Why can’t EVs, wind energy, and bikes be mainstream? They dominated the market 100+ years ago

If you ever need a good news story about the future of renewable energy and low-carbon transportation then look to the past.

There’s a lot to be learned from the history books.

Baseball Hall-of-Fame catcher and slinger of one-liners Yogi Berra famously said, “The future ain’t what it used to be”. Well Yogi, let’s hope it is because at one time or another throughout the past three-hundred years, electric cars, wind energy, and bikes were not only mainstream, they were established leaders.


Electric vehicles

The early days of the electric car began in the 1800s with experiments involving electrified carts and carriages. With urbanization, the proliferation of city-feeding electricity utilities, and advances in battery technology, the first electric cars began to appear in major European and American cities towards the end of the 18th century.

At the time, electric cars had a number of clear advantages over their gasoline and steam-powered competitors in that they were easy to use and maintain, clean, and didn’t suffer from the risks and unreliability associated with flammable liquids and high pressure steam.

America’s first automobile dealer emerged in 1896 and sold only electric vehicles. By 1900, fully one third of cars on the road were powered by electricity and 28% of cars produced in the US were EVs. NYC even had 60 electric taxis.

The EV was truly a world-beater at one time.

Alas, by the 1920s, improved road networks, inexpensive petroleum from newly discovered oil fields in West Texas, a lack of rural electrification, and the refinement of starters for gas engines led to increased demand for conventional petroleum fueled automobiles.



Wind energy

Wind energy nowadays is, for the most part, harnessed for the sole purpose of generating electricity—but it wasn’t always this way.

Wind turbines have a long and storied history with origins dating back to Medieval Persia and Imperial China and were historically used to provide mechanical energy. These uses ranged from grinding wheat and maize to pumping water for drinking, agricultural irrigation, and thirsty industrial revolution factories, mines, and mills.

For a period of time, from the 1600s to the 1800s, wind and water mills generated an enormous share of the world’s energy and dotted the European and North American rural landscape.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of wind electricity production (more on that later), but here are some 20th century milestones:

1) The first megawatt-size wind turbine was installed in Vermont in 1941.

2) Mass production of wind turbines for generating electricity began in Holland in 1979.

3) It wasn’t until 1993 that Canada would see its first commercial scale wind farm. The Cowley Ridge Windplant was installed in two phases in Southern Alberta.




Bicycles started out as a toy for wealthy urbanites and took a number of years to truly commercially scale up to become a practical way of getting around. Decades of tinkering in the 1800s saw a crowded field of eccentric bicycle models, including such elaborate designs as the “Monocycle” and “Manuped”, emerge and compete. Eventually the “Safety Bicycle” would win out to become the gold standard for contemporary bicycles.

By the late 1800s, bikes were a common sight throughout Europe and US bicycle production soared from 200,000 units in 1889 to 1,000,000 in 1899 with over three hundred different manufacturers holding a piece of the pie.

The League of American Wheelmen, the US’ first national cycling club, counted 150,000 members in 1900. Around the same time, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Rochester, Chicago, and Minneapolis, among other municipalities, began the construction of separated bike lanes and highways to feed the insatiable demand for cycling infrastructure.

Around the turn of the 20th century, with the number of gas powered cars counted in the several thousands, bicycles were an overwhelmingly popular way of getting around.

Where do we go from here?

It’s difficult to say. Technological innovation is unpredictable and economic and social change is often erratic.

On EVs, Navigant Research believes that electric vehicle sales could grow from three to seven percent of the overall auto market share by 2020. In terms of wind energy, projections to 2030 range from the IEA’s conservative quadrupling of current capacity to Greenpeace’s call for a 14-fold increase—and Greenpeace has been accurate on this count in the past. On cycling, and to cite a local case, Metro Vancouver’s Regional Transportation Strategy strives for a 15% mode share for bikes (for trips under 8 KMs). But this is a local government target and not a production or demand forecast.

Whatever the case, adoption rates of electric vehicles, wind turbines, and bikes are not good enough.

But, with an eye to the past, the good news is that we’ve already been where we’re going.

Images (Flickr): nrel | (Other): Wikimedia Commons | (Other): Wikimedia Commons | (Flickr) jacksnell707

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