We should have listened to Nikola Tesla when we had the chance.
At the height of his popularity as the key inventor who pioneered commercial electricity, Tesla cautioned the world of the inefficiencies of burning substances to generate energy, especially coal, the predominate fuel source of the day.
Not only did the burning process waste most the potential energy of coal, Nikola Tesla argued, but it was a nonrenewable resource that we would eventually run out of. The same arguments could easily be made about oil.
"Whatever our resources of primary energy may be in the future," Tesla wrote in Century Magazine in 1900, "we must, to be rational, obtain it without consumption of any material."
Tesla reminded us that a windmill is one of the most efficient energy devices ever devised, and suspected we'd eventually be able to harness the sun's rays in an efficient way. He also advocated utilizing the heat "in the earth, the water, or the air."
He proposed, essentially, geothermal energy plants, one capturing the heat of the earth, the other floating on the ocean, using the temperature differential between the surface water temperature and the deeper water temperatures to drive turbines to generate electricity.
One of Tesla's designs for a floating geothermal plant was published in the pages of the New York Times, complete with pictures and diagrams, in the 1930s. But by the 1930s, oil was being found all over the world in such quantities and with such relatively little output of energy that no one cared much about producing power in other ways.
It wasn't until the oil shortage in the 1970s that people started taking a serious look at alternative ways of producing energy on a large scale.
Who was Nikola Tesla?
Today, on the 154th anniversary of Tesla's birth, you could ask Europeans who Nikola Tesla was and their eyes will light up as they comment on his remarkable inventions. Over 100 years ago, Nikola Tesla proved the energy establishment wrong by creating something the establishment believed was impossible: a motor driven by alternating current.
Ask most Americans, however, who Tesla was, and you'll often get a blank stare. Recently, Tesla has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in visibility, thanks to David Bowie's portrayal of a highly fictionalized version of him in the film "The Prestige," as well as through the Tesla Motors company, which markets an ultra-sexy fully electric sports car.
Why do we know so much about Tesla's contemporaries, such as Edison or Marconi, but so little of Tesla? Tesla's story is, after all, the quintessential rags to riches story.
As a child, Tesla, a Serb in Croatia, saw a picture of Niagara Falls that gave birth to a passion he would never lose. He vowed to be the first to harness of the power of Niagara Falls, to turn all that natural motion into a way to generate energy.
As a youth, he imagined a simple waterwheel turned by the falls. But as he studied electrical engineering, he realized more efficient ways of using the power of the river to generate electricity by passing water over turbines.
Tesla's turbines were unique, in that they had no grooves or ridges. They were smooth, so they wore well and had no edges to wear down or break off. When Tesla first came to America, ironically, he worked for Thomas Edison.
Tesla tried immediately to sell Edison on the notion of using alternating current to generate electricity, but Edison was opposed, claiming it was both too dangerous, due to the high voltages produced, and too difficult to capture.
Those who had tried found motors running forwards and then backwards, making energy capture impractical at best. Tesla wasn't ready to argue this point, and let it go, for the moment, even though in his head he already knew the solution, having figured it out some years earlier.