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Some see solar panels as unsightly, and in some communities they're actually banned. 

One of the reasons I find Smithsonian Magazine so interesting is that it's filled with examples of how history repeats itself.

What we're experiencing today is likely what our ancestors encountered years ago.

Take the ongoing debate over solar energy. Many Americans still squabble over whether it's really an answer for our future energy needs. What if the sun doesn't shine, like in Wisconsin during the winter?

Many rural communities oppose building solar farms on what is perfectly suitable crop land. Many urban neighborhoods view solar panels on houses as unsightly and, in many places, they are actually banned.

"Renewable energy is at a curious crossroads. It’s needed to avert further climate damage, and solar and wind power are now remarkably cheap," an article titled "When Coal First Arrived, Americans Said ‘No Thanks’" points out. "But even clean-energy proponents often dislike the aesthetics of the new technology. They’re happy for solar arrays and windmills to exist somewhere — just not within sight. Many homeowners’ associations refuse to let residents install panels."

The story goes on to recall that this phenomenon has a long history in the U.S.

"Ironically, coal itself faced a similar pushback in the early 19th century, when it was the newfangled power source that promised to solve many of the country’s problems," the story says, adding that because the country was thickly forested and wood was cheap Americans burned very little coal until the early 1800s.

Besides, the country didn’t have many factories that required serious energy. Coal was a niche fuel used by blacksmiths, for example, who needed high heat for shaping metal and crafting horseshoes.

The magazine reports: "But as cities grew rapidly and demanded ever more fuel, choppers quickly deforested surrounding areas. Firewood became scarce and expensive. By 1744, Benjamin Franklin was bemoaning the plight of his fellow Philadelphians: 'Wood, our common Fewel, which within these 100 Years might be had at every Man’s Door, must now be fetch’d near 100 Miles to some towns, and makes a very considerable Article in the Expence of Families,' he wrote. Johann David Schoepf, a German physician and botanist who traveled through America during and after the Revolutionary War, fretted that all this wood-burning would not 'leave for (American) grandchildren a bit of wood over which to hang the tea-kettle.'” 

Not only that, but most houses had wood-burning fireplaces, which were terribly inefficient. Much of the heat was lost up the chimney, requiring yet more trees to be felled to keep homes warm in the winter.

"America was sitting right atop the answer to this fuel crisis, in the form of massive piles of coal, particularly Pennsylvania’s lodes of anthracite, a dense, rocklike form of the stuff," the article continues. "Anthracite was ideal for burning in houses, because it didn’t produce as much smoke as 'soft' bituminous coal. No longer simply the provenance of blacksmiths, coal became a hot commodity, and mining ramped up: Companies began increasingly ambitious anthracite digs."

But convincing Americans to use the new fuel was another matter. Coal merchants had to go house to house to persuade families to shift from wood to coal.

While part of the problem was that homeowners had to purchase metal ovens to burn the coal, the magazine points out that a bigger issue was cultural.

"Many people hated the aesthetics of stoves because they were enclosed, and you couldn’t see the flames within as you could in a traditional fireplace. In articles and speeches, prominent citizens protested, denouncing stoves as, essentially, un-American," the story says.

"In an 1864 essay, Harriet Beecher Stowe fulminated: 'Would our Revolutionary fathers have gone barefooted and bleeding over snows to defend air-tight stoves and cooking-ranges? I trow (believe) not.' In his 1843 short story Fire Worship, Nathaniel Hawthorne argued that gathering before a flickering hearth was crucial to bringing families and citizens together."

Apart from the cultural backlash, coal was a pain to light. One analysis concluded the new stoves added an hour of work to a housewife’s chores.

Gradually, technology was improved, and by 1885 homes, particularly in urban areas, were burning more coal than wood.

There's a lesson is this history.

"Much like the old coal merchants, today’s renewable industries have a sales job on their hands," the story concludes. "Solar proponents need to promote the upsides more persuasively — not just the climate benefits (which most Americans want) but also the prospect of cheaper electricity and the local jobs that come with solar and wind."

Now it's coal and other fossil fuels' turn to be replaced. But history shows us it won't happen without a lot of kicking and screaming.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@captimes.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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