The lost history of biofuels

It's surprising that the history of something as important as renewable energy in general, and biofuels in particular, would be so little known. If you read current historical works on energy, there is no mention of ethanol or other biofuels. The Prize or most other histories of the energy have little or no mention of alternatives.

Its like we have a history of Rock and Roll with the Beatles but not the Stones. Or of aviation with the Wrights but not Curtis. Or of dance with Fred but without Ginger.

Before we open a narrative on the history of renewable energy and biofuels and the people who fought for their recognition, we might take a minute to think about history itself.

Thucydides (460 - 400 BC) once said: "The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever..."

Plenthy of material

To ignore alcohol as a fuel entirely in the history of energy certainly seems fishy. There is plenty of raw material to go on. For example:

  • At least 152 popular and scholarly articles under the heading "Alcohol as a Fuel" can be found the the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature between 1900 and 1921.
  • About 20 references to papers and books written before 1925 are found in the Library of Congress database catalog; a 1933 Chemical Foundation report lists 52 references before 1925 on alcohol fuels. A1944 Senate report lists 24 USDA publications on alcohol fuels before 1920. Technical books from the period document hundreds of additional references .
  • The New York Times database returns 408 results for alcohol and fuel in the 1900 to 1925 time period and 602 in the next 25 years. In the 1951-1975 period the number drops off to 268. But the last quarter of the 20th century, 645 articles are found.

Why? We could chalk it up to several things, including these:

Roads not taken. Historians love to tell stories about success and heroism. Writing about "failures" -- even failures that may later prove useful -- is rarely done.

Women's history. Many of the people who were most vocal on issues like air pollution and the need to put public health ahead of corporate profit were ignored by traditional historians precisely because of their gender.

Industrial history. Historians who have written histories of businesses or of great enterprises are often the recipients of generous grants and cooperation from the industries about which they are writing.

Why its important now

We are only about two centuries into the industrial revolution, we often forget that renewable energy was the only energy source for most of human history.

We can appreciate the history of renewable energy as part of our "useable past." There are lessons here about roads not taken. In terms of social context, we need to understand the history of renewable energy as part of our tradition of reform.

Most importantly, renewable systems are flexible and rapidly scalable. Massive outputs of ethanol or butanol or other biofuels, in the range of billions of gallons, could be scaled up within a matter of months or a few short years. Coal and petroleum bases systems take much longer to build, as we learned in World War II.

Renewable energy sources tend to be more expensive, it's true.

Unlike fossil energy from coal or oil, or nuclear energy from uranium, renewable energy is dispersed, decentralized and more difficult to collect and concentrate.

Solar, wind and hydro power have no fuel costs, but have much higher capital costs that have to be covered initially. Fossil energy, on the other hand, has been economically more attractive even when renewables cost the same because fossil energy fuel costs are spread out over the life of the power generating plant.

Traditional economics have put renewables at a disadvantage for other reasons as well:

    External environmental costs of fossil fuels and nuclear power have been imposed on populations, especially weaker segments

    The costs of resource extraction from politically unstable foreign lands have been placed on taxpayers through bloated military establishments.

    And so the true cost of oil, by one estimate, is between $5.60 and $15.14 a gallon.

    Another cost is political. For instance, America's oil habit certainly helped turn U.S. citizens into targets of choice (Washington Post, 2001)

US government policy signals about energy have been unrealistic and totally unreliable.

But the question is, really: Can renewable technology ever be cheap enough, and provide enough power, to avert catastrophe?

Learning the lessons of the past as a guide to the future, as Thucydides said, is the point of studying history

NEXT: Renewable energy history categories