Will Chinese innovations save the world?

Americans disproportionately deny climate change -- but hope for a green revolution remains. An expert explains

Published May 18, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Alexis Madrigal's first book, "Powering the Dream: This History and Promise of Green Technology" (DaCapo), is a quiet page-turner that anyone concerned with our future energy policy -- or lack thereof -- should read.

A former editor at Wired.com (and current technology writer and senior editor at the Atlantic), Madrigal is a talented wordsmith and astute researcher with an eye for ferreting out the "need-to-know" minutiae in a complicated world of energy giants, green pioneers and international trading markets. "The pugilists in the energy wars think they can win by proving their technology is the most inevitable inevitability," he writes in the book's introduction. "We have to go solar, they say. We have to go nuclear, others say. We need to keep burning coal. We need more normal drilling. We need to use less oil. Growth is the answer. Growth is the problem.

"But there will be no magic bullet. We could destroy the things we love. Technology can be, but is not always, the answer. Ideas about nature matter."

Perhaps the most resounding revelation in this 300-page tone poem to green energy is the devastating fact that a lot of the supposedly new green technology, like wind power and electric cars, have been around for well over a hundred years; some never caught steam, others found themselves crushed by fossil fuels.

"This book," Madrigal writes, "is about the uncertainties and triumphs of innovation, the mysterious process by which ideas are made into products out there in the world. In a realm in which everyone argues that things must or will happen, the knowledge of our fallibility is what is most important."

Many Aeromotor windmills, patterned on Thomas Perry's original design, remain standing today

The following is a portion of our conversation.

How did you initially become interested in the subject of green energy?

I was reporting on the green venture capitalist boom in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007 and it seemed like everyone was interesting in green energy. I think it was Bruce Sterling who called peak sexiness for "green" in that year. Seems to me he was right, but I was smitten nonetheless.

After last year's BP debacle in the gulf and this year's tragedy in Japan, one would think cleaner, greener energy would be a more pressing issue than it is today. Ultimately, why is that?

These are hard, long problems. It's like peace in the Middle East with more thermodynamics thrown in. While the broad strokes -- reinventing society, igniting a new industrial revolution -- are fascinating, the details are about as interesting as your average mid-level utility board annual stockholder meeting.

How big of a role will innovative design play in the bigger picture of emerging and affordable renewable energy?

Design and urban planning are the wild-card levers in our energy system. We tend to think of science and engineering as solving energy problems, but the history tells us that the turn away from regionally appropriate architecture in mid-century America is a major reason that we have such an energy-intensive way of life relative to the rest of the world. We traded design for energy. Sometimes it was as simple as doing away with the idea of shade trees, which can reduce energy consumption in hot places. Now, we have the tools to model those kinds of tradeoffs and I hope that means that even the biggest tract home building developers start to replace ongoing energy costs with smart upfront design.

Thomas Perry's windmill testing apparatus.

In the book, I found pages of declarations that really got to the heart of why we don't have a more thriving green energy movement in this country. The one that really speaks to our generation, however, was this one: "There's almost no institutional memory of what happened before the energy crisis of the 70s, and little of what happened 'technologically' during that time has been documented in a serious way." Have special interests spoiled any green revolution akin to the tech boom of the '90s where copious amounts of money were spent, and only the smart and useful survived?

Well, I think the interests were more general than special. The nation's largest utilities had as a cherished operating principle that they should sell more electricity rather than less. Developers wanted to build more bigger, cheaper houses. Everyone's trying to make a lot of bucks.

I'd say the real problem is the way that fossil fuels interact with our idea of the market. They are cheap upfront and a lot of their costs get put on society. I think the fossil fuel industries are a little bit like a bunch of kids living at home with their parents and working over the summer. They think they've got all this money but that's because the parents are paying to clean up after them and otherwise absorbing their living expenses. Except in this case, the kids are producing invisible pollution that is giving people lung cancer every day and will eventually cook our planet. And we're essentially paying them to do it.

But we're also in this weird place in American culture where every corporation claims that it creates jobs, and so doing anything to them is automatically an anti-jobs policy. That's just nuts. So, a lot of the solutions to this kind of thing, basically making these people pay up to level the playing field for green technologies, has been politically impossible.

As you noted, China is kicking our butts when it comes to solar energy, even though Americans pioneered the technology behind the advancements. Can we turn things around and retain an edge, or is all hope lost for emerging technologies related to solar in the U.S.?

The U.S. is still really good at coming up with new ideas. I have no doubt that we'll continue to do that kind of thing: improving solar cells, coming up with new designs, creating new materials. But eventually, I think, the innovation research says that you need to feed back the knowledge you get from making and deploying stuff to keep the virtuous innovation cycle going. And increasingly it looks like China is going to make and deploy innovative power will shift to Chinese engineers and scientists.

eSolar's first test plant in Lancaster, Calif.

With so much overwhelming evidence before us (with international agreement, no less), why are there still so many climate change deniers in this country?

Because our brains don't work very well with really big problems that transpire over decades.

Because just about every person in America has a vested interest in keeping electricity prices low, which in our current economic paradigm means burning coal. An attack on coal is an attack on one's way of life.

Because about a third of our country no longer believes in the technocratic institutions that used to define a lot of the middle ground between the right and left.

Because powerful companies with a lot to lose if they're forced to pay up for global warming pollution have run massive campaigns to blast climate change.

What was the most interesting green energy idea you came across during the course of working on this book?

I tended to think of the book in terms of stories more than ideas. I like the grounding of the stories because they force you to get away from the Big Think mentality and deal with the particulars of a situation. And for me, the most interesting section was my chapter on the wave motor innovation scene around the turn of the 20th century in California. It was just such a bizarre and interesting episode where dozens of people became obsessed with converting the ocean's power into electrical energy. And it was also really interesting because no one had really excavated that history with any rigor. It felt like making a contribution to history.

These are the first two large-scale solar plants ever built, Solar Electric Generating Stations I and II

Does high-speed rail have a chance in this country (and not just in the Eastern corridor, which already has good train service)?

I think that depends on how fast oil gets expensive. If it does, you'll see the whole politics around rail change really quickly. Pair obviously higher oil prices with denser living situations and you'd certainly have a really good shot at getting rail to happen.

How much of our reluctance to innovate more rapidly when it comes to green energy has to do with capitalist greed?

As you can see from my comments about how fossil fuels interact with how we think about markets, a lot of energy innovation failure has been a result of next-quarter capitalist thinking.

You write: "'There are elements of religious revival in Appropriate Technology,' wrote Witold Rybcynski, a thinker who was both part of the movement and harshly critical of it. 'It is a strange melange of Marxism, Puritanism, and something called Buddhist Economics.'" Does the green energy movement of today need more people like Rybcynski?

To be honest, the green movement is pretty self-reflective and critical. We need more champions at the highest levels who know how to connect a vision of a cleaner energy system with a coherent vision of a better world. And it'd help if they were human and funny instead of sanctimonious and dour.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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