Designing in Sunlight

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Designing in Sunlight

By Clark A. Miller, Joshua Loughman, Wesley Herche, Dwarak Ravikumar, Joey Eschrich, Ruth Wylie, Ed Finn, Christiana Honsberg, and Stuart Bowden

Sunlight bathes the Earth in enough energy in a day for 10 years of global energy consumption. 

Solar photovoltaics is the fastest-growing and least expensive energy technology on the planet. 

It’s also one of the most flexible. Solar panels are found on satellites, suburban rooftops, Ikea stores, university stadiums, and parking garages, not to mention giant power plants on retired farmlands or in the desert.

This combination of low cost and high flexibility presents a unique opportunity—and a profound design challenge.

People who design and build solar systems confront a plethora of design options for the future of solar energy.

These design options are, in part, technical.

Where do we deploy solar, in what kinds of systems, requiring what kinds of data and information, posing what kinds of challenges for the electricity grid, etc.?

Solar design options are also social, economic, political, and environmental. 

Who will own the panels and derive economic benefit? How will their deployment be governed, and according to what rules? Where will we get the materials to build them? How will those materials be disposed of when the panels no longer function? Which kinds of lands or spaces will we use to generate solar energy? 

How do we decide which designs to go with?

Energy choices are often thought of in terms of solar vs. coal or renewables vs. fossil fuels. 

In the future, they’re likely to be solar vs. solar.

Solar vs. solar, when all is said and done, isn’t just about which technology to choose but also what kind of society to build.

Solar design choices are the central focus of this book.

The stories, essays, and artwork in this book explore the future of solar energy as a problem in the design of future photon-based societies. 

They prompt, we hope, a more sustained dialogue about human futures in the shadow of solar energy.

Solar energy is growing rapidly. The world added more new solar energy in 2017 than any other source of electricity. In total, in 2017, humans built 100 Gigawatts (GW) of new solar power plants. For comparison, the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Phoenix, Arizona, one of the world’s largest, is 4 GW. Think about that for a moment. In one year, people all over the globe installed the equivalent of 25 new, large-scale nuclear power plants’ worth of solar energy.

Looking forward, the growth of solar energy should continue to accelerate. Saudi Arabia recently announced plans to build 200 GW of solar power plants by 2030, enough to cover an area the size of Chicago. In their 2018 Global Energy Perspective, consultants at McKinsey estimated that 64% of worldwide energy investments over the next three decades will be in solar energy, for a total of 7.7 TW by 2050.[1] That’s roughly 2000 new nuclear power plants the size of Palo Verde, or the equivalent area of 35 cities the size of Chicago. 

Global growth in solar energy is being driven by steep, steady, and persistent price declines. Recent contracts for solar energy in Mexico and Saudi Arabia set record lows for the price of electricity. On average, U.S. families pay roughly 10 cents for each unit of electricity; these new plants generate it at less than 1.8 cents. No other form of electricity is price-competitive with solar at the moment. In Arizona and New Mexico, recent contracts have priced solar at roughly 2.3 cents. By 2030, McKinsey predicts that, in Britain, not exactly known for its sunshine, it will be cheaper to build new solar power plants than to operate existing natural gas plants. As a result, as reported in the 2018 World Energy Investment report from the International Energy Agency, global investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure are quickly falling.[2]

The world is also experiencing a sea change in global policy responses to climate change and environmental degradation. In 2017, dozens of major world cities committed to meeting their obligations to the Paris Agreement in order to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Two U.S. states, Hawaii and California (as well as numerous cities) have passed legislation requiring their states to derive 100% of their electricity from renewable energy by the middle of this century. Corporate America is moving even more quickly to green its energy systems. Germany has famously launched an Energiewende to power the entire country with 60% renewable power by 2050, and Mexico unveiled a new Ley de Transición Energética in 2015. These initiatives, combined with other policy actions to limit carbon emissions, such as countries setting dates for banning sales of internal-combustion engines, will put pressure on fossil energy and accelerate solar energy. It’s entirely conceivable that the buildout of solar energy will be even faster than McKinsey anticipates.

While these facts make it tempting to adopt a “let’s just sit back and watch the show” mindset, these transformations in global energy markets raise a variety of important questions about the design of solar energy futures. Some of the most obvious include: Where and how will solar energy systems be deployed, e.g., on buildings or in the desert? What impacts will they have on those spaces and how they are used? Will solar energy disrupt or reinforce existing energy technologies and markets? Will the resulting power plants be ugly or beautiful? Who will own them? Who will regulate them? What kinds of jobs will they create, and for whom? How will solar systems be integrated into broader systems of power, transportation, manufacturing, and computing, not to mention food and water systems? How will they shape global patterns of security, power, and wealth?

The answers to these questions are not foregone conclusions. They are design choices. The choices we consider, the criteria we use to evaluate them, and the options we choose will have enormous implications for our future—as will the design choices we choose not to reflect on.

Over a century ago, the people of the United States and other countries faced very similar questions surrounding the birth of modern electricity systems. Who would own the production of power? Who would control or regulate it? What form would energy markets take? The designs they created, largely organized around centralized, monopoly urban electric utilities, served by large, coal-fired power plants, have dominated the electricity sector ever since. They have profoundly shaped contemporary ways of living, working, and playing, enabling the transformation of agricultural societies, bound to the patterns of day and night, into global, 24/7/365 cultures that thrive on the hum of industrial and, today, increasingly, digital life.

With new forms of energy, however, come new design options. Today’s energy design choices will shape the future as much as yesterday’s choices shaped the present.

This book is a prompt. We are trying something new. Our goal is not to predict the future but to open it up as a design space. Our hope is that these stories, essays, and artwork will stimulate and expand our imagination about what kinds of choices are possible in designing the future of solar-powered societies, and why those choices matter. The works are thus a form of design fiction.[3

Through the genre of science fiction, the stories function as a form of technology assessment.[4] They help readers imagine what it might be like to inhabit different futures. They explore design alternatives, both for technology and society. They engage what technologies might do and what they might mean for people across the planet.

We have chosen not to tell just one story about the future of solar energy but rather many. Each is set in a rich social milieu in which solar energy has taken a different path. The stories are science fiction, but we have taken very few liberties with either technologies or societies. The stories were informed by both engineers and social scientists, working collaboratively with writers and artists. We have tried hard not to create either utopias or dystopias. The stories do not present ideal visions of what solar-powered futures should or should not look like. Nor are we recommending any of these futures. They are just speculative possibilities. The actual design of desirable solar-powered futures is up to our readers, not us. 

Our experiment in speculative energy fiction is informed by a long legacy of scenario analysis: an array of strategies for imagining multiple plausible futures by exploring the potential pathways along which futures might unfold. Energy scenarios in particular have a long and rich history. As early as the 1970s, Shell Oil used formal scenario analysis to explore both possible futures of energy and futures for the world more broadly that would coexist with them. Today, scenarios are widely produced and used by energy firms, university researchers, nongovernmental organizations such as the World Energy Council, Greenpeace, and the World Bank, and government agencies such as the German Federal Ministry for the Environment and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Remarkably few of these scenarios, however, have asked more than how much solar energy the world will deploy and on what timetable.

Our goal, by contrast, is to significantly expand the range of solar design choices envisioned and considered in energy planning. By opening up the design imagination, we aim to encourage reflection on the potential pathways, intended and unintended consequences, and social outcomes of solar energy development, and hence to allow judgments about the desirability and undesirability of competing solar futures.

In thinking about the future of energy design, it is useful to keep three simple ideas in mind.

First, the future is open to design. Not infinitely, of course, nor necessarily easily. Design always operates within limits. People inhabit complex networks and systems in which worldwide trends flow from the collective consequences of billions of individual choices. The design of the future doesn’t always lie, therefore, within the purview of a single individual or institution. This complexity does not obviate human responsibility for the future, however.  There is no preordained technological path. Ultimately, the choices that we all make do matter in shaping the futures we arrive in.

Second, technologies are always the product of our societies. There are many different ways to make computers—mainframes, desktops, laptops, smartphones, and more. There are many different ways to integrate computers into larger digital networks and systems. And there are many different ways to put those computers to use to create new futures for people and businesses. So, the design choices that innovators, consumers, and regulators make matter for how technology turns out. The evolution of digital technologies has taken different forms and paths in the United States, Europe, China, India, Africa, and elsewhere. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of Silicon Valley, computers have not flattened the world, and variation persists in the kinds of digital landscapes that people inhabit around the globe. The same is likely to be true of solar energy technologies in the future.

Third, our societies are a product of our technologies. Not in some deterministic sense: technology does not drive history. People always drive history. They make and use technologies. Nonetheless, technologies enable people to think and act in new ways. As people take advantage of those opportunities, they reshape their values and behaviors, their relationships to one another, and their institutions. In the process, they reshape societies.

The future of technology and society are inseparably woven together. The ways that we choose to design technologies both shape and get shaped by our choices about how to design societies. Technological futures both create and respond to distributions of power and wealth, cultural values, and social inequalities.

Even though we often pretend otherwise, the design of energy systems is never just about technology; it is always also about the design of human futures.

This implies that we design society when we design and organize solar panels.

What are some of the ways that this integration of social and technological design happens?

One example: when we design solar systems, we design not only where the panels are built but also who owns and derives revenue from them.

The same technology—a two-foot by three-foot photovoltaic (PV) panel—can be deployed in a wide variety of social and market arrangements. In Arizona alone, we have at least seven different market configurations for deploying solar panels. We’ve built giant power plants in the desert, owned by utilities or independent power companies. Commercial businesses have put solar panels on their roofs. Governments have built publicly owned systems. And we’ve put solar panels on suburban rooftops. Homeowners own some of these rooftop systems, banks and corporations own others, and still others get leased from Elon Musk. Which design wins out will have profound social, economic, and political implications for the future of Arizona.

A typical PV panel today costs about $250. Over its 25-year lifetime, it will generate electricity perhaps worth $1000. That’s not a bad investment: roughly a 5% annual rate of return. The question of ownership ultimately boils down to who nets the resulting $750 in profit. 

Historically, energy companies and governments have owned most energy assets, netting the vast majority of energy profits and transforming them into some of the world’s largest and richest organizations. Will that be true in the future? Do we want it to be? Enabling individuals or communities to own their own power could upend existing patterns of wealth and inequality in the world.

Another example: the linkage between energy and security. Humanity has a long and bloody history of fighting global wars over energy resources. Will the wars of the future be fought over sunlight? Fortunately, solar power is widespread across the face of the planet. As recent attacks make clear, however, energy systems face significant risks of cyberterrorism, and highly concentrated solar facilities could become future military targets.[5]

How do we identify the full array of social and technological design choices available to us as designers of solar energy futures? And how can we make these choices in a more informed fashion? 

We argue for an anticipatory design approach that uses storytelling and narrative to open up the imagination to questions about the human dimensions of technological innovation.[6] The goal is to explore ahead of time what future design choices might be available and how those choices might matter for different groups in society.

This kind of anticipatory design approach is, from our perspective, critical to avoiding the kinds of design flaws that have emerged in the construction of other recent technologies.

Facebook didn’t have to design a system that enabled Russian hackers to attack U.S. elections. Apple could have designed iPhones that didn’t addict us. Artificial intelligence algorithms needn’t replicate human biases. The internet didn’t have to be designed without built-in cybersecurity. Yet all four have recently occurred in the design of digital technologies. 

We believe that taking an anticipatory design approach to solar energy technologies will help to improve the societies we build through solar energy innovation.

At the heart of the anticipatory design fiction work of this book are three core sets of design questions. The authors and teams that built the stories considered a number of potential design variables (for a full list, see the “Solar Design Choices” section of this book, immediately after this essay). Of those, three emerged as particularly salient for the stories in this collection. 

1) World-building and landscapes: What kinds of technological worlds and societies and landscapes will we design for our children via new solar energies? Where will solar power plants be deployed, what will they look like, how big will they be, who will live next to them, and what kinds of lives will they experience? What criteria should we use to decide which aspects of the solar worlds we design are desirable or undesirable?

2) Work, economy, and inequality: How will solar energy innovation transform the future of work—and of markets and the economy? How will solar economies distribute or redistribute energy wealth? Will they reinforce existing inequalities, create new ones, or contribute to ending global poverty?

3) Power and governance: Who will decide the shape of future technologies and societies? How might design decisions be made democratically? How will they feed back into the workings of democratic institutions and governance?

The stories, of course, are much richer than can be captured by these few questions. And the design options deliberated by the teams during the two days of the workshop were more complex and nuanced than even the stories capture. Fully considering solar energy design options will be an ambitious undertaking for any community. We hope that what we’ve done here inspires people to do that work.

Humans have long made their place in the world through the technological transformation of landscapes: dense-packed city skyscrapers, sprawling suburbs, mining zones, industrial manufacturing centers, and vast tracts of rural agricultural production. Lewis Mumford called this facet of economic development The Machine, and he lamented the extent to which societies routinely fail to reflect on the technological environments they create and inhabit.[7]

Solar energy is the next iteration of The Machine. Already, it is transforming diverse urban and rural spaces.

One of the most powerful elements of science fiction is its ability to use stories to conjure the visual imagination—to help people “see” the look and feel of future worlds. This property of science fiction derives from the way our mind processes visual information. When people look out at city skylines, snow-capped mountains, or wide-open prairies, they don’t just perceive with their eyes; they also see with their imagination. They imbue vistas with meaning, value, emotion, and history—and the imaginative elements of sight inflect how the brain processes and interprets visual stimuli on the optic nerve. Language and stories connect the same circuits, using meaning, in turn, to stimulate the visual imagination.

Solar panels interrupt such vistas, both literally and figuratively. Just as solar panels collect sunlight, they collect the eye. Whether amassed by the thousands or dotting individual rooftops, solar panels draw attention to themselves, changing how people see and give meaning to urban and rural landscapes. They are new, innovative objects. They represent change. They are cultural and political symbols for progressives and conservatives alike. Their presence in viewsheds matters; it means something. As the title of the book suggests, they have visual weight.

So it is in “Big Rural,” by Cat Rambo. Trish has been sent to investigate vandalism at the new solar power plant she manages next door to a dusty farm town, Tierra del Rey, which is also her hometown. She stops first at an old vantage over town. So integral to her old hometown’s identity that it has a name, Ojos de Amistad Lookout is a place from which Spanish conquerors once looked down on the land, and now the townspeople come to catch the region’s famous sunsets. Gazing out across familiar terrain, however, Trish finds herself drawn to a vast black square: Sol Dominion I, an inky black stain of solar panels spilling across what used to be farmland outside of town. It is a blight, she discovers, as the story unfolds, that has penetrated far more than just her view of the sunset. Her family and friends feel powerless—lodged in the shadow of the enormous power plant—to prevent distant cities from transforming the very space they inhabit. So they seek to destroy the plant. It is a blight she can redeem, but only if she can persuade town leaders and her bosses at the power company to envision a different relationship between solar energy and the town’s agricultural history and future.

Solar sightlines are equally central to “Divided Light,” by Corey S. Pressman. Borrowing from Romeo and Juliet, the story tells the tale of two lovers, and two families, bound up in two very different visions of the future of solar energy. One family rules The Thumb: a giant solar canopy, visible from distant horizons, imposing its will on the people and lands it shades, a protector against the stark sunlight of the desert summer, and a source of almost unimaginable power for both the city and its vast plantations and water purification systems. The other family are Ramish artisans: entrepreneurial artists and engineers who craft light into powerful, personalized artifacts. Ramish clans are decentralized, scattered across the desert. Layered into the skin, in luminescent tattoos, or carried by hand, in reed-like lanterns and batteries, Ramish devices are designed both for instrumental value, helping people create the resources necessary to survive in harsh desert environments ravaged by climate change, and as a source of profound beauty.

Brenda Cooper’s “For the Snake of Power” offers a third variation on the new infrastructural realities wrapped up in solar energy. It’s hard to underestimate just how vast the spatial requirements are to power the human future. An enormous amount of sunlight shines on the Earth: many times more in one year than all of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves. Yet that energy is enormously diffuse. We will have to collect it where it falls. The theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson imagined encapsulating an entire star in a sphere of solar-collecting material in order to create the power necessary for interstellar civilization. We don’t need that much, at least not yet, but what we do need will be visible. In this story, the form it takes is a long snake of panels, winding their way along the canals that slake Phoenix’s thirst and water its grass. By shading the water, they decrease evaporation, reducing the energy required to pump water to Phoenix in the first place. It’s a virtuous cycle—until a dust storm breaks the snake, then power starts to go missing, and all kinds of politics heat up. It’s a powerful reminder that human societies depend deeply on their energy systems—and when those systems go awry, so too can social order.

Social order of a more intimate form is also at stake in “Under the Grid,” by Andrew Dana Hudson. The only story not set in the desert, it unfolds in the midst of vibrant bottom-up community innovation in Detroit. Drawing on a metaphor of gardening, each homeowner tends her own little patch of sky, with its individually designed and owned solar system (and who knows what else, like nests built for migrating endangered birds), in order to contribute their required share of solar energy to the city’s power grid. When Ingrid’s mom breaks her leg, however, and the local boys won’t help out with system maintenance, the neighbors threaten to have her evicted, and Ingrid is forced to help out. It’s an intricate story that highlights the complexity of the intersecting technologies, laws, and social norms that together make up the modern electricity grid, and the potential for distributed solar energy systems to further entangle that knot.

Alongside the future of technological landscapes—real or virtual—the future of work is now firmly at the center of discussions of technological innovation. Typically, the problem of technology and work is formulated in terms of whether automation will replace human labor. Will there be fewer jobs in the future, or more? That question has arisen for solar energy, and there have been various attempts to answer it—none of which are, to date, entirely satisfactory.

What is clear is that the nature of energy work will change. Coal miners will be replaced by solar system manufacturers and installers. The geography of those jobs will be different. So will their pay, their unionization, their working conditions, and their relationships to worker health.[8]

The stories in this book explore this more nuanced question of the future organization and character of work within the context of choices about how to design solar energy systems. The questions they pose are not about how many people will work in the solar industry, but who will work, where, and how, what work is required by different configurations of solar technologies, and how the responsibilities of that work will be divided across different groups.

A great variety of work is enmeshed in the diverse solar energy systems captured in the four stories. And that work is distributed very differently across the stories’ diverse inhabitants. Workers create and innovate solar systems. Other workers build, operate, and maintain them. Still others troubleshoot when they go wrong or operate the legal institutions that regulate their behavior. Some work in partnership with artificial intelligence systems.

Both “For the Snake of Power” and “Big Rural” focus on solar energy professionals working in large bureaucracies to manage enormous power systems that straddle vast distances. It is a role that sets them at odds with others in the stories who live nearby or rely on the power generated by their facilities, especially when things go wrong. “You work for power now?” Inez demands angrily of Rosa in “For the Snake of Power.” It is also a familiar form of work in existing energy systems. Energy technologies are some of the world’s largest systems, in terms of both the geographies they cover and the populations they serve, and the organizations responsible for them are some of the world’s largest, as well.

The large size of energy systems creates and reinforces differentiated economic and cultural geographies, such as centers and peripheries, with significant disparities between them. Trish’s own departure, in “Big Rural,” from the small agricultural town Tierra del Rey to the Sol Dominion energy company headquarters—Are they located in Phoenix, or perhaps in Beijing?—symbolizes the cultural distance between energy systems managers and Tierra del Rey’s former coal-plant and agricultural workers displaced by the new solar energy facilities. At the same time, Trish’s ability to bridge that distance in the story’s final moments—by envisioning a hybrid solar-food system that empowers local agricultural innovators and workforces—suggests a form of imaginative design work that may be quite important to the future of the solar energy.

Work is also at the heart of “Under the Grid,” but in a wholly different way. In a distributed energy paradigm, everyone owns their own solar systems, but they also have to maintain them. It is a challenge that has bedeviled efforts to deploy solar energy to serve rural, isolated communities in developing countries. When something goes wrong, who fixes it? “Under the Grid” also highlights the labor of social coordination required to operate decentralized socio-technological systems. Someone has to permit all of the diverse individual systems. Someone else has to make sure that all of the system owners are keeping up with their maintenance. And when that job inevitably generates conflict, someone else again has to step in to resolve the disputes. 

“Divided Light” focuses less on work, although what it does suggest is interesting. The Umbra Corporation runs The Thumb, although it remains largely ancillary to the story. The reader learns only that Radrian’s mother is a “VP of something-or-other” at the company. For its residents, The Thumb is less about work than about lifestyle. It’s a place to live and play in comfort. The Sun Belt has never been, unlike New York, Chicago, or Silicon Valley, a place or an idea known for its economy or the forms of work and business it supports, and Shade City continues this tradition. By contrast, for the Ramish, the work of making—and of making life possible in the desert—is central to their culture, and yet it is not modern work, separate from the daily life of the household. Their daily labor includes working the land, working the technology, working the food, the water, the light. Work is ubiquitous, overlapping and blended with home and life, much as we imagine farm life and farm work of earlier eras. The Ramish phrase “step into the light” means to take responsibility for one’s own survival and thriving, and that of one’s family and one’s community. It is a deep responsibility that entails extensive work, but work that is of a piece with and integrated into everything that one does—not the clocking in and out of the factory laborer.

Solar energy requires work. We know that. Indeed, it requires intricate varieties of work. Opening up the design of that work raises interesting possibilities for what the future may bring—a fact that communities may want to think hard about as they anticipate the future of solar energy.

Power. Solar power. Since the late nineteenth century, when the word power first began to be used to refer to electricity, drawing on earlier notions of the power of machines to accomplish work, it has been recognized that electrical power is intimately related to political power.[9] It’s easy for us, today, to understand the relationship between (electrical) energy and (political) power. After all, oil, too, is a form of power. Energy, writ large, is one of the world’s largest industries. It has concentrated wealth and influence enormously in the hands of those who control it. Energy, moreover, shapes the constitutional foundations of modern societies, as the world learned in 2017-18 over the nine months that much of Puerto Rico was without electricity. Modern forms of technological life are simply not possible without modern energy systems to support them. Threats to energy security are thus threats to social and political order and stability.

It is perhaps not a surprise, therefore, that questions about the design of solar power futures inevitably also involve the design of energy politics and governance. Hence the persistence of conflict across all four stories. Part of the focus on conflict is, of course, the nature of narrative. Good stories often involve conflict as a tool for keeping the reader’s attention. More importantly for us, conflict opens up the conversation about design because it draws competing alternatives into sharp contrast and comparison. Conflict also focuses attention on the many different people involved in diverse aspects of energy systems and why each party cares about the situation at hand. In conflict, we see both why and how design choices matter. And a lot of conflict boils down to politics and power.

The conflicts are different, however, across the four stories. Politics can take many forms. We didn’t design the stories that way. But it’s reflective of the world all of us live in today. Across the globe, every form of energy is currently under protest, somewhere, by someone, including solar energy.

In “Big Rural,” conflict occurs between city and countryside over where solar energy will be built, whether it will displace other forms of electricity generation, and who benefits from the Sol Dominion I and II power plants. In other words, it’s about the distribution of benefits and burdens among diverse stakeholders.

In “For the Snake of Power,” conflict occurs when the power goes out. A freak dust storm knocks out the snake, but when the power doesn’t come back on, and the city faces the prospect of 120-degree temperatures without air conditioning, unrest begins to spark. And when it turns out that the blackouts aren’t just a result of the accident, the staff that manages the snake has to fight the powers that be to get the electricity turned back on. In the end, it’s a conflict that’s partly about who benefits from the snake’s power, but just as much about, in a democracy, how decisions about technologies like the snake get made.

In “Divided Light,” conflict flares between two communities, each of whom has pursued a different model of how to build a photon-based society. The resulting clash of cultures is no longer just about control over technology or the wealth that flows from it, but instead about what counts as a good society. As Radrian explains,

To my Shade-City-believer, die-hard-Umbra parents, the Ramish vision was anathema. The Ramish wanted power distributed throughout society, not concentrated in a single company or an enormous grid. They wanted to make their own food, via whatever hijacking and hacking of nature was required, not import organic produce from half a world away. Perhaps most importantly, the Ramish were evangelists, seeking to graft their vision to the soul of New Phoenix. They were a cult, stealing away Shade City youth and brainwashing the world. They didn’t want Shade City to succeed or expand.

Finally, in “Under the Grid,” conflict occurs inside the system, in the formal and informal governance arrangements that enable the system to operate. In this case, it’s about whether or not people are living up to their civic duties, but it could just as easily be about a fight between two engineering teams over how to most efficiently operate the snake. Whether they’re centralized or distributed, energy systems entail complex organizational arrangements that inevitably create internal tensions and disagreements.

The International Energy Agency estimates that it will cost something like $70 trillion to decarbonize the world’s energy systems and build a clean energy future.[10] That’s an enormous investment in the human future.

For many, the only serious question is how fast we can accomplish the transition to solar energy. It’s a seductive proposition. Climate change is dangerously transforming our environment. We don’t have a lot of time left.

Yet, the design choices we face in constructing solar energy futures are deeply significant in their own right. We could spend $70 trillion, create an energy system powered entirely by the sun, and still fail to deliver electricity to the 1 billion people on Earth who don’t currently have it. That would be among the most unethical choices ever made in the design of a new technology, whether by intention or indifference.

We could also arrive at a world in which we are building 1 TW (terawatt, a trillion watts) worth of solar energy power plants every year, each lasting for 25 years. That would entail manufacturing, putting up, taking down and either recycling or disposing of, each year, an area of solar panels eight times the size of Los Angeles. That’s an enormous construction enterprise to power the planet.

Working alongside of efforts to rapidly scale solar energy to power the globe, we need a global conversation about how to design solar futures. Literally everything is at stake.

Next: Solar Design Choices >>

[1] McKinsey, Global Energy Perspective: Reference Case 2018 (2017),[Back]

[2] International Energy Agency, World Energy Investment 2018 (2018),[Back]

[3] Julian Bleecker, Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction (2009),[Back]

[4] Clark A. Miller and Ira Bennett, “Thinking Longer Term about Technology: Is There Value in Science-Fiction Inspired Approaches to Constructing Futures,” Science and Public Policy 35, no. 8 (2008): 597-606.[Back]

[5] Sophie Tatum, “US accuses Russia of cyberattacks on power grid,” CNN, March 17, 2018,[Back]

[6] Clark A. Miller, Jason O’Leary, Elisabeth Graffy, Ellen Stechel, Gary Dirks, “Narrative Futures and the Governance of Energy Transitions,” Futures 70 (2015): 65-74.[Back]

[7] Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, 2 vols. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967 and 1970).[Back]

[8] See, e.g., The Blue Green Alliance, Jobs21! Good Jobs for the 21st Century (2016),[Back]

[9] See the definition of “power” in the Oxford English Dictionary,[Back]

[10] International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2017 (2017)[Back]

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