Taking an action: reinventing the role of renewable energy in architecture
by Sunena V MajuDec 22, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Salvatore PelusoPublished on : Mar 24, 2023
"Every hour we receive enough sunlight to power the world with enough energy for an entire year. It would appear we have an energy abundance. How come we are not using this incredible potential?"
The very first sentence of the book Solar Futures: How to Design a Post Fossil Future with the Sun makes you think that, after all, we are not as advanced as we think. Actually, maybe we are a bit dumb. Because we are reacting weakly to an energy crisis and an already catastrophic situation—we are amid an environmental collapse, the technologies we use are extremely harmful to the planet, and fossil fuels are not infinite. So, what to do? To such a simple question—thankfully—Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel's book gives complex answers. Better still, it invites us to face the complexity, and states that there is no single definitive answer to the climate crisis.
"Looking at solar from a design perspective—instead of seeing it as a mere functional technology—can shift the focus away from efficiency and cost. We can take appearance and integration into account and start to consider it as a material, thinking about circular schemes. There are plenty of ways to change the perspective and democratise solar energy," writes van Aubel.
Solar design is a rapidly developing practice where designers, architects, physicists, engineers, sociologists, urban and city planners and many more disciplines have to collaborate. Let us not see it as a separate category or a specific area of design, but as a form of thinking that is transversal to the mentioned domains of knowledge and that can help establish unexpected connections. It is a form of intersectional thinking.
The book consists of three parts—the first explains how, in the past, we designed with the sun, why solar panels have taken their contemporary form, and provides a historical overview—a visual timeline of the development of solar power. The second part discusses the present—where are we now, and what is solar design? It shows different examples of solar design in architecture, fashion, mobility, and product design. Then we reach the future. This third part questions what we need to do to ensure solar energy does not become the asbestos of the 21st century.
In the chronology of solar design, which begins about 5000 years ago, but, inevitably, intensifies in the 20th century, we find a variety of demonstrations, at different scales of how man has related to the sun throughout history: from Leonardo da Vinci's Parabolic Mirror in 1515 to the first solar calculator produced by Sharp, we find a series of objects, architectures, and urban systems. The most curious object is undoubtedly the Solar Do-Nothing Machine by Charles and Ray Eames, a Chinese sculpture that combines the lightweight, reflective properties of aluminium with solar energy. Their aim was raising awareness of solar energy at a time when fossil fuels were used in abundance and politicians showed little interest in renewable energy sources.
Also in the first section, the one related to the past, a chapter titled Solar Technology Explained takes us back to the school benches by summarising how photovoltaic cells work. This demonstrates the wide variety of arguments offered by the book and its divulgative tone, which aims to reach a generalist, non-specialist audience.
Central to the second section of the publication (Present) is the argument about the need to 'naturalise' solar technology—to make it understandable and accepted by the majority of people.
"How can solar become part of our identity? Our culture?” asks van Aubel. She finds an answer by quoting Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, and director of research and development at New York City's MoMA: "It can make revolutions in science, technology, history, or politics visible and bring them to life. When design is used well, it changes lives and, with it, the narrative.” Antonelli says there are different ways to bring about change, "it can be top-down, bottom-up, or infiltrated from the side, but in all these strategies, and especially the bottom-up strategy, design is very powerful because it can help the infiltration. You have to change narratives, so people can talk about it and envision a different reality. And don’t mean only speeches by politicians. Societies need narratives to make change happen. That’s the way to go.”
Contemporary examples of innovation do not include Elon Musk’s Gigafactory, Tesla's huge battery factory mentioned in Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary. Despite the fact that the wealthy US entrepreneur prophetically claims: “What would it take for the whole world to consume sustainable energy? What production volume [of batteries] are we talking about? We are talking about 100 Gigafactories, for the whole world.”
Van Aubel's forgetfulness? Absolutely not! Because her Solar Future model goes in the opposite direction: that of solar democracy, in which resources and infrastructure are shared equally and access to solar energy is shared equally. A special chapter deals with solar democracy. For the Dutch designer, based in The Netherlands, "The energy transition is not only about energy, but also about the economy. As a prosumer, you are no longer dependent on the grid. You are not connected just because you consume energy but because you add value. Rather than thinking in terms of scarcity, this idea reflects nature and its abundance. (…) Peer-to-peer networks, organised as microgrids in villages, make energy systems democratic. In a decentralised system, it’s no longer obvious who produces the energy and who consumes it, as there are no longer consumers in the traditional sense.”
Solar Futures: How to Design a Post Fossil Future with the Sun, thus, directs us towards the future not by proposing a single perspective, but by offering a fairly broad horizon of scenarios, pragmatic or utopian, in the short, medium and long term. A concept that brings together different approaches and needs is that of cathedral thinking, which Marjan van Aubel borrows from the philosopher Roman Kryznaric—"In medieval times, when people began building cathedrals, they knew that they would not be the ones to see their completion. The process of finishing a building like the Pantheon required several generations and a sense of collective responsibility."
The designer urges us to participate in the collective construction of this new major work, which will be spread over the entire surface of the planet and requires the connection of all intelligences—human and non-human.
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