One of the more interesting projects that caught my eye at last month’s World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi were a dozen or so fantastical design concepts called the Land Art Generator Initiative.
The idea? A design contest to create whimsical, fantastically massive public art – that also generates electricity for the grid. My takeaway? It’s some of the the best marketing the renewable energy industry can buy, even if it won’t power much by itself.
Partly funded by Masdar, the Land Art Generator idea was cooked up by American ex-pats Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian who were kind enough to sit down with me for breakfast in Dubai just after the selection of the first contest winner, the Lunar Cubit.
The winning concept is meant to power as many as 250 homes inside Abu Dhabi’s carbon-free Masdar City. It’s essentially a ring of pyramids covered in solar panels which can light up at night – visible enough to be a landmark to passengers arriving at Abu Dhabi’s nearby airport. There are more details on their PDF here.
Lest we state the obvious, any engineer will tell you that placing photovoltaics on a pyramidal structure where they will at times be facing away from the sun is not optimal. In fact, I’m left wondering if the energy generating capabilities of the design are a bit optimistic.
However, I don’t think it really matters. The idea behind all the contest entries was not to generate large amounts of electricity – though there are guidelines for some minimum accountability on the LAGI design brief. The main purpose of the project was to create something spectacular, beautiful and thought provoking. Something that, yes, does at least generate enough electricity to justify its material cost, but that also provokes interest in renewable energy and conversation around the topic.
That’s where the brilliance of the project kicks in. In a world where folks still complain about the aesthetics of wind turbines (if they even support them at all) building interesting, even bizarre public art that challenges people’s idea of what energy is and where it comes from could be some of the best marketing renewable energy could hope for (it should be since they’ll help pay for it).
Think about the impact that a project like Christo’s Gates had on New York City. Then think about a project of that scale and audacity with an energy message – that actually generates electricity in fact. The Gates were wonderful and whimsical and created unending controversy and conversation – not to mention a massive tourism boom for New York. But think about how much further that concept could be taken.
In a place like the UAE (one of the few countries in the world even more tied to oil than the US) a project like the Lunar Cubit, if built, would certainly kick off controversy, but it would also be a deeply symbolic metaphor for the country’s commitment to ultimately moving to a post oil economy.
LAGI’s second phase for 2012 will in fact be for a project in New York. Details are not yet available, but if the Abu Dhabi pyramid goes well we can look forward to some fantastical ideas coming down the pipeline on this side of the pond as well.
The rest of the runners up and many entrants can be seen on the LAGI website. My personal Favorite? Windstalk (see below).