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.
No matter who emerges as the winner after the Nov. 6 voting, the usual political platitudes once again substituted for serious discussion about our future.
Several people said this quite well in the run-up to the election.
Denis Hayes, Earth Day co-founder and former leader of the Solar Energy Research Institute, said this in the Seattle Times:
Utterly lost amid the arguments about unemployment rates, housing starts, and automobile sales are a raft of critical global issues that should be on a president’s desk. As an environmentalist, I’d like to hear a thoughtful discussion about how to use, and constrain, the power our corporations have acquired to change the face of the planet.
We are causing huge, planet-wide disruptions in the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the hydrological cycle. We are radically accelerating natural processes of erosion and introducing hormone-like chemicals into even the most remote niches of the planet. We are blowing the tops off coal-bearing mountains; decimating tropical rain forests; swiftly acidifying the oceans; creating enormous “dead zones” at the mouths of major rivers; and producing an epidemic of extinction among the world’s wild vertebrates. These issues were barely mentioned in the presidential and our state’s gubernatorial debates.
There was very little debate over tax incentives, as former Congressman Berkeley Bedell noted:
With Republican Mitt Romney advocating an end to the current tax incentive for wind energy, investors are reluctant to make the investment in wind generators, not knowing whether or not that tax incentive will continue. That tax benefit needs to be renewed not just for a year, but for at least four years to give investors confidence that their investment will not be subject to the votes of short sighted politicians.
Q: How many conservative economists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. The darkness will cause the light bulb to change all by itself.
H.R.Spalding Co., Boston, 1852, was one of thousands of stores selling various liquid fuels, including an ethanol blend, before kerosene was introduced with a tax advantage in the 1860s.
History is loaded with myths, and they are often used to lead is in one direction when a more accurate historical account might provide a rather different lesson.
Take, for instance, the Whale Oil Myth — the idea that the free market, without any government intervention, is fully capable of making energy technology transitions. People who believed in the myth have argued against environmental regulation, technology policy and even federally-funded energy research. They say we need to “let the market decide.” It’s a fair debate, and there are many good points to be made on both sides.
But what about the history lesson implicit in the whale oil myth? Doesn’t that tell us that conservative economists are right? And the question is, and must always be in these situations, whether we have an accurate history in the first place.
By Bill Kovarik
1926 cartoon from Ethyl Corp. papers.
The grain ethanol industry has always been controversial.
These days, critics point out that the corn ethanol industry is not going to help avert climate disaster since, at best, it has a slightly positive net energy balance (or carbon footprint).
Fair enough. But the corn ethanol industry was not originally created as a way to shift to low-carbon fuels
The original ethanol industry was the main fuel in the lamp fuel industry before kerosene. It was taxed out of existence in the US during the 1860s, but returned with the backing of Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.
When geologists said oil was running out just after World War I, ethanol was seen as one important answer. When engines needed better fuels in the 1920s, ethanol was seen as superior to tetra-ethyl-lead (“leaded gasoline”) octante boosters. When farmers needed new markets in the 1930s, ethanol was billed as a way to avoid farm relief. And when the Arabs cut off oil supplies to the US in the 1970s, an ethanol industry was built to provide emergency fuel supplies.
There’s a Washington Post story about “questions being raised” concerning President Obama’s support for renewable energy.
It’s an unusual story from an unusual angle. By seeing the debate through one lens, Carol D. Leonnig, Joe Stephens and Alice Crites missed the bigger story about the clash of basic philosophies.
For example, where exactly does the attribution stop in this paragraph?
“This month, a congressional energy subcommittee chairman accused the administration of picking clean-tech “winners and losers” by pouring government money into a sector best determined by free-market forces.”
Does the idea that technology is “best determined by free-market forces” belong to the chairman or to the reporters?
By Bill Kovarik
Roanoke Times, Sept. 4, 2011.
The ethanol industry has attracted many critics over the years. Much of the criticism is well meant and should be well taken. The yardsticks that are usually applied to the industry – carbon footprint, biodiversity, competition between food and fuel, government subsidies, air and water quality – are certainly appropriate, even if they are rarely applied equally to all energy industries.
But the critics tend to miss the most important point about the historical reason for the development of the ethanol industry. The primary reason for blending ethanol in gasoline is NOT to replace Middle Eastern oil. (That was always a secondary issue.)
The reason that today’s corn ethanol industry has become so large is that the oil industry does not have a safe additive to bring gasoline up to 87 octane.
There’s a new fractured history lesson on ethanol hitting the blogs.
“Stop the Ethanol Scam,” Roanoke Times March 20, 2011 is one. “Ethanol a Massive Waste” is another one. Both fail to take basic historical facts into account.
These commentaries say that the Nazis commandeered “the entire European potato crop in 1944 and turn(ed) it into ethanol to fuel V2 rockets.” So people starved in order to feed the German rocket program. The historical lesson, they say, is that we are “driving down much the same road with the current ethanol program in America.”
But is the premise remotely realistic? Could the entire European potato crop have been turned into V2 rocket fuel?
From NPR: The recent tax cut bill preserves a pretty sweet deal for corn ethanol. It extends a tax subsidy, along with an import tariff supporting a fuel that already enjoys a guaranteed market. But what do taxpayers get for all the help? In the first of our three-part series on ethanol, Frank Morris of Harvest Public Media reports that the heated debate over ethanol tramples some basic realities.
Ethanol may seem modern, but people throughout Appalachia have been making it for hundreds of years.
“We are known for our moonshine industry,” says science writer Bill Kovarik with a laugh, “very well known for our moonshine industry. It is still flourishing.”
Kovarik, who’s also a professor at Radford University, says that ethanol is, first and foremost, a way to make corn more valuable. More than a century ago, Henry Ford built cars to run on it, with just that in mind. “So, you could replace the transportation income that farmers used to have by [their] growing the fuel for the cars, instead of growing horses and feed.”
Link to the rest of the story / Link to the longer Harvest Media version
Postscript: Bob Dineen of the Renewable Fuels Association had an interesting take on this series:
“Where in this series is the comparison to Big Oil? You can’t talk, weigh, or dismiss an alternative without talking about the problem it is trying to solve. So where, perhaps in the final piece, will we hear NPR discuss the billions in subsidies and tax breaks that go to Big Oil conglomerates and dangerous dictators in oil rich countries?”