Underwriting the Wind

The notion that wind or solar power are doomed to fail in the American economy has become a common point of discussion.  I’m not one to jump on the alternative energy bandwagon with both feet just yet–there’s quite a bit of work to be done before wind, solar, or thermal can seriously compete with fossil fuels.  In fact, I’m more and more convinced that fossil fuel technology will be with us for much longer than we might like.

HalladayStandard1885Windmill,ForRailroadWaterPumpingThat said, the conservative arguments about solar and wind’s reliance upon subsidies strikes me as wrongheaded.  Not only is it bad policy to insist that new energy technologies can somehow blossom without public support, but it is horrible history.  Both coal and oil drew upon a massive infrastructure underwritten by state and federal taxpayers.  Government agencies like geological surveys helped find fossil fuels, state-aided canals and railroads to transport it, and policymakers to smooth out labor differences (albeit at the expense of miners) to ensure that the supply of coal flowed uninterrupted.   So the use of coal at first, then oil, really depended upon the American public in both indirect and direct ways.

It’s always nice to see journalists draw historical parallels, especially when they are accurate.  So I was glad to see Daniel Gross’s recent piece in Slate, comparing the future of wind power to the 19th century railroad network.  Although we certainly don’t want to reconstruct the world of the Railroad Barons–any cursory reading of Richard White’s epic book on the Transcontinentals confirms this fact–a bit of historical perspective is welcome here.  We need to be comfortable with the idea of using public funds to help private actors get alternative energy markets up and running.  Will this process be smooth and without its share of wasted dollars?  Absolutely not.  But it is still a project worth supporting and a small price for Americans to pay for reducing their reliance upon fossil fuels.

About Sean Adams

I'm the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of History at the University of Florida. At UF, I teach courses on the Early American Republic and the History of American Capitalism. I've published books and articles on the history of the coal trade, and recently completed a book that examines the origins of America's fossil fuel dependency in the 19th century.
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