While non-fiction texts on solar energy might weigh down the average reader with talk of megawatts and photovoltaics, one ASU project is looking to discuss these ideas in a more exciting way.
Earlier this spring, ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination published "Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures." The ebook, which is available online for free, presents various scenarios and possibilities for a future dominated by solar energy.
The project split authors and artists into four teams that each described and depicted a different scenario of how solar energy could be incorporated into future society. Following each story, the teams included the data and research behind the stories.
One of the chapters describes a future in which the entire Phoenix area is dubbed Shade City and covered by a “solar ceiling” made up of solar panels. The story serves to envision the future of solar panel design in cities with consistent sunlight, like Phoenix.
Joey Eschrich, co-editor of the book and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination, said that "Weight of Light" extends far beyond the technical questions surrounding solar energy.
Eschrich added that the book’s stories present unique scenarios with different methods of solar energy distribution and consumption and how those would look like in the future.
“There’s definitely a necessity for society to shift to less carbon-intensive forms of energy,” Eschrich said. “We know that economic and political factors are shifting toward forms like solar, but we don’t always think about the ‘how’ of energy transformation.”
The book isn’t like many research projects pumped out by universities across the world, he said, emphasizing that the book uses fictionalized storytelling to make complex concepts more manageable.
“To me, stories make things more accessible,” Eschrich said. “Lots of research essays or books contain a bunch of charts and graphs and technical terms, which can scare people off. Fiction helps everyone realize what’s at stake and what the future of energy really means.”
Sam Janko, a doctoral student in systems engineering who wrote an essay for the book, described how the book uses literary elements to more directly connect with readers about the topics.
“This takes a complex issue like solar energy and puts it into a bite-size realm for people,” Janko said. “Building it into characters and worlds people can relate to makes everything more approachable to the everyday audience.”
To write fiction stories on a topic that is generally told through a non-fiction lens, two different communities at ASU had to come together.
Clark Miller, co-editor of the book and director for ASU’s Center for Energy and Society, said that the collaboration between art and science made for an “incredibly unique” product.
“Joey led our arts groups, and they had a really good idea about how to produce amazing and cool literary works,” Miller said. “I, on the other hand, have a more technical background. I was concerned with starting a conversation about how the future of solar energy will look."
Eschrich said that “ASU is a really inspiring backdrop” for the project to originate.
“ASU’s commitment to building solar infrastructure rhymes with the University’s efforts for sustainability,” he said. “In doing this project at ASU, it was very easy to find people to contribute and really get enthusiastic about it.”
ASU's solar program includes power generating facilities that are owned by ASU or third parties. The program spans ASU's four campuses and the ASU Research Park, and has an off-site component that involves a major collaboration between ASU and Arizona Public Service.
The collaboration between science and art leveraged to create the book makes the blurry future of energy a bit more clear, Janko said.
“These energy issues are complicated, but not impossible,” she said. “Getting the right people in the room with the right expertise makes these issues much more possible for those trying to address them and much more accessible for those curious about them."