Steven Preister's Washington, D.C. house is a beautiful 110-year-old colonial with wooden column and a porch, ideal for relaxing in summer. It has been in his family for nearly four decades. But Preister is very concerned about the environment so he added solar panels to it in 2014. He mounted the panels on the back of his house and they worked well. He decided to add panels to the front of the house, which he faced the street, and applied for a permit from the city.
Permission denied. Permission denied. Preister says that two women were standing on my porch taking pictures of my house. They declared, "You won't get solar panels on this home!"
Renewable energy is at an interesting crossroads. It is essential to prevent further climate change, and both solar and wind power are remarkably affordable. Even clean-energy advocates often find the technology's aesthetics to be offensive. They are happy for windmills and solar arrays to be present somewhere, but not in sight. Many homeowners' associations won't allow residents to install solar panels.
This is the new great shift that we are facing. Gas- and coal-fired power plants have been hidden away for decades. Now, power generation can be seen everywhere. Abigail Ross Hopper is the president and CEO at the Solar Energy Industries Association.
This struggle has a long history. Ironically, coal faced similar resistance in the early 19th-century, when it was the new power source that promised to solve many problems.
Americans used very little coal until the 1800s. Wood was scarce and the country was densely wooded. Many houses have one or more wood fireplaces. There weren't many factories in the country that required serious energy. Coal was a niche fuel, used by blacksmiths, who required high heat to do their jobs.
As cities grew quickly and required more fuel, choppers deforested the surrounding areas. It became difficult to find firewood and more expensive. Benjamin Franklin, a Philadelphian, was expressing concern about the state of Philadelphians in 1744. "Wood," he wrote, "Wood, our Common Fewel" - it could have been found at every Man's Door for 100 years, but now is difficult to find. It also makes an extremely large Article in the Expence on Families. Johann David Schoepf was a German botanist and physician who traveled through America after and during the Revolutionary War. He worried that the wood-burning would not leave any wood for his grandchildren to hang their tea-kettles.
This article is a selection of the July/August issue Smithsonian magazine.
A fireplace was an inefficient way to heat a home, as heat is lost up the chimney. Christopher Jones, an Arizona State University historian who studies early American power generation, says that many open-hearth wood stoves were inefficient.
America was right on top of the solution to the fuel crisis. This came in the form massive coal piles, especially Pennsylvania's lodes. Anthracite is a dense, rock-like form of the stuff. Because it produced less smoke than "soft" bituminous, anthracite was perfect for burning in homes. Coal was no longer the sole source of income for blacksmiths. Companies started to mine more anthracite, and then built railroads and canals to transport the fuel to the East.
It was difficult to convince Americans to switch to the new fuel. Jones says that before the advent of massive factories, households were the primary consumers of power. Jones states that "homes were the major market for coal" in those years. Coal merchants had to convince Americans to switch to coal house by house.
The technological obstacle was one: To burn coal, you needed metal ovens. These were expensive and scarce. A more difficult barrier was cultural. Stoves were not only visually unattractive, but also enclosed. This meant that you couldn't see the flames inside as well as in traditional fireplaces. Prominent citizens decried stoves in speeches and articles, calling them un-American.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1864 that she wondered if Revolutionary fathers would have been barefooted and bleeding on snows in order to protect cooking-ranges and stoves. "I trow [believe] it not," Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his 1843 short story Fire Worship, argued that gathering around a flickering hearth was essential to bring families and citizens together.
Hawthorne worried that social intercourse can no longer be what it was, since we have taken away so much...an element like firelight." "A man could be faithful to his country, but he would not be true to law and country if he was faithful to the fireside."
There were many cultural arguments. The stoves were used to cook food, but not broiled. This offended American taste buds. Andrew Jackson Downing, an early landscape architect and advocate, claimed that stoves were "secret poisoners" worse than slavery, tobacco, [or] patent drugs in 1850.
"People blamed coal-fired stoves to cause impaired vision, impaired nerves and tooth decay," Barbara Freese, author Coal: A Human History, says. It smelled a lot less pleasant than wood. Additionally, coal, particularly soft coal, produces soot that chokes some towns with dangerous particulates.
Coal was not only a cultural problem, but it was also a hassle to light. Anthracite stoves required multiple attempts to ignite the flame, and required constant fiddling with a poker. The black art was covered in 15 pages of a 1827 guide to servants. A period analysis revealed that the new stoves add an hour to housewife's chores.
Marketing was a major focus for the railroad and mining industries. They held demonstrations in hotels and invited curious people to see how much heat a coal stove can generate. Some wealthy elites behaved as Instagram influencers and promoted anthracite, creating a romantic image of coal as the "fuel of the fashionable". Sean Adams, University of Florida professor of history and author of Home Fires. How Americans Keep Warm in the 19th century. Because the wealthy are often also investors in railroads and mines, they have a stake in seeing coal thrive.
Mathew Carey (a Philadelphia publisher) boasted in an 1825 letter that coal kept his room warm at 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the cold months. He wrote, "My feet used be very cold at night in winter." These grievances have been completely eliminated since I used this coal.
The government also assisted: State officials carried out surveys to determine the yield of coal fields and published their findings to encourage confidence among investors. Coal interests made it possible for low-income households to purchase fuel and stoves in bulk in summer when coal prices were lower. They also lent stoves to families in need.
Technology improved gradually. New stoves allowed you to simply add fuel to the top of the stove to keep the fire burning. Stovemakers paid a lot of attention to the design of their ranges. Some models became almost a collection. Adams says, "They would put busts George Washington on top and other stuff like that so you could have it inside your parlor."
American households began to shift to coal in the 1860s. It was cheaper than wood, and in 1831 Adams estimated that a family would have spent $4.50 in cold months on coal, while wood would have cost them $21. But, there was always a shortage. The rich had the money to buy large quantities of coal, which allowed them to get better prices than those who were less fortunate. The lower classes made fun of local coal-sellers, writing poems and songs mocking their greed.
Adams said that coal merchants were "all over the place" in the late 19th-century, and everyone hated them.
This didn't stop the relentless march of coal. In 1885, more homes burned coal than wood. The new fuel was winning, especially in large cities.
The urgent need to shift to renewable energy is becoming alarmingly obvious. Half a million people die each year from pollution caused by coal. Historical experts point out that studying early objections about coal can help us to anticipate the bumps ahead. It also shows how transitions to other fuels can be complicated and chaotic.
Adams states that many coal companies went bankrupt during the 19th century. It was an extremely disorganized industry. These transitions are slow, sloppy, and intermittent.
Further, coal shows that there are more tech breakthroughs needed to make "new fuels" less complicated. Americans used improved stoves and railroads to transport coal; we now need better ways of storing and transporting renewable electricity. Cultural battles will continue as more solar panels are created, including industrial arrays that have taken control of fields from Death Valley in California to Lewiston in New York.
Today's renewable industries are much like the old coal traders. They have a sales job. Hopper believes solar advocates need to be more persuasive in promoting the upsides of solar power. This includes not only the climate benefits, which most Americans want, but also the possibility of cheaper electricity and local jobs.
It is possible that aesthetic objections will soon disappear. SolarSkin is the solution that Preister has discovered. It's a decorative film with a photograph of a roof printed by a Boston-based company. This camouflages the panel underneath. In December 2019, the D.C. preservation Board approved this new array that he had proposed.
He notes that the board is now more open to technology for historic houses.
Preister says, "I have never thought solar panels to be ugly."
Approximately 80 percent of domestic electricity is produced from natural gas, coal, and nuclear fission. Renewable wind and solar power are growing in popularity.
By Sonya Maynard