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Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology First Trade Paper Edition Edition

9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0306820991
ISBN-10: 0306820994
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Editorial Reviews


Kirkus, 3/1/11
“Eye-opening micro-histories about American energy past, with an eye to the future...A well-told cautionary tale about the need for widespread renewable-energy production.”

Conservation, March 2011
“It’s refreshing to read a history book whose intent is to improve decisions in the present and near future…[An] able account of the very checkered history of green energy schemes in America…Madrigal has the best critique I’ve seen of the ‘appropriate technology’ philosophy promoted by my Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s…[An] admirable book.”
Booklist, 4/1/11
“Madrigal rises above politics to review the surprisingly long and fruitful history of renewable energy in the U.S….He shows beyond a doubt that the past will lead the way to a greener future.”
Library Journal, 3/15/11
“Part history of America’s use of green technologies, part history of our relationship with that technology, and part hope for the future…On all these counts, the book is successful…Recommended for general readers with an interest in America’s past, present, and future relationship with green technology.”

, April/May 2011
“Madrigal manages—without any gonzo shenanigans—to engage and sometimes even electrify the reader with lean and jaunty prose, skillful storytelling, analytic theorizing, and a proficiency in factual gee-whizzery…He makes the dream of a perfect power source seem all the more urgent, nowthat we know for how long, and in how many past episodes, it’s been deferred.”, 3/28/11
“[An] absorbing, often astonishing new book…Rather than rehash well-understood problems or relitigate well-entrenched debates, Madrigal tells stories, unlikely, idiosyncratic stories, about real human beings…The book yields a continual sense of discovery, sometimes delight. Madrigal has produced a kind of anti-history: a chronicle of paths not taken, failed visionaries and cranks, near-misses and fiascos. Along the way there are lessons learned, but no Grand Theories or first principles. With epistemic humility that's rare in the green space, Madrigal picks through these events for observations about what seems to work and how we might avoid our past mistakes.”
Mother Jones (website), 3/29/11
“[Madrigal is] a master at autopsies of promising yet deceased technologies.”, 4/6/11
“[An] excellent new book...Madrigal shows that American policy toward green energy has been a mess, long before this new batch of Republicans went into Congress fixed on dismantling environmental protections.”
New York Journal of Books, April 2011
“In a world reeling from the news of the nuclear plant failures at Fukushima, no book could be more timely than Alexis Madrigal’s Powering the Dream. Headlines filled with nuclear disaster and soaring oil prices have reignited the energy debate while news stories about alternative energy focus almost exclusively on the sexiest new technology. What’s lacking is contextual background and perspective. Powering the Dream provides that…This book is far from a dull scientific read. Mr. Madrigal is a storyteller. He seems naturally drawn to the drama of success and failure and the fascinating eccentrics and visionaries that taken part in the battle of energy technologies…Those who are concerned about the future of energy and the environment will find Powering the Dream a very informative and useful resource.”
Outside, May 2011
“Better batteries won't be enough to charge the future, argues Alexis Madrigal in the beautifully wrought Powering the Dream. With an eye to misfires in America's past…he astutely points to what it might take: technocrats wise enough to see that we need to reinvent not just our technology but our relationship with it.", 4/15/11
“[This book] may jolt many environmentalists…Madrigal’s survey of our past failures to get renewable energy off the ground is endlessly provocative.”, 4/11/11
“Madrigal's tour of the forgotten history of green technology is more than just an entertaining jaunt back through time…The history he documents is instructive to our current energy policy debate.”, 4/14/11
“Madrigal seems to understand better than most writers on this topic that capitalism itself can be the great growth engine producing better and greener technology…Madrigal’s willingness to consider the many green-tech attempts of the past, most of them failed but so many of them fascinating, is a refreshing change from the doomsday scenarios so common in alternative-energy writing…His belief that solutions can be found, and that the past may hold the key to coming up with a better future, is salutary and most welcome.”, 4/20/11
“Personable and engaging…Refreshingly, it’s not a depressing, we’ve completely screwed up the planet kind of book. There’s an optimism that shines through...In the end, Madrigal writes a book that works on many levels. While not particularly scholarly, his simple statements…do ask audiences to think critically, his chapter openings are catchy, and his optimism gives readers hope that it’s not too late to find greener technologies.”

Internet Review of Books, 4/22/11
“A wonderfully interesting book, and while it may be in parts a cautionary tale about unintended consequences, it is also a valuable history lesson. And the depth of research is astounding, especially as the author connects information to illustrate how nearly all-things-energy came to be…While addressing readers in every-day language, Madrigral's index and bibliography (each with more than twenty pages of listings) provides evidence of the breadth of his scholarly research and the validity of his historical references…Madrigal also does an excellent job in outlining the characters behind technical innovation…To finish Powering the Dream is to find oneself optimistic, pessimistic, a bit cynical, and nursing a small flame of hope that the same hubris, ambition, and the desire to live a better life for ourselves and our children that got us into this mess will get us out.”

St. Petersburg
Times, 4/17/11
“Madrigal records a century and a half of American energy innovation—such as electric taxicabs in 1900—and imagines the future.”

, 4/20/11
“Madrigal skillfully uses stories from the past to illustrate both the follies and successes of the present. In doing so, he places some of the environmental madness we’re experiencing now in perspective.”
Hudson Valley News, 4/20/11
“Inspiring…The first book to explore both the forgotten history and the visionary future of America’s green-tech innovators.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 5/1/11
“Well-thought-out ideas about how to advance low-cost green technology.”
Print, 5/10/11
“A quiet page-turner that anyone concerned with our future energy policy—or lack thereof—should read…Madrigal is a talented wordsmith and astute researcher with an eye for ferreting out the ‘need-to-know’ minutia in a complicated world of energy giants, green pioneers and international trading markets.”
Blog Business World, 5/8/11
“[An] eye opening and very engaging book…A celebration of the spirit of innovation and its many successes and failures…Well researched…Fascinating and thought provoking…This book will change the way you think about green technology, and its past, present, and future.”

Ode, June 2011
Quirky stories about individuals whose past inventions, often failures, anticipated many contemporary environmental solutions.”
Reference and Research Book News, June 2011
“This history of green energy in America showcases the grand experiments, both successful and failed, that have broadened our cultural relationship with sustainable power over the past century.”

“Politics & Patriotism,” Stitcher Smart Radio Network, 3/20/13
“A slice of history that we don’t know as well as we should, combined with an intellectual argument for a new push to improve alternative energy systems…Powering the Dream is educational in ways that may surprise you.  It’s a good conversation starter.”   

Phi Beta Kappa’s Key Reporter, 5/24/13
“Presents the history, not often told, of the failures as well as some successes of past ventures into solar and wind energy… Madrigal opens a window into the past that will be equally appealing to historians and to all those concerned with technology and how it affects our environment.”

About the Author

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he launched their Technology Channel, and an award-winning former staff writer for He lives in Washington, DC.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Trade Paper Edition edition (February 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306820994
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306820991
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #984,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's a founder of Longshot Magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also cofounded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Washington, DC.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Christopher J. Mims on March 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I've been following Madrigal's notes for this book, at the blog, possibly since its inception, however many years ago that was.

From the beginning, this book project has been, to my knowledge, utterly unique: a view on modern cleantech / clean energy through the lens of history. I just don't think it had occurred to many of us that clean energy -- which seems so newfangled -- had a long history. But in the pages of Powering The Dream we discover the earliest electric cars -- which were contemporaneous with the first conventional, gasoline-powered cars. There are old, even ancient, systems for harvesting wind, waves, tides; there's the first janky, not-quite-ready for prime time nuclear power plants.

Here's the nub of this book, the lesson we should all take to heart: the history of energy in this country, on this planet, even, is highly path dependent. In other words, governments and individuals made decisions to pursue some paths and not others. Renewables are hard, but for entirely different reasons, so are conventional sources of energy. By showing us a past full of failed (and occasionally, successful) experiments in harvesting energy from anyplace but the sunglight stored in fossil fuel reserves, Powering the Dream invites us to play what-if: What if we'd taken a different energy path.

In an age of climate change and dwindling supplies of (some) fossil fuels, Powering the Dream is a helpful, hopeful opposite to an awful lot of either groundlessly sunny optimism or dire predictions of collapse. It posits, simply, that the pool of technologies from which we can draw energy is bigger than we typically imagine, and that in the experiments of the past are the foundations of the energy sources of the future.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Justin Ritchie on March 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover
If the future of clean energy technology hopes to successfully enable our society's transition away from fossil fuels it will have to remember all the moments when a more perfect power stood poised to usurp a constant flow of coal and oil only to find itself denied the spotlight. The American story is one of a philosophy reinforced through access to cheap energy and burgeoned by technological innovation. In Powering the Dream, Alexis Madrigal provides a conscience for the green energy sector, one that threatens to be swept away in a bubble of financial instrumentation hoping for a breakthrough rather than sustained investment and incremental improvement.

Where software and computing has been continually enhanced through reaffirmations of Moore's Law, will applying the same philosophy to energy lead to suffering Moore's curse? Though few advocating for an innovation based solution to climate change through access to the infinite power of the wind and sun realize they are echoing the words of an early 19th century techno-utopian they do so all the same, carrying John Etzler's biases and assumptions along with them. The innovative and shiny energy technologies touted by politicians and slick commercials as solutions to our ability to `win the future' have been with us for our history as a nation. We had electric cars with a streamlined swap-out infrastructure for fresh batteries at the end of the 19th century and megawatt scale wind turbines in the 1940s.

The history of fossil fuel alternatives reveal a world of missed opportunities and frustrating political shortsightedness.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Paula L. Craig on September 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Madrigal's book is a history of clean energy technology and the many wrong turns. Many environmentalists get too excited about the prospect of making our current society run on wind turbines and solar energy. "Powering the Dream" makes clear that getting this to work on a large scale will not be easy.

I liked Madrigal's analysis of the reasons behind the huge numbers of poorly insulated, poorly sited housing built in the American suburbs since World War II. Low initial cost was allowed to be the only important factor.

The book's main flaw is that it doesn't pay enough attention to the problems behind the failures of wind and solar power--energy density. There's a lot of wind energy and solar energy on earth, but it's not dense the way fossil fuels are. It's possible to make industrial machines to convert wind and solar energy into electrical power, but building the machines takes power. If building the machines takes more power than can be obtained from the machines over their usable lifetime, this is not an energy source.

The energy lost in the conversion from solar or wind to electric power, lost again in transporting the electric power to the end user, and lost again in converting the electric power to run an appliance such as an electric heater or refrigerator, makes solar and wind power a very iffy proposition. The money and power required for building the solar panel or wind turbine also has to be subtracted out. Maybe there will be a breakthrough someday making it possible to build wind turbines or solar panels using very little money and very little power--but it is also possible that there might not be such a breakthrough.
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