Pioneers of Renewable Energy

September 5, 2011

I’m reading a new book by Alexis Madrigal called, Powering the Dream – The History and Promise of Green Technology (Da Capo Press, 2011). Here are a few thoughts based on the book…

Modern politicians, regardless of party, lead us to believe that renewable energy technology is in its infancy. John Etzler was not a politician, but he believed that renewable energy was the perfect democratic power source. He believed technology was adequately advanced to harness the wind, the waves, and the sun. He believed that the power within these elements was, “more than sufficient to produce a total revolution of the human race.”

Etzler wrote seven publications on the subject of renewable energy and the machines that use them. His last book was published in 1844. That is not a typing error. I said 1844. Etzler never lived to see his visions implemented, and many of his experiments failed. He was not a gifted engineer. Some called him just a crazy utopian, and maybe he was. Maybe he was born 150 years too soon. Or maybe his timing was perfect.

Ralph Waldo Emerson discovered Etzler’s writings and recommended them to his poet-friend, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was so inspired by Etzler’s ideas that he began to study and write poetically and scientifically about nature. Thoreau documented many interdependencies between plants and animals and climate in a way that had not been done before him. From Etzler and Thoreau, we learned that nature is both fragile and full of energy.

Etzler failed at the practical application of solar panels in the mid 1800s, but in the 1980s, silicon valley used his concept on a much smaller scale to advance microchip technology. To be fair, designs to harness the sun’s energy go back long before the 19th century. Leonardo da Vinci designed solar-powered devices in the 15th century, and Archimedes did the same in 200BC!  

Until the 18th century, homes, farms and other businesses were powered primarily by renewable energy. Technology of that era fed on wind, steam and biomass fuels (wood). Very little fossil fuel was used. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the world-wide industrial revolution preferred to feed on fossil fuels. Here in the early 21st century, we are working to return technology to its original feeding habits.

To quote Powering the Dream, “Nature is becoming more human managed, but the human systems that produce energy are becoming less destructive and more closely matched to the environment.”

Perhaps those early thinkers and doers would approve of the path we are on, if not the pace. Did the pioneers of renewable energy live thousands of years ago? Hundreds? Or are they still alive and working today? Did the pioneers of renewable energy come before us, or are we them? Yes.

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