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For the Snake of Power

By Brenda Cooper

Rosa rubbed at her eyes, trying in vain to focus on the map in front of her. The electronic image of the great—and greatly damaged—solar snake that covered the canals of Phoenix swam in her vision. The snake had been bruised, battered, and in a few places, actually broken by the huge dust storm that had enveloped the city three days ago. A haboob. Uncountable motes of dust carried in on a scorching wind and left behind to dim solar panels, catch in the wires that held them together, and clog the maintenance robots. Such tiny things to have done such damage. Forty-three deaths. Trees knocked down and signs ripped from the ground and hundred-year-old saguaros laid flat. But those weren’t her problem. Power was. 

The snake had been overengineered on purpose, built to supply the future. She’d been working with the snake’s maintenance AI, HANNA, for two years now, and even with the dust and the damage, the vast, beautiful array should create enough power. 

“HANNA?” Rosa addressed the AI, which listened through a button-sized speaker on her desk. “Have you figured out why the power drawdown keeps getting worse?”

Rosa had chosen an old woman’s voice for the AI. It sounded calm as it said, “Not yet. I will keep looking.”

A stray thought made Rosa tell it, “Look beyond the engineering. If you haven’t seen a problem there, then the problem is somewhere else. Power storage? Legal?”

“Is that permission?” HANNA asked.

Rosa hesitated. But HANNA wouldn’t ask if Rosa couldn’t give it permission. “Yes.”

“Logged.”

“I’m walking down to the closest break.”

“You have worked 14 hours today.”

The machine wasn’t responsible for maintenance on her. “Maybe if I see for myself, I’ll understand. Goodnight.” 

“Goodnight, Rosa.”

Rosa left the building, still wearing her blue Salt River Project work shirt. A hot, dry wind created a small cloud of dust that tickled her ankles. After half an hour, Rosa spotted the snake’s glow from a block away. Its pale blue and yellow lights looked brighter than usual with the streetlights dimmed to half power. 

As she stepped under the arch and onto the pathway, she startled as a maintenance robot scuttled overhead, a tiny broom stuck to one “arm” and an air puffer clenched in the other. It reminded her of a fantastical creature from fiction, half squirrel and half Swiss-army knife. 

The path was busy. Two young women wearing roller skates and pushing children in carriages slowed her. Hoverboards and bicycles sped in both directions. 

Her earpod pinged softly and she touched it. A newsnote, read in a flat masculine voice. “The Association of Solar Power raised rates yet again, citing a deficit of power. Brownouts are scheduled to begin at noon tomorrow. Schedules will be posted at 7:00 a.m.”

In summer, brownouts killed. She clenched her fists. 

As she neared the break, the walls separating the neighborhoods from the canal looked haphazard. A bit of chain link, a makeshift wooden fence, a neat brick section, an adobe segment with the shards of glass embedded in its top glittering softly in the snake’s light. Her old home. She had been gone six years. She didn’t recognize the people lounging against the walls, sharing beer and listening to music. Two young men stared at her, and suddenly she wished she had changed out of her SRP shirt. 

As she passed, conversations lowered or changed tenor, although no one approached. 

She reached the break and stopped under it, staring up. The snake undulated throughout the city, sometimes only 20 feet above the canals and sometimes the height of a tall building, the design part art and all function. The taller loops reached for sun that buildings or bridges would block. This break was near where a segment began to rise. Three supports had come down. Solar scales had shattered on the pathway and, almost certainly, into nearby backyards. A few still dangled, askew, edges connected to the wire scaffolding that managed the panel’s tilt.

The breach was serious, but a hundred yards beyond it the snake continued up toward the top of this curve, lights on, clearly working. Every two or three poles carried power and optics into underground conduits. Any break could only affect the area of the break plus two segments at worst. The snake had lost four segments of power here, but there were thousands. HANNA reported 153 segments out, which was less than 10 percent.

Tonight’s low was expected to be 95, and next day’s high 121. The rich often had their own systems. If not, they had cool places to go, and transportation to power if they needed it for oxygen tanks or powered wheelchairs. The poor wouldn’t even be able to run a fan.

Rosa had held her grandmother’s hand when she died of heat in the power wars of ‘32. She had been just seven years old, sweating and miserable, her head afire with heat and dehydration, singing to her grandmother. She’d felt her grandmother’s hand go limp, had seen the life fade from her smile, her cheeks, her eyes. Rosa had cried, hot and miserable, and slept with her head on her dead grandmother’s chest until her father found her there an hour later. 

She swallowed, able as always to feel the slip of that hand into death. Some memories burned themselves into your soul.

Steps from behind drew her out of her reverie.

“Rosa. That you? That really you?”

Although she hadn’t heard it for five years, the voice was family. Home. Rosa turned and smiled. “Inez.”

“You work for power now? For SR f’ing P?”

Rosa took a step back, slightly put off by the sheer press of Inez’s voice, and of her body, which was bigger than she remembered, broader and more muscular. The light from the snake and the path lights combined to paint Inez’s face a dull blue. “Yes.” 

“You going to fix this?”

“SRP is doing everything possible to restore power …” The look on Inez’s face made Rosa hear the corpspeak she was spilling out, and she stopped. Took a breath. Looked right at Inez. “If I can.”

The two women stood quiet long enough for Rosa to wonder if Inez was as unsure of what to say as she was, then Inez said, “I knew you’d do okay. I’m sorry. I just didn’t … expect … I didn’t think you’d become …”

“The enemy?” Rosa smiled. “I’m not.”

Inez merely stared.

They had been good friends once. Done homework together. Skipped school together. Yet Rosa felt a distance from Inez that bothered her. “Are you okay?”

“I got two kids. Mom’s sick. Dad died.”

“I’m sorry. About the sickness. Congratulations on the kids.” She was stuttering. Was Inez married? She didn’t remember. “Sorry about your dad.”

“He was a bastard.” Inez’s shoulders relaxed a tiny bit and she smiled. “The kids are great. Lonny’s five and likes to cause trouble. His little brother, José, he’s small and smart.”

“And your mom? I remember she used to make me chipotle and chicken soup when I had a cold.” Inez’s mom, Maria, had smiled whenever Rosa ate her soup, and Rosa had felt better whenever Maria smiled. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s been wishing to die since dad left us. But I don’t want her to die.”

“I understand. Remember my grandmother?”

“Yes.” Inez swallowed and shifted her weight. “I came to tell you to be careful. There’s people who don’t care for SRP here. And you just raised the rates again.”

“I didn’t. Besides, SRP doesn’t set rates anymore. That’s the governor’s Association of Solar Power. The ASP. A committee.”

Inez narrowed her eyes. “People still hate SRP.”

Rosa nodded. After her grandmother died, she’d hated SRP. She’d hated them until they championed the snake. Then she’d loved them. The snake was supposed to make power available for everyone, rich or not, as long as they wanted it. Since the rich had their own systems, the snake was a public work for the poor. The cheap power and net connectivity that ran down the snake had helped her compete in high school, helped her get grants for college, helped her with everything for five years. Now all that was threatened, and for no reason Rosa understood.

“You should go,” Inez said.

Rosa nodded, glancing once more at the destroyed sections of the solar array. “I’m tired. I’ve been working all day.”

“Killed a boy when that came down. Nine months old.”

Rosa swallowed. “I’m sorry.” That hadn’t been in the regular news. But she’d be able to find the information if she looked. This neighborhood had its own news sources that flowed through the knots of idle poor like water running downhill.

“Come back on a better day,” Inez’s smile was faint, but genuine. “I want to know how you are.”

Rosa thought about leaning in for a hug, but extended her hand instead. Inez took it, her grip strong. She repeated her request. “Come back.” 

“Soon.” It felt like an empty promise and she wondered at that, unhappy with herself. What right did she have to ignore this place she’d come from? 

The next morning, she arrived an hour early for her shift. As she threw her lunch into the crowded fridge, she said, “HANNA. Good morning. Anything?”

As always, HANNA was right there. “I found three large contributing factors. We have been working on the tracking system failures.”

They had. For a year. “And there are still no parts. Go on.”

“Weather.”

Rosa sat down and began turning up her systems. “Like the dust storm from hell.”

“And the one before that? No. It’s an average of three degrees warmer so far this summer.”

“I know that,” Rosa replied.

“People have used seven percent more air conditioning.”

She hadn’t known that. The SRP staff infoweb loaded up on her screen.

“And power is leaving the system.”

“I know.” She scanned the web. The brownout schedule would post in 15 minutes. Call-takers had been pulled in early. The Emergency Operations Center would stay activated. A hot wind would come today. No storm. She blinked. “How much power? More than usual?”

“The usual amount. Twenty percent.”

She frowned. HANNA was feeding her data slowly, making her think. One of its described duties was staff training, but she’d thought she was beyond most of that. “So it’s 20 percent of power, no matter how much we generate?”

HANNA said, “It’s a fixed amount equal to 20 percent of full capacity.”

Rosa stopped moving. “That amount doesn’t get reduced in an emergency?”

“No.”

Her screen filled with snippets of contracts. She had interned with the law department; she could parse the language. As she reviewed the clauses HANNA sent, a deep revulsion rose in her. 

The governor had signed away 20 percent of their power.

The SRP power grid was the snake, and it was meant for Arizona’s poor and middle classes. Not for the cooler north. She poured a cup of coffee, took a deep breath, and went to find her boss.

Susannah Smith was in her office, drumming her fine, thin fingers on the table. Her usually curled hair hung around her shoulders, still damp, and she looked as tired as Rosa felt. Nevertheless, she glanced up and smiled as Rosa entered. “Did you sleep last night?”

“Not well.”

“Is everything OK?” Susannah turned her attention back to her computer. “The lists just posted. I hope you brought a lunch. We may not get out today.”

“I have a question.”

“Ask away.”

“The governor sold our power. Did you know that?”

Susannah turned back around. “We’ve always sold off our excess power.”

“This isn’t excess. Chicago and Salt Lake have first dibs. That’s new.”

For a brief moment, surprise flashed across Susannah’s face, and her lips opened to speak, but she clamped them into a frown. She shrugged. “This is not our problem. We support maintenance, not contracts.”

“But surely in an emergency …”

Susannah’s glare was uncompromising. “We can’t fix it.”

Why did Susannah look so angry? “Why not?”

“Not you and I. And not today.” Susannah stood up, which made her a few inches taller than Rosa. “Can I help you prioritize your work?”

Rosa wasn’t ready to give up. “Who can change it?”

“The ASP.” Susannah took a step toward her, not menacing, but pressing. “Go on. We’ve all got full plates today, and long days.”

True enough. “I can’t—”

“Go.”

Susannah had never used that tone of voice with her. Rosa went, angry tears stinging the corners of her eyes and nails digging into her palm. 

Back in her office, HANNA swept her into work and she spent the morning cataloguing the missing solar panels, checking HANNA’s designs, and approving orders for materials and for the maintenance bots. At least they didn’t need to worry about the price of replacement panels. The governor had managed to get an emergency declaration and FEMA would pay.

Every way she could think of to fix this was constrained by the governor’s bad contract, or slowed to idiocy by the multitudes of safety mechanisms that threaded throughout SRP—half of them relics from the days when power ran on high-voltage lines and touching it killed. 

Right before lunch, Rosa sent a note to Callie, who had been her formal mentor when she started this job, and who had continued to help her. Callie could get anything through the stifling bureaucracy. She agreed to meet in Rosa’s office for lunch.

Callie plunked her huge frame in the chair and threw her head back, almost dislodging the big, messy bun of gray hair that crowned her head. “Are you as tired as I am? The phones are crazed, and there’s three old women with protest signs out front. Hard to spin this.”

Rosa told Callie what she’d learned, and shared her conversation with Susannah.

Callie frowned. “That’s way upstream. There’s nothing we can do.”

The word we gave Rosa hope. “Are you sure?” She glanced at her computer. “It’s 118 degrees already.” Her voice rose. “People will die, to give power to Chicago, where’s it’s only 92 degrees. There’s nothing fair about that!” 

Callie shook her head and popped open a coffee bulb. “No. But you and I can’t change it. Policy. I can get stuff done, but only to support SRP or the workers.” She sipped her coffee, brows furrowed. “You mess with this, you might get fired.”

“I told Susannah. She was surprised. I could see that in her eyes. But she sent me away.”

“Susannah’s been here long enough to know what’s what. Some things.” Callie rolled her eyes and held out a coffee bulb. “Have one of these.” 

So Callie wasn’t going to help her either? Rosa took the coffee, and drank so fast she burned her tongue.

During her next break, she used her personal phone to try calling the governor. The lines were busy. 

Every little thing she did to help fix the snake felt like pulling a single needle out of a ball of cactus. This shouldn’t be an emergency, and they shouldn’t be using workarounds and running bots past their maintenance cycles. They should have time to be careful.

She ran into Callie on the way out of the door. “This is still wrong,” she told her. “Three people died already. Old people. In one day of brownouts. It will get worse.”

“The city is opening cooling shelters.”

“For how many people?”

The look on Callie’s face told her it wasn’t enough, and she didn’t even answer the question. She just said, “You’re doing your best.”

“It’s not good enough.” 

“All you can do is your best.”

Rosa stared into Callie’s eyes. “Maybe I can do better.”

It was already bedtime when she finished wading through the heat to her one-room apartment. Someone had posted the brownout schedule on her door, and a list of power conservation tips. She glanced at it, realized she had two more hours of cooling, and passed out on the bed in her uniform.

When she woke near dawn, her limbs were heavy with a dark anger she couldn’t put any images to. Sweat beaded her brow and clung to her hair. As she stared out the window at the whitening sky, the anger pushed her out of bed and into a clean uniform. She ate a handful of berries and two pieces of toast, then plaited her hair into long braids that would be cool. 

She stepped outside and started toward work, then she stopped. If she went in this morning, the anger would consume her. She had felt pride in her work until yesterday. Not now. She worked for the power company, and she knew what it was to die from lack of power. Her hands shook, so she clenched her fists. She turned and walked fast back toward her old home. She could lose her dream, her job. But if she could save a grandmother somewhere …

Usually, the long canal soothed her. But this morning, the whole thing—the wide canal, the arching snake of power, the graffiti on one wall, the elegant natural art on the bridges—all of it felt like separation. 

Inez was easy to find; her mother and sister still lived in the same old, faded green house. While the sister told Rosa where to find Inez, she kept glancing warily toward the SRP logo on her shirt. But she asked no questions.

Inez sat on the front stoop of a pop-up brick house, small and square and exactly like the three next to it except for a mural of a donkey on the side wall. Inez’s children were both slender and dark-haired and shy. After introductions, Rosa asked, “Who matters here now? Who tells the neighborhood things?”

Inez stood, the boys behind her, the taller one peering out and the shorter one hiding behind Inez’s ample right thigh. “What news do you have?”

Rosa told her about the contracts.

Inez looked more angry than surprised. After a few moments, she asked, “Do you remember Penélope López? She was two years behind us in school.”

“Maybe.” She imagined a thin girl with short dark curls who liked high-heeled boots, even in summer.

“She’s got a local show. Regular dissenter, that one. A good girl.” Inez picked both boys up, balancing one on each hip. She pounded on her neighbor’s door and shoved the boys inside, then led Rosa to Penélope, who still wore high-heeled boots, but was taller now, and angry. Rosa told her story and Penélope wrote. 

As she talked, Rosa’s stomach burned. She was an hour late to work, and she was wearing an SRP uniform and telling tales on the most powerful public company in Phoenix. 

Next, Inez took her to Jack, a tall black man in dreads with a soft smile. He had read Penélope’s post. “I love what you said. Truth to Power.” His smile widened. “May I? It will be live. It will be now.”

Rosa swallowed. “Who will see it?”

“Everybody.”

Rose hesitated.

Inez watched her.

Jack smiled, full of patience.

Rosa nodded.

Jack handed Inez a camera so small Rosa kept losing sight of it. She was careful only to say what she knew, to use facts, and Jack asked her hard questions. When she refused to answer some, he said, “That’s okay. You can refuse. That tells us as much as an answer.”

 That made her stop and breathe, and worry, but she kept going. She was saving a grandmother. 

Jack held out a hand, leaned in, and hugged her, smelling faintly of smoke and apples. “You’re brave,” he whispered. He led her to the canal, and they stood near the break where the hanging wires showed. He asked her some of the same questions again while Inez zoomed in on her shirt and her brown face and long braids.

Rosa leaned into her words. It was hers now, her choice, her story, her anger.

An old woman who carried herself like a turtle came up and hugged her. She turned to Jack, who interviewed the old woman while she called for everyone to come and protest, to stand under the shade of the snake and be heard.

Penélope called Inez, and said she, too, would call for a protest. 

Over the next hour, the paths under the snake began to fill. People brought water and food, chairs and signs. They also brought anger, children, dogs, and music.

Rosa did three more interviews. 

By the time the Phoenix news channels showed up, the paths were full, and rumors that other neighborhoods had joined reached her. Even middle-class neighborhoods, ones that had their own power. A news program let her read their signs, which had been crafted with glue and glitter and fancier markers than the ones near Rosa. But they said the same things.

POWER TO PHOENIX 

THE SNAKE IS OURS

POWER FOR ALL

 

As the day wore on, the signs grew angrier and more clever.

THE SNAKE FEEDS US ALL

GET THE SNAKE OUT OF OFFICE

FOR THE SNAKE OF POWER

A college-age couple resting on a bench shaped like a rock with thornless cactus arms recognized Rosa and stood up together, gesturing for her to sit. She blinked at them for a moment, but when the woman inclined her head and quietly said, “Thank you,” Inez sat and pulled Rosa down next to her and the couple melted into the crowd. 

Despite the snake’s shade over the bench and the water flowing five feet from them, the heat punished. Protestors clumped together under the solar panels, and Rosa swiped sweat from her brow. Young men worked the crowd, selling metered pours of water from great sacs they rolled in front of them on red wagons. Newscams hovered in the air, some clearly violating the rules about proximity to people.

Felipe, who Rosa had burned for in eighth grade, came and shook her hand. His warm, sweaty touch drew a nervous smile and Rosa momentarily felt like her younger self even though Felipe dangled a girl of three or four on his hip.

An international news channel came by and interviewed her in horrible Spanish, and she managed not to laugh while she repeated her simple litany of facts. The reporter’s camera zoomed in on the logo on her shirt. “You are a whistleblower?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I love my job, and SRP. But people had to know about the contracts. Three people died from heat already today. More will.”

Voices rose. A water seller who had stopped near them after selling out climbed up on his wagon and called out, “Police!” He turned and faced Rosa. “They come for you! Go.”

Rosa stood, confused. People bunched in front of her, some chanting Save the Snake! or Power to the People!

Inez climbed up on the back of the bench. Her eyes widened. “Riot gear.”

In spite of the wilting heat, of a hot wind, of the sun now high overhead and unrelenting, in spite of all that, the crowd continued to bunch. Inez said, “They’re blocking the police.”

The water seller, peering back and forth like a crow from his vantage a foot or two higher than her, said, “Not for long.”

A hand fell hard on Rosa’s shoulder. “There you are.”

Rosa turned to find Callie staring at her. She’d stripped off her uniform and wore a hat that might hide her face in such a large crowd. “Susannah locked you out of the building.”

It didn’t surprise Rosa, but it hurt.

Callie offered an unexpected smile and said, “I told this to the Arizona Republic.” She looked like she had just won the lottery, her eyes glittering with energy. 

Rosa stuttered. “You … you did? Couldn’t you get fired, too?”

“No. I retired before I talked to the paper. I came because of you. What you said to me, that we had to care, you made me ashamed.”

“So you’re safe?”

“Yes. I think so. But you’re not.”

“I don’t mind.” Rosa leaned in to hug Callie. “Thank you.”

“I came to thank you. For saying you could do better. I decided I could, too.”

Rosa smiled.

The water seller called, “Something’s happening!”

Rosa glanced at him, but Callie said, “Wait.”

When Rosa turned back, Callie told her, “HANNA and I did something before I lost access.”

Inez, still balancing on the back of the bench, called out, “They’re coming closer. We can move faster than they can. We should go.”

Callie shook her head. “No need. HANNA helped me turn off the transmission.”

Rosa blinked. “What transmission?

“The lines going to Chicago. I know someone with a backdoor to HANNA, and he helped me. It’s enough. Just the protests might have done it. But you made me want to help. The governor will announce soon.”

Rosa stared at her mentor, blinking back tears and sweat. Callie had always loved her job, always defended it. She had hated much of the process, but never the real work. And now she had been this insubordinate? “Will they arrest you?”

Callie was still grinning. “And admit their own AI helped?” She shook her head. “There will be a press conference. The governor will say she was going to use the money to repair the snake.” 

“Was she?” Rosa asked.

Callie shrugged. “Who cares? We win. People don’t die.”

The water seller said, “You should go.”

Rosa looked at Callie. “Other money can pay for repairs.”

Callie glanced at her watch. “It might already be over.”

A roar from the crowd was hard to interpret, a wave of tired whoops and louder calls, a few whistles. The water seller said it first. “The brownouts are cancelled.”

Rosa and Callie shared a long smile. In spite of the heat, Callie folded Rosa in her arms. She whispered, “I’ll find you.”

Rosa turned to help Inez down. By the time she looked for Callie again, she was gone.

“You did this,” Inez said.

“I had help.”

“This wouldn’t have happened without you.”

The water seller hopped off of his wagon. “The police are almost here.” He began to move away, and Inez pulled Rosa after him, and in a moment the crowds had enfolded them both, pushing them down the river of people under the snake.

She had done better. She would find a way to bear the price. It felt good to be home.

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Lessons from the Snake: Energy and Society

By Joshua Loughman

As a scholar who focuses on the intersection of technology and society, I’m struck by the seamless interweaving of the two in Brenda Cooper’s story “For the Snake of Power.” The story captures both a compelling struggle between characters and the complex unintended consequences stemming from emerging technology. 

A major framework for thinking about the future of energy and society is the energy trilemma. This framework considers three important dimensions that are in tension: energy security, energy equity, and environmental integrity. 

Ensuring energy security in electricity and fuels is costly, as it entails maintaining redundant systems to cover an array of possibilities and requires resiliency in the face of threats ranging from natural disasters, terrorism, and aging systems to fluctuations in commodity prices and international trade. Investments are made decades in advance, which means that decisions are made with significant uncertainty. Striving for security means the most demanding cases have to be planned for. Trying to optimize for energy affordability and access can reduce the capital needed for investments in new technology and maintenance of multiple infrastructures. But cheap and abundant energy, produced primarily by fossil fuels, leads to greater emissions, making performance in the third leg—environmental integrity—difficult. 

The story navigates these tensions overtly in some places and subtly in others. Energy security is in part a result of having resilient systems. As the snake succumbs, in part, to natural disaster, we witness the logic of energy security and the need for redundant, overlapping systems, which are lacking in this case. The story’s focus on an unfolding crisis also highlights the technical points of failure (the damage due to the storm) and the social and political points of failure (the failure of energy security due to social arrangements—in this case, a public-private energy contract). The story is timely, as there are clear parallels with the ongoing challenges faced by Puerto Rico concerning the failure of their energy system in the long aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Energy equity turns on the issue of access. The central conflict in the story is the lack of access, for the local community, due to the esoteric contractual commitments between the Salt River Project utility and other cities outside of Arizona. Lack of access due to brownouts is not all, though. As prices rise, the cost of access is equally important. Some in the community can afford to be off-grid with their own solar systems, while large segments of the community are left in the dark in the event of a crisis. As for environmental integrity, the third leg of the energy trilemma, the story addresses this more subtly. There are a few reminders that the future will be hotter, although it’s already scorching in Phoenix during most of the year. Even with substantial changes in energy systems to reduce emissions, significant warming is locked in. The global phenomenon of climate change will have local effects on land use and water use, as well as changes in ecosystems. 

Beyond the energy trilemma, “For the Snake of Power” highlights a more fundamental concern about energy configurations. By depicting a large-scale plant that resides in an urban environment (as opposed to, say, a highly distributed solar scheme with panels on rooftops, in yards, etc.), the story makes it clear that there are many alternatives when thinking about energy futures, even when we limit the technology to a single kind of energy collection process like solar. When thinking about the rapid growth of renewables it’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking that our choices are between fossil fuels on one hand and clean-energy alternatives on the other. But even within the category of solar energy, it’s clear from this story that we need to question that binary assumption and appreciate the different ways these systems can be configured. 

Among energy scholars, there is also debate about the degree to which technologies should be centralized or decentralized. For decades, solar has been hailed as a tool for democratizing energy production and consumption by being distributed and easily configured as a personal energy production tool, akin to a household appliance (think a small cluster of solar panels on every rooftop). In the context of this debate, “For the Snake of Power” is provocative in two ways. First, the wealthy are the first to take advantage of advances in personal solar technology, which exacerbates inequality issues. This is a trend that we’re already seeing today: Some studies have shown that, given the way residential solar systems are financed, only wealthier households are able to install them.[1] This puts pressure on utilities to raise prices on middle-class and working-class customers. In reaction to this escalating inequality, the Arizona state government and the public utility, Salt River Project, create the snake. The snake is a community good—public artwork, community space, symbol of cooperation and equity, and critical infrastructure for equalizing access to electricity. Protests begin when the snake’s status as an asset for the whole community is compromised by the governor’s out-of-state contracts. Second, the key element of solar’s democratizing power is usually understood as its ability to be distributed, allowing for greater individual and local control over energy generation. This story offers an alternative narrative, suggesting that even when solar power is concentrated it can be used to widespread benefit if the political will is there—although that beneficence may need to be defended from time to time.  

“For the Snake of Power” has special significance for me because I study how different ways of configuring renewable energy affect social and political systems. Energy systems are critical parts of how we live in the world and are interconnected with the broader sweep of technology, infrastructure, and markets, as well as cultures, lifestyles, politics, and the environment. Despite these inextricable connections, most decision-making about energy systems only takes into account narrow technological and economic factors. The tools that policymakers and energy companies use to inform these considerations are usually quantitative models of one kind or another. These models could be cost-benefit analyses, extrapolation of current trends, or statistical interpretations of economic data—each with their own strengths and limitations. In my research, I explore how a holistic appreciation of social and environmental factors can be integrated into decision tools and the policies that are made with those tools. One of the main ways I do this is by drawing on narratives such as speculative fiction and scenario analysis—a method used to systematically explore uncertain futures through dynamic combination of change factors. I look for patterns and dynamics within these stories that aren’t well-represented in quantitative models. In “For the Snake of Power,” two gems have inspired some new thinking along these lines. 

The first is how the story provides a concrete example of the ways that legal and contractual elements can have perverse unintended consequences. How can we infuse the uncertain effects of policy, law, bureaucratic action, organizational structure, and other similar variables into a quantitative analysis? At a minimum, recognizing that these features are embedded in energy systems will help remind us to question the assumptions of traditional methods built on statistical models. 

Second, many analyses of energy systems look at energy production in terms of technical use data, kilowatt-hours, and the like. These measures express the amount of electricity consumed by an end-user, which is often a smooth continuum of data. But in reality, electricity use goes up and down; sometimes communities have an abundance, and other times they have shortfalls. These changes in demand, in traditional energy models, modulate electricity prices in smooth and predictable ways. However, at the intersection of changes in system performance (perhaps due to environmental damage) and extreme weather (heat, in the case of the story’s future vision of Phoenix), there are nonlinear results that are extreme and consequential. In “For the Snake of Power,” those nonlinear elements are deaths and civil disobedience. As a city or community follows a certain lifestyle and energy use pattern for a long period of time, a path dependency can occur. In Phoenix, most buildings have air conditioning, and this shapes people’s behavior. For much of the year, people avoid outdoor activities and opt to stay at home, or shuttle from air-conditioned cars to the mall or the movie theater. Families budget for significant spikes in cooling costs as the weather turns hot, and people of means flee the Phoenix area in large numbers for cooler climes. The hottest summer months in Phoenix can be as insular as cold winters in other regions—in both cases, people adjust their behaviors and lifestyles to avoid being outdoors. When the AC goes out, that can be a major adjustment and disruption. Some social norms and patterns will lead to improved adaptability and others could result in great vulnerability. For example, as we experience more frequent and intense heat waves, cities that have adapted to living with heat, such as Phoenix, might be able to cope more readily. On the other hand, as communities rely more on the energy infrastructures that provide these services, the more vulnerable they are to system failure. Exploring this idea further will be a great challenge for understanding the intersection of speculative fiction and quantitative energy futures. 

Quietly, “For the Snake of Power” is a story about decision-making: which factors and people we choose to emphasize, and which ones are excluded or unnoticed. HANNA, the helpful AI agent and co-protagonist, is a reminder of how decision technologies can be interactive and encourage empathy and critical thinking. The sources of information that decision-makers often rely on, like statistical models and computational tools, can often seem abstract, slavish to objective measures, inhuman. HANNA reminds us that while information is critical for working through the tough problems that crop up with complex systems like energy, we must look beyond markets and technical performance and consider the cultures, conflicts, politics, and messy daily lives of the people who depend on those systems. 

[1] See, for example, Clark A. Miller, Jennifer Richter, and Jason O’Leary, “Socio-Energy Systems Design: A policy Framework for Energy Transitions,” Energy Research & Social Science 6 (2015): 29-40.[Back]

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Drawing from Nature: Designing a Solar Snake

By Esmerelda Parker

The design features that guided our group’s work on “For the Snake of Power” were large-scale urban solar installations with a particular focus on aesthetics. We set our story in a more populous future version of Phoenix—a city which had undertaken an aggressive solar infrastructure project in an effort to reduce energy inequality. This left our group with the challenge of figuring out where we could incorporate a large, continuous installation of solar panels in a densely populated urban environment. Looking at maps of the city, it occurred to us that the canal system twists and turns its way throughout the present-day greater Phoenix area. Projecting that these canals would continue to exist in our future society, we decided that our solar system would run everywhere above them. The placement of the structure would serve two additional purposes: providing shade on the paths running alongside the canal and reducing the amount of canal water lost to evaporation. 

The winding nature of these canals reminded us of the curves of a snake as it slithers across the ground. This became the basis for our focus on aesthetics. The snake, as we named our installation, stretches for miles, looming above the canals as it winds its way through the city. Its panels look like scales, glistening and swaying slightly with the breeze. It is made up of hundreds of miles of small, individual, scale-shaped panels linked together by a series of wires. The design allows enough light to filter through the otherwise overwhelming structure to give a sense of openness to the area underneath, but it does little to distract from its enormity. The vision here was to create a beautiful power generation and delivery system, in contrast to the cruder design of wires strung between utility poles. The wires running through the snake and into the buildings powered by it are concealed in its supportive structures and underground. All that is visible are the snake’s scales and supportive structures, integrated seamlessly and artistically.  

Throughout the story, we played on imagery associated with snakes. In certain areas of the city, the snake is surrounded by scenes of carnage. The haboob that devastates the snake before the start of our narrative had left panels strewn all over the ground and in people’s backyards. Instead of looking like a snake which had shed its scales, the bare skeleton protrudes from the ground like a decaying corpse in areas damaged by the storm. Although only a few days pass without repairs beginning, hopelessness washes over Phoenix’s residents because of the dangerously hot weather. This quickly turns to anger at their public utility, Salt River Project. The snake which had once brought cheap power to their homes now seems to strangle their neighborhoods. 

This juxtaposition highlights our story’s focus on energy inequality. The morning after Rosa confronts her boss Susannah, she finds herself thinking that “the wide canal, the arching snake of power, the graffiti on one wall, the elegant natural art on the bridges, all of it felt like separation.” The scale of the snake makes it nearly impossible to miss, but the damage done by the storm exposes the hidden parts of the snake: wires hanging in tattered messes from the normally seamless array. It’s only when the structure has been damaged that the inner workings of the system are exposed—just as the crisis caused by the haboob reveals the legal and political machinery that is siphoning power away from the Phoenicians who depend on it. This narrative runs parallel to Rosa working to expose the other secret part of the snake: where its power is going. This second narrative thread is where we chose to incorporate concepts of governance and ownership. Who should decide where the power from the snake goes and who gets to use it? Driven by her past experiences and dismay at the loss of life from the haboob and the subsequent brownouts, Rosa puts her career in jeopardy to ensure that this power is kept for use by the most vulnerable people in Phoenix.

To tie all of the design considerations together, we wanted to emphasize the fact that the snake is designed to do more than just produce energy. The snake is the largest public works project undertaken in the lifetime of Phoenix’s residents. It was constructed to create areas of shade along the banks of the canal, allowing recreational activities to flourish in the otherwise scorching desert. This is especially important in areas of Phoenix that had too often been overlooked for improvements by the city’s government. These areas are the ones Rosa is fighting for. She can’t stand to see their inhabitants left to suffer in heat that proves fatal for some and overwhelming for many more. To Rosa, the snake and its power belong to these people—not Phoenix, and not SRP. This is why she and her fellow protestors use the snake to gather support, calling on people “to stand under the shade of the snake and be heard” to oppose the selling of power outside of the state. In this moment, the snake reclaims its original purpose: protecting those who need it most.

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