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Urban Electrification and the Future of Cities

Workshop Merges Science and Art to Imagine Solar-Powered Cities

March 6, 2020

Science fiction authors and graphic artists from the Denver area joined National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers as they unharnessed their imaginations during a unique workshop that used science fiction as a lens to explore the technological, social, and cultural aspects of a transition to a clean energy future powered by renewables.

Held at NREL February 26–27, 2020, the Urban Electrification and the Future of Cities workshop brought together a cross-disciplinary group of experts from various areas of engineering, social science, and the arts to create narratives of hope and visions for the future—inspiring art, short stories, and essays for a book titled The Weight of Light, Volume II.

The new book is a follow-on to the first volume, The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures, published by Arizona State University after a similar workshop held last year. It will be available for free in digital formats later this year.

Workshop participants explored the concept of electrified solar cities and imagined what a solar-powered society would look like. What are the challenges and opportunities? What will the city infrastructure and supply chains be like? What will the city culture and communities be like? How does electricity fueled by solar energy fit into the complex ecologies of our urban lives and energy systems? Delving into these and other topics, participants focused on four major cities and developed initial story ideas and sketches to be fleshed out by the authors and artists for inclusion in the book.

A group of people working together at the workshop.
NREL's Paty Romero-Lankao discusses solar-powered concepts with other workshop participants. Photo by Deb Lastowka, NREL

"People are worried about the future—about the growing mounds of plastic in our landfills, about clogged city streets and urban air pollution, about so many things that threaten our quality of life," said Paty Romero-Lankao, a senior researcher in NREL's Center for Integrated Mobility Sciences, which conducts pioneering transportation research for energy-efficient mobility technologies and strategies. "We want to change the conversation, to shift the focus from problems to solutions, to look into the future and dream of the possibilities that are open to all of us."

Sketches of a robotic-looking person, a steer, a building with stars above it, and a rural landscape set in a mountain range with flowers in the foreground.
Sketches depicting some of the preliminary ideas emerging from the workshop. Photo by Deb Lastowka, NREL

"Here at NREL, we have the capabilities needed to transform the energy landscape and make energy systems cleaner, more resilient, more efficient—all of which translates into lower costs and a better quality of life for consumers," Romero added.

The workshop was a collaboration between NREL and Arizona State University's School for the Future of Innovation in Society and Center for Science and the Imagination.

"The benefit of hosting a workshop like this at NREL is that you have access to the world's best energy researchers who have thought hard about the technical dimensions of how renewable energy will get built out and designed,” said Clark Miller, workshop facilitator from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “They aren't just speculating about these things."

During the workshop, participants unleashed their creativity and came up with innovative, forward-looking concepts, visions, and images. Emerging concepts ranged from renewable energy installations that double as large-scale works of art to “sprawl repair”—transforming suburban cities into vital, human-centered, low-carbon communities.