Alexis Madrigal on Powering the Dream (Podcast)

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Wind turbines, solar cells, wave power. If you think these are newfangled technologies, think again. They were fangled long ago, and their story is the meat of Alexis Madrigal's new book, Powering the Dream. Madrigal (a senior editor at The Atlantic and former staff writer) has painted a fascinating tale of the quirky geniuses who championed green-tech early on, the fates they met, and the lessons we should learn. In our conversation, he relays some of his favorites stories, explains his suspicion of green venture capitalists, and says that environmentalism needs to co-opt capitalism and focus on people to find its way forward.

Alexis Madrigal: I think the basic idea is that if we don't know the history, we don't know why people made choices, then we don't know why we have the kind of society that we do. People know so much about the paper Constitution of the United States, so many things about the laws that shape our lives. But we know very little, actually, about how our infrastructure got built, which similarly shapes our lives and, in a lot of ways, shapes our lives more.

Why do we have the kind of energy system that we do? The energy system underpins the economy. The book is a kind of shadow history of the decisions that built our energy system and how we might make different decisions going forward.

TH: You put a lot of personality into telling these stories, discovering not just the technologies but the people who championed them. Can you give us a couple examples of the types of characters who are in the book?

Madrigal: The funny thing is, you write a book like this and there are all these interesting characters involved, and then it ends up becoming mostly a policy book in the end. But one of the reasons I got interested is that I just liked thinking about who was it that in 1840 was interested in solar power.

And it turns out that one such guy was named John Etzler, an he was a German Utopian. He was actually friends with the guy who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, a guy named Roebling. And Etzler basically wandered the country, almost like a quasi-religious figure, trying to get people to buy into his idea that there was infinite power in the sun and the wind and the waves.

And it's important to remember that steam engines were really just getting going in the United States. There were probably a few dozen, and most of them were mounted on ships. So you have a world that's kind of pre-fossil in a lot of ways, and you have this guy who's already out there arguing that we should be going directly to solar and wind power.

And of course, he had some bad engineering ideas, but his basic prophecies, of the kind of world that you could build if you had close to infinite power, are really interesting. And he has his own crazy story, where he ended up leading a utopian settlement in South America which ended horribly, and he kind of sailed off into the Caribbean and was never seen again.

So there are some weird guys like that. There are also slightly more successful figures, like FDR's science adviser, Vannevar Bush, who, in addition to writing for The Atlantic (my bosses would like me to note), was also instrumental in getting the first megawatt wind turbine built in Vermont. He basically threw his clout behind a guy named Palmer Putnam, who later went on to design the Duckmobile, those amphibious vehicles that you can now rent and take a tour through Boston or some other place, drunkenly. He was an inventor, and those two guys teamed up and got the thing built.

So there are a lot of different types. And I thought about what are the general categories. You have the kind of crazy visionary types. You have just the engineers, who were like, "I don't know, solar energy just makes so much sense." And then you have the opportunists who come in at various times in history and try to make a quick buck off solar energy. And all of them, all three types, have had a major impact on the space and on the history of what we hope will be our future energy system.

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