Alexis Madrigal on Powering the Dream (Podcast)

TreeHugger: I was really surprised to learn how old-school wave power is. Wind, solar, wave-how old are these technologies? And why do they seem like they're coming out for the first time?

Alexis Madrigal: Well, wave power is one that's near and dear to me. If you think about wave power, you have to think about just how people perceive energy, right? I mean, there's so much energy in fossil fuels that it's thrown our whole conception off. The fact that you can just put a little bit of gasoline in the car and then it pushes this 2,000-pound machine around is kind of astounding.

But before that, people perceived energy with their bodies. Richard White, who's a historian at Stanford, has actually written a great book called The Organic Machine, talking about how people would have measured energy. They measured it on their bodies, when they tried to get into a river or tried to get into the ocean or tried to pilot a boat somewhere.

And one of the best things about wave power is if you were on the west coast of the United States during the 1890s, which is when there was actually a kind of a wave-motor frenzy going on in San Francisco and Los Angeles, you would have known the power of the waves by literally being hit by them in the Pacific Ocean. And you would have felt that power and said, "Imagine if we could convert that into electricity," which is what dozens of inventors tried to do in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century.

In fact, I actually think it's the most pure distillation. Their dream is almost the most pure distillation of the renewable-energy dream.

As a result, I actually got a patent drawing of an 1890s wave motor tattooed on my right forearm, because I felt like, A) it's such a perfect distillation of what the dream is, and B) the kinds of machines that they came up with were totally Rube Goldbergian. In fact, Rube Goldberg was in San Francisco during that time, so that's why I talk about him in the book. It was like: 'this crank will be moved by the waves, which will then move this lever, which will then compress air, which will then be fed to a compressed-air motor, which will then run a dynamo, which will then generate electricity...'

And it always seemed like if you could just get the right theories of mechanical operations put together, you would suddenly have this infinite power source. And to a certain extent, we're still looking for that kind of breakthrough. We're still looking for ways of converting what's roughly infinite amounts of solar and wave and wind power into, in an economical way, electricity for humans' use. And I actually love that quest. I think it's the quest of the next century and something really worth our time.

TH: So what are the lessons learned?

Madrigal: Well, I think one is that the US has provided long-term, stable policy for fossil fuels, and not for solar energy. And I think it's just a basic fact: if you want to want to develop a type of energy technology, you want a consistent, long-term policy environment for that technology to grow up in. And in fact, we've done the exact opposite with solar power.
Nuclear power is a useful contrast. Not that I'm really opposed to nuclear power, but it's just a useful contrast to see how the US treated nuclear power, essentially providing it all kinds of institutional, formal and informal support, from about 1942 to 1975. Solar power has never had anything close to that kind of institutional support.

In fact, the lessons are so basic that it almost is preposterous to say them. Things like, don't gut your Solar Energy Research Institute-which we did in the late 1970s. Don't provide incentives for wind power or solar power, which then generate all these companies that want to try and be in that business, and then take them away every few years, destroying the industry. Don't let people leave the industry because there's a momentary drop in the price of fossil fuels, when we know for a fact they'll go back up again. Other countries have actually done a much better job of keeping people involved in renewable energy, most notably the Danes, with their incredible wind industry.

There's a scholar at the University of Wisconsin, Gregory Nemet, who calls this "counter-cyclical energy policies." This is where they're like: Oh, the price of energy's really high right now. Private industry will probably be attracted to the energy sector, and maybe the government doesn't have to do as much. And of course, in the US, when we see high energy prices, we say: Pour on the government money now, because now we need a solution. And really, the truth is that you need to be working on the solutions while energy prices are low, so that when prices are higher you have options.

There's lots of basic stuff, nothing that people wouldn't agree on in every other industry. But in the US, I think, the type of energy source that you support is, in fact, a pretty deeply political issue, and we just need to own up to that and try and win this political battle.

TH: You write about these pockets of Silicon Valley-style innovation going on in green tech and draw parallels between them and the early maverick inventors. But I also sense a kind of suspicion regrading their approach to tackling energy and environment. Is that right?

Madrigal: I think that's true. I got into this book through reporting on green-tech venture capitalists. I think many of them had their hearts in the right places, in some sense. I mean, they had a belief in the triple-bottom-line kind of thinking. But really, they didn't really care that much. And I think you saw that.

As soon as things didn't seem like they were paying off quickly, a lot of them got back out of the game. But I think the suspicion actually goes deeper. The real suspicion is that the way that those people think about technology, as something where an individual breakthrough will change the game. This is the wrong way of thinking about energy. And that's not necessarily to say that things don't change or that we can't change things. It's just that energy technologies are so built into the fabric of everything that we do that any individual technological change isn't going to make a huge impact right away.

So really it's about building innovation ecosystems where all different kinds of small breakthroughs come together to radically change what's possible in our energy system. Even electricity as an energy carrier was only a late nineteenth century thing. In fact, it was in competition with compressed air as a way of transmitting power.

And if you look at the system that had to develop for electricity to become the wide-spread thing that it is now, it's actually really complicated. It took decades. You have Edison and electric lights in the 1870s, 1880s, but really most people don't get power until 30 years after that.

And that's something that was so obviously and massively useful and that was bringing entirely new capabilities to factories, to homes, etc. and it still took that long because of all of the systems that had to change in order to make it work.

So when when people say we need a new industrial revolution, they're thinking we need a new steam engine. And what I'm thinking is we need the entire new system that was built around steam engines or around the dynamos and electrical generators.

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