Retrotechtacular: Renewable Energy, 1948 Edition

If you’ve got 10 minutes, how about a quick break to watch a video about renewable clean electric power? Must be a recent video, right? Nope. The Coronet Instruction Film below is from 1948 and covers using rivers to generate power. Hydropower isn’t a new idea, of course, and the film starts out with an old-fashioned water wheel. That’s not really what they are driving at, though.

The announcer sounds just like the guy who narrated all the film strips you saw in school. There are some good vintage shots of Niagra Falls and some other dams. The video also makes some economic arguments about hydroelectric versus coal and why some rivers aren’t suitable for power generation.

The Hoover dam was completed only 13 years before this video production, so it was still a futuristic novelty for the 1940s. Towards the end, there are some great shots of some old electrical gear, vintage factories, and what must have looked like a modern-looking kitchen and radio.

It is interesting that even in 1948 the planners were worried about running out of coal and recognized the value of renewable energy. We wonder what became of Bruce and Larry who open and close the film. Maybe they went on to star in major motion pictures. But probably not.

There was a lot of engineering put into the Hoover dam. Although it was the biggest dam at the time it was completed, the Oroville dam built in 1968 is 15 meters taller.

22 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Renewable Energy, 1948 Edition

  1. The sc’win (sockeye salmon) has never fully recovered from when the Grand Coulee Dam went up on the Columbia river. Though I gather some like the pneumatic tube that gets them upstream.

    1. Did it now? In the 30’s wind generators were largely used on farms to recharge batteries and run pumps in the absence of a grid connection, and none went higher than about 100′ – a power of about 200 Watts was common.

      What killed them was the fact that the electric power demands of agriculture went up beyond a horse and a buggy.

      1. I believe that it did. The early wind generators in the 30s were mostly small, but there is no reason to believe that larger ones would not have become available over time as needs expanded. But they couldn’t compete with subsidized construction of grid power to remote locations. Some places that the REA wired are sufficiently remote that those connections probably haven’t earned back the cost of making them even now (with proper adjustments for inflation), nearly 80 years later.

          1. The problem with “public services” that are rendered at a loss on taxpayer money is the fact that price drives demand.

            Of course you would like to have a 200 mile long distribution branch to your 10-home community in the middle of nowhere, as long as you’re not paying for the construction and upkeep. Everybody would.

        1. > there is no reason to believe that larger ones would not have become available over time

          The first megawatt-scale turbine was built around 1947 but it broke down. That’s besides the point though, because wind power doesn’t work without batteries. The only reason it is working now because the grid is the “virtual battery”. As you scale up the operation, the batteries become too big and too expensive – especially considering you only really had lead-acid batteries back then.

          > Some places that the REA wired are sufficiently remote that those connections probably haven’t earned back the cost

          The electrification of the countryside was a project to make available the means for development. A small kilowatt-scale wind turbine won’t even light a house properly, let alone run the machinery of a dairy farm for example. Not all places did develop though, and those connections seem like a waste today, but that was the gamble all along. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

  2. [It is interesting that even in 1948 the planners were worried about running out of coal ]

    Which also shows they lack knowledge of basic economics. Much like the peak oil that never came. A sound reminder that experts in one field can be very ignorant in another, while both may be relevant for policy making.

  3. Unfortunately Hydro power runs into the same o’ problem as Nuclear these days. Environmentalists. Some poor snail darter or trout habitat something else might be impacted if a new Dam is built. While hydro power is very good, it also has the limitation of only being able to produce as much power as you have water. So different sustained outputs depending on time of year and size of the pond behind it. That’s where nuclear and coal, gas come in as they can be sustained year around except for maintenance times. We like our lights on 24×7. As we know, wind and solar unreliable sources of power and pollute the skyline and land visually… but it is in vogue now … so some people except it ‘as clean/free’. Hey the factories are somewhere else, as is the mines for the material, and the landfills, but hey it ‘looks clean’ from a distance :) .

    1. When compared to coal, gas and oil; hydro, wind and solar are clean. The creation is dirty, but the usage is clean. Unlike coal, gas and oil which are dirty to extract and dirty to use.

  4. Anyone that uses the argument that windmills and solar panels “visually pollute the skyline” is very biased or has never seen the oil fields, coal strip mines or fossil fuel power plant

    1. The problem with solar and wind is it takes wast area to provide reasonable amounts of power. I for sure wouldnt want windmills anywhere near my home, nor solar panels. Consider that example one nuclear plant producing 1000MW, to equal that output with wind power you would need 175 windmills (5.7 MW turbines) to equal the 1000Mw output in ideal conditions, 60 % of the time you need more power. That makes another 87 windmills to erect. Additonally the wind doesnt blow all the time, so you will need an equal amount of backup power to assure sustained 1000MW production. So now we are talking about a windfarm with 262 windmills and the backup power systems. These together. A 2-megawatt wind turbine would require 1.5 acres of land.for optimum performance I am sure the 5.7MW needs at least an equal amount of space for optimum performance. That leaves us with about 10 megawatts per square mile. So 100 square miles to equal one nuclear power plant. In a country with wast unpopulated areas this is trivial, but, in a densely populated nation with little unutilized land areas such large areas dedicated to wind power simply is not feasible, Just because a few persons do not mind wind mills, i assure you the majority will mind them once they are surrounded by windmills.

      1. @Antti,, why do you not want windmills or solar panels “anywhere near your house”?

        Lot of people have rooftop solar. What if your neighbours got rooftop solar, would that be OK?

        Maybe you live in a rural area. Lots of rural properties use windmills to pump water from underground, and have done so for 100 years. Would that be OK?

        Would you prefer to live next to a coal power station? What about a nuclear one? A landfill? A freeway?

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