Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy

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9780312643751: Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy

Where does the energy we use come from? It's absolutely vital to every single thing we do every day, but for most people, it is utterly invisible. Flick a switch and the lights go on. It might as well be magic.

Science writer Jeremy Shere shows us in Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy that energy is anything but magical. Producing it in fossil fuel form is a dirty, expensive―but also hugely profitable― enterprise, with enormous but largely hidden costs to the entire planet. The cold, hard fact is that at some point we will have wrung the planet dry of easily accessible sources of fossil fuel. And when that time comes, humankind will have no choice but to turn―or, more accurately, return―to other, cleaner, renewable energy sources. What will those sources be? How far have we come to realizing the technologies that will make these sources available?

To find the answers, Shere began his journey with a tour of a traditional coal-fueled power plant in his home state of Indiana. He then continued on, traveling from coast to coast as he spoke to scientists, scholars and innovators. He immersed himself in the green energy world: visiting a solar farm at Denver's airport, attending the Wind Power Expo and a wind farm tour in Texas, investigating turbines deep in New York City's East River, and much more.

Arranged in five parts―Green Gas, Sun, Wind, Earth, and Water―Renewable tells the stories of the most interesting and promising types of renewable energy: namely, biofuel, solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. But unlike many books about alternative energy, Renewable is not obsessed with megawatts and tips for building home solar panels. Instead, Shere digs into the rich, surprisingly long histories of these technologies, bringing to life the pioneering scientists, inventors, and visionaries who blazed the way for solar, wind, hydro, and other forms of renewable power, and unearthing the curious involvement of great thinkers like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Nicola Tesla.

We are at an important crossroads in the history of renewable technologies. The possibilities are endless and enticing, and it has become increasingly clear that renewable energy is the way of the future. In Renewable, Jeremy Shere's natural curiosity and serious research come together in an entertaining and informative guide to where renewable energy has been, where it is today, and where it's heading.

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About the Author:

JEREMY SHERE is a science writer who has written and produced for some of public radio's top nationally syndicated science programs, including Sound Medicine, Earth & Sky, and A Moment of Science. His work has appeared in Talking Points Memo, Reuters, Matter Network, The Jerusalem Report, Bloom, and Reform Judaism, among others. Shere teaches journalism and magazine writing at the School of Journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he lives with his wife and twin sons.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
 
 
HENRY FORD AND THE SEARCH FOR ETHANOL
In the winter of 1917, as American troops sailed for Europe to join the bloodiest war in recorded history, automobile magnate Henry Ford steered a specially built Model T through the humid backwoods roads of rural Florida, on the lookout for sugar plantations and farmland suitable for growing crops that could be turned into motor fuel. As much as anyone in America, Ford had been responsible for ushering in a fast-paced, motorized era increasingly dependent on gasoline and oil. But an agrarian at heart, he disdained the profit-driven oil barons and wildcatters whose business both enabled and depended on the stratospheric growth of the automobile industry. To Ford’s mind, the oilmen were unprincipled speculators whose obsession with the quick strike did little to benefit the towns and farming communities that opened their land to drilling. Plus, Ford believed—presciently, it turned out—that gasoline exhaust fumes polluted the air. To be forced to rely on such unwholesome fuel rankled, and the automobile maker was intent on finding alternative fuels for his wildly popular Model T. Like many others in the quickly maturing automobile business, Ford was intrigued by the prospects of alcohol. It not only burned cleaner than gasoline but was also a renewable resource derived from grains and other annual crops.
Although Ford had scrupulously avoided the drudgery of physical labor as a boy growing up on his family’s farm outside of Detroit, gravitating instead to the city and its bustling factories, throughout his career he maintained a sentimental attachment to the rural life and the welfare of American farmers. Promoting alcohol as motor fuel would benefit not only the automobile industry, Ford maintained, but also farmers, who would find a ready and lucrative market for their surplus produce. Florida, with its tropical climate and abundant, largely unplanted acres of rich, arable land, was intriguing for Ford’s purposes and in fact was beginning to attract the attention of Louisiana sugarcane growers. And so Ford’s mission that winter was to scout the Florida landscape for working plantations and unfarmed plots large enough to grow enough sugarcane to put a scare into the oil industrialists and gasoline jobbers who had cornered the market on motor fuel.
Sitting next to Ford on the Model T’s padded front seat was another American icon of twentieth-century progress and industry—Thomas Alva Edison. Like many Americans living at the turn of the century, as a boy and a young man Ford had idolized Edison, drawing inspiration from the famous scientist’s ingenious inventions and entrepreneurial dash. Ford had first met Edison while working as chief engineer at Detroit Edison in the mid-1890s. Invited to New York as a member of the Detroit delegation to the annual convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, in 1896, the then thirty-three-year-old Ford was introduced to Edison as an up-and-coming horseless-carriage pioneer and obliged the celebrated inventor by sketching out his latest ideas on the back of a menu. Later, as Ford rose to prominence as the world’s leading automaker, the two became close friends. It was Edison, in fact, who first introduced Ford to Florida’s balmy weather, in 1915, when Ford and his wife, Clara, stayed at Edison’s summer house in Fort Myers, on Florida’s west coast. Ford bought his own vacation home in Fort Myers, next door to Edison, and wintered there with his family until the early 1930s. It was during one annual Florida getaway that Ford and Edison motored across the state to advance Ford’s scheme of making motor fuel from plants.
Unlike Ford, Edison had less personal stake in the matter. His bailiwick was electrical power, not liquid fuel. But the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park (the New Jersey town where Edison had his famous laboratory) was certainly aware of the growing scientific and public interest in alternatives to petroleum-derived gasoline, driven largely by what national columnist Frederic Haskin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, referred to the “awful terror” of an impending gas shortage. The war raging in Europe was unique not only in being the first world war but also as the first war where armies relied heavily on airplanes, cars, trucks, tanks, and other motorized vehicles—all of which consumed millions of gallons of fuel made in and imported largely from the United States. The pressure put on the American oil industry to produce ever greater amounts of gasoline during the war prompted Haskin and other journalists to report that, according to “government experts,” oil wells—and therefore gasoline supplies—would soon peter out. “Therefore we must now discover a permanent source of motor fuel to take the place of the temporary one upon which we have been drawing,” Haskins wrote in 1919. “Scientists seem to agree that alcohol will furnish this permanent source of motor fuel.”

 
Copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Shere

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