Green and Gold

Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy, By Seth Fletcher, Hill and Wang, 272 pages, $26.00

Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change, By L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Hill and Wang, 400 pages, $26.00

In the early 1900s, years after his most famous inventions, Thomas Edison tried to build a better battery. Although scientists had long employed them as laboratory tools, batteries designed for general use were relatively new. Edison's first attempt failed, and he spent five years trying to improve his product. His goal was to build an electric car to help support -- and make profitable -- the electric power grid he had established in parts of the United States. But while he was trying to solve his battery's problems, the gasoline-powered auto raced ahead, and Henry Ford's cheap mass-production methods made it the car of the people. Batteries couldn't store enough energy for cars to travel far and drive fast despite an improvement that Edison had made by 1908 when he added a bit of lithium.

As Seth Fletcher, an editor at Popular Science magazine, explains in his new book, Bottled Lightning, Edison's choice was uncannily correct: Lithium remains the best substance for building batteries for an electric car with a long-enough range to be appealing to consumers. Yet the electric car that Edison wanted to develop as an alternative to Ford's Model T remains elusive.

And so does a larger solution to our energy problems. Beginning in the 1970s, when the recent phase of the environmental movement got under way, scholars and journalists took it as a given that the way to mitigate environmental degradation was for government to regulate the behavior that produced it. To be sure, advocates of reform always hoped that regulation would inspire creativity and innovation, but they didn't rest their hopes on the private sector.

Two new books put the emphasis on innovative private responses to environmental problems. Through the story of the development of the lithium battery, Bottled Lightning demonstrates how we might arrive at potential solutions despite running into many problems along the way. Climate Capitalism makes the larger case for engineering the market to drive innovation in ways that protect the planet.

The two books mirror the shifting focus of public debate. For the past several years, national policy has moved from a regulatory approach to an emphasis on creating incentives for private actors to develop a new economy. Cap-and-trade (though it failed in the Senate) epitomized this approach -- one in which we don't just harness the market's power but defer to it. In Barack Obama's Washington, for better or worse, the reigning message is that environmentally conscious policies and healthy corporate bottom lines go happily together.

Fletcher gets into some of the difficulty in marrying capitalism and the environment in his tale of espionage and intrigue in the field of material physics and the development of battery technology. (In one description of an ongoing fight that has escalated to the courts, Fletcher writes, "The retort was delivered in the understated smack-talk of a scientific journal.") But though many technical obstacles have stood in the way, the biggest reason that we don't yet have an electric car is that oil has stayed so remarkably cheap. Americans like driving their gasoline-powered cars, and they haven't had a good reason to change.

As a result, after advances in battery technology in the mid- to late 20th century, the United States fell behind its Asian counterparts. In the 1980s, Exxon closed an innovative battery research center that it had been funding, and government and private money for battery research all but disappeared. We're still playing catch-up. General Motors first built an electric car in the late 1990s, only to drop it on the grounds that the company took a loss for each one it sold and that drivers would find it too costly to maintain. It's now developing another model.

There may be other problems, too: The largest reserves of lithium are in South America, notably in Bolivia, whose president, Evo Morales, is unfriendly to the United States. As one of Fletcher's subjects asks, are we going to trade OPEC for LiPec?

Regardless, all of the researchers we hear from in Fletcher's book believe their work is vital to our economic future, a view bolstered by the government's renewed interest in their field. The stimulus package provided funding for battery-research centers near Detroit and kept the Chevrolet Volt in production through GM's bankruptcy restructuring. Fletcher gives his book a hopeful tone, suggesting that we may finally develop an electric car. And if an unstable Middle East keeps driving up gas prices, perhaps the American consumer will be ready to try something new.

In Climate Capitalism, L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, who both make their living as consultants on sustainable business practices, spell out for business leaders how they can curb their carbon footprint and ensure their competitiveness. Companies and countries reluctant to sign on to industry-shifting practices will be at a competitive disadvantage, they say. To their libertarian-leaning free-market friends, they point out that government intervention has already shaped the market for energy. Federal subsidies to the oil industry totaled $60 billion between 2002 and 2008. Another $16.8 billion went to develop corn-based ethanol as an alternative to gasoline for traditional cars. These researchers just want a level playing field, which they say can be created through a mix of regulations, tax breaks, and other incentives.

But even leveling the playing field for alternatives doesn't deal with the basic problem in energy and environmental policy: The market doesn't capture all of the costs that fossil fuels and other industrial-era processes impose on society. To address that problem, Lovins and Cohen offer the standard list of remedies that environmentalists recommend: energy-efficient buildings, walkable cities and development organized around mass transit, and markets for carbon. Even in starting projects in these areas, the United States is far behind many other countries.

Hoping to convince readers that greening the economy isn't good just for the environment but also for the bottom line, Lovins and Cohen pack their book full of numbers: $2.8 billion a year is wasted because employees don't turn off their computers when they leave work; comprehensive clean-energy and climate legislation could create 1.9 million jobs; improving indoor air quality could save businesses $200 billion annually in energy costs.

At times, Climate Capitalism takes on an almost unbearably earnest tone. The business success stories the authors tell are new but not different from ones we've heard before. It's the sort of polemic we've heard for years.

Fletcher's narrative presents a more compelling case because he demonstrates through example what's at stake and conveys the inherent problems of incorporating environmentalism into business. In the early to mid-1970s, when cars were lining up at gas stations because of fuel shortages and the air was visibly polluted, the public was convinced it was time for government to step in. Even then, we didn't get an electric car. Instead, we cleaned up the air and the water, which was a good thing. But gas prices eventually dropped, the technology originally designed to address our addiction to foreign oil was diverted to cell phones, and we started marketing to suburban families vehicles that were originally designed for the military.

Today's looming disaster -- not smog you can see and water so dirty it kills fish, but, instead, a fundamentally altered atmosphere -- is hazily defined and hotly contested. Most Americans don't see the ice cracking in Greenland or worry about small island nations being swallowed by the sea. The United States failed to develop an alternative to the gas-powered vehicle when the need was demonstrated in our own backyard. Now, we have to make the case for alternative fuels largely on the basis of cold, hard, scientific data. It's a hard sell. Whether we make it is an open question.

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