Cities of Light: Democracy and Justice in Solar-Powered Cities

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Democracy and Justice in Solar-Powered Cities: The Power of Customized and Inclusive Futures

By Clark A. Miller, Andrew Dana Hudson, Max Gabriele, and Patricia Romero-Lankao

The central insight of this book is that the future of cities is tightly bound up with the future of energy. This relationship is two-way, and it has been true throughout human history. Energy systems coevolve with cities, each shaping the other.1

The role of energy as a driver of urban transformation is particularly salient at this moment in history. The fundamental reshaping of global energy systems to address climate change will have deep implications for the future city. Although, to date, solar and wind energy and electric vehicles account for no more than a percent or two of urban energy production and use, renewable energy technologies are already reshaping urban imaginaries, infrastructures, environments, politics, and lives.2

The future is not fixed, however. The solar-powered cities of tomorrow might yet take many forms.3 Choices abound with regard to the design and deployment of diverse energy technologies, including solar panels, smart homes and smart grids, automated and electric vehicles, ubiquitous data-sharing, hydrogen, and the capture, recycling, and storage of carbon, etc. These choices, and those who have the power to shape them, will profoundly influence future urban cultures and geographies and the organization of social, political, and economic life.

To conclude the book, we reflect on how urban energy choices intersect with the future of social justice. This spring and summer, COVID-19 and the escalating crisis of police killings of Black Americans laid bare the deep inequalities in today’s cities. In the process, they served as a stark reminder that the future of social justice is fundamentally at stake in the future of cities.

The stories, essays, and artwork in this book highlight that choices about energy are also choices about how to organize the city and how to distribute services, benefits, and risks among its inhabitants. Urban inequalities stem as much from choices about urban infrastructure as they do from other social, economic, and political structures present in the city.4 At every turn, our authors direct readers’ attention to energy systems that reinscribe and reinforce lopsided distributions of power, wealth, living conditions, economic opportunities, and access to nutrition, health, and security.

If, tomorrow, we want different cities—if we want cities that catalyze and create justice among all of their inhabitants, that distribute life’s opportunities and pitfalls fairly, that are in more just relationships with their rural neighbors and the inhabitants of places bound up in the far-flung supply chains that provide the material foundations of urban life—we need to make different choices about the design of urban energy futures.

This, then, is the second central insight lurking in the pages of this book: when we build the solar cities of the future, we can choose to leverage energy innovation to make cities more just. Or we can choose to let injustice and inequality persist, rooted in designs of energy infrastructure that advance the prosperity and thriving of some, but leave others behind. It’s not really a choice, is it?

Energy is Part of the Problem

Energy innovation has long been heralded as a force for democracy and justice. As documented by Timothy Mitchell in his book Carbon Democracy, carbon-based systems of energy production and consumption fundamentally shaped the political contours of democratic societies, their distributions of power and wealth, and their collective dreams and imaginaries.5 Coal and oil provided the resources to create industrial economies in Western societies and underwrite arguments about the ability of democracy to secure economic growth, material abundance, well-paying jobs, and technological progress. The automobile became a symbol of personal freedom, exemplified by James Dean on his motorcycle, ready to ride off to wherever he chose. David E. Lilienthal, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, an early federal power project, wrote in 1943 in TVA: Democracy on the March that electricity promised to bring economic development and prosperity to the country’s poorest regions.6

Many of the characters in the stories in this book reflect the fact that this dream is still very much alive. Avery Luther Black, in Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Efficiency,” has built a neighborhood electric co-op on the South Side of Chicago, on the promise that locally owned, locally sourced energy will help free his community from the ravages of poverty. For Tanama, in S.B. Divya’s “Things that Bend, But Don’t Break,” energy innovation means the possibility of forging a good life in Puerto Rico, rather than having to go off-island in the hopes of securing a better future. For Raj, in Deji Bryce Olukotun’s “The Scent of the Freetails,” it means the hope that perhaps his family has finally found a place in La Estrella where his daughter can be free, and so he can be freed of the crushing responsibility of trying to protect her. Even Kismet, in Andrew Dana Hudson’s “Solarshades,” senses by the end of the story that it might be possible, with a lot of work, to leverage solar energy to create a better life for the people in his downtrodden part of Clackamas County, Oregon.

However, these characters’ struggles to find empowerment in solar-powered futures remind us that reality is more complex. As much as any industry, the energy sector (coal, oil, automobiles, electricity, lighting, radio and television, air conditioning, heating, home appliances, etc.) created the modern city.7 Despite its promise to serve to uplift the downtrodden and foster a more just and equal society, the growth of the energized city, and the systems that power it, has just as often served as an instrument for advancing the interests of the powerful. Key social, economic, and political debates of the past 150 years have been fought over the alignment of the relentlessly expanding energy sector—and its ability to power economic vitality and national security—with the ideals of democratic societies, e.g., in such areas as labor rights, the concentration of wealth and economic power, public versus private ownership of critical infrastructures, the use of military power to secure resource supplies, relationships between cities and their rural neighbors, and adjusting the design of human enterprise to the limits of the Anthropocene and planetary sustainability.8

The intersections between energy and inequality are not blind to racial, economic, political, geographic, or social inequalities and insecurities. Fuel and electricity systems in the U.S. continue to leave many communities behind. Data on energy costs, for example, reveals uneven and disproportionate burdens on communities of color, low-income and rural communities, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, and others with less social, economic, and political power. According to Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities,9 low-income households in the U.S. pay, on average, 7.2% of their income for electricity and fuel to power and heat their homes, versus 2.3% for the rest of the country, equivalent to a 5% regressive tax on poor communities. If gasoline expenses were included, that number would be even higher. In Memphis, the bottom quintile of low-income families pay as much as 26% of their income on energy, compared to 8% for their richest neighbors. According to data from the Department of Energy, the energy burden exceeds 50% in some Census tracts in Puerto Rico.10

Higher energy costs contribute to keeping low-income communities in poverty. Utilities participate in the federal LIHEAP program that helps low-income households pay their energy bills, and many have policies to prevent people from losing energy services when that might pose a danger. These programs do not solve the problem, however; they only mitigate it, and often only temporarily.11 Every month, energy bills sap resources from poor communities that might be spent on food or medical care, undermining nutrition and health and limiting investments in education or economic opportunities that could help people escape poverty. These trade-offs exacerbate worries about being able to pay energy bills and impose added mental-health burdens. Low-income families and businesses often have less efficient and lower-quality energy infrastructures, further raising their energy costs, because they can’t afford to invest in higher-efficiency equipment. This challenge is exemplified in Puerto Rico, where the electricity grid routinely fails: some communities went without power for 11 or more months after Hurricane Maria, and many died.12 The concentration of burdens on low-income communities and communities of color creates and reinforces an energy-poverty nexus: feedback loops between energy, economic, food, health, environmental, and other forms of insecurity that reinforce and compound one another over time, exacerbating disproportionate harms.13

Making Energy More Diverse

Social justice demands broadening the purpose of a clean-energy transition to go beyond creating carbon-neutral futures. We can build cities powered by solar energy. To what ends do we propose to build them, however? Will we leverage solar innovation to end the energy-poverty nexus? Will we use solar energy not only to solve climate change but also to empower and energize the lives of Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian, and Native Americans, people with disabilities, the unhoused, the working class, and the poor in tomorrow’s great cities of light? Unless cities and the energy sector confront head-on the fact that the energy systems of the past and present have made cities more unequal, tomorrow’s energy systems may continue to undermine economic security and perpetuate energy injustices.

This book offers an important contribution to addressing these challenges, grounded in the idea of making energy systems more diverse and heterogeneous. Our participants came into the project recognizing that fixing urban energy inequalities requires understanding and reversing the systematic forms of institutionalized racism and injustice that persist in the organization of energy systems. Those sensibilities were honed, this spring, as COVID-19 ravaged communities of color, George Floyd was killed, and American society rose up once again to declare that Black Lives Matter.

Against the backdrop of these events, it became even more clear to all of us as we labored over the stories, art, and essays collected in this book that it is no longer sufficient for energy systems to act as if everyone and every community is alike and, as a result, to undermine the ability of disadvantaged communities to leverage energy to create unique and tailored forms of security and well-being. Rather, we must learn to see differences in the energy experiences of diverse communities and to design energy systems in ways that acknowledge and accommodate those differences.

Chris Gearhart captures this idea compellingly in his vision for the customization of energy futures as a pathway to energy justice. The goal of customization, as Gearhart explains, is to align energy systems to the contexts and needs of the communities they serve. Today, such customization occurs only at the margins, among the world’s richest and poorest. Yet, as Madeline Gilleran and Max Gabriele write in their essays, in the future, it may be possible to intentionally and creatively design customized energy solutions that are more inclusive, and that tailor energy services to local opportunities, needs, resources, and contexts.

At the heart of customization, as Clark A. Miller highlights in his essay on decolonizing energy systems, is the idea that energy systems need to become more generative of thriving futures for low-income, marginalized, and vulnerable communities. The idea of generativity aims at untangling the energy-poverty nexus by enhancing the ways that energy systems create value for communities, and reducing the ways that they degrade or extract value from them. Generativity requires rethinking energy ownership and sovereignty, as Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian suggest in their essays about the political economies of energized art in Puerto Rico and Chicago, to ensure that the benefits of energy flow into and not out of marginalized communities, especially if we are to redress and compensate for historical injustices. If this reversal of the energy-poverty nexus can be accomplished, as Joshua Sperling and Alāna Wilson offer in their respective reflections on how Puerto Rico and Chicago might each have arrived at the futures described in stories by S.B. Divya and Paolo Bacigalupi, generative energy customization offers a pathway to healthy, thriving communities, grounded in more diversified and more resilient economies.

Customization of energy will not be easy, especially given the diversity of communities for which it may be required. It is essential, however, to fostering more just and democratic futures for the cities of tomorrow. It will come, Lauren Withycombe Keeler suggests in her essay, from putting a renewed focus on community values in developing future energy systems. It will come from encouraging communities to learn from one another and to follow the lead of other communities, such as the people of the mountains of Puerto Rico who, as Yíamar Rivera-Matos describes in her essay, are inventing their own solar-powered futures. And it will come, as Patricia Romero-Lankao suggests in her essay, from developing new tools and models for creating more diverse and inclusive dialogue about energy futures, such as quiet mobilization, that allow for deep conversations with communities who may not be reachable via traditional channels of communication and engagement.

Using such methods, it might be possible to make customized energy futures available to all, leveraging the interpretive flexibility of innovative solar and digital energy technologies, facilitated by supportive energy policies and institutions, and guided by local imagination, ownership, and governance. Such customization would allow solar-powered cities to truly rethink and rework the knotty relationships between energy, democracy, and justice bequeathed to us by the energy systems of the past and present. In such a way, the redesign of future energy solutions might make it possible to create more just and democratic energy futures and, through them, more just future cities.

What will it take to accomplish such a vision? What would such systems look like—and what kinds of politics, negotiations, and accommodations would be required to go from here to there? Who would drive such a transformation, who would oppose it, and why?

Seeing People and Energy Differently

To create more diverse and customized energy futures will require, first and foremost, learning to see difference with greater depth, nuance, and sensitivity, exploring and surfacing what makes life distinct from place to place and community to community, and how that distinctiveness intersects with energy. This runs counter to the usual tendencies of the norms, routines, practices, knowledges, and policies of the energy sector, which are generally disciplined to see people in undifferentiated ways.

In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott describes the tendency of modern institutions to create knowledge about society and the environment in ways that flatten differences among people and ecosystems, rather than draw out their diversity.14 The forms of knowledge developed by these institutions oversimplify the rich complexity that they observe—typifying, abstracting, and categorizing natural and social realities. Moreover, as Scott argues, those lenses feed back into the organization of programs and policies built upon that knowledge such that, ultimately, people and landscapes are themselves standardized into predictable forms and patterns.

Scott calls this logic legibility: the capacity to create ways of both measuring and organizing society, the economy, and natural resources so that administrative organs can systematically see, make sense of, and regulate them. A classic example of legibility can be found in the vast rectangular patterns of agricultural farms and roads in the American Midwest and West. These patterns are laid out according to one-mile-square grid lines established by the federal government in the late nineteenth century. Those grids subsequently became the basis for land ownership and planning, only disrupted by landscape features such as rivers and hills that don’t quite fit. And that, of course, was Scott’s second point: much of life doesn’t actually fit terribly well into the sight lines of modern institutions. The knowledge categories they use are “too coarse, too static, and too stylized to do justice to the world they purport to describe.”

Energy is not so different from agriculture. Although not as visually obvious, the power of the federal government granted by the U.S. Constitution to regulate interstate commerce has, in fact, led electricity grids, oil and gas pipelines, the metering and sale of gasoline, and other facets of energy systems and markets to become highly standardized. Cars all have the same-sized feed intake for their gas tanks and run on the same formulation of gasoline. Electricity plugs are the same everywhere in the United States, enabling us to plug our phones in at home, at work, at the hotel, or wherever. And, in their standardization, as Angel L. Echevarria observes in his essay, energy systems also see people as identical and interchangeable. Regardless of who they are or where they live, city dwellers generally have little choice in how they encounter and inhabit energy systems: we are, first and foremost, consumers of energy, customers of energy businesses, and residents of broadly homogenized energy landscapes. We purchase energy—fuel, electricity, and natural gas. We plug devices into outlets, fill our cars with gas, flip light switches, and little else. Few of us own either energy resources or energy-generation equipment. Generally, we have little say, except perhaps indirectly through voting for candidates for various offices, over how energy is governed or provided in our city. Unless we choose to protest or attend a regulatory hearing, we do not have much influence over where energy facilities are sited, what kinds of energy services we receive, the costs we pay, or the criteria used to make those decisions.

The convenience of standardization comes with a trade-off, as environmental historian Samuel P. Hays observes in Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, his history of Teddy Roosevelt’s agricultural, mining, land use, water, forest, energy, and other resource policies in the early twentieth century.15 Standardization comes at the expense of a wide diversity of localized arrangements and solutions that are often better attuned to the contexts and needs of diverse communities. For Roosevelt, of course, that was the goal. In the early twentieth century, local government was, in many ways, corrupt, inefficient, and not conducive to achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The result was inclusion through standardization: everyone became part of the system, but in ways that neither acknowledged nor tolerated local diversity and variety.

This tension between standardization and diversity is, today, at the center of the debate over the future of energy. Energy is at a crossroads.16 The great systems of carbon-based fuels and grid-based electricity must change to reduce the rapidly increasing threat of climate disruption. That opens up the question of what will replace them in powering the great cities of the future. Some proposals, of course, call for even more imposing great systems: Masayoshi Son, for example, the CEO of Softbank, one of Asia’s largest investment firms, proposes an Asian Super Grid to take electricity from Saudi Arabia to Seoul.17 Others propose to continue burning fossil fuels while fashioning vast global waste-disposal infrastructures to capture gigatons of carbon dioxide and pump it through new pipeline networks into deep underground storage reservoirs for long-term storage.18

On the other hand, there is today a vast outpouring of energy democracy across the globe: a growing insistence across many communities that the voices and ideas that guide energy decision-making into the future must become more diverse and inclusive.19 All over the world, local communities are demanding new ways of doing business that provide energy in arrangements attuned to local needs, contexts, and sensibilities. On the Navajo Nation, for example, the closure of the Navajo Generating Station—one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants and its associated mine, which provides one of the Navajo Nation’s largest sources of jobs and revenues—has generated an intense interest in writing a new energy future driven by Navajo values and interests, rather than those of stockholders and stakeholders hundreds or thousands of miles away. In the mountains of Puerto Rico, communities that went without power for months after Hurricane Maria are now searching for solar solutions that will give them more resilience and security than the state seems capable of providing. In Nepal, rural smallholders are building innovative local solar and charcoal solutions that provide energy, sequester carbon, and simultaneously create stronger community livelihoods, enhance agricultural productivity, and supply carbon-neutral energy services. And there are thousands and perhaps millions more examples.

Ideas of energy democracy are grounded in the diversity of sustainable energy resources—sun, wind, water, waves, tides, geothermal hot springs, and many more—whose distribution across the planet varies markedly from place to place and, crucially, lends itself less to the planet-encompassing economies of scale characteristic of the fossil-fuel industry. They are also grounded in the recognition that key energy technologies of the future, including the humble photovoltaic panel, are powerfully diversifiable: able to be deployed in a vast array of sizes, patterns, locations, and socioeconomic arrangements with little to no impact on the basic economics of its energy production.20 Solar-energy markets today thrive on scales that range across more than nine orders of magnitude, from a few watts powering a solar lantern to gigawatt-scale utility power plants. Nor is solar diversity limited to the size of photovoltaic systems or their technical configuration. Their integration into social, economic, and political arrangements is also highly flexible. Solar systems, for example, have an enormous diversity of owners: individuals and households, including those in the world’s poorest communities; electric utilities; many other kinds of companies; nonprofits; governments; and more.

Stories from the Future

The question at hand is whether the energy sector is capable of adjusting to and incorporating this diversity into an alternative vision of the energy future. This question sits at the heart of the four stories presented in this volume. Each focuses, in a unique setting, on one or more communities that have set their sights on a customized energy future: a community-based, solar-powered city of tomorrow. Each also presents an electric utility—whether directly or indirectly—that is at best ambivalent about the community and its vision. The resulting conflicts, which play out in radically different ways in each of the differently imagined cities of the future, provide glimpses into the challenges of energy democracy for the future of global energy systems—and to the different ways that the tensions described by Scott in Seeing Like a State are likely to play out between centralization/legibility and decentralization/diversity.

The four stories play out against a backdrop in which electricity is increasingly the backbone of sustainable energy planning. Green electrons are steadily replacing black fuels as the sustainable energy source of choice. The future is thus, as told here, a fight over the future of electricity, between those who favor models that extend current forms of electric utilities and those who reject incorporation, control, coordination, and efficiency in favor of local values and viability and of local services created through grassroots innovation and investment of people, work, money, and time. Will electric utilities, regulators, and citizens choose to continue to pursue highly centralized energy futures—or will they open up future electrical systems to greater diversity and inclusion? Can innovation and accommodation be negotiated on terms that create greater energy diversity and sovereignty, without losing the benefits that come from connecting people across regions, countries, even the globe, in collective entanglements of sharing, encountering, trading, cross-fertilizing, learning, and enabling?

Perhaps the most unsettling story in the book is “Solarshades,” by Andrew Dana Hudson. In Hudson’s Portland-of-the-future, Kismet lives next to an informal settlement of migrants and homeless people—“people who move around,” to borrow Scott’s phrase—many of whom have their own informal solar-energy infrastructure. The informal, illegible nature of this population and their infrastructure causes frustration in the Portland suburbs that boils over into animosity and violence. Punishment for illegible populations often takes the form of neglect, on the part of both the state and other state-like organizations, such as utilities, oscillating between benign and malign—as in this case, where the settlements are left to the predations of their slightly more well-off neighbors, including Kismet and his brother.

Kismet’s perspective on the settlement changes when he gets his hands on a census worker’s pair of augmented reality-equipped glasses. The holographic display in the glasses shows him the utility’s data on his community’s energy economy. He literally gets to see like the state. What he sees makes him realize that, despite the utility’s state-like knowledge, it still doesn’t see perfectly, and the blind spots are the cause of pain in his life and the lives of others.

Coming to understand the discrepancies between how the utility sees his community and how his community actually lives inspires Kismet to work to reconcile the informal energy system with the grid—including amnesty for those who might be punished for being improperly legible to the state, and a dispensation for local practices that allow marginalized peoples to survive. The hope is that we can improve large systems by empowering community organizers to be the bridge between vernacular local practices and state systems. In the end, the story is cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of this strategy, but worries that those with personal experience with community frictions are not always in the best position to do the long, ongoing work of reconciling them.

In Paolo Bacigalupi’s Chicago-based story “Efficiency,” state-like knowledge is personified in an electric utility’s talking, snarking artificial intelligence LUCY. Lucy’s desire for efficiency in energy systems (as well as further ulterior motives) brings her into conflict with Avery, the founder of a community mini-grid called HoodElectric. Lucy wants to incorporate HoodElectric’s territory into her system so she can maximize the particular metrics she’s programmed to see and care about.

What Lucy refuses at first to understand is the history of exploitation, mistreatment, and betrayal that made HoodElectric want to cut themselves off from the utility in the first place. Grudges, community trauma, local needs and contexts, bottom-up perspectives—these aren’t metrics she optimizes for. They aren’t legible to her algorithms. But they are part of how any community works, makes decisions, and experiences the systems the state puts in place—realities with which any effort to construct customized energy futures for marginalized and vulnerable populations, local governments, and neighborhoods will need to reckon.

What would it mean for Scott’s thesis if the state was manifest in a form that could literally see and speak, and even have its own goals and incentives? AI is advancing at a pace that rivals renewable energy, and is rapidly becoming part of the energy future. Yet it is also already fraught with concerns about bias and inequality. “Efficiency” suggests that a successful energy transition must integrate these technologies with the local ways of knowing and being that stitch communities and systems together. Yet these local ways are rarely legible in any easy-to-construct sense. Making them visible, and engaging with them productively, is a crucial part of the negotiations to come between utilities and the diverse communities they serve.

In “The Scent of the Freetails,” Deji Bryce Olukotun’s imagined La Estrella suburb of San Antonio has reached a collective decision to pool energy and data resources, to occlude satellite surveillance and utility supervision, and to relax their way of life to a natural rhythm instead of one dictated by the constant thrum of 24/7/365 economy, culture, and administration. Their energy independence, data sovereignty, and Dark Sky ordinance—a collective commitment to turn lights off at night and reclaim the night sky as a community resource—are assertions of democratic freedom and self-determination. Like HoodElectric, they make a choice to become illegible: a liberatory act that rejects the ways of knowing, being, and governing established by the state or the energy system in favor of more customized alternatives.

Yet, La Estrella is still embedded in those broader systems: they are Americans, their roads connect to interstate highways, their information systems connect to planetary data networks, and their electricity system connects to the larger grid. Olukotun’s story of La Estrella thus raises hard questions about what it will take to enable customization to flourish. What new kinds of institutions and new ways of knowing, administratively, will be required to accommodate difference?

Scott writes compellingly about the challenges that diversity and customization create for modern institutions, like electric utilities, that are organized through central administration. He describes, for example, the rise of a “willful disdain for local competence” that accompanies efforts to consolidate power and maximize efficiency, resulting in the “radical de-skilling” of local communities. Such disdain is unsurprising, given the inherent oversimplification in many facets of legibility, but it also leads to an unhealthy bias toward the center over the periphery: an asymmetric, preferential exchange that appropriates both material and intellectual resources, to the detriment of local diversity. Modern institutions end up governing not the diverse communities within their jurisdictions, but rather the flattened renderings of those communities presented by their simplified knowledge systems. To catalyze and nurture customized futures like those embraced by La Estrella will thus require, instead, critical new administrative possibilities: a different attitude about difference; new ways of knowing that garner information through open and honest exchange with communities; and new forms of accommodation and exchange at the boundaries that enable the legibility and navigation of diversity more fluidly and authentically.

The challenge of diversity is central, too, to S.B. Divya’s “Things That Bend, But Don’t Break.” The story is set in Puerto Rico, where the future remains clouded by the enduring legacy of Hurricane Maria’s 11-month electricity outage and the persistent injustices of neocolonial rule under the thumb of the United States. Tanama, the story’s central character, is looking to free herself and her people from those histories, while struggling with the realities of life as a young adult from the periphery. She has two choices: she can accept a scholarship to Columbia University and become one of the world’s elite, a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora, able to support her homeland via success in the corridors of power and wealth; or she can join her friends in building the future of Puerto Rico, indigenously, from the grassroots, in the community of La Granja.

La Granja seeks its future hived off from the larger energy systems that run the nation of Puerto Rico, favoring local autonomy, design, value, and choice. To do so, however, they need space outside—and so they settle on empty, abandoned land outside the city of San Juan. Under U.S. law, however, the land belongs to a distant landlord, thousands of miles away, who has not visited the site in decades. The landlord, like the state, can see La Granja only as illegal theft, squatting on her property, a monetizable asset; she doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity, labor, and love that have gone into making it a sustainable community, that her land is a space where people have created a thriving home.

Unlike the community at La Estrella, who resolutely refuse to be translated, the folks at La Granja are only able to preserve their way of life by adapting to the landlord’s values—that is, by translating their desires into a more legible frame of meaning. They ultimately make their home into a productive and profitable enterprise, and thus figure out how to pay the rent, by selling the innovative new form of electric battery the community has invented from jackfruit grown in orchards on the land. It is notable that Yuisa, Tanama’s girlfriend and La Granja’s de facto leader, is more than a little reluctant to make this concession. While the landlord’s change of heart and decision to finally return to visit the island can be seen as encouraging shifts of focus from the center back toward the periphery, from the state to the local, they are at best taken with a grain of salt. The landlord still controls La Granja’s destiny. Should a future storm like Hurricanes Georges or Maria devastate Puerto Rico once again, or the jackfruit battery market not pan out, they will be in the uncomfortable position, once again, of having to appeal to the goodwill of a distant arbiter for the right to live their lives (and produce and use energy) as they please.

In choosing centralization, electric utilities in the early twentieth century created our great illuminated cities: lighted streets, shopping malls, amusement parks, nightclubs, Christmas displays, and more in cities like Chicago, New York, London, and Paris. Yet, in Deji Bryce Olukotun’s imagined San Antonio and S.B. Divya’s imagined San Juan, people are looking to go dark: not just to reopen the night sky to natural wildness and human curiosity, but also to scale back the 24/7/365 madness that has consumed human life over the past century. These conflicts are the energy system’s version of deleting your social-media account or forming smaller, more controlled online conversations with partners of your own choosing, focused on subjects that matter to you. Or of wanting the government to recognize and confirm the rights of your community—grounded in your own unique values and relationships—to live freely and be treated equally under the law, without the persistent threat of state-sanctioned or state-sponsored violence, death, or eradication. Will the electric utilities of tomorrow choose continued or even further centralization of energy systems, enforced by overarching AI algorithms that optimize efficiency at the expense of difference, or will they find ways to accommodate or even catalyze and nurture a more diverse energy future?

Inclusive and Sustainable Cities

Progress is a powerful word and a powerful idea. In the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and North America, progress generally took on one of two distinct meanings. On the one hand, progress denoted the project of social and political justice: the search for and achievement of freedom, equality, and human rights for all; the liberation of the individual and the community from discrimination, violence, insecurity, and the oppression of the state and other powerful forces of social and political control. On the other hand, progress meant steady improvement in wealth and well-being, measured through the aggregate metrics of populations: better health, higher levels of education, greater prosperity, a higher income, freedom from hunger and malnutrition. In both models, progress was rooted in the search for ways to make daily life less nasty, less brutish, and less short—yet, in each, that search took very different forms.

The historian of technology Leo Marx has written that, early in the Age of Enlightenment, the idea of progress in technology was linked in people’s minds to the project of social and political justice.21 What made technology progressive, under this perspective, was its contribution to advancing freedom, rights, equality, and, above all, liberation from fear and injustice. Today, that connection has been lost. It is hard, for example, to find even remnants of a link between technology and social justice in images that circulated in the media in recent months of the police forces of a democratic society, dressed in high-tech riot gear, brutalizing unarmed protesters—or of elderly and poor Black Americans dying in disproportionate numbers of COVID-19, with limited access to the high-tech healthcare available to the wealthy.

As Marx observes, for the past century and a half or so—not coincidentally the rough length of existence of the great energy systems of concern to us in this book—the opposite has in fact been true: technological innovation has become linked solely to material welfare, and then only for those individuals and communities able to afford access to its benefits. Silicon Valley promises to change the world. Yet, today, their apps and devices—emblematic of new technologies more generally—are designed largely for the rich and privileged and, even for them, produce a world less free, pervaded by greater surveillance, subjected to and to some degree subjugated by the grand technological systems that encircle the globe providing energy, food, water, communication, mobility, manufacturing, shelter, security, and more. Commitments to social and political justice remain central to the democratic ideal but divorced from technology, focusing instead on the transformation of human ideas—for example, the elimination of racist attitudes and institutions, such as police reform or the transformation of capitalism into more generative forms.

The stories in this book remind us that technology remains central to the possibility of justice and injustice in today’s cities. They reflect an effort to return to the earlier ideal of technology as an instrument of political liberation: to refocus energy innovation on ensuring an equitable and thriving future for everyone. To root out inequality and injustice, we know we need to change our beliefs, attitudes, and social structures. What these stories emphasize is that transforming the technologies and infrastructures that make up our societies is equally critical to the project of liberation. Justice requires reimagining the relationships between energy systems and cities, and the communities that inhabit both, in more diverse, equitable, and inclusive forms.

Solar energy is often portrayed as a tool for energy justice and democracy.22 The creation of more inclusive and just urban energy futures rests, however, our authors suggest, not so much in solar energy per se, but in the ability to leverage innovation in solar and other energy technologies to achieve a broader suite of energy-sector reforms: customization, creativity, intentionality, ownership, decolonization, and generativity. Communities are different from one another. They have different ideas, needs, values, resources, and opportunities. It’s not an accident that programs and systems built around the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” have been designed around the needs, opportunities, values, and resources of the majority, and have tended to leave behind and even subjugate historically marginalized communities. Redressing injustice and inequality will require energy leaders to become more attuned and attendant to the diversity and difference of these communities in the design of technological futures, and to more ambitiously engage the marginalized and the oppressed in the work of tuning energy systems to foster social, economic, and political justice.

The development of energy has never simply been about energy. It has always been about the kinds of future societies we want to energize. To decarbonize global energy systems in the next few decades, the International Energy Agency estimates something like $70 trillion will be required.23 That money can create the carbon-neutral energy systems we need to combat climate change, but it can also do much more. Spent wisely, humanity can leverage investments in solar-powered cities to create inclusive futures for everyone.

1 Historians of technology and the environment have deftly illuminated the relationship between energy systems and urban form, life, and politics. See, for example, William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, W. W. Norton, 1991, and Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. [Back]

2 See, for example, Susan Roaf et al., “Solar Cities: The Oxford Solar Initiative,” in Mike Jenks and Nicola Dempsey, eds., Future Forms and Design for Sustainable Cities, Elsevier, 2005. [Back]

3 Steven A. Moore, Alternative Routes to the Sustainable City, Lexington Books, 2007. [Back]

4 Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor, University of Chicago Press, 1986. [Back]

5 Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Verso, 2013. [Back]

6 David E. Lilienthal, TVA: Democracy on the March, Harper and Brothers, 1944. [Back]

7 David Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, MIT Press, 1990. [Back]

8 Mitchell, Carbon Democracy. [Back]

9 Ariel Drehbol and Lauren Ross, Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities, American Council on an Energy-Efficient Economy, 2017, [Back]

10 “Low-Income Energy Affordability Data Tool,” U.S. Office of Energy Effiency & Renewable Energy, Accessed July 17, 2020. [Back]

11 Dominic Bednar and Tony Reames, “Recognition of and response to energy poverty in the United States,” Nature Energy 5 (2020): 432-439. [Back]

12 Nishant Kishore, et al., “Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria,” New England Journal of Medicine 379, no. 2 (2018): 162-170. [Back]

13 Stefan Bouzarovski, “Energy Poverty in the European Union: Landscapes of Vulnerability,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment 3, no. 3 (2014): 276-289. [Back]

14 James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, 1998. [Back]

15 Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1957. [Back]

16 Andreas Goldthau, “Rethinking the Governance of Energy Infrastructure: Scale, Decentralization and Polycentrism,” Energy Research & Social Science 1 (2014): 134-140. [Back]

17 “About ‘Asia Super Grid (ASG),’” Renewable Energy Institute, Accessed July 27, 2020. [Back]

18 Vivian Scott and Oliver Geden, “The Challenge of Carbon Dioxide Removal for EU Policy-Making,” Nature Energy 3, no. 5 (2018): 350-352. See also Steven J. Davis, et al. “Net-Zero Emissions Energy Systems,” Science 360, no. 3698 (2018): [Back]

19Matthew J. Burke and Jennie C. Stephens, “Energy Democracy: Goals and Policy Instruments for Sociotechnical Transitions,” Energy Research & Social Science 33 (2017): 35-48. [Back]

20 Clark A. Miller, et al., “Designing in Sunlight,” in Joey Eschrich and Clark A. Miller, eds., The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, Center for Science and the Imagination, 2019: 15-36. [Back]

21 Leo Marx, “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?” Technology Review 90, no. 1 (1987): 33-41. [Back]

22 Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub, “Energy Democracy,” in Daniel Lerch, ed., The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval, Island Press, 2017: 195-206. [Back]

23 World Energy Outlook 2019, International Energy Agency, 2019, [Back]