Distributed Energy Things
10.31.2011, 7:22 am
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“Electricity had become like air. You never thought it would ever be unavailable…”
– Hidetoshi Nakagami, “Japan Gets Electricity Wake-Up Call

steam pipe in the basement of 560 7th Avenue, Parsons The New School for Design, FOP 2011

As part of our The Thingness of Energy project, FOP is tracing The New School’s energy needs, policies, and practices to the multiple sources that contribute to the institution’s energy generation mix.  What if we experienced energy at The New School not as “something like air,” but as a tangible and responsive network of people and material things that requires elaborate systems of delivery, production, and intentionality?  What new modes of awareness might become possible?  We are exploring ways to convey the reality that “electricity” is neither invisible, intangible, nor something that exists in infinite supply. Rather, it is a highly material and highly complex system of breakers, pipes, wires, flows of materials, and human actions. These things are transferred, produced, generated, and distributed across geographic space and geologic time and they require continuous maintenance and shepherding to become useable at the flick of a switch.

the volt room, at 55 West 13th Street, FOP 2011

In early September, we were given a tour of the “energy flows” of The New School. Our guides were members of the Office for Sustainability, Facilities Management. We started in the volt room at 55 West 13th street. Here, 5000 amps of electricity are continuously received and distributed throughout the building. The electric “charge” of this space was both audibly and physically sense-able. For three next hours, we navigated a labyrinth of pipes and wires. We descended to several basements to view boilers and to a rooftop to inspect a “green” roofing material called Thermoplastic Polyolefin. We climbed ladders and crawled through small doors. We saw minute switches, behemoth boilers, and tanks stocked with 10,000 gallons of backup diesel fuel. The “thingness” of energy became ever more palpable as we experienced this first-hand account of how energy pulses throughout The New School. We also witnessed the intentional, responsive distribution and management of the flow at the hands of  Facilities staff. One of whom turned to us early in the tour and said, “Electricity is alive, you can’t be afraid of it, you just have to respect it.” The actions of Facilities staff channel and regulate energy that heats, cools, and powers labs, classrooms, elevators, lunch rooms, and auditoriums throughout the university—essentially making all learning that takes place within these buildings possible.

During our tour, we asked to visit the most carbon intensive space on campus—the server room. In this cord frenzied space, we found a micro-climate that was the antithesis of the boiler room. Unlike Facebook, which the BBC reports has relocated to the northern reaches of Sweden because “the climate works well for the cooling systems necessitated by racks of huge servers,” The New School must use year-round air conditioning to maintain a near constant server room temperature of 67 degrees. The soundtrack to our time there was the roar of cold air blasting from the ducts overhead.

Server room thermostat, The New School, FOP 2011

This complex of cords and connections keeps The New School online, linked to the rest of the world, and enables the university to serve online students across global time zones. It also requires more electricity than any other space on campus. In the sterile, highly controlled space of bright lights and humming servers, it was difficult to link the things of this room to the mix of materials that assist in powering them—coal, uranium, natural gas, rushing water of hydro power, or gusts of wind. The materials that comprise New York City’s electricity mix are sourced from far beyond the borders of New York State. A map of the extraction, production, generation, delivery and transformation of these materials into “electricity” would resemble the server room cords. Cultivating an ability to comprehend this complexity seems urgent. How might humans (especially Americans) begin to sense the deep interconnectedness of the material things of electricity and the things that make our daily lives possible? This question motivates The Thingness of Energy and our strategy for designing the boxes that will be installed as at The New School in early spring 2012 .

The New School server room, FOP 2011

*The project page on the smudge studio site will collect and archive FOP posts and research related to the Thingness of Energy.

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