A remote tropical island has catapulted itself headlong into the future by ditching diesel and powering all homes and businesses with the scorching South Pacific sun. Using more than 5,000 solar panels and 60 Tesla power packs the tiny island of Ta’u in American Samoa is now entirely self-sufficient for its electricity supply – though the process of converting has been tough and pitted with delays. Located 4,000 miles from the west coast of the United States, Ta’u has depended on over 100,000 gallons of diesel shipped in from the main island of Tutuila to survive, using it to power homes, government buildings and – crucially – water pumps. When bad weather or rough seas prevented the ferry docking, which was often, the island came to a virtual stand-still, leaving Ta’u’s 600 residents unable to work efficiently, go to school or leave their usually idyllic paradise. Utu Abe Malae, executive director of the American Samoa Power Authority, said Tutuila has subsidized Ta’u diesel shipments for decades to the tune of US$400,000 a year – and continually ran the risk of a serious environmental disaster if the delivery ships capsized during the notoriously treacherous journey.
Posts tagged energy
Earlier this year our organization, the Rockefeller Family Fund (RFF), announced that it would divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. We mean to do this gradually, but in a public statement we singled out ExxonMobil for immediate divestment because of its “morally reprehensible conduct.”1 For over a quarter-century the company tried to deceive policymakers and the public about the realities of climate change, protecting its profits at the cost of immense damage to life on this planet. Our criticism carries a certain historical irony. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, and ExxonMobil is Standard Oil’s largest direct descendant. In a sense we were turning against the company where most of the Rockefeller family’s wealth was created. (Other members of the Rockefeller family have been trying to get ExxonMobil to change its behavior for over a decade.) Approached by some reporters for comment, an ExxonMobil spokesman replied, “It’s not surprising that they’re divesting from the company since they’re already funding a conspiracy against us.”2 What we had funded was an investigative journalism project.
With the autumnal equinox upon us, Crap Futures is nearing its first anniversary. We began shooting ideas back and forth last September when James arrived in Madeira. Now, after a long, hot summer, it seems like a good moment to take stock and reflect on the past year whilst also making plans for what comes next.
In the post When the sun shines we gave an overview of our ongoing design project. This has been ticking along in the background since early 2016, with time spent articulating the research methodology, transforming the concept into funding proposals, and identifying and discussing with potential collaborators. Back in April we described the problem of using renewable energy sources on the island (and beyond), identifying some of the factors currently hindering their implementation - for example historical legacies. The project asks:
What might our energy infrastructure look like if it were not constrained by these outdated constructs?
A key motivation has always been to move beyond the discursive, the critical, the speculative and the fictional. As we wrote at the time: ‘With this project (unusually) we’re not interested in fiction.’ In retrospect this statement seems a bit rash. So before moving into the making phase, we thought it necessary to probe a little deeper into the relationship between fact and fiction. Or more precisely, What is the role of fiction when trying to make change - desperately needed change - in the real world?
To start with Bruce Sterling’s familiar definition:
‘ Design fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.’
There are several keywords here that demand closer examination. First, fiction - in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek describes the viewer’s reading (of cinema) by stating that, ‘if something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled in with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality - we have to fictionalise it’. This statement is helpful as it succinctly describes two states of being and the relationship between them: the nonfiction world, defined by the coordinates of reality, and its fictional counterpart (diegesis).
Second, diegetic - from diegesis: the world in which the story takes place and for which the prototypes are designed. Through the manipulation of a particular set of coordinates, a fictional or alternative world can be constructed.
Third, a more complex issue is raised by the use of design when combined with the term change. The recent emergence of counter or oppositional forms of design (such as design fiction etc.) suggests that there are problems or limitations with mainstream design; for example, design’s affiliation with the market and the prevailing demands of consumption and innovation. These are the (normative) designer’s coordinates of reality: in practice experienced as constraints that limit the potential of design to make substantive change (see Future nudge). Designing for a carefully crafted diegesis can provide new constraints, in turn facilitating new solutions.
Fact and fiction should not exist as a dichotomy but rather an elastic scope of possibility. Good design fictions do not shatter the coordinates of reality; they stretch and manipulate them in carefully crafted ways, hence the suspension of disbelief. But, and this is important, to what end? Sterling’s phrase ‘deliberate use’ suggests purpose … but what is the purpose?
In Building Imaginary Worlds, Mark J.P. Wolf examines why authors find it necessary to invent other worlds. He concludes that the answer lies in ‘ the changing of Primary World defaults, to amaze, entertain, satirize, propose possibilities, or to simply make an audience more aware of defaults they take for granted’.
In his introduction to Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury offers some additional motivations:
‘Sometimes writers write about a world that does not yet exist. We do it for a hundred reasons. (Because it’s good to look forward, not back. Because we need to illuminate a path we hope or we fear humanity will take. Because the world of the future seems more enticing or more interesting than the world of today. Because we need to warn you. To encourage. To examine. To imagine.)’
In the closing sentence of his book Technophobia! Daniel Dinello suggests that ‘At its best, science fiction projects a dark vision of the Technologist’s posthuman future that encourages us to create a better one.’
But does highlighting wrong paths lead us to preferable ones?
‘Do violent, dystopian visions ever lead to positive, substantive change?’
Design fiction futures, it is true, are often dystopian - this is one of several lines of critique aimed at design fiction projects. The upcoming Speculative Now! conference in Split, Croatia, for example, has chosen to focus debate on the role of speculative design in the ‘real world’. Similarly with our project we aim to advance the goals and practice of design fiction by defining positive paths. Our approach will bring fiction-based prototypes back into real life, seek to produce tangible societal outcomes, and work to turn (positive) aspects of fiction into fact. Design fiction can help us work toward ‘the future we actually want’, imposing our own agency in how the future happens.
In our next post we will examine three stages of design fiction, explaining how a carefully contrived diegesis can provide the ideal framework for redesigning the real world.
Christian Schussele - Men of Progress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; SAFEGE test track at Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, France (used in filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451), via Wikimedia Commons
Talking about “peak oil” can feel very last decade. In fact, the question is still current. Petroleum markets are so glutted and prices are so low that most industry commenters think any worry about future oil supplies is pointless. The glut and price dip, however, are hardly indications of a healthy industry; instead, they are symptoms of an increasing inability to match production cost, supply, and demand in a way that’s profitable for producers but affordable for society. Is this what peak oil looks like?
In recent months, the Alphabet Inc. unit put a DeepMind AI system in control of parts of its data centers to reduce power consumption by manipulating computer servers and related equipment like cooling systems. It uses a similar technique to DeepMind software that taught itself to play Atari video games, Hassabis said in an interview at a recent AI conference in New York. The system cut power usage in the data centers by several percentage points, “which is a huge saving in terms of cost but, also, great for the environment,” he said. The savings translate into a 15 percent improvement in power usage efficiency, or PUE, Google said in a statement. PUE measures how much electricity Google uses for its computers, versus the supporting infrastructure like cooling systems.
In less than 10 years, Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint without government subsidies or higher consumer costs, according to the country’s head of climate change policy, Ramón Méndez. In fact, he says that now that renewables provide 94.5% of the country’s electricity, prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. There are also fewer power cuts because a diverse energy mix means greater resilience to droughts. It was a very different story just 15 years ago. Back at the turn of the century oil accounted for 27% of Uruguay’s imports and a new pipeline was just about to begin supplying gas from Argentina.
Subsidies for fossil fuels amount to $1,000 (£640) a year for every citizen living in the G20 group of the world’s leading economies, despite the group’s pledge in 2009 to phase out support for coal, oil and gas. New figures from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) show that the US, which hosted the G20 summit in 2009, gives $700bn a year in fossil fuel subsidies, equivalent to $2,180 for every American. President Barack Obama backed the phase out but has since overseen a steep rise in federal fossil fuel subsidies.
Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day, according to a startling new estimate by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF calls the revelation “shocking” and says the figure is an “extremely robust” estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels. The $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.
“Kiribati, as a nation faced with a very uncertain future, is calling for a global moratorium on new coal mines. It would be one positive step towards our collective global action against climate change and it is my sincere hope that you and your people would add your positive support in this endeavour”
Kyocera Corporation, K.K. GAIA POWER, Kyudenko Corporation, and Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation announced that the companies have made a joint investment in Kanoya Osaki Solar Hills LLC, a solar power operating company, to construct and operate a 92-megawatt (MW) solar power plant. Planned for construction on a site stretching across Kanoya City and Osaki Town in Kagoshima Prefecture, the project will become one of the largest solar installations in Japan.
Project planning began in January 2014, as the local community expressed interest in effectively using the project site, which had been designated for a golf course more than 30 years ago but subsequently abandoned. Covering a total of approximately 2,000,000m2 (approx. 494 acres), the site will accommodate 340,740 Kyocera solar modules, and is expected to generate roughly 99,230MWh annually — enough electricity to power approximately 30,500*1 typical households, offsetting roughly 35,730 tons of CO2 emissions per year
Meanwhile, Japan’s energy strategy in the aftermath of Fukushima calls for roughly doubling the amount of renewable power sources in the country by 2030. It is already building solar power plants that float on water. Perhaps inevitably, then, the nation has turned to building solar plants on old golf courses. Last week, Kyocera and its partners announced they had started construction on a 23-megawatt solar plant project located on an old golf course in the Kyoto prefecture. Scheduled to go operational in September 2017, it will generate a little over 26,000 megawatt hours per year, or enough electricity to power approximately 8,100 typical local households. The electricity will be sold to a local utility.
Alberta artist, Peter von Tiesenhausen, has effectively stopped oil corporations from putting a pipeline through his 800 acre property by covering it with artwork and copyrighting the top six inches of his land as an artwork. Realizing that mining companies can legitimately lay claim to any land underneath private property to a depth of six inches, van Tiesenhausen contacted a lawyer who drew up an intellectual property/copyright claim that said that if the oil company disturbed the top six inches in any way, it would be a copyright violation.
We didn’t stay long, unfortunately, but it felt like a scene from some black-market rewrite of Crash, rewritten for Indian readers in which holy accidents on various roads throughout the country are visited by over-enthusiastic tourists of the afterlife, intent on receiving ill-defined bursts of supernatural energy from celebrity collisions such as these. The U.S. might have its James Dean Crash Site & Memorial, and France might have the Pont de l'Alma Tunnel, but this machine-deification in the deserts of northern India showed what a rural folk tradition could do with the morbid significance of fatal crash sites and the often deeply unglamorous vehicles that enable them.
Europe’s drive toward a power system based on renewable energy has gone so far that output will probably need to be cut within months because of oversupply. Network operators are likely to curb solar and wind generation at times of low demand to prevent overloading the region’s 188,000 miles (302,557 kilometers) of power lines, Entso-e, the grid association in Brussels, said last month. Renewable output is poised to almost double to 18 percent by 2020, according to Energy Brainpool GmbH & Co. KG, a consulting firm in Berlin.
For the machine’s creators, this process—sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star—will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars’ worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the ITER organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world’s population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the ITER Unit of Account.
Relating a Google search return to an equivalent expenditure of fossil fuels, or the fluctuation of pixels across a screen with the exploited labour of rural migrant workers in Shenzen, or topsoil loss in Inner Mongolia, is as remote and unattainable for the majority of users as is an understanding of the technical functionality of the devices themselves
Im zukünftigen Energiesystem werden die Stromverteilnetze eine zentrale Rolle spielen. Wenn der Umstieg auf Erneuerbare Energien gelingen soll, muss das Berliner Stromnetz schon heute darauf ausgerichtet werden. Außerdem erwirtschaften Stromnetze Millionengewinne. Diese sollen der Energiewende und den Bürgern zugute kommen und in der Region wirksam werden. Berlin gewinnt mit dem Stromnetz in Bürgerhand eine wertvolle Anlage der Daseinsvorsorge und der regionalen Wertschöpfung. Mit dem Kauf unseres Stromnetzes treiben wir die Demokratisierung der Energielandschaft voran, damit wir Bürgerinnen und Bürger über die zukünftige Energieversorgung mitentscheiden können.
Primecoin is the first scientific computing cryptocurrency, a project derived from Bitcoin but with novel non-hashcash proof-of-work that mines prime numbers.
OpenOil is an energy consultancy and publishing house based in Berlin. We are a transparency business, seeking market-driven solutions which produce better outcomes from the oil and gas industry for the people of producing nations.