Alternative Energy – A Brief History

I’ve been thinking a lot about alternative energy lately. Partly it comes from riding the rollercoaster of $1.50-to-$4-to-$1.50 gasoline and $20-to-$140-to-$40 crude oil prices, partly from the on-going greenhouse gas – climate change discussions, and partly because of our entanglements with OPEC and Middle East politics. But mostly it comes from a long-held interest in the interaction of fossil-based energy and feedstocks, alternative energy sources, and geopolitics.

Taking a semi-long, say a 30-40 year, view, this isn’t the first time we’ve felt an oil price spike. Crude was nearly $100 a barrel (in today’s dollar equivalent) three decades ago. At that level, energy prices drove great efficiencies – from better insulation in our homes and factories, to more fuel efficient cars, machinery and home appliances, to better building products and construction techniques.

That earlier energy price excursion spawned thriving businesses in most of the alternative energy technologies we hear about today. Active and passive solar heating and hot water popped up on rooftops around the country, huge solar-to-steam-to-electricty schemes came off drawing boards around the world, photovoltaics were promising but tantalizingly just a bit too expensive. Plans to derive energy from ocean waves and tides, geothermal, even electricty microwaved down from huge solar panel satellites were seriously advanced. Brazil perfected a hugely successsful experiment in waste-to-ethanol energy economy.

So, why are we still so dependent on coal, natural gas, and imported petroleum? The precipitous drop of energy prices in the 1980s, followed by two decades of near historically low prices killed all but the most hardy of the alternative energy enthusiasts and their ventures.

Sounds awfully similar to what we’re seeing today, doesn’t it? The question is – “What should we do about it this time?” The answer isn’t really technology – the fundamental science for many energy solutions is already well known. The real questions revolve around our willingness as a society and a government to invest the long range resources, vision and commitment to nurture these alternative energies through their infancy to a degree of commercial viability.

I expect there’s a lot more to say around these topics. I’d like to hear what you think.

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One Response to “Alternative Energy – A Brief History”

  1. Toward an Alternative Energy Dead End? « The Alternative Energy Page Says:

    […] an Alternative Energy Dead End? By Bob Brothers In my first post, back on Apr 3, I talked about the rollercoaster trajectory of alternative energy development over […]

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