Renewable energy continues to conjure images of immaturity and novelty, and I even once heard an aspiring energy analyst say that “solar power is the energy of the future, and may always remain so.” But novel is renewable energy? How recent is the idea that humans can use renewable sources to generate the energy needed to power a convenient and prosperous lifestyle?

Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, answers these questions in his meticulously researched book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (2011). I realize I am reviewing this book much too late, but for some incredible reason I only found it last week. I was immediately hooked and pretty miserable when I realized I had finished the book. Yes, it was that good.

Simply put, the book shows that serious attempts to use modern sources of renewable energy have a long history in the United States. Small-scale hydroelectricity powered a prosperous New England manufacturing town early in the 19th century, solar water heating was all the rage in pre-World War II America, a massive wind turbine generated power in Vermont in 1941, and entire “solar homes” were popular for years after the end of the war.

Madrigal’s case studies are impossibly captivating, and his ability to derive policy implications for contemporary renewable energy advocates from the historical record is equally impressive. Madrigal makes a compelling case for the role of politics, technological learning, and cultural factors in the past successes and failures of renewable. Perhaps most powerful is his critique of the appropriate technology movement, which refused to consider renewable energy a part of the modern industrial society, instead dooming the cleanest of all energy technologies into commercial irrelevance and technical stagnation. It has been a long time since somebody has made me think so hard about my own assumptions and ideas about renewable energy.

I expect and hope this book to become a standard reference for anyone who wants to understand the role and development of technology in our society. In this day and age, this should be a pretty large group of people, too.

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