21 April 2011

Review: Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

The road to the green technology future is paved with good intentions -- and littered with quite a few failures from the past.

In Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor with The Atlantic, has written a comprehensive history of green technology that also a cautionary tale. 

The "Promise" in the book's subtitle has largely been unfulfilled and Madrigal shows how and why.

The book traces green technology back to before the start of the 20th century, to the late 1800s, when the first oil discoveries were made in Pennsylvania, water-pumping windmills dotted the landscape of the Midwest, wave energy schemes were floating off the California coast, and electric taxicabs transported Manhattanites across town.

Powering the Dream is a history of failure and optimism, which is to say, a book about entrepreneurism in America.  Green technology breeds a distinctive American brand of entrepreneur -- messianic, full of hubris, and, well, sometimes just plain crazy.

Madrigal is a good storyteller and this book is full of compelling characters, including John Etlzer who wrote the book on harnessing nature's powers for human purpose in the 1830s; Arnold Goodman, the visionary behind Luz (now BrightSource), the solar thermal company that has its origins in the 1970s; George Keck, who popularized the "solar home" of the 1950s; and G.P. "Put" Putnam, scion of the publishing family and developer of the first megawatt wind turbine erected in Vermont in the 1940s. (Yes, the 1940s.)

Writing about solar hot water heaters, which had its American heyday in the 1930s, Madrigal notes that by the 2000s, "A technology invented and improved in the United States is a dim memory here and a thriving industry elsewhere."  Sadly, this sentence could have ended many of the chapters about technologies in Madrigal's book.

Madrigal understands that two things that have prevented green technology from powering America: lack of money and short-term thinking that predates our contemporary politics and economy.

Ultimately, however, Powering the Dream is a hopeful book.  Madrigal surmises that in learning about the many miscues of our past, we may be able to avoid repeating them in the future.  And perhaps, at last, green technology will live up to its promise.

Enhanced by Zemanta