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Pragmatic Futurism--Henry Ford Goes Solar

Jonathan Larson (1993)

"Pragmatic futurism" is essential Americana. It is summed up in the old Midwestern saying "The best way to predict the future is to go ahead and invent it." Dreams with working blueprints transformed this country. No sooner had we built the railroads than we perfected the automobile and installed a parallel infrastructure of paved roads. A food distribution system was built that allows a person to eat fresh or frozen food of astonishing variety year round. A communication system was fabricated that allows anyone anywhere to listen to the greatest music ever written at the touch of a button. Transcontinental journeys have been transformed from a harrowing ordeal to a slightly boring, slightly annoying, six-hour flight. Pragmatic futurism has an astonishing track record.

Pragmatic futurism also has failures. This is inevitable. Not everything works as planned. Never! But the dreamer's pain of a disappointing experiment is soothed by knowing that there are some questions that can only be answered in the trying, and there is no such thing as a completely failed experiment because at least we know what not to try next time.

Some failures are merely dreary. In rural Kansas there are dying towns that have sophisticated airports with paved runways capable of landing bizjets. Hosts to companies such as Beech and Cessna, Kansans believed in general aviation because in Kansas, general aviation made sense. Long distances, wide-open skies, and often glorious flying weather caused pragmatic, small-town boosters to believe that an airport would bring prosperity in the era immediately following World War II. Fifty years later, Beech and Cessna have virtually ceased small-plane production and grass grows in the cracks of 7000 foot runways.

Some failures are downright ugly. Nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter. The results of that experiment are not impressive. Fifty years of expensive electric power in exchange for 50,000 years of toxic waste storage headaches is not a valid trade-off. Chernobyl demonstrated that a small system failure could render uninhabitable for 10,000 years an area the size and agricultural importance of Iowa. 1950's nuclear technology will be cursed for a long time to come.

Using nuclear fission to boil water is but one of the great environmental disasters of pragmatic futurism. Others include using methods of chemical warfare against weeds and pests, linear industrialization that forges a one-way path from the mines to the garbage dumps, and the fixation with fire. The results are ruined soils, choked landfills, and the virtual certainty of global warming.

None of these decisions were crazy when they were made. In fact, many were driven by noble motives. Electrical generation with fission and chemical warfare on pests came from the desire to convert militarized industrial research to civilian applications. Organic chemical production of synthetic materials was based on the need to use the sludge of petrochemical refining. Harnessing fire to provide warmth and comfort was a primary concern to those whose lives had been so harsh. Beating swords into plowshares, eliminating waste, and providing for one's family are virtuous and ancient social imperatives.

Our grandfathers could argue that these noble motivations are of such importance, even the resulting environmental dilemmas do not invalidate the practices of pragmatic futurism. They would tell us that technology is a process, that their decisions were the best they could make when they made them, and if we find problems with the resulting industrial infrastructure they left us, it is up to us to make it better. We solved some very large problems, they would tell us, you must solve the rest. If Gramps were crotchety enough he might also mutter that "no one ever built a monument to a critic."

This leads to a most interesting question, Can the lessons of pragmatic futurism be applied to modern environmental problems? To answer that question, an intellectual exercise seems appropriate. Suppose a quintessential pragmatic futurist like the inventive and idealistic Henry Ford of 1903 - 1920 were alive today, and instead of transportation for the masses, he applied his talents to the problems of global warming, what sort of industry might he produce?

Ford was an avid conservationist so it is probable the 1990s Ford could be convinced of the seriousness of global warming--convinced enough to give it his undivided attention, to work as hard as he and Charles Sorensen did perfecting the Model T. Years of passionate, dedicated, work results from a conviction that there is a solution ahead, and that progress towards the solution is being made. Without this conviction, no one will expend the necessary efforts of time and money. Is there enough scientific evidence for global warming to convince a modern Ford to commit these resources? There is as much evidence for a need to address the threat global warming as there was that folks would buy cars.

Ford made his decisions to act based on clearly defined problems. Of the great environmental dilemmas, global warming is the easiest to define--too many fires. The best estimate is that the industrial countries like the United States must douse 5/6 of their fires to bring the emissions of carbon dioxide back within the carrying capacity of the atmosphere.

Simply quenching 5/6 of the fires in furnaces, internal combustion engines, and fossil-powered electrical generation would cause millions to starve or freeze. The chaos that would result from simple conservation applied to existing technology would be so intense that it is little wonder some scientists cover their eyes to the overwhelming global-warming data already extant. Our modern Ford knows the fires must not be merely quenched, but replaced.

Ford had a background in electrical generation and was a friend of Thomas Edison. It would not take him long to decide that electrical power generated without fire was the only alternative. At this point, the argument could be made that Ford would climb on the bandwagon of nuclear power given his penchant for giantism. The River Rouge plant in its heyday would comically dwarf any nuclear power plant. Ford was not afraid to think on a large scale, so he would not reject nuclear power for reasons of size or complexity.

On the other hand, Ford knew that all machinery eventually fails. When cars were primitive and unreliable, Ford at least designed them to be easy to fix. Ford's work at Detroit Edison was in maintenance and to the end of his days, he liked to putter with his machinery. Ford was not the sort to buy into technology that can never, ever fail. Belt-and-suspenders types intrinsically mistrust nuclear power.

This leaves solar power as the only remaining contender. The modern Ford would probably not be tempted by photovoltaic electrical generation. Concerned with the environmental hazards involved in the production of PV cells, Ford would not be convinced that they produce as much energy as they require to make, and is worried about the useful life and recycling problems of square miles of PV cells.

On the other hand, a new Ford would probably be fascinated with the possibilities of solar power's great manifestation--the wind. Harnessing the wind would draw upon Ford's great strengths. Windmills are mechanical and they can be mass produced. They can be designed to be easily maintained and when maintenance is no longer possible, recycled into new windmills.

Ease of maintenance and recyclibility are critical to harnessing the wind in the United States. 14 states have sufficient power to supply the electricity needs of the whole country. Even with dramatic increases in electrical use as the nation quenched its fires, potential is not an issue. Wind powerful enough to turn large windmills is available over 75% of the time--a figure that rivals the best existing power plants.

The problem is that the most significant volume of wind blows across the Great Plains. High prairie windmills will be battered by 115· heat, -50· cold, hail, sleet, snow, and tornadoes. Cold makes things brittle and hard to lubricate, hail and sleet tear up the blades, and tornadoes will just blow the windmills down.

Experience with automobile has taught Ford that large products are made of smaller elements--each with its own life cycle. He determines that prairie windmills have for reasons of maintenance, three parts. The mast has a life expectancy of probably 250 years, the generator will last 40 years, and the propeller blades from one day to 20 years.

Accordingly, he determines that blades should be formed of an easily recycled material so that when they have been dinged into uselessness by hail, sleet and rain, they can be recast into new blades. Replacement time should be less than one hour under adverse weather conditions. A generator exchange should require less than five hours. All parts must be clearly marked for recycling. Even the mast must be fabricated from a steel that does not need painting so that it can be reforged at some later date.

Designing for maintenance and recyclibility introduces amazing flexibility into the system. Should a new propeller shape prove superior in performance at some later date, for example, it can be introduced in the course of routine maintenance. By differentiating between what is permanent (such as the site of the mast) and what is temporal (the blades), our modern Ford has perfected a cost effective modular windmill to cope with the hazards of the high prairies.

You Don't Need a Weatherman
to Tell Which Way the Wind Blows

In Minnesota, there are two experimental wind farms designed to test the practicality of harnessing the winds of the high prairie. One attempt is managed by a quintessential booster who wants to sell and operate windmills built by the Danish company, Wind World A/S.

Even though designed for use in European coastal applications, Wind World's generators are quite advanced and may thrive in prairie applications. They are designed to meet rigid noise standards and a great deal of engineering of blade technology has already been done. The variable-pitched hub has been eliminated and rotation control has been assigned to clever movable blade tips.

Wind World calls their innovation "fixed-pitch" technology which is something of a misnomer--97% of the blade IS fixed and the headache of the hub with moving parts has been eliminated, but the tips must still be controlled. Even if Wind World's technology is a 100-fold improvement over the plagued variable-speed hub and gearbox, it is not difficult to imagine weather conditions that would wreck those tips.

Wind World only uses aerodynamic speed controls to prevent damage to the windmill itself. They allow the generator to raise and lower electrical output with changes in wind speed while regulating it for sale to the grid with electronic controls. As with most things electronic these days, the controller is very sophisticated and highly developed.

The good news ends there. If Wind World's generators are the state of the art, the journey to sustainable electrical generation through wind power has a ways to go. A 20-40 year claim for component life is but a hiccup in comparison to "forever." A Wind World product has not been designed for ease of maintenance. The Marshall Minnesota sales office has a broken blade as a business sign and while I was there, two scruffy characters were struggling to repair a generator with improper tools or training.

Wind World's blades and generator housing are fiberglass composites--a material notoriously difficult if not impossible to recycle. If thousands of these windmills are installed, this becomes a major problem. The claim that burying or burning broken or worn fiberglass parts is a minor matter compared with the environmental headaches of coal or nuclear electrical generation is as irrelevant as it is true. Significantly converting to a solar energy base will be expensive and cause social upheaval of the first magnitude. No point is served by embarking on such a journey without solving these relatively minor technical considerations.

The other, more reluctant, experimenter in prairie wind power is the largest utility in the region-Northern States Power (NSP). With some justification, their customers like to believe NSP is one of the best on the planet. Because of severe weather conditions, NSP is forced to be good. Through tornadoes and thunderstorms, sleet, hail, and blizzards, NSP keeps power flowing to customers who are often in grave danger without electricity.

NSP operates a wide mix of generating plants including two nuclear facilities sited on the upper Mississippi. Catastrophic failure of either would be devastating to a enormous area of agricultural importance, but because NSP is so competent, even this huge risk seems remote to its customers. As a result, when NSP proposed a third nuclear plant, anti-nuke opposition focused on the problems of waste storage rather than danger. In the end, NSP was quite reasonable about the whole affair and the third plant was canceled with a minimum of acrimony.

That this well-managed, reasonable, and highly competent company has not enthusiastically embraced wind power is damning, for beyond the minor technical problems of Wind World's equipment, there are huge unanswered questions that a real utility must ask.

Theoretically, the wind that blows over Buffalo Ridge in southwest Minnesota is enough to replace all the other power plants in Minnesota. Further, the wind resources in North Dakota and Montana are sufficient to power the whole of the USA--areas considered within the same cultural/industrial/economic area of NSP. If windmills are simply the oil derricks of renewable energy, NSP does not have far to go to begin "drilling." In fact, the Europeans would LOVE to have such a resource to tap.

But NSP still does not consider wind power seriously. The big problem is that the wind blows when it wants to blow. NSP became a great utility by making a fetish of reliability and the wind is not reliable. At best, NSP claims, wind power will be useful in coping with peak winter demands. Not surprisingly, there is a correlation between energy consumption and the wind in winter--a 40 mph wind WILL find all the leaks in a house.

Summer peaks in electrical use can occur on hot windless days. Because many northern prairie houses are heated with natural gas, NSP's peak demand for electricity is in the summer, even though total energy demand is always higher in winter. Replacing all that energy with wind power in winter will be extremely difficult. Prairie winters consist of a series of brutal Arctic high-pressure systems that roar down out of Canada. When they are coming or going, these weather patterns produce monster winds, but when one parks itself overhead, the temperatures can drop to -30· and stay there for several days with no wind whatsoever. Such conditions cause the old-timers to say it is "too cold for the wind to blow."

To an NSP, which is charged with providing energy on demand, a Wind World claim, that their technology is ready to capture the wind more than 99.9% of the time, is really quite irrelevant. Wind World would respond that if NSP were really interested in reducing pollution, they could install a large capacity wind farm and only operate their fossil-powered plants when the wind does not blow. Weather patterns on the prairie are highly predictable--over 24 hours, even television weathercasts are accurate over 98% of the time. There is plenty of time to fire up the old coal-burners.

Wind World's claim is absolutely valid but not very important. If NSP must maintain the coal-fired plants for those days when the wind does not blow, the overhead expense for these plants does not drop. In fact, because use is irregular, it might actually go up. Electricity from such a plant must cost more because the capital and maintenance costs are divided over fewer kilowatt hours. Add in the costs of generating electricity from the wind, which are still high even though the energy itself is "free," and wind-power becomes an expensive headache.

Technology is not Enough

A total conversion to renewable energy resources requires more than a promoter of clever but partially-developed technology or even the full-fledged commitment of a reluctant utility, however well it is run. Producing electricity from wind, like mass producing the automobile, is only half of the equation.

With the automobile, Ford also had to set up sales and distribution systems, train mechanics to service the cars, and even form associations to lobby for better roads. A conversion to renewable energy will require at least as great a social upheaval as the introduction of the automobile with its factories, regimented work, and vertical industrial integration. Ford felt the need to staff a sociology department to help manage the changes he was making to people's lives.

The social upheaval associated with a conversion to renewable energy will be caused by the need to undo the fundamental assumption of industrialization--energy on demand. In many ways, it is like asking the captain of a nuclear aircraft carrier to learn to sail again.

Technological innovation has always had two components--getting the machinery to work and gaining social acceptance for the new way of doing things. For over 250 years, the technology of the industrial revolution has struggled against the intrinsic social conservatism of bankers, legislators, academics, as well as the amateur skeptics. Industrialism's universal sales tool was to sell convenient power. Power on demand made life easier for the working classes while increasing the clout of the already powerful. Yet even with this universal appeal, every inventor faced monumental setbacks due to the intrinsic resistance to change.

Ford's phenomenal success was largely due to his understanding that the social revolution was more important than the machinery. In many circles, he is given credit for inventing nothing less than modern enlightened capitalism. Ford's big social innovations include: 1) the decision to make his product cheap enough to sell to small farmers; 2) the decision to organize the growth of his company with a minimum of "help" from the financial community; 3) the 8-hour $5 work day based on the economic assumption that worker must be able to buy back production; and 4) the vertical integration of production. Compared with these social contributions to history, Ford's technological decisions to use gasoline for fuel, employ vanadium steel for the model T, or even his decision to use the moving assembly line, pale by comparison.

Social revolutionary though Ford clearly was, even he did not challenge the fundamental assumption of industrialism. In fact, by perfecting the most convenient use of power ever known to mankind, Ford is largely responsible for the energy-environmental crises that solar power must address. This means that in order to succeed as the power for sustainable technology, the solar alternative requires a boost from someone who is even more socially radical than Ford was at his enlightened best.

The Techno-Social Considerations of Sustainable Energy

Humans have used fire far longer than recorded history for valid reasons. The release of stored sunlight by fire has only become a problem because it is now done so frequently. Overpopulation of the world's poor and technological extravagance by the world's rich has doomed the children of Prometheus. Instead of worshipping fire, we must develop the solar capabilities of the plant kingdom.

There are those who would argue that since we can never synthetically mimic a plant's ability to capture and store solar power, it is probably foolish to try. Rather, such a person might argue, it would be better to cultivate specialized fast-growing plants that capture a maximum amount of energy. Commonly called the biomass strategy, such a scheme would burn the plants for electrical generation or convert them to liquid fuels such as methanol.

In spite of the fact that a biomass strategy does not reduce the industrial dependence on fire in and of itself, it would encourage a carbon balance in the atmosphere because growing plants would offset the fire. Biomass's fundamental problem is that virtually every inch of the earth's surface that could conceivably be cultivated is already employed in the production of food and fiber. Displacing either for the purpose of cultivating plants for fuels is really quite impossible either technologically or socially.

If we try to synthetically mimic the two great attributes of plants, capturing solar power is really not the problem. Collecting solar energy and converting it to electricity seems to be a technological slam dunk--difficult, but not impossible, for the skilled. Storage, on the other hand, remains the quintessential dilemma of electrical power because otherwise it must be consumed the instant it is produced. In order for directly-collected solar energy to replace the energy consumed from fire, power need not be stored very long, but a great deal must be stored for 12 hours to cope with the diurnal cycle, and a supply of up to ten days must be available to cope with adverse weather conditions.

The proffered storage solutions to date have come with significant objections. Pumping water into reservoirs to be released for electrical generation encounters the objections that both water and hydropower sites are scarce. Chemical storage with batteries suggests a monumental toxic headache. Converting electricity into hydrogen through the electrolysis of water means building an industrial infrastructure to handle a fuel that even highly-trained NASA technicians find difficult to use.

Since the technological problems of storage seem so great, other schemes must be considered. The most obvious is simple over capacity. The idea is that if the sources of solar collectors are sufficiently diverse in both type and location, somewhere the sun is shining or the wind is blowing even if it is not elsewhere in the country. The question is, How much over capacity is enough? Over capacity is expensive and encounters an interesting environmental question.

One reason there is so much wind on the prairie is because there is so little impediment to its blowing. There are places in North America where the wind does not encounter so much as a tree for over a thousand miles. A forest of windmills must have the effect of a forest of trees. Enough windmills will change weather patterns.

Wind World's spokesman seems to think this is a minor problem--citing as evidence the need to space windmills a distance of ten propeller diameters apart while still retaining generator efficiency. They believe that disturbed air from one propeller is smooth enough again to power the next one only 300 meters downstream. Such a claim seems difficult to believe for any sailor who has tried to overtake another in the lee of the sails. Further, every time 125 kilowatts is harvested from the wind, the wind must have less energy remaining. Standing on a windswept prairie is enough to cause a person to believe in the infinity of the wind, but that is what the settlers first believed about the North American forests--and they were wrong too.

It is obvious that there will be a need for a serious conservation scheme in any plan to go solar. The gross numbers look something like this: to quench 5/6 of the fires and replace them with solar-sourced electricity, the installed electrical capacity must increase by a factor of 3-4 before conservation. Improvements in technology can conserve 50% of that. This means we need roughly twice the currently installed electrical capacity to power a society roughly similar to the one we have without a great drop in living standards. This means that theoretically only 1/7 of the possible sites for wind collection need be tapped for use.

1/7 seems about right on the face of it. Merely installing this many windmills and connecting them to the grid is a project that may take 25 years to complete. Confining site selection only to prime locations may limit the number to 1/7 in any case. Nevertheless, this leaves precious little room for fickle winds. If Kansas has only harnessed enough wind to supply 1/7 of the nation's needs and the wind is only blowing in Kansas, there will be extreme hardship. Calculations can be made so that statistically, enough electricity will be generated to meet minimum needs at all times. These calculations have not been done but it seems reasonable that 100% over capacity will be the minimum required.

This over capacity of 100% suggest that a solar-powered society must be designed as a two-tiered user of energy. Serious questions must be asked concerning which uses of energy are critical for the support of life and which are not. Some necessary uses are obvious--such as the electricity used by an operating room during surgery. Some uses of energy are frivolous--such as the fuel used to power dirt bikes. Most energy consumption, however, is neither obviously frivolous or necessary so categorizing them is a social question.

The question of what constitutes minimum necessity is not as grim as it sounds. An activity can be classified as outside the minimums without being eliminated. For example, recycling metals with electricity is a social good but is not a minimum daily necessity of life. Therefore, a society could recycle its aluminum when all the windmills are turning and there is electricity to be had in abundance.

Even the minor concession of two-tied electrical consumption is a radical departure from the thinking that brought us the industrial revolution. Yet this social question seems the easiest to solve within the technological constraints of a decision to go solar.

Fortunately, humans have a wealth of experience with this sort of social thinking. In fact, the convenient consumption of energy is so historically recent, there is an interesting argument to be made that humanity has never quite adjusted to the new reality, no matter how comfortable. The ancient maxim of "make hay while the sun shines" reflected a human connectedness with nature that is lost to modern urban dwellers. A population whose work and play was governed by the availability of solar electricity rather than a clock or calendar could grow to enjoy the rhythms imposed by the natural order again.

A social radical with the capability of an old Ford shouting "make hay while the sun shines" is not the kind of person employed by a modern public utility. This is probably just as well. Old Henry was not the sort of person you would want running nuclear power plants. For that job, an industrial society wants the most boring, by-the-book, bureaucratic, conservative it can produce.

Cautious public utility officials and the even more cautious bankers that sit on their boards of directors are a far cry from the radical social industrialist necessary to organize a solar conversion. And while a new Ford is not running NSP, neither is he yet running the Wind Worlds of the world. Wind World lacks the access to capital while NSP lacks the large social imagination to do the dramatic. A solar conversion is too large a problem for a small windmill manufacturer, while it is too daring for a public utility. All the while, carbon builds up in the atmosphere and time runs short.

Even if one believes that Ford was a one-in-a-million kind of guy, statistically the USA should have 250 modern "Fords" hiding somewhere in the society. If it requires a new Ford to go solar, it should be possible to find one. Yet Ford was a product of his times and today's Zeitgeist is quite different. There could be a thousand new Fords and they would never be identified because the social environment has changed so radically, the potential Fords are not developing into the real thing.

If the Zeitgeist can be changed, the people necessary to build a solar infrastructure will emerge from the woodwork. A serious conversion to a solar future is possible technologically but so far, the institutional requirements have not been met. The great social questions have not even been asked--Do we have the social will to trade energy convenience for a less-damaged atmosphere? Do we have the social organization to plan and execute a project that will require at least 25 years? What will it take to acquire permanent funding for such a project? Is it possible to build a solar-powered infrastructure with preindustrial economic assumptions of what is profitable? Does anyone with political power understand how large and difficult this project will be? Can a society that glorifies individualism ever understand that genuine environmental solutions require new industrial and social designs?

Considering that directly harnessing solar power may be the only means of survival for a majority of the already existing inhabitants of the planet, the subject has received precious little serious thought to date. Pragmatic futurists produced industrialization with its grave environmental problems, yet it is probable that only pragmatic futurism will save us.


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