Saturday, August 14, 2010
What will it take to create a clean and sustainable energy industry that can replace, or at least significantly reduce, our reliance on dirty oil and coal? Two excellent books about the history of oil and electricity suggest that technological breakthroughs will only get us halfway there. We also need a fundamental shift in government policies, incentives, and investments.
In The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America, Maury Klein tells the story of Fulton, Edison, Westinghouse, and less well known, but equally brilliant men who built an energy infrastructure that powered the modernization of industry and continues to power our energy-intensive businesses, industries, and lifestyles today.
This is a fascinating story on many levels. Professor Klein describes the many technological breakthroughs from the invention and refinement of steam engines and turbines to the development of power plants and transmission grids that fit together like a complex jigsaw puzzle to create the modern electric utilities we know today. Along the way, he provides clear, understandable descriptions of the essential science and technology.
Professor Klein also explains why Edison and Westinghouse achieved great commercial success while other equally brilliant scientists and inventors such as Tesla faded into obscurity. The commercially successful innovators combined technological brilliance with the fine arts of raising money in private capital markets, procuring government contracts and subsidies, pursuing intellectual property lawsuits, mastering (and often influencing) a maze of new and changing government regulations, and of course self-promotion and public relations. Their successes provide important lessons for those of us working to build a clean and sustainable energy industry today.
Similar insights are found on every page of Daniel Yergin's Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. From modest beginnings capturing oil oozing from the ground in Pennsylvania to modern-day deepwater wells thousands of feet below oceans, the story of petroleum is one of both technological advances and government policy.
The early oil trusts concentrated power and control to make massive and risky investments in oil wells and the infrastructure needed to refine the oil and transport it to market. Over time, however, that concentration of economic power threatened to harm the economy and cause innovation to stagnate. After Standard Oil was broken up as a result of President Teddy Roosevelt's antitrust suits, big oil did not weaken and wither. To the contrary, the new competition between what became 7 major oil companies actually strengthened the oil industry.
When we look at government energy policies today, it is important to remember the critical role that government policies and investments have played -- and continue to play -- in the business of oil and electricity. Big Oil is what it is today because of many government decisions from the construction of a national highway system to foreign policy decisions in the Middle East. In like manner, renewable energy will be defined not just by technological advances, but also by government policies and investments in basic infrastructure.
Both of these books read like Tom Clancy novels, with exciting characters who come to life and great technical details that are clear, accurate, and do not put you to sleep. Only these stories are 100% true and hold critical lessons for those of us who want to replicate the successes of dirty energy with clean and renewable alternatives.
Posted by John Howley, Esq. at 10:51 AM