A New York Minute

May 23, 2019

How new technologies get adopted, and how sometimes forces that block change can cause developments to turn out in a different way.

I was reading an article in the NY Post the other day about how the green new deal efforts is stalled in the state. Apparently a legal effort to install a new gas pipeline was thwarted by the state government which is pushing wind and solar. Meanwhile locals in various communities have stopped efforts to build new wind and solar projects in their communities because they don’t like the look of them in a strange twist on NIMBY.

This week I attended a meeting at the Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC) on the politics of The Green New Deal. The meeting was not too upbeat in my estimation as on the state level the new democratic governor and state legislature have already caved in obsequiously to oil and gas money.

I tell friends that one of the most powerful things you can do is install solar and buy and electric car if you want to reduce your carbon footprint. Add a home storage battery and you have a trifecta of reduced environmental impact and you escape from the volatility of gasoline prices.

This of course is not cheap to do and leaves folks of limited means behind. My best advice for folks who can only afford a used car in the ten thousand dollar range is to buy a used EV of limited range (80 miles to 100 miles). This will meet 100% of their local travel needs but they are not for traveling long distances.

It kind of makes one wonder just how do new technologies get introduced to the public anyway in the face of opposition and persistent ignorance on the part of the public? I ran across some interesting stories on the introduction of the railroad into England in the early 1800’s from a book I am now reading titled “Energy” by Richard Rhodes.

Apparently in England the roads were undeveloped being what was called “Soft Roads”. From about August to October the farmers would herd the cattle, sheep, pigs, and yes even geese to market to the larger cities like London. If you can imagine it picture a hundred or more geese being driven to market day after day for a hundred or more miles. Kind of makes the idea of herding cats seem like child’s play.

The farmers did not want these roads improved (read hardened here) because it would be hard on the animals feet. Enter stage left the railroad. It was found that a horse could haul up to 30 tons of carts on a track on level ground. They just couldn’t use rail road ties to tie the rails together. They used evenly spaced piers to support the track on each side so the horse could trot down the middle between the rails unimpeded.

Only later on with the introduction of the locomotive did the fact that the rails were not tied together become a concern. The first rails were wooden, then cast iron which was often times too brittle and would break. Then the metallurgy caught up in the form of a more malleable cast iron which was more durable and not prone to cracking.

By this reading one of the reasons the railroads developed in England first was because of the farmers lobby to keep their roads soft. Soft roads are not good for pulling wagons for transporting goods. Some of the first rails were used to haul coal out of the mines then downhill to a water way for transport to market. They might just be operated by a man with a brake lever and horse in tow behind the wagon. The horse would be used later to haul the empty cart back up the hill.

Railroads were delayed in their development in the United States because of our expansive river systems connecting much of the eastern half of the country together. This meant that some of the first applications for steam powered transport here was for boats. A boat can haul a lot more weight including a steam engine and fuel which were not small items at first.

“I am astonished,” the American steamboat inventor James Rumsey wrote George Washington in 1785,”that it is so hard to force an advantage on the public.” The future is a hard sell. “ The man in the street in the 1790’s Wrigley argues “would be in no doubt about a revolution across the channel in France, but he would have been astonished to learn that he was living in the middle of what future generations would also term a revolution”.

Not much has changed in the intervening 220 years if your look at our situation today. We are in a revolution of a transition from internal combustion to using electricity for transportation and very few people seem to know it. I was talking to my sister last night on the phone trying to convince her to take a test drive of a Tesla Model 3 or a Kia Niro EV and she is reluctant because she has to be proactive to accomplish the task. She says she wants to buy and electric car in 18 months and I am trying to coach her to do her homework.

In desperation I told her to just do it. I said, “once you do you will find that everything you have driven for the past fifty years is just primitive in comparison. A Tesla Model 3 or any good modern EV is like a spaceship in comparison.” Yes indeed, “The Future really is a Hard Sell”.

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