mojave Desert -- the "Saudi Arabia of solar." What's more important, Madrigal asks: phasing out fossil fuels or saving the threatened desert tortoise? Though he delivers it with sympathy, and even with some ambivalence, Madrigal's message could not be more provocative. We may not be able to have it both ways.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >