Big Rural

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Big Rural

By Cat Rambo

Trish almost didn’t take the turnoff from Interstate 8. She was tired and anxious and it was easy to miss, particularly in the evening blast of last-gasp sunlight. A headache was building in the back of her neck, ratcheted up by lack of sleep. Should have picked a self-driving car rather than this one.

But when she glimpsed it, the decision to swing down the unnamed pebble-and-dust road that led to Ojos de Amistad Lookout seemed so natural that it was almost automatic, happening between one breath and the next. She switched off the AC and thumbed all four windows open. Almost as though she were back in high school, she and Jeff Garcia out driving his ancient Jeep in the early evening, when the blue ebbed from the Arizona sky and a faint scent of creosote rode the cooling wind. 

If she got to the lookout point before the sun began to dip below the horizon, she’d see one of the best things about the valley. Because of the coal plant, Tierra del Rey had beautiful sunsets, and she wanted her return home to start with that image. 

The road was barely car-width, even for her small rental. The car bounced and jittered along the road, sending pale dust and pebbles flying amid scruffs of agave and prickly pear. Tires crunching over rocks, the rumble outside battling the tinny sound from the dashboard radio as the DJ segued into yet another country song. It was the third time she’d heard this one since pulling the rental away from the airport, a few hours ago.

You city people fill your lives with chatter, 

Thinking that us country folk don’t matter …

The road narrowed and dwindled before widening out into four cars’ worth of parking, unoccupied. She pulled the parking brake and reached to the radio.

But listen out here in the big rural, the big land,

Something’s echoing here, maybe you can understand …

She clicked the music off and grabbed her purse and water bottle before taking the footpath up to the point. The path had once been set off with railroad ties, which still bordered the sunbaked mountainside, but the cedar chips were gone now, not even crumbles left. Every step was a memory jabbing at her. How many times had she walked up this way, angry at something, someone, usually the town itself, full of resolution to get out, no matter what?

The sign at the fork was sun-faded into unintelligibility, but she knew what it said. Marcos de Niza, Spanish conqueror, had paused here, looked out, and claimed the valley in the name of his king. Also: no trash, no alcohol, no fires.

By the time she reached the ledge overlooking the valley, sweat covered her, and the evening breeze flickering across her skin was welcome, even if it was barely cooler. She went to the gym three times a week, but she wasn’t in anything like the shape she’d been in as a teen, when she was running track, knowing it the best chance she had for a scholarship. Running her way out of Tierra del Rey and into a better life.

One that had led her straight back here. Anxiety and guilt flared at that. What sort of welcome would she get? She hadn’t thought she’d ever be back. Hadn’t bothered to maintain ties. More efficient that way. More effective that way. 

And easier. So much easier.

She gulped down the last of the water and stuck the bottle into her purse. The tomato-red sun rolled on the horizon, sending long black shadows walking across the land, towards the enormous black square that was Phase I of the Sol Dominion power plant, glittering in the last of the sunlight. You could barely see the storage structures scattered among the solar panels like enormous alien flowers, many-petalled and made of dark carbonized plastic with an oily undersheen of cobalt and purple.

Arms folded, she looked towards the town bordering that square to the east, where lights were flickering alive. She could name most of them. The gas station. The diner. The tiny grocery/hardware/drugstore locals just called “the store.” The two-block strip that was Main Street, the grade school on one end, the high school on the other, linked by shared sports fields: baseball, soccer. Still no football stadium. The coal plant, unlit now.

When you came home again, even to “the big rural,” as the song called it, things were supposed to have changed. Here the only change was that black square. Between the town lights and the scattered but symmetrical lights surrounding the plant, a dark strip, perhaps a mile wide, stretched, unlit. As though town and plant had turned their backs on each other.

Not all of them, though, given the vandalism she’d been called to investigate.

A mourning dove called, a lonesome whirra-hu-hu somewhere to her left where the cliff face stretched upward. She and Jeff had climbed further up dozens of times, but this spot had been their favorite.

She ran her thumb between her shoulder and the purse strap, feeling the leather cling to her sweaty skin. East Coast life’s made me soft. She turned back to the trail and descended in the half-light while the dove called behind her. Halfway down, another dove answered it, and their solemn call-and-response accompanied her all the way back to the car.

By the time she was halfway back to the highway, full dark had descended. She switched on her brights, pressing the confirm button at the car’s query. There were no other cars on the road, and she didn’t bother to dim the lights until she hit the outskirts of town.

Two cars in the parking lot of the store. She didn’t expect to recognize them, and didn’t. The bell jingled the way it had a thousand times before as she stepped into the store’s sallow fluorescent lights. Two customers talking to the clerk up front, one of those lazy shoot-the-shit conversations. Their backs turned. But then one shifted and the light hit his shoulder as he shrugged, showed the muscles along the back of his neck and she froze. Jeff.

She could have kept moving, but the customers looked around at the sound of the bell. Jeff recognized her immediately, she could read that in the way his expression shifted: surprise welcome then hardening into anger and a more defensive stance. Beside him, Aaron Paulsen. Of course, who else would I least want to see the night I arrived? Aaron flippin’ Paulsen.

Behind the counter, a sleepy-eyed girl, high school age, unimpressed and bored by all of them, stared down at her phone. Her name tag read Zoe Z, tilted at a careless 30-degree angle on the blue nylon uniform shirt. Trish remembered how scratchy that fabric was, how it seemed to gather heat in all the most uncomfortable places.

Jeff and Trish locked eyes. Aaron was the first to speak. “Beatrice!” he exclaimed, a little too hearty, a little too smiling.

She forced an answering smile, looking away from Jeff’s accusing eyes to meet Aaron’s chilly blue gaze. “Aaron. Jeff.” Hefting a plastic basket from the pile slumped near the door, she stepped towards the back cooler cases. She was tired, and she was hungry. Get in, get the food, get out.

She expected them to say something more, but they were silent. Trying to rattle me, that’s Paulsen’s style. She felt that they must be watching, but when she swung around with her armload of milk, thaw-dinners, and a sleeve of eggs, Aaron was sliding money across the counter to the clerk and taking two packs of cigarettes along with a red, white, and blue striped lighter while Jeff stared at the lottery ticket display.

Aaron scooped up his change as she came up behind them. Turning, he said, “So, come back to check out what your company’s been doing here?”

Of course they know who I work for, she thought. Small towns, everyone knows what everyone else does.

“Troubleshooting,” she said briefly. She looked him in the eyes, watching his body language. “There’s been vandalism. More than petty stuff.” Jeff looked up at that, his face a careful blank.

Was that guilt flickering in the watery depths of the smile Aaron showed her?

“Yeah, I heard about that. People don’t like the power plant. They don’t know what to expect. They know my family’s coal plant built this town.”

“They’re saying a lot, seems like,” she said.

He shrugged. “Small town, word gets around.”

“Word of who’s been doing it too, maybe?”

He shrugged. Behind him, Jeff’s face still blank as an unlit screen.

They stood there in silence while she paid for her groceries and gathered up the bag.

“See you, Beatrice,” Aaron said to her back as she left.

“I go by Trish now.” On the door as she swung it open, a poster from Sol Dominion. The alien flowers dark and ominous against the blue and yellow of Sol Dominion, golden words above it: Sol Dominion Phase II Coming Soon. Underneath the picture in a more sober, shadowy blue: Building Today For a Brighter Tomorrow. 

The bells jingled again as the door closed behind her.

She kept the windows open to the cooler night air as she headed to the solar plant. On its eastern side was the housing for the workers that had built it, mostly empty now but kept ready for the workforce that would return in three months for Phase II.

The moonlight washed out Sol Dominion’s trademark sunshine yellow and sky blue, leached them of life until the trailers formed a symmetrical, boxy plastic ghost town. Their blank faces flickered past as she drove to the gate, a glass box, lit from the inside, housing a sleepy-looking woman nursing a coffee cup, reading a paperback. She glanced up as Trish rolled to a stop. Booted heels crunched over gravel; Trish turned off the car and proffered her ID. “Evening, Anita,” she said.

Anita Luz, who had babysat Beatrice Soledad from the ages of three to seven, didn’t acknowledge the greeting. She studied the plastic card before flipping it back towards Trish. “Any trailer’s open except the first three in Row G.” She made her way back to the booth and pushed a button. The chain-link gate shuddered open.

“Nice to see you too,” Trish muttered under her breath. 

Close up, the trailers in their identical rows seemed even spookier. They were all yellow with blue trim, the number beside each doorway the same color. She opted for Row F—one over but still close to the plant’s other occupants, a skeleton crew of gate guards and technicians, totaling eight.

She settled in, unpacking her groceries. The trailer smelled of staleness and disuse and she opened all the windows, letting the desert breeze wash in and sweeten the air. There were no bed linens. She unfolded a t-shirt and dressed the foam pillow in it, then laid down on the crackling plastic film that covered the bed, listening. She could hear two owls hunting, calling to each other huhu huhu in a stuttering rhythm that overlapped then died away into silence then started again.

Quiet here. One of those nights when the wind sang in the telephone wires. Outside, the field of solar panels was silent and unmoving even as electricity flowed out of it, feeding needs far beyond Tierra del Rey. Sol Dominion’s model project. Almost ready for Phase II. Whoever helped make that happen would be lavished with glory and bonuses and, most importantly, allowed a leap two or three rungs up the corporate ladder.

And if you leaped and fell? There were plenty of other young MBAs with gleaming degrees from Wharton and Harvard, ready to fall into line and begin their own journeys upward.

She fell asleep dreaming of ladders, reaching up out of dark water.

When she woke, the day was already starting to heat up. As she filled the coffee maker with water, she glanced out the window, then froze. One of the enormous solar storage devices was askew, canted at an impossible angle that threatened the arrays of black tempered glass beneath its long shadow.

One of the most important parts of the plant, the batteries stored the gigawatts then sent them out to power businesses and homes, so many lives dependent on that invisible flow.

Water ran over her hand as the carafe overfilled. She set it down, turned off the tap, and went out to investigate. The tower was one of the ones furthest from the worker housing and it took her a while to walk there. This close to the panels, she could see weeds growing in the shadows and spiny lizards lying in the sun, soaking up heat.

Machinery, hacked apart, the base of the alien flower chopped as though it were a tree. Beneath it, dropped as though the attacker had been scared away mid-swing, a long-handled axe. She knelt to examine it.

Most of the red paint had peeled away from the head, and someone had wrapped the handle first in string, then black electrical tape, so it could be gripped away. The pattern reminded her of how Jeff and the other boys had wrapped their baseball bats, emulating one of the older kids that year.

The security cameras yielded nothing; black hoods cloaked the faces of the three intruders, who registered only as collections of jerky motion in the infrared system. They’d disabled the lights beforehand; Anita had left a note saying she hadn’t heard anything. Hadn’t even bothered to wait to talk to Trish.

Bill Larson had been sheriff of Tierra del Rey for as long as Trish could remember. Stolid to the point of dourness, the lanky, balding man oversaw a single deputy, the pair based in a cinderblock construction on the main road into town. It was a tradition for the schoolchildren to paint murals on it. The current one was fresh, showing town buildings on one side, the solar plant on the other. They met around the central door, where the alien flowers shrunk, brightened, became marigolds, poppies, and roses.

She took a breath, squared her shoulders, and opened the door.

The air inside was crisply cold, hitting her bare skin the minute she stepped through. Lawson sat at his desk, facing the door, leaning back with his boots on the desk, coffee in hand as he studied some form. He scowled at the sight of her.

She shoved down all the feelings he roused in her of having done wrong. A fatherless teen with a mother working too many hours to watch over her children, she’d had her share of run-ins. Now she was here as Sol Dominion’s representative; she stepped forward with the assurance that having a multinational corporation behind her in the face of a small-town sheriff gave her.

“There’s been more vandalism, one of the storage towers,” she said. “I need to see the other reports on it when you come to investigate.”

Larson returned his attention to the form he’d been studying. “No reports. Company property, not town.”

“You’re supposed to oversee the whole valley!” 

“Except for Sol Dominion holdings,” he said flatly. “A pleasure to see you, Miss Soledad. Enjoy your stay here in Tierra del Rey.”

Her head churned as she drove away. Aaron must be the ringleader. No one was more upset about the coal plant being shut down than the family that owned it, that had commanded a special spot in Tierra del Rey society as a result. She’d found plenty of Aaron’s type in college and then Sol Dominion: born into wealth and unused to losing. They would do anything to avoid it, thinking themselves more deserving of victory than lesser souls.

She stopped at the store to pick up more water. The clerk didn’t even look at her, too intent on her phone to care about any customer. On the way out, Trish saw the poster again. Someone had taken black felt-tip and scribbled all over it, tangles of dark ink, like weeds around the flower bases: “get the fuck out Sol we love coal” and “where’s our water?”

Aaron, behind her again.

I forget that about small-town-in-the-big-rural. Every time you turn around, you’re seeing someone you don’t want to. His smirk, angled down at her as though to remind her of the height discrepancy.

“Come back to see what your company’s done?” he asked, knife sharp. “Or to scavenge the corpse?”

“Corpse is an odd choice of word,” she said, neutral. “The project’s brought in jobs and money, with more on the way. What’s dead, precisely?”

“Take your pick.” Black felt-tip pen riding in his front shirt pocket, she noted. “Maybe the town. Maybe your friendships. Jeff everything you thought he’d be?”

He was, she thought, thinking of that expressionless face when he’d seen her. Still familiar, same stance.

She tried to steer them back to something closer to friendship. “Did he become a volunteer firefighter like he’d always said?” The firefighters had denied him as a teen because of asthma difficulties; nowadays with gene therapy she didn’t think that would be such an issue, but who knew?

Aaron froze as though he was trying to figure out what she meant by the question, eyes narrowing. Finally he spat, “What do you care?” Pushed past and was gone.

She followed him though, at a distance. Trailed him back to the lookout. He’d lead her to the other vandals, sooner or later.

An unfamiliar car. She ghosted along, activating her net link—if she was discovered, she’d be broadcasting whatever happened, in livetime, deterrent enough for most criminals. And if not? Something to think about when and if.

She paused on the bend under the lookout to listen.

Aaron’s voice, and Jeff’s.

“Like a black hole,” Jeff said. “Remember that from sixth grade science? That one always stuck with me, I don’t know why. Big black hole, sucking up everything. Welcome to Sol Dominion.”

She could see what he was talking about: the great glittering black puddle that was the project, the distant alien blooms, one of them askew. Inhuman. Swallowing life and giving nothing, a trickle at best, back to the town clinging to its edge.

But it was realization, not the vista, that froze her. Aaron’s not the leader.

She thought of the long-handled axe. The sort a volunteer firefighter might carry.

Jeff is.

Walking back and forth that night, trying to figure out what to do. Every time she went near the guard shack, she could hear the radio. That big rural song again, twice.

You city people fill your lives with chatter, 

Thinking that us country folk don’t matter …

To Sol Dominion, the townsfolk hadn’t mattered. She remembered the presentation, the way they’d worded it. Out in the middle of nowhere. And her looking at the map, seeing the crossroads and realizing. Tierra del Rey.

Images flickered through her head as she paced. The poster, the angry black scrawls across it. The glittering black sea of the panels—there’d be so many more of them in Phase II.

But listen out here in the big rural, the big land,

Something’s echoing here, maybe you can understand …

The children’s mural outside the sheriff’s office.

The air chilled as she walked and the tears on her cheeks glittered as she paced.

She’d made a lot of calls by the time she invited Jeff to walk with her up to the lookout point. Cashed in all her social capital, maybe overdrawn some of it. That remained to be seen.

Jeff’s expression was wary. He didn’t say much as they walked side by side up the trail. 

“Beatrice,” he started once.

“That’s not who I am. I call myself Trish now.”

“That’s not who I fell in love with.”

After that, silence until they reached the point. Still a little cool, but sweat rode her forehead when they arrived.

She could smell dust and creosote bush on the wind. A red-tailed hawk swung far above in lazy spirals, getting an early morning jump on rodents and sluggish reptiles.

Jeff said, “I guess you know.”

“I guess I do.” She took out a bottle of water, took a swig, passed it over to him.

He drank and wiped his lips on the back of his arm before passing the bottle back. There were fine lines in the corners of his eyes now, years of sun she’d avoided. “So, what now?”

“Imagine if we made it something other than a black hole,” she said.

He frowned.

“Ever hear of agro-voltaics?”

At his headshake, she continued. “Imagine crops growing between the panels, sheltered from some of the heat. Strawberries, melons.” She searched her mind for the children’s mural. “Marigolds, poppies. Even roses. The company took the water rights but hasn’t done anything with them. I’ve confirmed that we can get most back.”

She gestured at the expanse. “Yes, more space, but we’ve got plenty of that. And the infrastructure to ship the produce out at the same time. Send the power out to the state but feed it as well.”

“That’s a big change,” he said.

She shrugged. “Some things are big enough to work toward.”

The bottle was dry and sunrise well past by the time they finished talking. 

“What made you change your mind, overall?” he asked as they started towards her car.

She shrugged. “Thought about what would piss off Aaron most, so that meant nothing to do with coal.”

“No, really.”

“That’s as good a reason as any,” she said, but kept her smile tilted away from him as they walked away from the sunset and down the path.

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Light and Shadows on the Edge of Nowhere

By Wesley Herche

A major theme of Cat Rambo’s story “Big Rural” is socio-geographic perception: The story challenges the misguided notion that some places—in this case, a sparsely populated desert town—are “in the middle of nowhere.” Truly isolated spaces are ill-suited for large-scale solar arrays, so we must seriously consider the rural communities that may serve as host to these supermassive-scale solar arrays. 

A key source of conflict in the story is the concept of a rural versus urban divide. This divide is likely far greater in perception than physical space. Our protagonist, Trish, is challenged both personally and professionally to span this so-called divide between her rural community upbringing and her adult development and education within a major urban center. 

The story also examines the challenges of perception in terms of the extraordinary scales that are commonplace in large-scale solar energy deployments. This challenge is often referred to as “trying to wrap your head around it.” Many energy wonks and public thought leaders have pointed out that enough solar energy strikes the Earth to serve 10,000 times all human energy needs across the entire globe. Another way people have tried to capture this enormity is by pointing out that if you captured the sunlight that strikes the Earth in about an hour, you would have enough energy to power all of human civilization for an entire year. 

These kinds of facts and comparisons often fall short of their intended impact, because our brains are just not evolved to think on these scales. Another common way people have tried to illustrate this point is by drawing a to-scale small square area on a world or national map and then stating the enough solar energy falls in that square to power the whole country. Even Elon Musk took the “this tiny square could power the whole country” approach at his 2016 keynote for the unveiling of the Tesla Powerwall residential battery storage device. These types of presentations often include a line to the effect of: and that tiny square of solar could be anywhere; we could just put it out in the middle of nowhere and it would power everything. 

I actually think it’s really a fairly obvious solution.” Elon Musk describing the amount of land surface area needed to transition the U.S. to 100% solar energy. Source: Tesla/YouTube,

The problem with this rhetorical gambit is that it’s not actually feasible to build a massive solar array “in the middle of nowhere.” Granted, large tracts of uninhabited land exist—although that’s already a very anthropocentric view in which we completely ignore the habitats of other species—but you need significant infrastructure in place to make building even a high-output solar array cost-effective. You need transportation infrastructure for trucks and other heavy equipment to get to the site, you need a water supply for maintenance and cleaning of the panels, and most of all, you need to have or build electricity infrastructure to transmit the energy you’re generating out of “nowhere” to where people are going to consume it. 

For many of our current large-scale solar arrays, small rural communities like the (fictional) town of Tierra del Rey in the story make for attractive locations. These communities offer proximity to vast swaths of open land, combined with existing transportation and utility infrastructure. The southwestern United States is ideal because it contains a plethora of diffuse rural communities that dot a desert landscape largely devoid of human inhabitants, combined with some of the best solar potential in the world. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s map of solar energy potential shows that the American southwest is one of the best places in the world for solar. Illustration by Billy J. Roberts, NREL.

Even existing large solar fields occupy huge tracts of land that are geographically as big or bigger than the small communities that they are near. In “Big Rural,” the existing Phase I solar array built by the fictional Sol Dominion energy company would be large enough to power a major city like Phoenix. For the proposed Phase II build-out, which provides the catalyst for the events of the story, we imagined an array that would provide enough energy to power the entire state of Arizona—with a 17% solar conversion efficiency rate, which is in line with the standards commercially available today. Based on these assumptions, the Phase II build-out adjacent to the small town of Tierra del Rey would occupy approximately 48 square miles. That is more than twice as big as all of Manhattan (about 23 square miles), or big enough to cover a major portion of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. 

Image Description included in the following caption
An approximation of the land area covered by Sol Dominion’s Phase I (purple) and Phase II (green), in comparison to the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area. Map data © 2018 Google.

In recent years there have been strong and growing sentiments among denizens of rural communities that they are being abandoned or somehow “left behind” in the new hyperconnected global economy, which is predominantly driven from the urban mega-centers of the country. “Big Rural” supposes that we might once again call on these overlooked communities to house the energy generation required by our urban engines. The U.S. has a long history of locating power generation facilities in rural and disadvantaged communities.

To be clear, solar energy clearly has huge advantages over coal and other forms of fossil-fuel energy generation. It converts abundantly available sunlight into usable, clean energy without creating carbon dioxide emissions that poison the air and drive global climate change. But expanding solar generation is not without challenges. For the United States and the world to make the necessary change to a fully decarbonized and renewable energy paradigm, the swaths of land that will be needed seem small at a global scale but will physically and culturally dwarf and envelop the small rural communities where they will likely be built. These facilities will dramatically transform the rural landscapes in which they are sited, potentially scrambling residents’ sense of place, local identity, and connection to the land.

This makes the resolution in “Big Rural” paradoxical. When faced with the challenge of not being completely swallowed by this proposed behemoth solar array, the solution was an approach that actually takes up more land area! The plan proposed by Trish is to use a solar and cropland co-location technique that is a rapidly growing field of practice (no pun intended) known as agro-photovoltaics (or “agrivoltaics”). Agrivoltaics is an avant-garde practice and burgeoning field of research that has grown out of taking a more holistic and integrative approach to thinking about food, energy, and water systems. In some areas, agrivoltaics have been able to boost total land-use efficiency by up to 60%, meaning that more food and energy can be generated from a smaller amount of suitable land than from locating solar facilities and farmland separately. Researchers at Arizona State University have calculated that using agrivoltaics techniques on the existing agricultural land in the Phoenix area could produce more than three times the energy needs of the entire metropolitan area. Since agrivoltaics is still a nascent practice, we took a conservative approach in our story and estimated that rows of solar arrays would need to be evenly interlaced with rows of agricultural crops. This doubled the size of the land needed for Sol Dominion’s Phase II installation. 

Image Description included in the following caption
Agrivoltaics combines solar energy generation and agricultural production on the same plot of land. Source: Fraunhofer ISE.

The agrivoltaic strategy proposed in the story is not a panacea. Rather, it is merely an example of the types of approaches that we’ll need to consider in the face of escalating energy needs and intensifying climate chaos and resource uncertainty. This approach demonstrates how we might use design thinking to tackle some of these challenges. Design thinking is a solutions-focused approach. Instead of trying to isolate and fix problems, teams instead work to build up ideas and potential solution sets in an iterative and organic fashion. Design thinking is especially well-suited to tackle so-called “wicked problems” (as opposed to tame or well-defined problems) where the challenges are beset with social complexities and system interdependencies. Our solutions will need to be both scalable and responsive to the social and cultural environments where our new clean-energy infrastructure will be built and operated.

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Designing Socially Relevant Solar Photovoltaic Systems

By Dwarak Ravikumar

In our group’s story, “Big Rural,” the energy company Sol Dominion’s vision is to supply all of Arizona’s electricity demand through solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, which converts the sun’s energy directly into electricity, thereby eliminating our dependence on climate-intensive fossil fuel sources. Operationalizing a vision of this scale requires two critical resources: millions of square meters of solar PV panels and large tracts of land on which the solar panels can be installed. 

Apart from helping Arizona transition to more environmentally sustainable sources of electricity, the large scale of operations entailed by this vision is also well-aligned with Sol Dominion’s goal of increasing their profitability by reducing the costs associated with generating electricity from solar PV panels. This near-future strategy is supported by today’s rapidly declining costs both of manufacturing PV systems and of generating electricity from PV systems as installations increase worldwide. Recent trends show that costs for manufacturing PV systems at a commercial scale decreased from $7 per watt of electricity generated in 2010 to around $3 per watt in 2017. The share of electricity generated by solar PV sources increased from 0.1% to 1.4% of the total electricity generated in the United States during the same time frame.[1]

Given this trend, in “Big Rural,” Sol Dominion initially favored a large-scale design paradigm in which a monolithic structure of solar panels is installed on the outskirts of Tierra del Rey to meet the electricity demand for the entire state of Arizona. The latest estimate for the total electricity demand in Arizona is 78 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh).[2] To determine the area of land required by Sol Dominion to meet this electricity demand through solar PV technology, we need to consider two key technical aspects: (1) the maximum solar energy that theoretically falls on Arizona’s land surface, and (2) technical losses that decrease the amount of electricity that can practically be generated from the maximum available solar energy. 

The maximum solar energy that theoretically falls on Arizona’s land surface is 8 kWh per square meter per day,[3] which means that there is a potential to extract a maximum of 8 units of electricity per day from sunlight for every square meter in Arizona. Three categories of technical loss reduce the amount of energy that can actually be collected and processed into usable electricity: (1) the efficiency of the solar panels, (2) the losses in converting DC electricity generated by the solar panels into the AC electricity used by consumers, and (3) electricity transmission losses over the grid. Today’s commercially available solar PV technology systems operate at an average efficiency of 17%, which means that only 17% of the solar energy available from sunlight can be converted into DC electricity. Inverters, which are the main technology used in the market to convert DC to AC, have a conversion efficiency of 80%,[4] so 20% of the DC electricity being generated by the PV panel is lost in conversion to AC. Furthermore, 7% of the AC electricity made available by the inverter will be lost in the process of transmitting electricity over the grid from Sol Dominion’s plant in Tierra del Rey to the point of consumption (whether that’s a restaurant or school or apartment, etc.).

Accounting for the maximum solar energy that falls on Arizona’s land surface and the three categories of technical loss, Sol Dominion’s panels installed on one square meter of land in Arizona can meet an annual demand of 370 kWh. So, to meet a statewide demand of 78 billion kWh, Sol Dominion would need to install PV panels over an area of 209 million square meters (i.e., 78 billion kWh divided by 370 kWh generated per square meter) on the outskirts of Tierra del Rey.

Sol Dominion’s initial plan to install an unbroken expanse of panels failed to account for the social dimensions and values of the stakeholders in Tierra del Rey. Given the conflicts, the technology design team in Sol Dominion adopted an alternative, more socially responsive design paradigm, agro-photovoltaics. The novel design features smaller circular solar panels that can be mounted on towers and co-located with cropland. Smaller PV panels provide shade and thereby positively affect crop growth. More importantly, co-locating multiple smaller PV panels in the fields necessitates more security staff to prevent vandalism and theft of PV infrastructure, plus a team of maintenance personnel to manage or address module damage or failures. This offers new employment opportunities for the community and strengthens the partnership between Tierra del Rey and Sol Dominion.

We assume an area of 5 square meters to be ideal for the newly designed circular PV panels as part of the agro-photovoltaic system, which means that each panel would have a radius of 1.27 meters. Based on an area of 5 square meters per PV panel and an overall requirement of covering 209 million square meters with PV panels, the new design requires 42 million circular solar PV panels (i.e., 209 million meters squared divided by 5 meters squared). In addition, assuming that each circular PV panel will be mounted on a single support tower, the agro-photovoltaic design also requires 42 million towers.

Despite the increased number of towers, the novel design reduces social conflict (for more on this, see Wes Herche and Samantha Janko’s essays in this book), provides opportunities for Sol Dominion to increase employment for the Tierra del Rey community, and reduces conflicts around land use by being co-located with cropland. In summary, the mutual benefits for Tierra del Rey and Sol Dominion will strengthen the project’s prospects for success. 

[1] Karen Hao, “Solar Is Now So Cheap in the US It Beat Government Goals by Three Years,” Quartz, September 14, 2017,[Back]

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Arizona Electricity Profile 2016,” January 25, 2018,[Back]

[3] Arizona Solar Center, “Resource Maps: Wind, Solar Photovoltaic, Collocated Geothermal, Concentrating Solar Power, and Biomass,”[Back]

[4] Vasilis Fthenakis, Rolf Frischknecht, Marco Raugei, Hyung Chul Kim, Erik Alsema, Michael Held, and Mariska de Wild-Scholten. Methodology Guidelines on Life-Cycle Assessment of Photovoltaic Electricity (Paris, France: Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme, International Energy Agency, 2011).[Back]

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Building Tierra del Rey: Design Features of Centralized Solar in a Rural Community

By Samantha Janko

To build the world of Tierra del Rey for the story “Big Rural,” our group considered a litany of real-world issues associated with the design and implementation of solar power plants. At the heart of the story is the idea of centralized solar generation in a rural environment. These two design features for our vision of the future—size and geography—inspired the team to explore challenging and potentially contentious topics, including the importance of culture and community perspectives. We also drew inspiration from other design features, including aesthetics, ownership, storage, and security, which influence the attitudes and reactions of the Tierra del Rey community.

Many towns across the United States were established around coal mines during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Hazard, Kentucky, Sheridan, Wyoming, and Centralia, Pennsylvania, to name just a few). Many became ghost towns, but in the ones that survived, coal is deeply engrained in the culture as a source of jobs, cheap electricity, and economic prosperity. Our team imagined Tierra del Rey as a farming town where a wealthy family opened a coal mine in the 1900s after discovering the resource was plentiful in the nearby mountain. About a century later, with the enticing promise of improved air quality as well as continued job security and cheap electricity for the town, the wealthy Paulsen family allowed Sol Dominion to purchase the coal plant at a loss and shut it down. In its place, Sol Dominion constructed their first large-scale solar project with some of the best technology available—large, high-tech solar-storage hybrid towers. After the success of Phase I, Sol Dominion moves forward with Phase II after a state mandate is enacted to meet all of Arizona’s energy needs with solar. However, since the solar plant operates almost completely autonomously, the initial influx of jobs during the construction stage declined and the town largely returned to its agricultural roots, but now without the dependable energy-sector employment formerly available at the coal plant. The community begins to feel bitterness towards the solar plant and soon makes its displeasure known through vandalism.

The aesthetics of the solar plant are an important contributing factor to the conflict. Sol Dominion shaped the large, high-tech structures like flowers with a sharp, modern design. This design might work well in an urban environment, but sticks out as alien in a rural setting. Residents of Tierra del Rey find the towers foreign and unpleasant, marring their landscape and obstructing the view of their valley. This visual reminder adds to their growing resentment—the community doesn’t feel ownership over the solar plant in the same way they had with the original coal plant that helped grow their town. Sol Dominion purchased the land for their own and built what they felt was attractive and cost-effective, without consulting community members or being sensitive to their reactions. This element was inspired by modern-day wind turbine construction; many residents of communities where these turbines are built find them ugly and disapprove of them. In Primghar, Iowa, for example, wind farms are criticized by some locals as “noisy, over-subsidized eyesores that can be dangerous.”[1]

The compromise at the end of “Big Rural” involves smaller, less visually intrusive solar constructions with softer edges, which suggests how communication and community involvement can improve attitudes towards energy transitions. The inclusion of agrivoltaics—the co-location of solar photovoltaic power generation infrastructure and crops—also creates a symbiotic relationship between the new solar technology and the traditional agricultural roots of the town. (For more on agrivoltaics, see Wes Herche’s essay in this book.) In an agrivoltaic design, solar panels produce electricity while simultaneously supporting higher crop yields by providing partial shade for the plants growing beneath them.

Our team also incorporated issues of storage and security in creating “Big Rural.” For large-scale, centralized power generation that will provide for a large population, the ability to store energy to utilize at different times of the day is crucial to ensure reliable electric service. As such, Sol Dominion included storage alongside the solar towers. This increases the amount of space required, but it’s necessary for a full statewide transition to solar power. Additionally, physical and cyber security of power plants, substations, and transmission networks is a very real issue that leaves power infrastructure vulnerable to attack. In his New York Times bestselling book Lights Out, celebrated journalist Ted Koppel argues that the American power grid’s highly customized power transformers are difficult and time-consuming to replace. This could result in a power outage for weeks or even months at a time if grid control systems are hacked and used to damage components.[2] Additionally, substations are vulnerable to physical attack since they are typically unmanned during operation. The problem has been analyzed, but is far from solved.[3] In “Big Rural,” community members in Tierra del Rey realize that Sol Dominion’s Phase I plant is not well protected and find they can easily break into and vandalize the units. Increased onsite surveillance and physical security measures could help deter this type of crime. 

We were inspired by real-world issues while crafting the setting of Tierra del Rey and the plot of “Big Rural.” Issues around design features such as size, geography, aesthetics, ownership, storage, and security reveal that the implementation of new infrastructure technologies is a complex challenge. Infrastructure systems like energy generation and storage are the backbone of modern society and affect a large number of people when changes are implemented. As a result, even a change that seemingly promises only positive outcomes (such as plentiful clean energy) does not guarantee acceptance by all parties affected by the transition. To achieve success, designers must take the socioeconomic and cultural aspects of building new infrastructure as seriously as they do the technical and environmental considerations. Building infrastructure for a transition to clean, renewable energy is an investment in our collective future, but doing it right will require sensitivity to history as well—especially to the local histories of the communities that will see their economies and cultures transformed by these projects. Ensuring that our energy futures are just, not merely clean and efficient, means seeing energy as a collective, public endeavor: opening up design and planning to democratic processes and a plurality of voices, enfranchising everyone affected, and privileging the voices of those who are on the front lines of change.

[1] Donna Eller and Kevin Hardy, “Is Wind Power Saving Rural Iowa or Wrecking It?” The Des Moines Register, April 20, 2017,[Back]

[2] Ted Koppell, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath (New York: Broadway Books, 2016).[Back]

[3] Carl Herron, “Physical Security Analysis of Substations” (presentation, Northeast Power Coordinating Council Fall Workshop, Hartford, CT, November 8, 2017), See also “Guide for Physical Security of Electric Power Substations,” an ongoing project at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standards Association coordinated by Erin Spiewak,[Back]

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