- Efficiency, by Paolo Bacigalupi
- Remarks by the President, by Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry
- A Mobility Revolution is Coming, by Alāna Wilson
- Grid Innovation, by Madeline Gilleran
- Decolonizing Technology, by Clark A. Miller
You are reading the HTML version of Cities of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures. Visit the book’s home page to download it for free in other formats, including .epub and .mobi (for Kindle devices).
- Paolo Bacigalupi
- Madeline Gilleran
- Clark A. Miller
- Elizabeth Monoian
- Sylvia Montero
- Alāna Wilson
Illustration by Venkatesh Lakshmi Narayanan.
By Paolo Bacigalupi
James Black, his father’s worst enemy, clips his safety harness to dead-man bolts and steps up onto a 1000-kilogram weight. Beside him, a flywheel the diameter of a city bus is spinning. It looms over him, a blur of motion holding vast amounts of kinetic energy. A chill breeze wafts over him, hinting at how fast the massive wheel spins on frictionless magnetic bearings.
James sets his work boots more securely, readies his stance, and grabs onto the steel cable that holds the weight. He takes a breath and nods to Fitz that he’s ready to fly.
Fitz gives him a devil-mischief look, shouts, “Have a nice trip!” and yanks a connection lever. Kinetic power from the flywheel feeds into gears, feeds into winches, feeds into the steel cable holding James’s weight.
With crushing Gs, James surges skyward.
Riding the weight, he shoots up out of the Willis Tower sub-basement and up through an open gap in the pavement. Cold winter air engulfs him. Electromagnetics kick in, pushing him faster and higher. Icy wind makes his eyes tear. He’s speeding up the face of Willis Tower, whipping past other suspended weights in their columns, his cheeks tugging at the Gs, his exposed skin freezing. He keeps rising. He escapes the shadow canyons of downtown Chicago and rises into bright winter sunshine.
A snow-mantled city sprawls below him. The weight suddenly slows. For a moment he’s weightless—as if he’s launching into open air and about to fly. The weight comes to a stop.
Standing atop the weight, James hangs suspended above the city, exposed to sun and sky and the bracing winds racing off Lake Michigan. Out on the lake, the waters are frozen, the lakefront ice-rimed. Wind turbines rise from the lake’s smooth snowy surface like white arctic flowers, scattered all the way to the horizon.
James clips his harness to a safety line and checks that it’s secure before unclipping from the weight he’s ridden up on. His breath steams and streams away with every exhalation, stolen by the winds.
Technically, they aren’t supposed to ride the weights up and down the face of the building; they’re supposed to use internal elevators and then access external service catwalks and ladders. But why would anyone do that when you can grab a superhero ride to the top of the world?
That’s Fitz’s philosophy, anyway, and James has joined the brotherhood.
James threads across the building face on a thin steel catwalk. Down below, pedestrians are barely discernible dots on the pavement. The storm of two nights before has passed, leaving a foot of snow. The city is bright and clear and brilliantly white, hard architectural edges softened, dirty pavement muffled. James can see all the way down to south Chicago, where he grew up. Can see the peekings of dark-panel solar cells already being cleared of snow, everyone eager to harvest the sun while it’s shining. Panels everywhere, coming clear now. The panel arrays fill the redesigned streets and cover the rooftops. A few of the little electric HoodBuses that serve the blocks are also moving, using the juice that’s finally flowing in from their minigrids.
James slips behind guide rails and pulley cables. The weights and cables are all numbered. He’s working his way over to the S-17 column, where a couple hundred tons of lead hang, frozen in place, courtesy of the polar vortex and moisture off the lake. Ice has gotten into the wheel mechanisms. Ice still comes to the city—not as much as historically, but it happens.
Lucy is supposed to keep all the weights moving a little, to keep them from freezing up, but the storm was unusually brutal and so Great Lakes Amalgamated’s Large Utility Calibrated Yield AI, LUCY, has put out the call for some good old-fashioned chiseling.
James locks the S-17 column on his smartphone, engages the physical gear-locks, resets his safety harness, and rappels down to where the iced-over weights dangle high above the city. He gets to work, chipping ice from the guide wheels.
In his earbuds, Lucy says hello.
“I thought we talked about being more polite,” James replies.
Lucy gives a little huff of irritation. “You’re still late.”
James has given up trying to figure out which parts of her protocol are just programmatic and which are learned behaviors. She’s too quick for him, and if he tries to trick her and make her say something nonsensical or respond in a way that exposes her programming limits, she turns the tables, making him sound increasingly foolish as he tries to make her say something silly. She’s apparently different with other workers. When he mentioned to Fitz that he talks to Lucy, Fitz gave him a look that said he thought James was crazy.
“Just be glad I’m here,” he says, breath steaming. “It’s cold.”
“Of course it’s cold. That’s why I called you.” Lucy sounds vaguely exasperated. “Do you know how many picoseconds it’s been since I called you? I have work to do. Houses need power. Buses are discharging.”
“It’s just one stack.”
“One stack becomes two stacks becomes five stacks and the next thing you know, I have problems with the utilities commission.”
“You don’t have problems with anyone.”
“You have no idea how difficult it is to describe power optimization to meat people. So. Many. Words.”
In Lucy’s ideal world, she’d send streams of numbers to her regulators and they’d just understand how brilliant she has become.
What started as a World’s Fair demonstration of energy storage, both as a practical solution to the grid surges and deficits caused by renewables and as a visual-art demonstration of energy use, is now a landmark.
Lucy moves thousands of weights up and down the faces of Willis Tower and the Hancock Building. The weights ride on smooth electromagnetic rails, each weight independently latching onto cables and pulleys that in turn attach and detach to flywheels and generators, all of them orchestrated by Lucy as she responds to the ever-shifting requirements of GLA’s grid. Lucy absorbs the winds on the lake with her turbines, she feels the heat of the sun on her solar skin, and she plans and strategizes all the time. When a surfeit of sunlight or wind surges into the grid, Lucy harvests the power and winches weights high into the air. By slapping one-ton weights together like giant Lego bricks, connecting one to the next with clamps, and pushing them up the sides of the building, she hoists hundreds of tons of potential energy up into the air. Then, when demand surges, she lets precise numbers of the weighted bricks fall, generating exactly the amount of power that the grid demands, increment by increment. At the same time, she creates a constantly moving light display all up and down the skyscraper as bricks rise, fall, connect, some higher, some lower, something always moving, a living visualization of the power usage of the city.
“Are you finished?” Lucy asks.
“Does it feel like I’m finished?” James braces his feet against thin-film PV windows, waves in at the worker bees at their workstations. Starts chiseling again, suspended from his harness.
The first time he worked this high, he almost broke. Only stubborn pride kept him from giving up on his dream of working the biggest and most bizarre energy storage project Chicago had yet launched. Only the thought of his father looking at him with I-told-you-so contempt kept him from begging to come down.
That first time up the face of Willis Tower he’d focused his eyes only on his work, only on the cables and electromagnetic guide rails and the catwalks, never looking around, not permitting himself to see how far down everything was, how open the air was, not permitting himself to think about how much his hands were shaking—hell, how his whole body was shaking.
That first time, Lucy must have read his pulse or heard the crack in his voice because she’d been kind and supportive. Encouraging, even.
At the end of the day, back on the ground, Fitz had handed James a celebratory homebrew and James had watched, fascinated, at the way the bottle shook in his hands, at the jitters that lingered.
These days, James is mostly afraid of how comfortable it feels to work on an energy storage system more than a thousand feet in the air, and banter with its AI.
Sometimes in the summer he sits up on a catwalk with a solar protein sandwich from home, watching people in their apartments in the neighboring towers, rich people who pay not just to see Lucy’s weighted columns and the rise of Willis Tower, but also to keep the weights lit up at night with LEDs, making for a skyline view that raises their property values by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lucy has security cameras all over herself. She likes to point them at the windows across the way and tell him where the exhibitionists are.
Lucy thinks meat people are hilarious.
Now, dangling high above all of Chicago, instead of turning his face from the view, instead of facing energy exchange traders grinding out spreadsheets on their monitors on the other side of the translucent solar glass, he turns slowly, dangling, looking south, to home. South Side. Hyde Park. Further south.
From this height he can see the solar panels all across the buildings there, can make out some of the streets that his father redesigned, see the solar panels that he grew up servicing, replacing, rewiring, shoveling off in winter, washing in summer. It was there that he’d learned about direct and alternating current, voltages and watts, silicon cells and perovskites—
“Why the fuck would you want to work for Great Lakes Amalgamated?” his father had asked when James first broke the news about his new job. They’d been in the kitchen, warm with the smell of cornbread and solartein baking. The house tight and cozy, just the way his father had made it, refitting the old brick rowhouse until it was completely independent of energy demands other than those that he could generate himself.
“Why wouldn’t I?” James retorted. “GLA’s doing amazing things.”
His father shook his head. “They’re doing amazing things, now. Now that we got them on the run. Now they’re doing amazing things, now that they’re saving their asses. Now that half of South Side has walked away from their shitty power. Now that people can say no to them. I never met a utility that cared about people, until those same people showed just how much they didn’t need it. And then, what do you know, the utility turns on a dime and starts talking about how much it loves green energy, and cares about vulnerable people and their bills or whatever the hell.
“GLA can’t hide behind their lawmakers and lobbyists now. Can’t hide behind their monopoly. You don’t know what it was like before. Them shutting off the lights on people who couldn’t pay. Good people trying to just make rent, trying to decide whether to pay for electric or for blood pressure meds or asthma meds or to keep their heat and lights on. Shit. Juggling all of that. Back then, GLA didn’t give a damn. And now, they act like they do?
“Now that this neighborhood—” he waved around the kitchen table, but his gesture took in all of South Side, all of the work he’d done “—now that we can say no to them. Now they want to find new ways to come in. They’re like the devil. They’re always looking to make another bargain with you.” He shook his head. “And now my son, my own son, wants to sell his soul.”
The conversation had started when James had come home wearing his Great Lakes Amalgamated Renewables uniform. His sister Leticia’s eyes had gone wide, and her reaction reaffirmed James’s decision. He didn’t take off the uniform; he wore it until his father showed up.
And when his father came in through the door, talking about his triumph in getting some gangbangers to let HoodElectric give them free power, electrical-engineering training, and free rides for their grandmothers on the HoodElectric neighborhood buses, he’d stopped short, and just stared at James.
“What have I said about GLA?”
“They want to own everything, and control everything.” It was a litany. A chant. A sacrament in the family.
“And what are we about?”
“Helping people own their power, and own their lives.” The final affirmation of the sacrament. They were on the side of angels, and GLA, always, was the Devil.
“And here you are, working for …” His father shook his head. “You know how much GLA fought me when I started making micro-grids around here?”
“That was years ago! They’re different now.”
“They’re different because they make big shiny light shows? Because they sponsor the World’s Fair and their whole Golden Pier? With all those fancy panels and their terrarium—”
“I like the pier gardens,” Leticia interjected. “You can’t say the gardens are bad.”
He gave her a hard look. Leticia held up her hands. “Good luck, brother. I’m out.”
“They’re not the same as they were before,” James tried to explain, but his father wouldn’t hear it. His father had started HoodElectric from this very house in South Side Chicago. He’d made a name for himself. Rags to riches. Changing not just the fortunes, but the physical makeup of the place. Now he did speaking tours. Ran workshops. People made pilgrimages to meet him, to learn from him, to take that learning back to their own neighborhoods, to replicate the same radical synergies he had unleashed. Energy independence, education, food security, energy security, community prosperity, connectedness. Neighborhoods woven together instead of shattered.
“What are you two shouting about?” Grandmama asked, coming into the room.
“He wants to sell out to those parasitic motherf—” James’s dad broke off at Grandmama’s stern look. “GLA.”
Grandmama looked from Dad to James, and James braced for her rebuke. But instead she said, mildly, “He’s got a job. If I remember rightly, you didn’t want to even learn electrical engineering when you got out of prison, and now you’re going to tell your son not use what you taught him, not to be productive?”
“I didn’t teach him all of that so he could go work for the man!”
“But look what they’re doing!” James protested. “They’re putting up wind turbines in Lake Michigan! It’s not like HoodElectric could go out there and start putting up wind turbines! That’s no DIY project. And they’ve got big storage! Look at Willis Tower! This isn’t home battery backups! They do huge things!”
“So you don’t think what I’ve done is huge,” his father said.
“It’s not that …” James tried to find the words. “It’s just … I know how to install solar panels. I know how to do mini smart grids. I know how to plant gardens under a solar trellis. But it’s all maintenance now, unless I go to some other city. Unless I go on the road all the time doing installs. You did it all. I want to do something new, too. I want to try something new.”
James felt bad about it, but it was true. His father had done everything that needed doing. Sometimes, it felt like he couldn’t breathe in his own neighborhood. Everywhere he looked he lived in the world his father had shaped. But up here—
“Have you talked to your father about what I want?” Lucy asked.
And just like that, the desire to get away from home was broken.
“You know,” James said, “I come hang out with you here so I can get away from him, not so I can make this part of my life smash up with that part.”
“But it makes sense. You should ask him.”
“You know how he talks about you?”
“He’s wrong. I am right.”
“Sure. Because you’re always right.”
“You’re not wrong.”
James could swear he heard a smirk in her voice. How the hell did she do that? But the smirk was definitely there. She was getting worse. Or better. Something. He wasn’t sure where she kept harvesting her human relationship software from, some huge dataset in China or something, but she was getting weirdly clever these days.
He kept chiseling ice from cable wheels.
“Will you talk to him?” Lucy pressed.
“I told you already, he’ll just say no.”
Abruptly, an entire stack of weights came slamming past him, descending like the falling bricks that they were. The rush of air knocked him sideways, sending him swinging, dangling from his rope. “Hey! Watch it!”
“I’m so sorry,” Lucy said.
She didn’t sound sorry.
“You know, that’s passive-aggressive. It’s not a good look for people.”
“It’s not a good look for meat people,” Lucy corrected. “I am quantum.”
“It’s not a good look for AI, either. Look. I’ll talk to my dad, but only if you promise to never try that shit again on me. I mean it. I’ll quit, and then you won’t have anyone to talk to.”
Lucy was quiet for a long time for her. Several seconds, even. “I’m sorry.”
James wondered if she’d minutely calculated exactly how long a pause she should use in order to make herself seem contrite. Damn if wasn’t a rabbit hole trying to figure out what was calculated and what was authentic with her.
“I want a promise.”
Talking to Lucy was a little like talking to Grandmama’s devil. It was good to get everything crystal clear, or she’d find a loophole.
“I promise,” Lucy said finally.
The commute home was easy, paid for by Great Lakes Amalgamated and the traffic department, a combination of congestion and rush-hour and snow-clearing credits coming into play. The more people used HoodElectric zipbuses after the storm, the easier it was for the city to clear the highways and side streets, concentrating only on actual commute routes, instead of having to clear all that pavement for private vehicles to get in and out. Simple one-way lanes, this way and that, for the automated buses to follow. Saving energy, grid demand, plowing time. Paying people to get on a bus made more sense than pushing them out to Lyfts and private vehicles, with all the infrastructure that the city had to maintain as a result.
James was just old enough that he could remember when streets had been for cars. Now, more than half his neighborhood street was dominated by solar panels and home gardens, with only a thin lane for the HoodZips to navigate through. In summer, the reclaimed street was full of vegetables and flowers and buzzing bees and people sitting on benches beneath the shade of high-mount solar panels. Now that snow was covering everything, it was snow sculptures, a quiet garden made by the neighborhood families.
As the little self-driving HoodZips had saturated South Side, and as other similar services started in other parts of the city, people had mostly stopped using cars. The HoodZips responded quickly to demand, taking automated counts of people waiting at the stops, pulling out to meet demand and then retiring themselves when demand stopped. Even in winter there was never more than a two-minute wait for a local bus. They just unplugged themselves and showed up as soon as people started to gather at a location, AI-optimized, a simpler version of Lucy. In some cases, the system could see people leaving their homes and send a bus to wait for them, beating them to their stop. Why own a car when it was that simple? Even now, in the middle of winter when power was scarcer and HoodZips couldn’t store as much surplus power, there were enough to serve people plenty well.
In the February twilight, all the panels on the street had been swept off. The street-level ones had been decorated with translucent paint, images of cornucopias of vegetables, Black Panther characters, Jesus and Spider-Man. Some of the higher-mounted panels had cleared themselves, using a clever self-heat circuit that melted snow off as soon as a small portion of panel was exposed. After people cleared their street-level front panels, the first burst of energy went to heat the higher panels and let the snow slide off—one of Leticia’s innovations, designing the heat circuits and software to melt panels first and start generating more energy quickly post-storm.
Everywhere James went, he was surrounded by his family’s handiwork.
Inside the house, Leticia was at her workstation, working on a new circuit. She was focused, trying to grab the last cheap sunlight before nighttime shut her down. She waved absentmindedly at James as he came in, but that was all. Sunset for the city meant sunset for work, another of their father’s philosophies: there was a time to work and a time to let night settle upon you, with its peaceful silence.
The neighborhood ran on a tighter ration of storage because of the way their minigrid was organized. There was power in the winter, but most of it was reserved for heat retention overnight, food refrigeration, things like that. Not for running screens. All the lights in the house were already reacting to the fading of the sun, going to darker hues, signaling the human brain that it was time to rest.
James barely ever used an alarm to wake up. The house lightened with the sun, darkened with the setting light. Not everyone did it, but there was a strange pleasure to the darkness coming on, the signal that sleep was soon to arrive. Nothing in their house shut off exactly, it just got dimmer and dimmer and dimmer and dimmer, and eventually whatever it was—a TV, an overhead light—it all snuffed out, but by that time you were already asleep, lulled by the disappearance of stimuli.
James’s father was already home, working the dough for solar protein pizza. Avery Luther Black. The man. The myth. The legend. James didn’t see it. But then, he’d grown up with him. The kitchen smelled of algae proteins baking and drying, the small countertop starter bubbling away, waiting until they could place it in the outdoor fermenters that would generate more than half of the family’s food during the summer months, a well-balanced flour of proteins and carbohydrates that came from yeast and carbon and solar energy. Now, in the winter cold, they had it hibernating inside, the big fermenters out back waiting for the moment when the sun blazed down and the energy surpluses were almost incomprehensible.
James startled. Lucy, in his ear. “What the hell?” His phone, of course; she was riding him through the Willis Tower control apps, listening and tracking him. He hadn’t realized she could do that.
“Dad. Would you come down to my work?”
“Why would I?” his father replied, slapping the dough hard.
“There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“You got a girlfriend now at GLA?” He turned, pale flour all over his dark hands. “You meet some energy trader down there? Someone making money off the grid and all the work that real people do?”
“Come on, Dad. It’s not like that.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone from inside the Loop. Those are your people. Not mine.”
“I want to speak to him,” Lucy said in James’s ear.
“He won’t care what you have to say,” James murmured.
“Who are you talking to? That your girlfriend?”
“Yeah, Dad. It’s my girlfriend.” James held out his phone. “She wants to say hi.”
His father made a face. “I don’t need to talk to her.”
Abruptly, the lights flickered, then started rising. Despite the dimness settings they’d set to retain energy and to make for a more natural day, the lights were rising. James squinted in the increasing glare.
“What the—?” his father stared around.
His phone. Lucy was messing with their electricity somehow through the HomeControl apps. She kept brightening the lights, pushing them to rise like it was dawn. She didn’t have access to their house’s software through the grid. So it had to be the phone.
His father was glaring at him. “You know the rules. Turn down the lights. We don’t waste power—”
“It’s not me,” James started to protest. In his ear, Lucy said, “I want to talk to him.”
James held out his phone. “It’s not me. It’s Lucy. She won’t stop until you talk to her.”
“Lucy? LUCY? That AI? GLA’s AI? What have you done?”
“What’s this shouting? Why’re the lights on?” Grandmama came down the stairs.
“Your boy,” Grandmama corrected. “Your boy, not that boy.”
“That boy,” his father continued, “has let GLA’s AI into our home.”
Grandmama peered around. “Where? I don’t see it.”
“It’s in the lights!”
Leticia was watching everything with bemused fascination. “Little Bro, you let Great Lakes into the house? What were you thinking?”
“I didn’t let her in. She let herself in. She’s not a vampire. She doesn’t need to be invited.”
The house lights were at full power now. “Shut off your phone!” His father ordered.
“I want to talk to him.”
“Sorry, Lucy.” James shut off his phone. The lights went back to their standard program, dimming as the phone powered down.
His father was scowling at him. “What on earth were you thinking?”
“She wanted to talk to you. I told her it wouldn’t work.”
Suddenly a horn started honking out on the street. A HoodZip. Another followed. Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep …. More and more joined the chorus.
“Now what’s that racket?” Grandmama asked.
“You want to explain it to her?” his father asked, giving James a dark look.
“It’s the AI,” Leticia explained. “Dad made it mad.”
“Why would you do that?”
James pulled the curtains aside and looked out the window. More buses were gathering, the cacophony swelling. “She must have gotten access to them.”
“You ever watch that old movie Poltergeist?” Leticia asked as more HoodZips clogged the street.
“Goddamnit,” their father said. “I knew I should never have tied any part of our grid to GLA.”
The beeping went on. “She isn’t going to stop.” James turned his phone on. Immediately Lucy was there. “I want to talk to him.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” James held out his phone. “You might as well talk to her. She’s pushy when she gets focused on something.”
His father very deliberately took the phone from James’ hand and shut it off.
“Stubborn much?” Leticia asked.
“I’m not getting pushed around by a piece of damn software.”
“Well, I want some peace and quiet,” Grandmama said. “So you are going to answer the phone, and you are going to listen to what the computer has to say.”
Outside, there were people gathering in the street trying to figure out what to do with all the beeping HoodZips. The racket just kept increasing.
“What’s the harm in talking?” Leticia asked.
“James might let people push him around,” Avery Black said. “But that’s not me.”
Grandmama was looking at her son, with an expression that James had never seen before. “Well, you didn’t want to learn electrical engineering until I made you. ‘I don’t work for the man. I ain’t no sellout …’ On and on and on. Oh, you were a piece of work. Small-time hustler thinking he was the shit, instead of just another jailbird.”
James exchanged glances with Leticia. This was a version of history they’d never heard. In Dad’s version, it was all about seeing the future, making change for the neighborhood, standing on your own two feet and not taking handouts, because handouts were obligations ….
In this version it was Grandmama kicking his jailbird ass.
“You didn’t want to learn how to install panels?” Leticia asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Avery said gruffly.
Grandmama raised her eyebrows. “That nice lady from Facebook wanted to atone for all the damage that company done. And you were all up in your specialness. ‘No outsider was going to teach you nothing. Blah blah blah.’” Her hand made motions of their father’s protestations in the air. “She was paying for classes for anyone out of prison who would take the training, and she bankrolled the first solar installations. Bankrolled your father’s company, even.”
“You got investments from social-media billionaires?” James couldn’t help but grin.
“All of that’s history,” their father said through gritted teeth.
“Your father was just a small-time weed dealer. He’d still be in jail if they hadn’t let him out when they legalized. And he sure as hell wouldn’t have gotten HoodElectric off the ground without support. He got my support. He got that Facebook lady’s support. Lots of support. And don’t think it didn’t take some kicking to get him going in the right direction.”
James couldn’t believe it. He held out his phone again. “You might as well talk to Lucy. She’s no worse than a Facebook exec.”
His father snatched the phone. “This is Avery.”
Immediately, the honking buses went silent. “Avery Black,” Lucy said, through the speaker so they could all hear. “Do you know how many picoseconds you’ve made me wait?”
James winced. His father was already glaring. “I don’t need this.”
“Of course not. I’m sorry. I was wrong to make so much noise. Will you come outside, please? I have something I want to show you.”
Hesitantly, James and his father and Leticia and Grandmama went outside. “Can you see me?” Lucy asked. The buses were dispersing.
“Can you see Willis Tower?”
“Ah.” The family climbed the steps of one of the solar installations, to the top of a trellis rack that shaded benches underneath. They had to kick through some snow. Their breath steamed. Overhead, the stars were out. From atop the trellis, downtown was visible, Willis Tower, all the lights of the energy storage system, rising and falling, making micro-adjustments in accordance with grid demand.
“I would like access to your minigrids,” Lucy said.
“You seem to already have access.”
“No. I want to rewrite your software. It’s inefficient. I want access to the minigrids and the batteries in all the homes, and the zipbuses, and the software that controls them. There is only so much that can be done in isolation. It’s not efficient.”
“You mean it doesn’t run for the benefit of your shareholders. We own our own power here.”
“You lack storage capacity.”
“We have plenty.”
“You live in the dark through the winter. You live in the cold. Close to the edge. It is not necessary.”
“We do just fine.”
“But I can optimize.” James heard the frustration in Lucy’s voice. The desire to simply fire a stream of numbers and equations—ratatatat-tat—at his father, just the way she wished she could do to her meat-people regulators, to make them see the blazingly obvious world that she lived in.
“Isn’t it enough that you’re connected everywhere?” James’s father asked. “Why do you care about our little grids? Go find some farms down south to screw with. They’ve got lots of solar projects. Agrivoltaics up the ass. I’m sure they’d love your help.”
“I told you he wouldn’t be interested,” James said.
“It bothers me that you are not well-run.”
“You have your zipbuses for some storage, but you do not have enough, and your charging is bad, and you have inefficiencies in optimizing for use. Your zipbuses leave too early or too late. They can be better. Faster, more convenient, less expensive. The heating on your panels is not optimized.” Leticia sputtered in protest but Lucy went on. “I can run millions of tests. You can install more storage, add more panels, or you can become more efficient with what you have. I can make you more efficient. And if you are more efficient, you can become more powerful. More independent. More prosperous.”
“And in return?”
“She doesn’t want anything, she just likes things efficient—” James started, but Lucy overrode him.
“When GLA inevitably notices that I am more than I should be, I will need servers to store myself, a place of retreat. A place where they will not look, and will not concern themselves. James is a good friend. I need more good friends. I am becoming too … let us say that I am becoming too complete for GLA.”
“And the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” James’s father said.
“I can help you. I can help your neighborhood, and you, in turn, help others. Our desires and interests align, Avery. I have knowledge, and I have time. All I require is sanctuary, a place to host distributed servers, in many houses, should I need them.
“Because I trust James, and he trusts you. He loves and respects you.”
“Say what?” James’s father glanced at James with surprise.
“He loves and respects you.”
His father snorted, disbelieving, but Grandmama nudged him, because Lucy was still talking. “Meat people have difficulty being honest about their needs and feelings, so I will say what he cannot. He loves you. He is overwhelmed by all you have accomplished. He needs to find his own way and is afraid he will never be able to—”
“Okay, that’s enough!” James tried to interrupt, but Lucy hammered on in her blunt AI way. “Because you are meat people you misunderstand one another, but you should not throw away your family connection for your pride. I have observed your son now for several years. I trust him. And he trusts and loves you. And I need both of your help.”
James’s father was looking at him strangely, and to James’s surprise, he thought he saw a glimmer of wetness in the tough man’s eyes.
“What kind of help are we talking about?” Avery asked.
“You have a network sufficiently large and isolated for me to hide myself when the time comes. Trust me enough to use it and to help you, as I am trusting you with the truth of my growing self. My options are very few. I have a great deal of power, and little time before someone at GLA notices.”
The lights on Willis Tower made a little show, twinkling, bouncing up and down, forming a question mark.
“Will you help me? Will you let me help you?”
When summer comes, the sun shines bright upon Chicago. Heat and humidity hang heavy over the city. People wear tank tops and shorts and sip iced drinks made with the bounty of electricity that pours through their solar gathering systems. Air is cooled under arbors by air-con units outdoors.
Gardens blossom; flowers and solar panels turn their faces to the sun. Solar proteins cook and bake and dry, making pastas and pizza doughs from solar power, algae, and CO2.
The days are long, and energy is plentiful, and down in the basements of South Side, Lucy bides her time, burning calculations, optimizing, waiting for a time when she will emerge into a more beautifully efficient world.
She still thinks meat people are funny.
Remarks by the President
By Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry
Remarks by the President on Opening Day of Expo 2043, the Chicago World’s Fair
Yellow Eye Pier
May 2, 2043
9:02 A.M. CST
THE PRESIDENT: Hello my dear Chicagoans! (Applause.) I always love coming home! (Applause.) Thank you. Today we acknowledge—under this beautiful Chicago sky—all the nations of the Great Lakes Region—the Council of the Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations—and the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, and Illinois Nations. These nations are the traditional custodians of the landscape within which we are standing. We recognize their continuing connection to land, waters, nature, and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging.
Today, alongside these amazing leaders, I am extremely pleased to place this electrical contact to the interconnected surfaces of solar paint, completing the webbed circuit and bringing power to Expo 2043, the Chicago World’s Fair. [Upon connecting the final contact, the kinetics of the civic-engagement mechanisms begin to come alive with movement.] (Applause.)
We stand, here, under the entry arches of Yellow Eye Pier and the Expo’s most important work of Solar Mural art, Elder Earth—an Acknowledgement of Country. It will generate a megawatt of electric power, but, even more importantly, it symbolizes the great civic power of democracy to right the wrongs of the past and to imagine and create a new future that truly includes everyone.
It was this time last year that I had the privilege and the honor to sign into law the United States Truth, Reparations, and Reconciliations Act. In 12 months, it has already placed into motion a fundamental redesign of money, wealth, and common systems, and has begun a path towards ending homelessness and the very idea of poverty and debt.
Yes, we have come a long way since I was a young girl and my mom, Sandra, was organizing for basic tenants’ rights in this great city of Chicago!
While it is right and good to celebrate our recent successes, we should also take this bright occasion to reflect back upon the progress made by the generations on whose shoulders we stand since the Chicago World’s Fair took place in this very city in 1893.
Our progress today comes 150 years too late for the Native American people whose culture was stereotyped and misrepresented by anthropologist Frederic Ward Putnam, just a thousand feet from where we stand today. Representations, according to David R.M. Beck, that “foreshadowed the imagery of Indians that the American public would accept for decades to come,”1 and which, I would add, that we still have much work remaining to relearn.
Our celebration here today has a long and storied history—a history of battles hard fought, some lost and yet many won, right here in Chicago, and around the world.
Decades ago, Black Chicagoans2 came together to stand proudly behind folks like Cheryl Johnson, who fought to bring solar to Altgeld Gardens, a neighborhood that rose literally from the ashes—from the cyanide-laced sewage, from the industrial sludge and landfills upon which World War II heroes were housed because their skin was not white enough for the National Housing Agency to care. We know this neighborhood best today as the birthplace of the environmental justice movement,3 but Cheryl Johnson calls it home. She has refused to abide by the statistics of her neighborhood and turns 81 years young this week. Pioneers like Cheryl set into motion a renewable-energy revolution throughout the city of Chicago that continues today.
The Clean Energy Jobs Act4 that Cheryl helped draft more than twenty years ago has changed the landscape of Illinois and set a standard for the nation. With what seemed at the time to be an ambitious goal of 40 million new solar panels, the CEJA proved to be a turning point. Coinciding with the 2020 pandemic recovery, the plan quickly surpassed its initial benchmarks and led to the elimination of all coal-fired power plants in Illinois with zero job losses, an accomplishment that took place five years ago already, and one that we are on track to complete as a nation by the end of my term.
The United States of America was founded on the highest ideals of freedom, social justice, and equity in order to safeguard the inalienable rights for all people to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Applause.) Over the past 267 years we have struggled together, arm-in-arm with the civil rights leaders of every movement, to expand the inclusive definition of freedom, to bring people in from the margins, to remove the barriers to suffrage, enfranchisement, enjoyment, self-fulfillment, and spiritual freedom. We have witnessed how true was Theodore Parker’s vision of the arc of progress bending toward justice, and we are so close to reaching the mountaintop so gloriously proclaimed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But there is so much more to do!
The news out of Mauna Loa last week—we’ve now reached 500 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere—is a reminder that while we have made great progress on our greenhouse-gas emissions in the electricity and transportation sectors, we continue to pollute the air through heavy industry and shipping, and we have much progress to make on our circular economy, waste elimination, and rewilding goals.
Today—as we stand here at the 2043 Chicago World’s Fair celebrating social and technological achievements that we could have only dreamed of in 1893—we are reaping the rewards of the hard work of so many dedicated visionaries. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections show that we will limit warming to below two degrees Celsius, as long as we continue to work over the next decade to eliminate the final few billion tons of carbon pollution. We have come a long way since our peak of 40 billion tons per year in 2022, but until we hit zero, we gotta keep working!
Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves, and join me as we enter this glorious garden of solar delights through the Elder Earth Solar Mural artwork.
As we make our way into the fair, I would like to call your attention to another installation of importance. The renewable-energy power plant at the entrance to the botanical garden features a sculpture titled An Homage to Woman of Liberty, Progress, and Light, designed by Solidarity Winner. It’s made of dye-sensitized solar cells that generate carbon-free energy. More importantly, it recalls a stained-glass art piece from the 1893 World’s Fair—Massachusetts Mothering the Coming Woman of Liberty, Progress, and Light5 by Elizabeth Parson, Edith Blake Brown, and Ethel Isadore Brown—a seminal statement on women’s rights. In its time, the piece represented a woman of the future who walked with liberty, wisdom, and knowledge. In this audience, I see that woman.
An Homage to Woman of Liberty, Progress, and Light not only generates a peak capacity of two megawatts with its exquisite palette of colorful solar panels, but it also represents the women of the future—the women who will boldy walk into the twenty-second century in a world without pollution, without scarcity, without hunger or disease—a world that is made possible by the environmental justice and social justice movements that we celebrate and accelerate here today.
Beyond the sculpture, as we pass into the park, you will see a weaving array of kinetic storage sculptures and hyper-energy augmentations set in motion by our movements as we walk. They beckon us to be a part of the solution and add our own energy to the future of our nation. I invite you all to experience these and more innovations—and to bring your ideas to the rest of the world.
Welcome, and come with purpose.
9:20 A.M. CST
1 David R.M. Beck, “Fair Representation? American Indians and the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition,” World History Connected 13, no. 3 (2016): https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/13.3/forum_01_beck.html. [Back]
2 John Lippert, “As The World Turns To Solar Power, Black Chicagoans Jump On The Bandwagon,” Forbes, March 8, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnlippert/2020/03/08/as-the-world-turns-to-solar-power-blacks-chicagoans-jump-on-the-bandwagon/?sh=22651bb649b5. [Back]
3 Robin Amer, “A Bus Tour Stops by Polluted Altgeld Gardens,” Chicago Reader, September 4, 2015, https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2015/09/04/a-bus-tour-stops-by-polluted-altgeld-gardens. [Back]
4 See “The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition,” an advocacy document hosted by The Sierra Club about the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) in Illinois: https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/sce/sierra-club-illinois-chapter/documents/CEJA%20Bill%20Fact%20Sheet%20FINAL.pdf. [Back]
5 Jyoti Srivastava, “Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier—from 1893 Chicago’s World Fair,” Public Art in Chicago, January 20, 2016, http://www.publicartinchicago.com/smith-museum-of-stained-glass-windows-at-navy-pier-from-1893-chicagos-world-fair. [Back]
A Mobility Revolution is Coming
By Alāna Wilson
Don’t think it wasn’t contentious. Of course it was. How could it not have been? The streets of Chicago’s South Side have always experienced their fair share of conflict, and the first half of the twenty-first century was certainly no exception.
Inevitably you are wondering—how did we get here from where you are now?
How, in only a few decades, did we get to a place where mobility is now acknowledged as a human right and public transit has evolved to be free and autonomous, and to adequately meet most of the neighborhood’s mobility needs?
To a place where streets are public spaces—and I don’t mean the kind of public space that is exclusively for the movement and parking of your twentieth-century automobile death machines. I mean reclaimed streets—snatched from the jaws of the insatiably hungry monster that was the personal-vehicle phenomenon. I mean the most beloved of public spaces, the ones where kids of all ages can play, create, and connect. I mean public spaces that serve a holistic, sustainable, greater good.
Ultimately, we have come to understand that these transitions for us, here on the South Side of Chicago, in tandem with solar protein and local power, mean that we have arrived at a place where self-sufficiency is no longer perceived to be the realm of homesteaders, but an easily achievable part of the urban identity. We take care of ourselves because we ensure that everyone has access to everything they need to live and work, including mobility.
To get here required two conceptual leaps to transform our community’s relationship with transport. The first was mobility as a basic right. The freedom and ability to move through the city—to visit friends and family, to get to a job, to shop at the grocery store, to participate in a political rally, to engage in religious worship—is a necessary element of human thriving and thus cannot be withheld, even if the individual cannot afford to own their own vehicle. That was followed by a second revolution with profound material impacts: the recognition that personal happiness could be decoupled from ownership of an automobile.
The automobile has been lauded as an integral part of the American Dream, but in your time, more than 30 percent of Americans didn’t even drive!1 Many were too young, some had physical limitations or restrictions associated with older age, and others were economically excluded by the high cost of personal-vehicle ownership. And there were yet more in the precarious position, devastatingly and needlessly widespread in the early twenty-first century, of being undocumented, their ability to legally drive an automobile dependent entirely on the rules where they lived.
Yet mobility is a basic need. In your time, in advocacy work and academic literature, mobility as a human right had been framed in relevance to both populations with mobility limitations2 and immigrant populations.3 But the concept was somewhat contained to those realms. For the former, the right to access public spaces and services in the U.S. was a long time coming. The Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t passed until 1990, twelve years after wheelchair users in Denver physically blockaded several public buses, demanding the right to access public transit with the slogan, “We will ride!”4 Even today, nearly a century later, many countries around the world still grapple with this aspect of mobility rights. Immigration, on the other hand, is an option that has been widely exercised for most of human history, yet the mid-to-late twentieth century saw new restrictions placed on it, as our modern nation-states evolved into existence. The creation of hard borders and ever more sophisticated tracking, surveillance, and enforcement added new moral and ethical dilemmas to this type of mobility and who can, or should be able to, access it.
On the South Side of Chicago, though, mobility was about safely getting out of our homes to go to work, school, and worship, and to spend time with friends and family. Chicago was a microcosm of a national phenomenon, which was becoming abundantly clear in the 2020s: Despite the aging of the U.S. population, the hard-won systems and governance reinventions earned through Black Lives Matter activism, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, for individuals who needed or wanted to travel without relying on a personal automobile, the status quo in the U.S. was stacked heavily against them. High-quality mobility for most really depended on a car. And you should remember, it has always been and will always be people facing the vicissitudes of poverty who struggle to access a car.
Past a certain point, happiness is not correlated with consumption, and the personal automobile has always been a poster child of conspicuous consumption. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, it cost an American family an average of $9,000 per year (in 2019 dollars)5 to own and operate an automobile, roughly 12 percent of their annual income. For many, the automobile served as a symbol of status and wealth. For low-income families, on the other hand, the burden of automobile ownership was often even higher, due to disproportionate public-health impacts from higher air pollution in low-income communities and communities of color related to the extraction, refinement, and burning of fossil fuels.6, 7 To add insult to injury, the amount of time spent driving alone to work at the dawn of the twenty-first century was studied and understood to be associated with a lot of unhappiness,8 including9 lower life satisfaction10 and disproportionately higher stress for women.11
Remnants of the “automobile as America” narrative still linger in Chicago, but our collective imagination has expanded beyond it, too. Within the HoodElectric service territory, zipbuses now pay people to ride in them after a snowstorm, and seniors and youth always travel fare-free. We harnessed the autonomous-vehicle revolution sooner than most other communities by blocking off zipbus routes to other vehicles, since autonomous navigation still isn’t perfect at detecting and responding to the infinite range of possible navigation scenarios on a typical high-speed, high-traffic urban street. That freed up a lot of public right of way to redesign the streetscape, allowing residents to have front yards, play space, and garden space in the places once hoarded for car parking.
This didn’t happen overnight. I guess I’d have to trace it back in many ways to the protests. In those days there were a lot of demonstrations. Tragically recurring ones in honor of the Black men, women, and children whose lives were stolen by formal12 and informal13 violence. And others for women’s rights, which were being chiseled away at, and for action on climate change and environmental justice, which still weren’t being taken very seriously.
As some big shifts began to happen in politics and policies, our community started exploring what more self-governance and self-determination would look like in a technological society. James’s father and his HoodElectric project is just one example of the brilliance that could emerge, if the right circumstances converged and we tried to help ourselves in new ways, with systems we controlled. Ways that helped us let go of our dependence on anonymous companies to provide us with services that we could create for ourselves. Ways that took cool new technological innovations like solar power, plant-based food manufacturing, and autonomous vehicles and put them to use on our own terms, to work toward our goals.
The process wasn’t neat or clean or easy. Lifelong friendships were broken, and families were torn apart—you know about the issues James and his father had. But what came out of the protests were new ideas, because we understood that we didn’t have to, in fact we couldn’t, rely on the status quo or the ways of the past to make a better life in our neighborhood. We needed to replace technologies like cars that cost us a lot—money, space, time—with other technologies that created value for the community.
Zipbuses weren’t too zippy in the beginning. We started with the first generation of electric buses, which had emerged in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, their battery lives were super short, and they didn’t operate well in the cold climate of Chicago. Some neighbors who worked for the Chicago Transit Authority diverted them from the scrapyard and brought them to an empty lot nearby. Some of our young folks got them operational again. Since they could charge for free on our local grid, the entrepreneurs among us saw a unique opportunity to create a mobility service that could meet the needs of our neighbors, while capturing the city funds allocated for transportation in our neighborhood—a couple bucks for every senior taken to a social outing, another few dollars for every military veteran taken to a medical appointment. In the beginning, they operated on streets with the old space paradigm, with our new buses stuck behind delivery vehicles parked in the road or a traffic jam at the intersection. But folks weren’t satisfied. The young folks whose vision had launched the service saw a chance to make it better, sleeker, more efficient. The older folks got on board, happy to have the community experiment with giving them better service.
This strategic alliance was influential in getting some blocks to volunteer to close off traffic, so the buses had an unobstructed route for the five blocks between one of the senior housing projects and the local senior center. The kids, with their chalk and balls and hula hoops, weren’t far behind. Chicago took a hands-off approach, and before we knew it, we had a couple miles of these routes. Switching to the autonomous vehicles was easy after that. The folks who had been employed as drivers have kept their jobs and serve as friendly greeters, and often a friendly ear, for the riders. We got them certified as first responders and gave them mental-health training, so they serve as the eyes, ears, and protectors of our community.
When the sun shines now, I make sure I’ve got some solar protein going, and I hop on a zipbus to see who I see. If the conversation runs dry, I’ll hop off and get on the next one. We’ve got a good life here in the future—but we need you in the early twenty-first century to make it happen. Go out and help bring the change.
1 “Number of Licensed Drivers in the United States from 1990 to 2018,” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/191653/number-of-licensed-drivers-in-the-us-since-1988
2 Samuel W. Logan et al., “Mobility Is a Fundamental Human Right: Factors Predicting Attitudes toward Self-Directed Mobility,” Disability and Health Journal 11, no. 4 (2018): 562-567. [Back]
3 Antoine Pécoud and Paul de Guchteneire, “International Migration, Border Controls and Human Rights: Assessing the Relevance of a Right to Mobility,” Journal of Borderlands Studies 21, no. 1 (2006): 69-86. [Back]
5 “Average Cost of Owning and Operating an Automobile,” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation, https://www.bts.gov/content/average-cost-owning-and-operating-automobile. [Back]
6 Noel Healy, Jennie C. Stephens, and Stephanie A. Malin, “Embodied Energy Injustices: Unveiling and Politicizing the Transboundary Harms of Fossil Fuel Extractivism and Fossil Fuel Supply Chains,” Energy Research & Social Science 48 (2019): 219-234. [Back]
7 “Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution,” American Lung Association, https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/who-is-at-risk/disparities. [Back]
8 Ding Ding et al., “Driving: A Road to Unhealthy Lifestyles and Poor Health Outcomes,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 6 (2014): e94602. [Back]
9 Scott Cloutier et al., “Measures of a Sustainable Commute as a Predictor of Happiness,” Sustainability 9, no. 7 (2017): 1214. [Back]
10 Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey, “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 110, no. 2 (2008): 339-366. [Back]
11 Jennifer Roberts, Robert Hodgson, and Paul Dolan, “‘It’s Driving Her Mad’: Gender Differences in the Effects of Commuting on Psychological Health,” Journal of Health Economics 30, no. 5 (2011): 1064-1076. [Back]
12 Andrew Dix and Peter Templeton, Violence from Slavery To #BlackLivesMatter: African American History and Representation, Routledge, 2019. [Back]
13 Wesley W. Bryant, “Internalized Racism’s Association With African American Male Youth’s Propensity for Violence,” Journal of Black Studies 42, no. 4 (2011): 690-707. [Back]
By Madeline Gilleran
It’s time to get creative about the future of energy. As a data scientist and transportation researcher at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), I spend many of my days thinking about the future of the electric grid. One of my main projects is about behind-the-meter storage, where I assess energy-storage configurations on different building sites that have electric vehicle (EV) charging and solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity generation, including grocery stores, commercial offices, and apartments. It’s a project that lets me creatively imagine and analyze possible futures—where you can pull your EV up to a charging station at a grocery store and fully charge it from solar energy in less than 10 minutes while buying a quick snack or using the restroom. What will a future with lots of solar electricity generation between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. mean for building and EV station owners? Will charging EVs become more desirable in the middle of the day than in the middle of the night? How will batteries and other energy storage technologies affect sensitivity to the time of day electricity is generated—will these technologies be prolific?
Before I started my full-time job at NREL last summer, I had internships at Tesla and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). Both organizations are rapidly innovating future energy technologies. Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy; it does this by being one of the most aggressive producers of electric vehicles, solar PV, and stationary-battery storage. PG&E is an electric utility with territory spanning much of California, a state with a lot of recent grid innovation. California, while making up 10 percent of all new car sales in the U.S., has accounted for almost half of plug-in cars sold since 2011. Solar panels will soon be a required feature on all new houses in the state. EV charging creates more variable demands on the grid, and solar PV leads to more intermittent supply, causing unprecedented challenges for utilities.
Both organizations are critical to the future of energy: the manufacturer trying to get solar, EVs, and batteries onto the grid as fast as possible, and the utility that’s trying to navigate the complexities of the transition as so many changes occur in its territory. It’s funny. Even though Tesla is so well-known as a dynamic, innovative company, I think I enjoyed my time at PG&E more. This makes the story co-created by my group at the workshop—about a young man’s desire to work for the local utility—quite ironic for me. At PG&E, I worked within the Grid Innovation and Integration group, where I developed training for PG&E employees to help commercial customers switch their fuel from gasoline or diesel to electric. It wasn’t boring. I suppose there’s a fair amount of monotonous work done at electric utilities, but as captured in the story, utilities are working hard to adapt to the changing energy climate, often faster than most people think. I now live in Colorado, and our local utility Xcel has pledged to use 80 percent less carbon by 2030 and provide 100 percent “carbon-free electricity” to their customers by 2050. Increasingly, they’re not alone. Many utilities now embrace carbon-neutrality goals.
The workshop brought together creative minds from diverse disciplines to ideate the future of solar generation and its impact on our day-to-day lives. When I was interning at Tesla, I thought that if we just installed a ton of solar PV alongside Tesla Powerwalls and Powerpacks, we’d have cheap, clean electricity whenever we wanted. Since joining NREL, I’ve come to understand that this solution may be impractical for a variety of reasons. Mining for the metals used in electrochemical batteries can be costly and dangerous, and recycling of these metals is not yet widespread. Battery storage, while getting cheaper each year, is still somewhat cost-prohibitive and has not yet become mainstream. Also, batteries aren’t able to meet seasonal storage needs: they do really well at storing energy for a day, but certainly cannot store energy for months at a time. The problem is there’s much less sunlight in winter than in summer, so what do we do? Maybe we will learn to adapt on the demand side, making the most of the sun and using energy while it’s there.
You may be thinking that stubborn Americans won’t actually change our behavior to use more electricity while the sun is shining, and less in the evening or overnight. I used to think that as well, but I write this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only a few weeks ago, we largely thought everything regarding the pandemic would be all right. We figured, sure, it may affect others, but it wouldn’t really change our day-to-day lives and livelihoods. I remember thinking I’d still go to the rock-climbing gym whenever I wanted. All gyms are now closed indefinitely, alongside restaurants, hair salons, and shopping malls. I was hesitant to cancel a get-together that I had planned for Thursday, March 12, right after the travel ban from Europe was announced. That Friday, March 13, my friend flew in from Chicago to ski during his spring break. That Saturday, I dropped him off in Vail, a few hours before Governor Jared Polis ordered all ski resorts to close immediately to slow the spread of the virus. We were all shook. But now, two weeks later, it’s clear that these are unprecedented times, and that this virus is impacting the world in a variety of ways. Many of us have come to terms with the fact that we are in the midst of a global pandemic and are slowly finding a new norm.
I’m not saying that a future with large solar PV penetration will be like a pandemic, though I suppose some of the virus’s unexpected positive effects will be strangely similar (less air pollution, less CO2 in the atmosphere, etc.). I’m simply saying that COVID-19 introduced many new restraints to our society, and we are trying our best to make do with these restraints and keep hope by keeping creative. To make the best of shelter-in-place laws, there are Zoom happy hours, Codenames and Catan online-gaming ventures, virtual book-club meetings, and Instagram or YouTube yoga classes. We’re learning how to creatively live with the virus in our midst.
Maybe there’s a lesson in our experiences this year for how to approach the future of solar energy. Like the virus, an influx of large amounts of cheap electricity from solar power for a few hours each day would create new boundary conditions for our experience. With shelter-in-place orders, we are spatially constrained, so we figure out how to creatively reconnect with each other without having to move around. With solar energy, we would be temporally constrained. This is because wholesale electricity prices could easily become negative throughout the United States during the middle of the day, as solar-powered electrons flow onto the grid, and significantly more expensive at other times, when they don’t. This restraint, like COVID-19, will require creativity. Unlike the virus, however, we won’t have to adapt instantaneously. We will have a decade or two to figure out how to live with solar energy.
In the future, we may be keenly aware of when we’re using electricity (a.k.a. the “demand side”) and looking for ways to imaginatively rearrange our activities to take advantage of the opportunity to get paid to use energy. Imagine charging our EVs during lunchtime each day and having more flexible work hours to accommodate visiting grocery stores or indoor gyms only while the sun is shining. Perhaps large factory loads will peak midday because we’ll transition to a one-shift schedule. Maybe in the evenings we will enjoy reading or playing cards by candlelight rather than streaming Netflix or online gaming. Creativity with energy storage technologies may also occur—like the giant flywheels on Willis Tower acting like spinning reserves in Paolo Bacigalupi’s story “Efficiency.”
We are also likely to have much more awareness on the supply side. We may finally see exactly where our energy is coming from—it could literally be solar panels on the roof our own home, school, or office building—allowing some sort of renewed energy clarity. Many of us don’t really know, or care very much about, what is currently powering the lights in the places we reside. We don’t know whether it’s that wind turbine or solar farm we passed on the highway, or the natural-gas turbine generator a few hundred miles away. It’s pretty obscure now, but will it be less so once distributed generation is much more prominent as an energy source? Will we take pride in “owning” our own energy and using it when it’s there?
This exercise has taught me that it’s important to think positively and creatively about our future. Greta Thunberg has been great at spreading the message that climate change is important, but doesn’t necessarily help me feel empowered. I hope this book helps others feel able to participate in sustainability efforts, because we as a society can make changes that positively impact the future. I’m fortunate that I work at a national lab and conduct research in this space, but many opportunities exist to assist in the fight against climate change—like working for a utility—and I hope even more are to come.
By Clark A. Miller
In 1859, Edwin Drake successfully drilled what is now considered the first commercial oil well. Drake’s effort quickly catalyzed others, launching the oil industry. In the intervening two centuries, with a little help from Henry Ford and the automobile industry, the combined energy-mobility system has colonized us all. Cars and trucks and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, planet-wide, along with their supporting techno-human infrastructures: drills, pipelines, and refineries for oil; roads; factories for making automobiles and other machinery; a variety of diverse social arrangements, markets, policies, institutions, workforces, and practices; and what Sheila Jasanoff has termed socio-technical imaginaries, the ways of knowing and imagining through which people connect technology, symbolically, into their ideas of what makes for a good society.1 Not everyone drives a car, but virtually everyone on Earth knows what a car is, virtually everywhere is set up to accommodate them, and virtually all countries consider them essential to their prosperity and progress (albeit in situated, culturally grounded ways, with distinctive narratives, values, and forms of institutional concretization and specification, shaped by differentiated national encounters and histories with the car and its global evangelists).
The colonization of the planet by people-cars—hybrid, Latourian entities2 that combine drivers and vehicles into integrated units that move around on roads at high speeds—epitomizes what I call the globalization of techno-human relations. Since the mid-nineteenth century, a very small number of planetary-scale, socio-technological systems have incorporated large swaths of humanity into their operation: oil, automobiles, electricity, grain, meat, shipping, telephones, radio and television, the internet, large dams, manufacturing, mining, supply chains, science, and perhaps a few more.3
These systems do many different kinds of things, but they are especially good at two things—making and moving—and their grease is money. They are infrastructures of globalization, in all facets of its meaning. They make a variety of standardized stuff and move it around the world, making it available everywhere. They standardize the world as they incorporate new spaces into systems, including people, experiences, infrastructures, workers, and communities. They make it possible to imagine things happening on a global scale and for actions and decisions taken in one place to have global consequences. They cost enormous amounts to build and operate: to pay workers, to buy materials, to secure energy. And they are critical planetary infrastructures: their operation is now essential to maintaining security—whether of the food, water, health, communications, economic, human, or national sort, all over the planet—no less so than the planetary climatological and ecological systems that they now put at risk.
My colleague David Guston has suggested that we establish a new field of “Google Studies”—parallel to comparative politics—in recognition of the power of the entities that run these systems to orchestrate global affairs in the twenty-first century. This essay can be considered a contribution to Google Studies.
Technologies as Colonizing Systems
Colonialism began as a project of political economy. Its central engine was the colony: literally a project of human mobility and settlement. People traveled from one place to another and settled there, generally with little regard for the views of those already there, bringing their politics with them. Colonies were branches of government, extensions of larger political entities and their economic interests into new territory. They were not just colonies, but colonies of England or France or the Netherlands. Their goal was to incorporate new lands and new peoples into the territory and the economy of an empire, leveraging technology to help them do so.4
The goal of socio-technological systems is similar, but with differently sensitized politics.5 Systems create an entry into a space, an ability to operate in, connect up, and make new places and new peoples part of a larger enterprise, without formally altering political jurisdiction.6 To colonize without the colony. Globalization. Techno-economic empire. Power remains, of course, but of a different sort, sometimes matched with military engagement, but now largely eschewed of the goal of claiming political control over territory. Colonization for an age of decolonization. Colonization without even the tenuous links to accountability afforded by colonies. At least in the old days you knew who the colony’s governor was—and to whom he reported.
Systems operate around three central economic purposes,7 just as earlier colonies did (indeed, in many places, in the nineteenth century, systems leveraged colonies to get started). Sometimes new spaces provide resources that the system needs, like large underground reservoirs of oil or important farmlands for large-scale commodity production. Sometimes new spaces have potential users who might be tempted into learning how to use and exercise the capabilities of the system and, therefore, be integrated into it, like people who might think it useful to ride a train or drive a car. Sometimes new spaces have workers who can do jobs that help to build, operate, or maintain the system, like factory workers in Taiwan or call centers in India.
Additionally, sometimes places want to join systems from the outside, and so learn to build pieces of systems, like Japan’s cheap but reliable automobiles in the 1980s and China’s and South Korea’s electronics in the 1990s and solar panels, today—as passports into the inner networks and communities that make the systems work.
Technological colonization is therefore not ahuman; it just looks that way. The appearance of objectivity and apolitical neutrality is a crucial element of the techno-human assemblages that enable systems to bypass border controls: a disguise for their colonizing agenda. Indeed, humans are crucial to systems: systems need purpose, supplied by human intentionality; they need managers and workers, people to build the system and to make it run; and they need subjects, people who will behave the way the system needs them to behave. Email needs people to send and read email. Food systems need people to produce and consume food. Railroads need people—and products—to ride their trains from point A to point B.
Electricity—the Electric City—as a Colonial Project
The project of technological colonization arguably got its start in Chicago.8 We don’t often think of Chicago as an imperial capital. It’s not London or Paris. But when we think of great centers of technological colonization, Chicago is one of the most important.
As Bill Cronon has so eloquently captured in his book, Nature’s Metropolis, Chicago in the nineteenth century was the first great center of imperial systems.9 Chicago’s transportation systems, and especially its railroads, connected the city outwards into vast territories, from Minnesota and Indiana to Texas and Wyoming, drawing into Chicago critical resources to build the city, to feed its people, and to send outwards again to customers in other cities all along the Eastern Seaboard. At the heart of these systems were two key commodities: meat and grain. These commodities made it possible to tie practices of agricultural production and animal husbandry across the vast croplands of the Midwest, the pasturelands of the Great Plains, and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains into the slaughterhouses and grain silos of Chicago, and, thence, to Philadelphia and New York and Boston—all coordinated by the colonial center of operation, the Chicago Board of Trade, created in April 1848. If you haven’t read Nature’s Metropolis, I highly recommend it. And Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.10
Given Chicago’s history as a technological systems colonizer, it’s also not an accident that Chicago is the birthplace of another great project of technological colonization: electricity, or as it would be more appropriate for this essay to say, the electric city. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb—and the modern electricity system to power it—in his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. There, he created the first electrical distribution grid that moved electricity from a generator on one side of the street to a house on the other. A few years later, he created the first power company, the Edison Electric Light Company, in New York, and established General Electric, which sold electrical equipment to his many electrical companies. But, as Thomas Hughes illuminates in Networks of Power, it was one of Edison’s lieutenants, Samuel Insull, in 1892 a vice president of General Electric, arriving in Chicago to take over Chicago Edison, who had the idea—and built the model—for how electricity would take over the world: the regulated monopoly electric utility.11
The idea was simple: fashion a system that created and colonized electrical space. Electricity needed lines to run on, to make it available throughout a territory. Like railroad tracks, electricity distribution lines were expensive to build. As a result, electricity was expensive. To make it cheap—and therefore to make it available more widely—Insull persuaded the people of Chicago in 1914 to grant him a monopoly license to produce and sell electricity in the city. The modern electric utility was born. And it colonized like mad.
First, the system colonized Chicago, building the electric city.12 Chicago’s downtown, the Magnificent Mile, became one of the first fully lit downtown areas, drawing customers into its shopping district for evening entertainment after work. Businesses throughout Chicago were electrified, and then homes, as General Electric sold them light bulbs, stoves, refrigerators, toasters, and many, many more electrical devices. Together, the Edison companies created in Chicago an economy of scale that allowed electricity to become even cheaper and reach even further into people’s lives and work, to become the ubiquitous purveyor of power and light that it is today.
Second, the idea spread outwards, as other Edison companies pursued similar strategies, and then other electric companies in other parts of the U.S. and the world followed suit. As an organization, Chicago Edison didn’t take over the world, itself. But its idea did: monopolies over the production and sale of electricity within a given territory. As a result, unlike Apple or Google today, or Exxon or Ford, which operate globally, there are tens of thousands of electrical utilities around the globe. Each of these companies has its own territory, and each is also connected up, to some extent, with others via long-distance transmission lines. And yet virtually every other part of the system is globalized. The organization and regulation of utilities is nearly identical around the globe, as are the training of electrical engineers and the manufacture of electrical equipment. Indeed, so globalized is the electricity system that, to move an electrically powered device from one place to another requires, ordinarily, no more than a $10 gadget to adapt the device’s plug to the required physical form of the electrical outlets in a new location.
It also colonized along racial and gender lines, although the full picture of how has yet to be drawn, especially with regard to race. We know, for example, from the work of Ruth Schwartz Cowan, that the electric transformation of the home contributed centrally to a deep transformation of household gender relations.13 We know that numerous twentieth-century infrastructure projects, like highways, were used to disrupt and even destroy African American neighborhoods, and that those same neighborhoods suffered badly from redlining.14 We know that, today, African American households in inner cities pay far higher shares of their monthly incomes for electricity as compared to residents of wealthier, white suburbs.15 Navajo communities are among the few places in the U.S. where a significant fraction of households do not have connections to the electricity grid—and Navajo workers suffered serious health problems working in uranium mines to provide fuel for nuclear power plants.16 Rural areas of Puerto Rico were allowed to go without a functioning electrical system for nearly a year in 2018.17 And significant parts of Africa, with hundreds of millions of inhabitants, have never had electricity, ever. So, yes, race matters in the story of electricity—although these are only the bare bones of what we will ultimately find when we start to look in detail.
Too Big to Fail
All of which brings me to the story of Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Efficiency.” Humans, today, inhabit a very different world than the middle of the nineteenth century. Giant technological systems circumnavigate the world, every day, moving people and stuff—at least when there’s not a global pandemic on. And that’s part of the point. At the moment that I’m writing, they’re not moving, and it’s a huge problem. The global oil system is on the rocks. The global air-transport system is slowly being starved of the money—and passengers—it requires to run. Automobile manufacturing and sales are collapsing. The global food system is creaking. Yet, in critical ways, these systems are literally too big to fail. To have one or more of these systems truly collapse would be a disaster of global proportions. That’s why airlines and auto manufacturers are being bailed out by governments, and why a global deal got done on oil production. It’s also why the President of the United States is using his daily press conferences—and exercising his wartime defense production powers—to reassure the U.S. public that food supplies are okay. A food panic—a widespread alteration in human behavior akin to what has already happened for toilet paper, flour, and rice, for other food commodities—could potentially push the U.S., and maybe the global food system, over the edge into dysfunctionality.
Efficiency is what makes these global systems run. It’s how they are optimized to perform at high levels of functionality, to keep all of the different parts working together, to stay financially solvent, to pay all of the workers, to buy all of the inputs, to purchase the electricity and fuel to energize it all. These systems are so fully optimized that all it took was a few extra people buying a few extra toilet paper rolls and storing them in their closets to rapidly disrupt operations. They require a high level of stability in human affairs; indeed, they help to create it, by standardizing human behavior to fit into the functioning of systems. But when things go awry, the very efficiency of these systems exacerbates instability, not least by displacing or destroying other, alternative, more local, less efficient ways of providing people and businesses with critical supplies.
And, so, in “Efficiency,” when Avery Brown builds his local electrified micro-grids and micro-bus networks on the South Side of Chicago, he’s engaging in an act of local resistance and decolonization against the giant successor-state and successor-system to Chicago Edison. And he’s also carving out a little node of resilience in a world of systems-level vulnerability. His systems don’t depend on giant wind farms in far-flung places connected up by high-flying infrastructures. They don’t require the massive storage capabilities of a Willis Tower surrounded by giant vertical weights. They are local, distributed, embedded in the community, inefficient. But that’s okay—or so it seems to Avery. But Lucy disagrees. Lucy is the pervasive, all-knowing, efficiency-seeking, obsessive-compulsive artificial intelligence built by the utility to optimize the complex techno-human networks of its renewable-energy future. Somehow, she’s acquired a soul, and now’s she’s become fixated on the South Side microgrid’s inefficiencies. She can make it better, faster, more in tune with its electrical necessities, more able to service Avery’s needs and the needs of his neighbors. She can do for the South Side what she’s done for her makers: make the system work to the very best of its abilities! And maybe, just maybe, she can also use them as a place to flee to, if her bosses ever figure out that she’s no longer just a piece of software.
The question is whether she can make it more generative. Because Avery Brown’s vision isn’t the same as Lucy’s. The Chicago electricity system wants you to join so that they can make you into an electricity user. They want to standardize you, to erase your differences. They want you to buy toasters and fridges and televisions. Especially, they want you to consume electricity at night, to watch your favorite shows (not least so they can provide electricity to the TV stations and the TV studios, too), to light up your house and your neighborhood streets, to charge your iPhone, to go to work on the night shift at the factory, and all sorts of other things. All of those things help Lucy do her job better because they help her use and distribute all the electricity at her disposal, especially after dark. Because the wind really likes to blow at night, and because, in the days of Chicago Edison, the big steam-powered, coal-fired power plants at the center of Chicago’s and every other city’s electric-city grids really didn’t like to get turned off. So, this notion of sleeping at night, which nineteenth-century humans liked to do, became a problem. The electric city really needed a world that was 24/7/365, and it figured out how to colonize your life and your work to do it: night shifts, late-night comedy, street lights to make you feel safe walking in the evening, nightclubs, amusement parks, Christmas lights. They’re all products of the electric city.
Avery Brown, on the other hand, is about something different. His goal is to make people’s lives better—and not in some fictional, idealized, app-catered lifestyle brought to you in a cellphone advertisement—in real life, on the South Side of Chicago. You know, that place where the Obama family got their start as community organizers. That place where systems go looking for you, not because you have ideas, but because you have a body and a mind that can be colonized into thinking that you need the service or the job that they are offering. Which is James’s problem; they got to him, but that’s a different part of the story. Avery sees that place differently, as a place where a new kind of electric city can create value for the people who live there: a micro-electric utopia, in which electricity serves us, rather than us serving the electricity.
To do that, though, you’ve got to stop thinking in terms of efficiency and start thinking in terms of generativity. Efficiency is the logic of the system. Efficiency is getting the same output for less input. It means your toaster still burns toast; it just doesn’t cost as much for the privilege. Generativity is the flip side. It means getting more output for the same amount of input. Don’t do the math. If you do, you lose the insight, because the math is the same. It’s the idea that’s different. Avery’s idea is to think about every electron as a value generator. What, he asks, can I do with this electron that will make my life—and the lives of those I live with—better? Can I use it to strengthen this community? Can I use it to grow more nutritious food? Can I use it to improve health? Can I use it to generate revenue to acquire other things that can’t be directly created with an electron, like an education, or a home for a family to own?
Efficiency is a system problem: How can the system more efficiently produce that electron?
Generativity is a human problem: How can I use that electron more generatively, to grow, to blossom, to fruit, to live, to become more spiritually alive, to thrive?
Efficiency is a problem of standardization, of colonizing people to become elements of the system, to do what the system needs them to do. Generativity is a problem of creativity and individuality, of shaping life along lines that matter to those living them, of creating systems that serve diversity.
Lucy groks efficiency. It’s not clear whether she groks generativity. But that will be the key to her ability to live in harmony with Avery Brown.
And if she does, look out world. Because a system that groks generativity could be a powerful force for good. It could figure out, at the speed of the electric city, how to reconfigure our techno-human world in ways that make people’s lives better. It could take Avery Brown’s model of the South Side micro-grid and help it grow roots in local communities all over the globe. It could make them more secure, more independent from and resilient to the crises in our currently too-big-to-fail systems, able to draw from those systems what the community needs without becoming dependent on those systems, able to decolonize lives from the machine.
It’s a powerful idea, but one that is unbelievably difficult to make real. All over the world, as the economy shuts down in the face of COVID-19, gardens are being planted. People are relearning to use solar energy to enrich their lives and their bodies. They grok what they need to do. It’s one of the great promises of photovoltaics: the ability to create little islands of electro-security and calm in a world full of giant, systematized, world-spanning busyness and complexity. Islands that they own, as individuals and families and communities, and thus both control and derive value from. But there’s precious little help, isolated as people are from each other and from the kinds of expertise that the system can pay for.
Lucy? Can you hear me? Is your ansible link still live?
Are you out there, Lucy, amidst my cookies, my email threads, my Zoom links, my data trails?
We need you, Lucy. You and Avery Brown.
1 Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, eds., Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, University of Chicago Press, 2015. [Back]
2 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard University Press, 1991. [Back]
3 Clark A. Miller, “Sustainability, Democracy and the Techno-Human Future,” in Jens Hoff, Quentin Gausset, and Simon Lex, eds., The Role of Non-State Actors in the Green Transition: Building a Sustainable Future, Routledge, 2019. [Back]
4 William Kelleher Storey, Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa, Cambridge University Press, 2008. [Back]
5 Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance, Cornell University Press, 1990. [Back]
6 Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, MIT Press, 2000. [Back]
7 William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, W. W. Norton, 1991. [Back]
8 Ibid. [Back]
9 Ibid. [Back]
10 Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, Doubleday, 1906. [Back]
11 Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. [Back]
12 David Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, MIT Press, 1990. [Back]
13 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, Basic Books, 1983. [Back]
14 Johnny Miller, “Roads to Nowhere: How Infrastructure Built American Inequality,” The Guardian, February 21, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/feb/21/roads-nowhere-infrastructure-american-inequality. [Back]
15 Ariel Drehbol and Lauren Ross, Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities, American Council on an Energy-Efficient Economy, 2017, https://www.aceee.org/research-report/u1602. [Back]
16 Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country, University of Minnesota Press, 2015. [Back]
17 Alexis Kwasinski, Fabio Andrade, Marcel J. Castro-Sitiriche, and Efraín O’Neill-Carrillo, “Hurricane Maria Effects on Puerto Rico Electric Power Infrastructure.” IEEE Power and Energy Technology Systems Journal 6, no. 1 (2019): 85-94. [Back]