How New Are the Renewables? Historicizing Energy Transitions

Workshop Report (21–23 February 2018, Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany)

By Odinn Melsted

*All images courtesy of the author

In February of 2018, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, in cooperation with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, hosted the academic workshop “How New Are the Renewables? Historicizing Energy Transitions.” The event was linked to the museum’s special exhibition energie.wenden and convened by Helmuth Trischler, the museum’s director of research, the exhibitions curator Sarah Kellberg, and Patrick Kupper from the University of Innsbruck, who served on the academic advisory board. The exhibition is devoted to current debates and plans for energy transition, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on the German Energiewende. Set up in an interactive format, it informs the guest about different energy paths that might be taken in the near future and presents an overview of contemporary and historic modes of renewable and nonrenewable energy use. Given that research and scholarly discussion on the history of renewables is quite limited, the workshop’s organizers invited 22 international scholars to discuss how renewables have been used in the past and how contemporary debates on energy transition and renewables can be historicized.

Today, renewable energies are often framed as “new” energy resources. The human use of biomass and hydropower, however, has a long history, as these were the dominant energy carriers before the age of fossil fuels. Other “new” energy resources like solar, wind, and geothermal energy have also been used for decades—even centuries. Despite this, renewables were marginalized and their development obstructed or prevented by the prevalence of coal, oil, and natural gas. In light of this, the workshop asked: How “new” are the renewables? Does the outlook into our energy futures change when we extend our view into the past? Has it been a history of missed opportunities? Should we be wary of over-optimistic predictions? Which social contexts encourage the adoption of alternative energies, and which hinder it? What role is played by political actors and social models, economic and technical rationales, the availability of natural resources, or the actions of individuals or societies in limiting energy production or consumption?

The workshop contained two and a half days of intensive discussions on the history of renewables and energy transitions, as well as a guided visit of the exhibition energie.wenden. The workshop used a somewhat atypical format with no formal paper presentations. Instead, the pre-circulated papers were introduced by a designated commentator, who briefly summarized the main points and provided a critique.

Erik van der Vleuten gave the keynote address.

The keynote was given by Erik van der Vleuten. Under the headline “Challenging Prometheus— Challenging Clio” (or how to connect the worlds of engineering and historiography), he highlighted that the technological solutions of the past have created new challenges for today’s societies. By analyzing those legacies of the past, historians can contribute valuable insights and inform how we can master the global energy challenges we face today. Historians should thus feel encouraged to engage with the big energy questions of our time.

The first session was devoted to the search of substitutes for fossil fuels. Focusing on the case of Sweden during the Second World War, Arne Kaijser’s paper dealt with the temporary transition from gasoline to wood-powered transportation during the Second World War. Facing the sudden disruption of oil imports, Swedish experts opted for the technology of wood-gas engines, which allowed cars, buses, and trucks to be fueled with domestic wood and charcoal instead. This case shows that a fuel supply crisis can create a powerful incentive for a rapid—if temporary—shift in transportation fuels. Focusing on waste-to-energy technologies in Nazi Berlin, Timothy Moss drew attention to an energy technology that is not necessarily thought of as a renewable energy carrier. While framed as “new” nowadays, the technology to produce biogas from waste and wastewater was applied in various German cities in the 1930s—above all in Berlin—but later disappeared. This case of a “truncated” transition shows that today’s strategies and challenges of introducing alternative forms of energy and reconfiguring urban infrastructures to optimize resource use and reduce the reliance on fossil fuels are not new. This allows us to draw important insights about the agents, their perceptions, and sociotechnical systems in urban sustainability transitions.

digThe second session was devoted to biofuels in the United States. Examining the long history of alcohol fuel advocacy, Jeffrey Manuel highlighted that biofuel policies to aid domestic farmers and increase energy independence are hardly a new phenomenon. Alcohol derived from agricultural crops, such as corn, was endorsed as an alternative to whale oil as a lamp fuel from the 1830s and promoted as an alternative, or rather additive, to gasoline as an automobile fuel throughout the twentieth century. While fuel alcohol never replaced fossil fuels, ideas of increasing alcohol production regularly resurfaced in times of crisis, particularly during the agricultural overproduction crises of the 1920s and 1930s and the oil price crises of the 1970s. Focusing on one of the episodes of alcohol fuel advocacy, Frank Uekötter’s paper dealt with the Chemurgy Movement in New Deal America. In the wake of the national farm crisis in the interwar years, this movement of chemists aimed to replace fossil fuels in transportation, but failed spectacularly. Led by William Hale, who sustained a lifelong crusade for Chemurgy, the movement envisioned a world that would be ruled by chemists, and made ambitious plans to produce alcohol fuel en masse. Yet the Chemurgy revolution never came about, as the movement lacked broad support for its cause and did not form the necessary political alliances to actually implement an energy revolution.

The third session was devoted to small-scale uses of wind and water power. With her paper on wind energy landscapes in Germany and France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Nicole Hesse showed that the history of wind energy did not simply stop with industrialization and then reemerge in the 1970s. Wind wheels were used to pump water in remote areas and weren’t immediately replaced with electric pumps. Examining the history of electricity production from wind energy, Aristotle Tympas (coauthored by Kostas Latoufis) highlighted that wind electricity has not always been grid-connected as we know it today. In the first half of the twentieth century, small-scale wind mills were used to generate the electricity needed to power household appliances like radios in many remote areas of the world that lacked access to centralized grids. Focusing on water wheels and mills in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes Kneitz (coauthored by Christian Zumbrägel) showed that traditional uses of hydropower have been overshadowed by widespread enthusiasm for hydroelectric power production. Water turbines were framed as modern, while wheels and mills were soon considered an “old” technology, amounting to a “cultural myth of the dying watermill.” Traditional uses of hydropower, however, made a significant contribution to the energy economy well into the twentieth century, showing that the history of hydropower cannot be divided that clearly into traditional and modern.

sdrThe fourth session dealt with renewables in residential heating in the mid-twentieth century. Focusing on the architectural experiments with solar energy in the United States, Daniel Barber contributed an in-depth study of the rise and fall of the solar house in the 1940s and 1950s. Postwar oil shortages provided an incentive for architects to experiment with renewable alternatives, triggering an open discussion about energy futures, which is often assumed not to have taken place before the 1970s. In her paper about the rise and fall of heat pump systems in Switzerland, Irene Pallua showed that heat pumps that harvest thermal energy from the environment have actually existed since the late nineteenth century, and were installed for space heating in a limited number of public and private buildings in the 1930s and 1940s to save coal. However, this technology became marginalized in the late 1950s, in part due to cheap oil, but also because its proponents missed out on the opportunity to create a favorable physical and institutional environment in which the technology could evolve.

The fifth session dealt with pioneering projects in renewable energy history. Examining largely unsuccessful tidal energy projects, Felix Frey talked about a handful of engineers who promoted large-scale tidal plants for electricity production by damming entire bays between the 1930s and 1970s. Soviet engineer Lev Bernshtein devoted his life to realizing his tidal energy plans on the Kola Peninsula. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Maine, local engineers likewise planned a large power plant at Passamaquoddy Bay. Both projects were unsuccessful, mainly because the local market for the electricity from large tidal power plants was too small and because there was limited interest in building transmission systems to connect remote tidal power plants to the grid. Focusing on Denmark in the 1970s, Jan-Henrik Meyer’s paper analyzed the role of the antinuclear movement in the growth of solar and wind energy in Denmark. Societal advocacy of renewables predates the contemporary concerns about climate change, and started with a highly effective antinuclear group triggering a broad societal debate about future energy policies. This allowed Denmark to become a pioneer in renewable energy technology and application, notably wind power.

The sixth session dealt with the 1973–1974 oil price crisis and how it served as a catalyst for change towards renewable energy alternatives. Examining the case of Iceland, Odinn Melsted investigated Iceland’s systematic elimination of imported oil for heating in favor of geothermal district heating in the years after the oil shock. Higher oil prices provided a powerful economic incentive for Icelandic authorities to invest in the construction of costly geothermal heating systems, which allowed Iceland to fully decarbonize its heating sector. Focusing on political discourses in the United Kingdom and western Germany, Eva Oberloskamp examined how policymakers understood and categorized renewables in the wake of the oil price crisis. In search of alternative energy sources for electricity production, Britain continued on a centralized, large-scale energy production path, while the German antinuclear and ecological movements were able to influence a decentralization policy, allowing more funding to be channeled to small-scale modes of production like photovoltaics.


The seventh session dealt with energy knowledge. Examining independent ecological research institutions in Germany, Daniel Eggstein’s paper showed that the Energiewende is not only rooted in the 1970s energy crisis and the antinuclear movement, but also in the work of independent institutes that emerged from the 1970s, such as the Öko-Institut in Freiburg. These institutes had a significant impact on the successes of alternative energies, as research outputs have been used by activists and policymakers alike. Dealing with the historicity of energy conservation, Thomas Turnbull introduced a little-recognized aspect of energy history. Conserving energy, be it by increasing energy efficiency or by leaving fossil fuel resources in the ground, is an important challenge today, as it has been in the past. Analyzing historical ideas and knowledge on “saving” energy that date back centuries, he pointed out that advocates of conserved energy have indeed considered it an inexhaustible and therefore renewable resource.

The final session dealt with energy justice. Examining the historical origins of German electricity feed-in tariffs, Stephen Milder showed that the recent growth in renewables cannot be associated solely with contemporary debates on climate change solutions. The German model of incorporating decentral electricity producers, which is often considered the heart of the Energiewende, originated outside of the climate change paradigm. Citizens and politicians lobbied for favorable feed-in conditions during the 1990s, motivated by economic and environmental considerations, but not climate change. Examining recent renewable energy development in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, Siddarth Sareen (coauthored by Sunila Kale) highlighted that the growth and development of solar energy has had varied implications for energy justice. Solar energy infrastructure development has not always brought about the intended results, as regional conditions and path dependencies have produced distributive and procedural injustices.

The workshop concluded that a wide variety of renewables, which are often considered “new” today, have been used throughout the age of fossil fuels. The presented cases of renewable energy use—ranging from sources like wind, sun, (waste)water, marine tides, and biomass, to geothermal and environmental heat—show that renewables have been used both as supplements and alternatives to fossil fuels in such diverse areas as transportation, irrigation, milling, heating, and electricity production. The history of renewables is filled with successes and failures. Curiously, renewables were not necessarily used because they were “greener,” “cleaner” or more “sustainable” than fossil fuels, but rather because they offered a realistic alternative and energy independence wherever or whenever fossil fuels were difficult to acquire. From the 1970s, we can also observe that social movements and nonstate actors were instrumental drivers of renewable energy. They triggered societal debates and advocated decentralized energy production, showing that today’s discussions that are dominated by climate change have a prehistory that was much more about energy independence, pollution problems, the finiteness of fossil fuel resources, and antinuclear activism. At the end of the day, the one thing that is really “new” about renewables is the term itself. It was only coined in the 1970s and gradually replaced other descriptions, such as “alternative,” “inexhaustible” or “reusable” sources of energy.









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