“I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”
These might sound like quotes from individuals with opposing points of view, but they’re not. In fact, they were both uttered by the same person: Thomas Edison, father of the modern electric light bulb.
Edison embodied two things that tend to be lost in today’s discussion of energy dependence and new energy technologies: he was open to proactive change (even if it superceded his own inventions) and obsessed with practicality.
It can seem like the world is awash with ideas about our energy future, some are exciting, but decades away from being practical. To choose the right option—for consumers and for our economy—can seem daunting, but we don’t have to start from scratch. Building on Edison's research, we can begin to see that the answers have been there all along.
Eventually, Edison founded General Electric, a company that has been exploring the world of efficient energy technologies for over a century. Always with an eye to the future, GE has focused on improving existing power generation products as well as inventing new ones. From the first water wheel to harness the energy of Niagara Falls to the flexible, futuristic organic, LEDs, GE has strived to produce high quality products that make life better. In fact, GE's recently released data visualization tool aggregates all of their annual reports from the past 120 years and actually lets you track all the different energy-related products it’s developed over the decades.
Click on the word solar, and you’ll see the first mention pop up way back in 1946 when GE was first developing new ways to measure solar ray intensities. The first mention of wind power shows up in 1974 when the company worked with NASA to develop a wind generator. Fast forward a few decades, and you'll find advanced technologies for gathering both of these sources of renewable energy, like GE's thin film solar panels and high capacity wind turbines. While the potential is huge, and other countries are already taking advantage of these products, in America, the true energy generating capacity of wind and solar remains to be seen.
It's frustrating to realize the disconnect between availability and utilization of solar and wind power technologies, especially since most of the decisions are made by those with a vested interested in maintaining the status quo (Edison would be livid). The good news, however, is that the renewable energy industry continues to grow. And as GE’s new data visualization tool demonstrates, these technologies are a part of our national conversation now, more than ever. The key is to never become comfortable with what we’ve got, or afraid to push the boundaries of what’s possible.
This post was written in collaboration with GE as part of their new DataViz App available here.
Top Image Credit: Flickr - webhamster