Let a Thousand Alternate Energy Flowers Bloom

Clearly, we are in a time of transition, or ought to be.  The destruction by business as usual is widely apparent, approaching the state of being undeniable.  That there are those, still unrecognized and unappreciated, who have seen this reality for a long time, is an important matter.  For our most important resource is not oil, not nuclear, not even sun.  It is our minds.

For more than a century, and in particular in recent decades, there have been visionaries of a new energy world.  The Montgolfier brothers are famous for publicly demonstrating in 1783 the hot air balloon, (harnessing “lifting power”).  But most do not know that one of the brothers – Joseph – developed what is now known as a hydraulic ram.  This device lifts water, like a pump, without a motor.  A valve traps the kinetic downhill flow energy of water, causing pressure to build, that with the release of another valve essentially squirts the water to a higher place.  Think of capturing all the rising energy of everything that is hot, and all the squirt energy potential, now being wasted, disappearing, not even noticed.  It wouldn’t likely replace oil and gas but it could be what we call a wedge in the pie pictograph of usable energy forces, and who knows?  Maybe a nice fat one if we get creative.

In the early part of the 20th century Nicola Tesla researched what you could do with resonant vibration, and the story is that with a small device he made buildings shake.  I remember reading in the 1970s an article about capturing the energy of the vibration of water in pipes – ordinarily considered a nuisance called “water hammer”.  It is also said that Tesla captured the energy of cosmic rays.  Lewis Spence’s Encyclopedia of Occultism recounts the story of a “strange machine constructed in 1854 by John Murray Spear at the instigation of the ‘Association of Electricizers’”, which “was to derive its motive power from the magnetic store of nature”.  After a young lady “in obedience to a vision” stood before it on the High Rock in Lynn, Massachusetts,  and “judged that the essence of her spiritual being” had been imparted to it, “it was averred that pulsations were apparent in the motor.”  The New Motor was “finally smashed by the inhabitants of Randolph (N.Y.) whither it had been taken.”  Wild and secret forces have often been at play in the alternative energy world.  But we should not be frightened by them.

Piezoelectric energy is a charge that accumulates in various materials when they are subjected to mechanical stress.  I was once approached at a conference by a scientist who showed me various proposals for capturing this energy.  One was a tree with piezoelectric leaves for capturing the stress on leaf stems of wind energy.  Another, that I often think of when driving, was a system that underlay highways and train tracks and captured the energy of the changing weight of vehicles.  My guess is that the energy harvest might be very small, and that it could be energy-intensive and costly to put these devices in place.  Still, I look around at a world of passing heavy vehicles, and all that energy is not only uncaptured, but invisible to our minds.  Who thinks of this?

My wife is always thinking, when she goes to the health club, about all the energy people are wasting, how they are using electricity to power their exercise machines, instead of capturing the energy they are putting out.  It should not be that hard to change the design of our exercise technologies.  Once, animal power was all we had.  We have forgotten our roots.

I propose it is time to turn attention to the potential energy of our imaginations, and that we all take notice of the need for an energy transition in this shared artificial world of humanity.  That would mean co-creating our world, instead of simply accepting what is offered.  We should not expect others to be fully responsible for giving us the energy we want, or need, but should participate in this crucial effort to supply humanity.  Not many of us have millions to research and demonstrate new technologies, and then cause them to flourish in a competitive market.  But all of us can participate by thinking about the matter of energy.

When I left home it was for the first year of Hampshire College, an experiment in self-guided education.  I was allowed to create my own course of study.  After a year of reclaiming junk metal for art and a year of studying the destructive effects of coal, oil and nuclear power, I chose to focus on alternative sources of energy.  I studied lifting and gliding energy, hydraulic rams, the generation of electricity and heat from rotting crap, and gravity-powered transportation systems.  I looked at capturing the energy of bubbles rising in water, at helium-powered elevators, cross-town slides, and briefcases with roller wheels you rode on sidewalk ramps.  I envisioned systems that used wound elastics to store wind and water power.  I theorized that a geared system could channel great weight into a spinning rotor force and thought about how you could place them in a mine and then capture the weight of the mountain by allowing the mine to collapse just a little bit.  I thought up pogo-sticks that captured bounce energy, and asked why we didn’t use phosphorescent paints on city walls and sidewalks, and for street-lines, in order to cut down on the energy we use for streetlamps.  I used to dream about converting telephone wires to cables that you could ride in upside-down bicycles, wheels on top.

Unfortunately, it turned out I had neither the talent nor patience for thinking realistically.  I was bad at quantitative analysis.  A professor loved my ideas about lifting water to a higher level and then capturing the energy of it running downhill for electricity, and told me to calculate how many hydraulic rams it would take to produce an appreciable amount.  I puttered with this task for months before giving up and recognizing this was not what I was going to be good at.  I was good at dreaming up silly things.  I loved thinking about my bubble elevator, a tall cylindrical column filled with water.  From the top a steel sphere filled with water sank to the bottom, and was hooked there, as a pipe was connected to it and the water inside it removed, replaced with air.  The energy to pump air in was drawn – or assisted – by the weight of the column of water, which you can imagine is placed against a cliff where a stream at the top replenishes the column when needed.  You entered at the bottom through locks, into the column and into the sphere, and there you are, in a ball of air at the bottom of the column, and all you have to do is collapse the hook, or perhaps because you might pop up too quickly, let a cable smooth your ascent.  If you aren’t trapped and suffocated, at the top the sphere pops opens into two shells, you ride in one like a boat to the side of the column, and you step out to stand at the top of the cliff.  This way of thinking about clean, renewable energy was fun for me.  The math of hydraulic pressure or the economics of ram construction was not.  Only some people are good at that.

But everyone can dream.  I suggest that we take a tip from that master of disaster, Mao-Tse Tung, whose actions caused the deaths and misery of hundreds of millions, but who did once say a really interesting thing: he said “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom”.  Let us put aside the fact that he didn’t do anything to protect those flowers once they had the courage to bloom, and many of them lived to regret becoming visible.  This isn’t about Mao.  Except for the fact that we really should mean “Let a Gazillion Flowers Bloom”, not just a thousand, it’s a good phrase.

Let’s all look around at the world with fresh eyes and think up ways that we can capture the energy that is all around us.  I’m not saying we should wear metal clothes that have little springs in them that would capture and store the energy we produce when we walk around.  That would be very uncomfortable and unpleasant – although maybe there’s a body-building angle there.  I’m saying that there’s no harm in ideas.  There’s no downside to someone dreaming up a silly energy idea, unless we get carried away, like that young lady standing before the New Motor.  If we can keep our heads, and find some smart people to do the calculations for us, maybe we can come home someday from a bike ride that involved some good downhill, and remove a device made of rubber bands from the back wheel, and take it in the house and stick it in a bank and let it power a light bulb for an hour.

But these ideas need not all be silly.  Besides people like Alexander Graham Bell, who according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography predicted in 1917 a “sort of greenhouse effect” from the burning of fossil fuels, and who proposed the use of solar greenhouses to produce energy and desalinate water, there are a lot of people who have thought about these topics, in recent decades.  Some of them can do the engineering.  Some of them, unlike me, have been able to focus on the topic in very practical ways.  I suggest we go back over the suggestions of the alternative energy crowd that surged in the 1970s, along with the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog, and its ethos of everyone participating in the creation of a new, more sensibly made world, and recapture some of what was produced then, and since.

If you have read Daniel Berman and John O’Connor’s 1996 Who Owns the Sun, you know that Florida has had two solar hot water heater booms.  In the 1920’s “it became impossible to sell a house or hotel” without one of the devices of Miami’s Solar Water Heater Company, and in the 1930s the Federal Housing Administration mortgage program financed them to the point that “80 percent of homes built in Miami between 1937 and 1941” had them.  Yet by 1990 “fewer than one Florida residence in twenty” did.  The book accuses utilities and others of sabotaging such technologies, as Chris Payne’s documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car, focuses on the business plans of corporations winning economic competitions as the causal factor.  Berman and O’Connor refer to Ray Reece’s “important (and nearly forgotten) book The Sun Betrayed, which “documents in convincing detail the near-total ‘corporate seizure of U.S. solar energy development’ through control of the Energy Research and Development Administration”.  A Memorandum of Understanding between ERDA and the Electric Power Research Institute established joint “operations groups”, and “EPRI and the American Gas Association gained practical oversight and a tacit veto over all R&D contracts made by ERDA”.  Readers of this literature may have found it rather tragic, as I do, that in “1977 Steve Kenin of Taos, New Mexico, designed a solar space-heating kit of translucent polyurethane stretched over an aluminum frame, which could be installed for $600, paying for itself in fuel savings in less than three years.  Kenin’s $25,000 proposal to build and monitor a half a dozen of his cheap and simple systems, which worked well in the cold but sunny winters of the New Mexico mountains, was passed over for funding.”

I had often wondered, during the late seventies, why we were not seeing such things emerge from the new energy agency, but instead we were reading about crazy things like beaming power from space.  I didn’t see why we needed to risk frying passing birds when we could all become energy sufficient in our own homes.  The liberation from centralized, controlled energy production is what the author of Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act Hermann Scheer talks about in his 2006 book, Energy Autonomy.  In 1979 Congress’s Subcommittee on Energy of the Joint Economic Committee, co-chaired by Lloyd Bentsen and Edward Kennedy, commissioned a report on the “Employment Impact of the Solar Transition”.  Leonard Rodberg of the Community Energy Project of the Public Resource Center found not only that by 1990 fuel consumption could be reduced by 45 quadrillion Btus, saving more than 100 billion, but that although jobs would be lost in conventional energy, there would be a net creation of 2.9 million jobs.  These jobs would be dispersed because energy conservation technologies “tend to be decentralized, geographically distributed in roughly the same proportion as the population.”  And, “solar energy technology is suited to community-based enterprise and small business.  Expansion of this industry will open up opportunities for ownership and economic development by those who now have little or no role in the multinational energy industries.” (A digital version of the study is provided by the Hathi Trust Digital Library: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pur1.32754077257669#view=1up;seq=24)

Perhaps corporate interests were alerted, if they were not already aware, by this public airing of the potential for a clean energy transition, and took quiet action to protect their business plans to recoup investments in large, centralized sources and then use those sources as cash cows, as Samuel Insull showed how to do in the early twentieth century.  We don’t have to imagine nefarious conspiracies, though it’s good to have an eye out for them.  We can simply imagine people acting in their self-interest as it is narrowly perceived in a brief moment, instead of over the long term, which is where we live.  The company Solyndra is famous because Republicans with a limited eye on political advantage accused the administration of fraudulent or irresponsible funding when it went bankrupt.  It went bankrupt because of the comparatively cheap production of solar panels in China.  Perhaps that should have been foreseen, but it was competitive forces that doomed the company, not cronyism.  What most if not all political commentators seemed to miss was that Solyndra was a beautiful technology, a wonderfully elegant idea.  It was a solar panel made into a cylinder and placed in a reflective collector, able to take solar energy from all sides, instead of just one, as a flat panel collector does.  When I first saw one I was stunned at what a sensible idea it was.

I have a friend who invented and installed solar devices as structural elements in roofing in several houses in the late 1970’s. They worked.  They used a collector mathematically shaped to concentrate energy.  He received little attention and no support.  His ideas still make sense.  I have another friend who worked on solar machines all his life.  When he died his devices were exhibited and then stored, as if they were art pieces.

We need to revive the idea of creating new technologies, and of communities doing so on behalf of everyone, of course with some self-interest involved, but not so wrapped up in limited self-interest that the possibilities of invention are stifled.  We need to look at the field of imagination, at all the minds that can and have been bent in focus on these issues, and we need to see where amazing flowers have already been raised and can be cultured.  We need to turn from the busy highways and airports and cities of our conventional, business plan financed world and survey these forgotten fields where tiny entrepreneurs and dreamers have toiled.  We need to feed this realm a little water of respectful excitement, and some fertilizing funding, and then stand back and see what happens.  I have no expectation that someone is going to build my bubble elevator, or my rubber-band battery, or even my mountain-energy capture device.  But I do think that it is time for solar roof tiles, and maybe piezoelectrics under train tracks.  It is time for People Powered Health Clubs.  It is time to call for the planting of the seeds in so many minds, of the hopeful and creative.  Some of them will find support in mathematics, and in an economics that uses a big picture, of shared and lasting prosperity, and will grow.      

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography profile on Alexander Graham Bell ends with an excerpt from an article he wrote in 1918: “We are all too much inclined, I think, to walk through life with our eyes closed. . . . We should not keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone; we should leave the beaten track occasionally and enter the woods. Every time you do that you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before. . . . Follow it up, explore all around it; one discovery will lead to another, and before you know it you will have something worth thinking about to occupy your mind, for all really big discoveries are the results of thought.”  Let me add to that that it is there is a lot of fun to be had, that we are missing.