Energy! A New School Moment
02.28.2012, 10:49 am
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Thingness of Energy, FOP 2012

Next Monday night FOP will be participating in a panel discussion, Energy!at The New School, sponsored by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. The event takes up the topic of energy in relation to speculative materialism:

Energy comes to us from the earth’s deepest crevices to the furthest reaches of the solar system — often through substantial technological advances, sometimes at equally substantial costs to people and the environment. This increasingly complex system of human agency and infrastructures is the topic of this exchange, organized by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. In brief, succinct presentations, the speakers examine the potential scenarios if energy were to be considered a “partner” in the endeavor of producing and consuming energy. Reflecting recent developments in philosophy, sometimes grouped under the heading of “speculative materialism,” the panelists propose that energy is not dead matter but an active agent that needs to be recognized as such in order to make human life sustainable on this planet.Faculty members from across The New School analyze various notions of energy, drawing from their expertise in the political and natural sciences, media studies, environmentalism and design, as well as art. – Vera List Center website

Jamie Kruse of FOP will present a short piece based on research that informed one of the five boxes, Vibrant Matter and the Power of Configuration, that is part of her Thingness of Energy installation, currently housed at the Sheila Johnson Design Center.  She will apply ideas drawn from vital materialism to recent events at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and illustrate how humans and infrastructures exist not only in relation to one another and the landscape—but also in relation to a multitude of earth forces that are capable of rising up and challenging our best design and engineering capacities.

We’ve previously attended and been participants in Vera List Center events that follow the format of the “New School Moment.” Similar to PechaKucha, their provocative juxtapositions of perspectives delivered in succinct presentations have allowed ample discussion time and resulted in exchanges that were both generative and enjoyable.

Energy! is free and open to the public from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on March 5, 2012 at The New School’s Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor. Learn more about the panelists on the Vera List Center event page.

Thingness of Energy: Opening Reception
01.25.2012, 3:59 pm
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detail, Scales of Light and Heat (Humans = Watt?) Convert Yourself (Thingness of Energy), Jamie Kruse 2011-2
One British Thermal Unit (BTU), a unit of energy, is equivalent to one burning match.
In 2011 The New School consumed 14 million kilowatt hours of electricity, equivalent to approximately 48 billion burning matches.

After six months of research and production, a project by smudge studio’s Jamie Kruse, entitled the Thingness of Energy, opens next Thursday, February 2, 2012.  smudge invites you to the opening reception at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons The New School for Design, from 6:30-9:00pm.  The exhibition Where Do We Migrate To?curated by Niels Van Tomme, opens this same evening in the nearby Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery.

The Thingness of Energy invites audiences to consider and directly experience the material realities of energy.  Taking The New School’s Climate Action Plan (PDF) as its point of departure, the project reveals the deep geologic nature and effects of the materials that are used to generate and transmit electricity. It also underscores the power of deep time—both past and future—as a generator of energy forms and effects.  The installation brings into view things of energy that exist both within the walls of The New School and arrive at the University from far beyond the borders of New York State.

At its heart, Thingness of Energy poses the question: What if “anticipating geologic scales of force, change, and effect” became a common design specification for energy production, policies, and infrastructure design?

The project is composed of five boxes: Distributed MatterEnergy of Deep TimeScales of Light and Heat (Humans = Watt?) Convert YourselfCarbon Trading Across the Eons, and Vibrant Matter and the Power of Configuration. The boxes, accompanied by three large vinyl window installations, offer motivations for interacting with things of energy in new ways that take into account the realities of their material natures.  A “material bibliography” provides reading material and source documentation for the research that supported the project’s development.

The project will be on exhibit until April 24, 2012.

For gallery hours, to learn more about the project and upcoming programming visit the Vera List Center for Art and Politics’ artist project page and the smudge studio project page.


The Thingness of Energy is produced in collaboration with The New School’s Office of Sustainability, Facilities Management; the Sheila Johnson Designer Center; and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. The project is supported in part by The New School’s Green Fund for 2012 and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, and presented on occasion of the Center’s 2011-2013 focus theme “Thingness.

The Power of Configuration: When Infrastructure Goes off the Rails
01.05.2012, 10:28 am
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“…things that never happened before are possible. Indeed, they happen all the time.” – Charles Parrow, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Control room Grohnde, from Under Control, © Stefanescu/Sattel/Credofilm

On November 11, 2011, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations delivered a timeline to an audience of U.S. industry executives, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and members of Congress.  It detailed the unfolding of events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station during, and in the critical hours following, the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. The story contained within the document titled, “Special Report on the Nuclear Accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station” reads like a screenplay. The gravity of the horrific hours, which is detailed and delivered through stark legal language, continuously rises up and confronts the reader.  The report is a severe reminder of the reality that when things don’t go as planned, human bodies are what must show up to try to steer things back on course.

To FOP, it seems that the report could serve well as a reference manual for contemporary designers, architects, urban planners and engineers. It’s a powerful revelation of how essential it is to consider configuration when it comes to infrastructure:  the ways that humans and infrastructures are situated (and inevitably interact) not only in relation to one another and within the landscape—but also in relation to the multitude of earth forces capable of rising up and challenging our best design and engineering capacities.

TEPCO, the electric company that owns the plant, clearly had never imagined, nor planned for, the spectacular multitude of forces that materialized on March 11.  Tsuneo Futami, a nuclear engineer who was the director of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990s has stated, “We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent. When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”

“configuration” diagram of the Fukushima Daiichi facility, image from the Special Report by INPO

In the crucial minutes and seconds in which the unimaginable actually does unfold, highly complex situations transpire in instants and the configuration of people and things becomes fundamental to what happens. Reality shifts into a configurist map-in-motion, a shifting landscape of trip wires and tipping dominoes. Each action, placement and location sends a vector of consequences cascading into the future. How high the waves reach up the bluff. Where the fire trucks are parked in town. How far inland the dry casks sit. How deep spent fuel rods rest in cooling pools. How far the plant’s exit gates lie. Where each building is sited in relation to each human, each fire truck, each monolithic sea wall, each wave—all matter immensely in interconnected ways. These highly particular configurations of things from moment to moment are what will mix and propagate the resulting “nexts.” Water is no longer water, it becomes the substance that is flooding basements that store backup generators, rendering them unusable.  Utility employees become authorities, emergency personal, evacuees, heroes, victims. In the case of Fukushima, many of the “nexts” seem to have hinged on where the generators were located and how quickly they were inundated with water.

At Fukushima, the force and scale of the events reconfigured an energy generating plant, typically a life-supporting affordance, into something completely else, something unrecognizable. Fukushima Daiichi shifted from being an energy producing infrastructure into a risk generating machine with massive geologic consequence. The facility dissolved into an assemblage of unpredictable actants in form of zirconium rods, uranium, plutonium, hydrogen, salt water, copper, plate tectonics, massive waves, electricity, darkness, design ingenuity, engineering failure, steel, reinforced concrete, basements and sea walls. These elements not only performed independently of human desire, they acted back upon us. Many of these things-become-forces continue to do so today, ten months later. Some will continue to do so for generations to come.  They are shifting the trajectory of global energy futures as they birth new actants: long-term power outages, evacuations, containment failures, explosions, aftershocks, media coverage, government regulations, industry investments, energy dependency, changes in public opinion.

To build infrastructures for simple, seemingly predictable scenarios, is incredibly short-sighted. Perhaps that kind of design thinking is acceptable in relation to some forms of infrastructure. But given what is at stake at nuclear facilities, with long-term outcomes and unimaginably long futures in play, where land can be rendered unusable for decades or centuries to come, planning for what earth forces can instantly transform into “best case scenarios” seems to be an act of willful ignorance at best.

swing carousel in the cooling tower of the “Schneller Brüter” (fast breeder reactor) in Kalkar, that never went into nuclear service, from Under Control, © Stefanescu/Sattel/Credofilm

In case you don’t have time to read the entire 104 page “Special Report”  detailing the chain of events at Fukushima in full, we’ve lifted some excerpts (specifically from the “Unit-Specific Event Narrative” section). All times are provided as Japan Standard Time (JST), 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST), in New York. T=0 2:46 p.m.

On March 11 at 1446 (T=0), an earthquake caused a loss of off-site power and an automatic reactor scram. All control rods inserted; and several actions occurred, including a loss of feedwater and condensate and main steam isolation valve closures, as expected because of the loss of off-site AC power. The emergency diesel generators started and loaded in response to the loss of off-site power and supplied power to the safety systems.

At 1527 (T plus 41 minutes), the first of a series of seven tsunamis, generated by the earthquake, arrived at the station. The second tsunami, which arrived at 1535, flooded and damaged the intake structure. By 1538 (T plus 52 minutes), the tsunami had begun to cause flooding in the turbine building basement. The flooding wetted or submerged the Unit 3A and 3B emergency diesel generators and the electrical distribution systems, resulting in a gradual loss of all AC and most DC power. Lighting and indications were lost as AC and DC power systems failed. Normal control room lighting failed completely, but some DC power remained for emergency lighting and indications. TEPCO management made an emergency declaration because of the loss of all AC power and notified the government and associated authorities. 

The maximum tsunami height impacting the site was estimated to be 46 to 49 feet (14 to 15 meters). This exceeded the design basis tsunami height of 18.7 feet (5.7 meters) and was above the site grade levels of 32.8 feet (10 meters) at units 1-4. All AC power was lost to units 1-4 by 1541 when a tsunami overwhelmed the site and flooded some of the emergency diesel generators and switchgear rooms. The seawater intake structure was severely damaged and was rendered nonfunctional. All DC power was lost on units 1 and 2, while some DC power from batteries remained available on Unit 3. Four of the five emergency diesel generators on units 5 and 6 were inoperable after the tsunami. One air-cooled emergency diesel generator on Unit 6 continued to function and supplied electrical power to Unit 6, and later to Unit 5, to maintain cooling to the reactor and spent fuel pool.

Because the control room had no working indications, operators checked reactor pressure locally in the reactor building. At 2007, reactor pressure indicated 1,000 psig (6.9 MPa gauge). Reactor water level was still unknown.

At 2049 (T plus 6.1 hours), workers restored some temporary control room lighting in the units 1-2 control room when a small portable generator was installed.

At 2050 (T plus 6.1 hours), the Fukushima prefecture began to direct residents living within 1.2 miles (2km) of the station to evacuate.

Water level indication was restored in the control room at 2119 (T plus 6.5 hours). Indicated reactor water level was approximately 8 inches (200 mm) above the top of active fuel (TAF).

2130 (T plus 6.7 hours), when once again the indications began to work. By this point, no cooling or injection had been provided to the reactor for almost 6 hours, and core damage was most likely occurring.

The station had three fire engines, but only one was available to support injecting water into the Unit 1 reactor. One fire engine was damaged by the tsunami and was not functional. The second was parked adjacent to units 5 and 6 but could not be driven to Unit 1 because of earthquake damage to the road and debris from the tsunami. The remaining fire engine, which was located near units 3 and 4, was functional. Workers had to clear obstacles and debris to move the fire engine to Unit 1. A heavy fuel oil tank, INPO 11-005 which had been displaced by the tsunami, made one access road impassable. A security gate that had lost power and would not open blocked another road that provided access to Unit 1. Workers broke a lock on the gate between units 2 and 3, allowing the fire engine to arrive at Unit 1.

As the morning progressed, plant conditions continued to degrade. In preparation for venting the containment, workers attempted to enter the reactor building to perform surveys. When the reactor building air lock door was opened, the workers saw steam and closed the door. No surveys were performed.

At 0514 (T plus 14.5 hours), workers noted an increase in radiation dose rates in the plant concurrent with the decrease in containment pressure. Workers believed this may have indicated a leak from the containment. This was reported to the government. Over the next 30 minutes, radiation levels at the site boundary increased.

At 0544 (T plus 15 hours), the Prime Minister expanded the evacuation zone to 6.2 miles (10 km).

The control room operators formed three teams to perform the venting, with two operators on each team (one to perform actions and the other to assist by holding flashlights and monitoring dose rates, as well as for other safety concerns, such as ongoing aftershocks). Because there were no means of communicating with the field teams, they were dispatched one at a time, with the next team leaving only after the preceding team returned.

Less than an hour after the explosion, radiation dose rates at a station monitoring post along the site boundary had reached 101.5 mrem/hr (1,015 μSv/hr).

By 1825, the Prime Minister had expanded the evacuation zone to 12.4 miles (20 km).

The operators lined up a fire engine to inject seawater into the reactor through the core spray system and commenced injecting seawater at 1904 on March 12. Boron was then added to the water source to address criticality concerns.

Two field operators were noted INPO 11-005 as missing from the units 3 and 4 operating crew. The operators were later found to have drowned after being trapped in the Unit 4 turbine building basement when the tsunami flooded the building.

The workers attempted to lock open the valve locally, but they were not successful because of the adverse conditions in the torus room. The room was dark and hot, and the torus was shaking because of the open SRV. Workers eventually replaced the air bottle, and the air-operated valve was reopened. Similar problems challenged the containment vent lineup over the next few days.

Hydrogen explosions in the units 1, 3, and 4 reactor buildings, coupled with the loss of the blowout panel in Unit 2, resulted in the SFPs of all units being exposed to atmosphere.

The tsunami design basis for Fukushima Daiichi considered only the inundation and static water pressures, and not the impact force of the wave or the impact of debris associated with the wave. The design included a breakwater, which ranged in height from 18 ft (5.5 m) to as high as 32.8 ft (10 m).

The Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness (commonly referred to as the Nuclear Disaster Law) was established in 1999 in response to the September 30, 1999 inadvertent criticality accident at the Tokai uranium processing plant. The accident resulted in overexposure of three plant workers and additional unplanned exposures to 66 plant workers, local inhabitants, and emergency support personnel.


This post documents research that informs the production of the Thingness of Energy project, which will be installed at Parsons, The New School for Design in early 2012. The project is supported in part by The New School Green Fund for 2012.  The ideas expressed and represented in this project are those of the artist (Jamie Kruse), and do not necessarily reflect views of faculty, staff or students at The New School.

Transmission Power: Finding North in NYC’s Electricity
12.29.2011, 8:13 pm
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“No matter where you look, you’re guaranteed to be awed by the gigantic scale of this imposing site.” – Hydro-Québec

The spillway of the Robert-Bourassa Dam, “one of many hydroelectric dams supplying power to the load centres of Montreal, Québec City, and the Northeastern United States.”
Each step is the size of two football fields. image wikicommons

Walking the streets of New York City, it’s hard not to imagine that the City could somehow self-generate the electricity it requires out of the sheer volume of activities, movements, dreams and aspirations of its inhabitants. Yet, as we delve deeper into our research for the Thingness of Energy, it’s clear that New York City is deeply reliant upon energy generating and transmission facilities far beyond its five boroughs. In reality, the City depends upon lines, cables and substations that connect it to remote infrastructures along networks that can extend more than 1200 miles beyond its glow.

Though it’s nearly impossible to confirm where any given watt of electricity comes from and goes to, we’ve spent a great deal of time over the last three months trying to pin down some likely sources for New York City. There are countless energy suppliers within our region, but we’ve narrowed our research to focus on some of the most notable. The most obvious and indisputably direct source of electricity for the City is Indian Point, the nuclear power plant station just up the Hudson River. Indian Point supplies between 12-25% of the City’s electricity. Then there’s the iconic Ravenswood Power Station in Queens, most easily seen from Roosevelt Island. Ravenswood was made famous back in 1963 by its unit #3, known as Big Allis, the world’s first million-kilowatt unit. Fueled primarily by natural gas, today Ravenswood supplies around 20% of the City’s electricity.

from The New School’s 2011 Climate Action Plan

According to the New School’s Climate Action Plan (PDF) New York City receives around 10% of its electricity mix from hydroelectric power. In a quest to hunt down the elusive whos, whats and wheres of this hydroelectric mix, we got caught up in the mesmerizing tale of the monumental earthworks that are the hydro-electric dams of Northeastern Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Three of these facilities captured FOP’s imagination due to their monumental power generation capacities and their imposing geomorphologic imprints upon the North American landscape.

The Robert-Bourassa generating station is the largest hydroelectric plant in Canada and the eighth largest in the world. It is a part of the massive, and controversial James Bay project, created for the Canadian government-owned public utility giant Hydro-Québec. Hydro-Québec describes the Robert-Bourassa facility as akin to “a vast cathedral carved into the bedrock!” During a public tour you can “Gape at the towering dam as high as a 53-storey building and marvel at the ‘giant’s staircase,’ with 10 steps each the size of two football fields!” They also exclaim that “Stupefaction [is] guaranteed!”

The second largest facility in Canada is the Churchill Falls generating station, located in Newfoundland and Labrador. This station includes a series of 88 dikes. In 1967 the project was the largest civil engineering project undertaken in North America. This facility is powered by the Churchill River, whose drainage area is larger than the Republic of Ireland, covering much of western and central Labrador for a total of 27,700 square miles. The once magnificent and rushing Churchill Falls today flows at a mere trickle during exceptional periods of rain due to the re-directing of the river for the facility.

Both of these projects were undertaken despite fierce opposition from the First Nations people who had inhabited these lands for centuries. The James Bay Cree opposed the James Bay Project, and Churchill Falls was opposed by aboriginal Innu people of Labrador. Churchill Falls induced the flooding of nearly 2,000 square miles of traditional hunting grounds. A recent agreement signed between the government and the Innu includes special hunting rights and $2 million compensation for flooding each year.

Google Maps locates the Churchill Falls Generating station about 1270 miles from The New School, New York

Manicouagan Reservoir, image NASA

Perhaps the most astonishing hydroelectric project site of all, due to its bizarrely fantastic geo-cosmological morphology, is the Manicouagan Reservoir. Who knew that New Yorkers today could benefit from an asteroid collision that occurred more than 200 million years ago?  This reservoir lake utilizes a 214+ million year old astrobleme (impact crater) known as the eye of Québec.  It is fed by the Manicouagan River, which in turn feeds the Manic-2, Manic-3, and Manic-5 generating stations downstream. It is said that the lake experiences low levels in extreme periods of heat during the summer, when “Hydro-Québec sells electrical energy to the joint New England grid and individual utilities in the United States.”

Times Square, image aherrero

Back on the streets of New York, it’s hard to project one’s imagination into the geologic realities that enable our lights to be aglow 24 hours a day, such as the flooding of thousands of square miles of boreal forest (that most of us will never see). Or that our demands for power contribute to the production of dams whose unprecedented weight can induce seismic activity or earth tremors. But whether it’s controlled nuclear fission up river, natural gas continuously burning in Queens, or dam projects in Canada the size of small countries, it’s all part of the larger energy story that confirms there is no zero in New York City, or elsewhere. There will always be material, possibly even planetary-scale, outcomes of our actions.

After several email inquiries and phone calls to various energy providers involved in the transmission and distribution of electricity in New York State, including ConEd and Hydro-Québec, and after weeks of online research, we haven’t nailed a direct, indisputable confirmation that specific Hydro-Québec dams directly fuel NYC. Though we can’t determine how much and when, we do feel confident stating that fluctuating amounts of the City’s electricity actually do come from the monumental hydroelectric infrastructures of Canada. Especially given the fact that “Canada typically exports between six and 10 percent of its production to the United States… Exports are sold primarily to the New England states, New York State, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest and California.” And, the Robert-Bourassa generating station is cited as generating power “for population centers in the Northeastern United States.” We’ve also repeatedly come across statements such as, “Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission system is an expansive, international power transmission system located in Québec, Canada with extensions into the Northeastern United States.” Last but not least, during the 1965 Northeastern blackout, which originated at a hydroelectric facility in Ontario, New York City went dark along with many parts of southeastern Canada (prompting the establishment of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation).

Hydro-Quebec’s Transmission System

The main reason for why we can’t trace the flow of electricity directly from a northern Canadian source to a New School outlet is that once electricity leaves a power plant it hops on the transmission system and blends in with other electric power generated elsewhere. Hydro-Québec TransÉnergie operates the largest power grid in North America, comprising 515 substations and more than 20,500 miles of lines at various voltages. The incredibly elaborate system includes 16 interconnections with the Atlantic provinces, Ontario and the U.S. Northeast. So, it is along this vast and convoluted expanse of transmission—the most extensive in North America—that power from the mega-dams travels.  The Hydro-Québec website (under “Exports to New England and New York“) confirms our sense that the next time New Yorkers flip on the switch, they might want to pause and consider the tremendous forces in play, and the literal landscapes of energy, that supply the City that never sleeps:

“Hydro-Québec has been selling electricity to New England since the 1980s. This U.S. region accounts for about half the company’s exports…Electricity supply in New York State (open to competition since 1999) is affected by congestion on the transmission lines that connect the generating sites with the load centres. Although this supply is primarily intended for the Greater New York area, most of it comes either from western New York (Niagara and Oswego) or from the north, and from Hydro-Québec in particular. The power consequently flows mainly from west to east, with resulting congestion on the transmission grid. By regulation, the line that carries Hydro-Québec electricity to New York State is limited to 1,200 MW. However, Hydro-Québec can supply western New York by wheeling power through Ontario. In this way, it can help New York State reach its objectives in terms of developing renewable energies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” – Hydro-Québec

the Micoua substation on the North Shore of Québec. This facility converts 315 kV power coming from five hydroplants to 735 kV, image wikicommons

transformers at Robert-Bourassa generating station (LG-2) in northern Québec, image wikicommons

This post documents research that informs the production of the Thingness of Energy project, which will be installed at Parsons, The New School for Design in early 2012. The project is supported in part by The New School Green Fund for 2012.

Flaring Up: Space Weather and Bulk Power Supply
12.11.2011, 4:38 pm
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Today’s sprawling high-voltage power grids are more susceptible to space weather impacts than ever before.”
—John Kappenman, author of a January 2010 report (PDF) by Metatech Corp. prepared for Oak Ridge National Laboratory

electrical substation and transformers, image kellowin

Like those of us at FOP, you may not have realized that we (as in, everyone on Earth) are currently in Solar Cycle 24. Solar cycles run for about eleven years, and Cycle 24 began in January 2008.  This cycle is currently predicted to peak around May 2013. Predictions of how this peak could materially affect the infrastructure of the American electrical grid sounds a bit like the next Hollywood disaster film.  Apparently, a total obliteration of the “grid,” at least in the Northeastern United States, is within the realm of possibilities.

Over the last few weeks, as part of our research for the Thingness of Energy project, we found ourselves doing some light reading in the 2011 Summer Reliability Assessment (PDF) report.  It’s a fascinating document released by The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). On page 24, we encountered the following words under the heading “Geo-Magnetic Disturbances:”

“The potential impacts of geo‐magnetic disturbance (GMD) events has gained renewed attention as recent studies have suggested the severity of solar storms may be higher and reach lower geographic latitudes than formerly forecast. NERC and the U.S. Department of Energy identified this as a High Impact, Low Frequency event risk to bulk power system reliability in a joint report issued in April 2010. GMD can impact bulk power system reliability in many ways. The two most extensive impacts are the potential damage to transformers, which can result in long‐term impacts if replacement transformers cannot be installed rapidly, and short‐term disruptions to communication and control. … Geo‐magnetic storms are unlike terrestrial weather threats to the power grid. These storms can not only develop rapidly but also have continental footprints that can result in widespread simultaneous impact to many points on the system. The system is not designed to operate through the simultaneous loss of many key assets and such an impact could quickly bring the system outside the protection provided by traditional planning and operating reliability criteria, resulting in potential system instability and, in some cases, widespread disturbances and outages. In view of the new awareness of the possible extremes of the geo‐magnetic storm environment, a focused review and perspective on the role of the design and operation of the bulk power system with respect to these threats is underway through the NERC sponsored GMD Task Force.”

A false-color image of coronal loops taken with NASA’s Transition Region and Coronal Explorer satellite on November 9, 2000, image courtesy NASA

The solar cycle last peaked in 2001 and predictions from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center forecast the maximum peak of sunspots, which correlate with coronal‐mass ejections (also known as solar flares) between 2012 and 2013. You can watch a NASA animation of a coronal-mass ejection here.

What’s important to know is that when these “disturbances” reach Earth’s surface they are called geomagnetically induced currents (GIC). These currents can be conducted by (and send surges through) human built infrastructures that we rely quite heavily upon, including electrical power transmission grids, undersea communication cables, telephone and telegraph networks and railways. The currents can also be conducted by oil and gas pipelines, and lessen pipe integrity over time.

The most recent geomagnetic event of note occurred in March 1989 (during Solar Cycle 22). A flare event induced the collapse of the Hydro-Québec electrical system in seconds and left six million people without electricity for nine hours. Since most of Québec sits upon the Canadian Shield, the dense rock prevented the geomagnetic current from flowing through the earth. The current instead found a less resistant path along 735 kV power lines. The state of international affairs at the time caused the jammed satellite communications to be mistaken initially for a nuclear attack. And remarkably, aurorae were seen as far south as Texas.

Back in 1989, Hydro-Québec was especially vulnerable due to having some of the longest high-voltage lines in the world. Today, despite numerous upgrades, the system is still extremely vulnerable. Twenty-three years later the company has grown to operate the most extensive transmission system in North America. It supplies most of Québec province and channels energy into the Northeastern United States as well as to New Brunswick and Ontario.

During a minor solar flare event last summer, a New York Times article cited a May 31, 2011 House Energy subcommittee hearing in which Joseph McClelland, director of the Office of Electric Reliability at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stated: “If the solar storm of 1921, which has been termed a one-in-100-year event, were to occur today, well over 300 extra-high-voltage transformers could be damaged or destroyed, thereby interrupting power to 130 million people for a period of years.”

In the course of our research we also learned about the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, the event of 1859 (back during Solar Cycle 10).  We also discovered that the upcoming solar weather in 2012-13 could have an alignment with a hole in Earth’s magnetosphere in a way that would exacerbate the storm’s impact on the grid.

Given all this, it’s hard to feel overly optimistic about what the next peak could bring. As we all become more reliant on electrically powered communications, the social and economic risks grow exponentially. The Northeastern region of the United States is of particular concern because of outdated transformers. Replacement transformers are not made in the United States and can take years to produce. While large swaths of the American West have updated their systems, or have newer systems in place that include devices called “series capacitors” (that can block the flow of surging geomagnetic currents on transmission lines) only two lines in the eastern grid have this protection. Ultra-high voltage transformers are particularly vulnerable and the United States uses more of these than anywhere else. (Learn about transformers on the Hydro-Quebec website.)

It’s impossible to say where this all might lead given the wildly unpredictable potentials. But it seems like an opportunity to stop taking the electricity we currently have for granted, and be reminded that despite its general invisibility in our daily lives, “the grid” is a material thing that we all rely upon. It also presents us with a humbling design provocation for the future: all infrastructures we design are subject to forces that travel 93 million miles—and they can be instantly and massively out-scaled despite our best design attempts and capacities.

A solar eruptive prominence as seen in extreme UV light on March 30, 2010 with Earth superimposed for a sense of scale. Credit: NASA/SDO


Space weather can be tracked on numerous websites, such as: NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, NOAA’s Space Weather Advisories, NASA’s Space Weather Action Center, the U.S. Air Force’s Space Operations, or the USGS’s National GeoMagnetism Program. NASA also has a handy FAQ page about solar storms and space weather.

For additional reading, see the GRID Act, an attempt to, “amend the Federal Power Act to protect the bulk-power system and electric infrastructure critical to the defense of the United States from cybersecurity and other threats and vulnerabilities.” It was passed by the House in 2010, but appears to be currently stuck in Congress.

See also:

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulation Commission and Oak Ridge National Laboratory report: “Electromagnetic Pulse: Effects on the U.S. Power Grid”

“High-Impact, Low-Frequency Event Risk to the North American Bulk Power System”, a Jointly-Commissioned Summary Report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the U.S. Department of Energy (PDF)

North American Electric Reliability Corporation Report on the 1989 Geomagnetic disturbance event in Quebec (PDF).

Geologic Heat: Following the flow of Red Diesel
12.04.2011, 4:59 pm
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 heating oil No. 2, also known as red diesel, FOP 2011

This autumn FOP gained a more intimate knowledge of the mysterious, largely unseen material that heats most of New York City throughout the winter:  heating oil No. 2. This oil is considered a vast improvement over the dangerous and dirty heating oil No. 6, which was banned in New York City as of April 2011. It is also a cleaner choice compared to heating oil No. 4, a close cousin to No. 6.

As part of our research for the Thingness of Energy project at The New School, we were given a small sample of the No. 2 oil. This was the first time we had encountered the material outside of tanks or trucks. It’s remarkably beautiful and has a low viscosity. Its color and consistency are akin to those of hibiscus tea. The striking color of this oil isn’t naturally occurring. In the United States, red dye, typically Solvent Red 164, is added to distinguish No. 2 from other heating oils and automotive diesel fuel. As a result, No. 2 is also known as “red diesel.” In the United Kingdom, yellow solvent is added instead of red.

We quickly learned not to be seduced by the attractive color of this substance. The oil is quite challenging to handle and emits potent noxious fumes (download material safety document for No. 2 oil). We planned to exhibit and store the material in plastic test tubes. But within minutes of filling the tubes, the oil had cracked the plastic and rendered the containers unusable. We had to wear plastic gloves to work with the substance from then on, and we started looking for other containers. We ended up settling on Cryovial® tubes, designed for holding human and animal cells and to remain sealed at extreme temperatures. We are happy to report that for the past four weeks the oil has been safely contained.

effects of heating oil No. 2 on cheap plastic test tubes, FOP 2011

Though it might not look like it, heating oil No. 2 is derived from a geologic material relayed to us through time. Heating oils are distillates of crude oil, which is composed of  transformed remains of animals and plants that thrived in primordial seas more than 300 million years ago. These Devonian and Carboniferous creatures have been compressed and heated by geologic forces across deep time. Today, products made out of their remains, commonly called fossil fuels, heat our homes, businesses, and universities. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration  a 42 gallon barrel of crude oil produces approximately 10 gallons of diesel, 4 gallons of jet fuel, 19 gallons of gasoline, 7 gallons of other products, 3 gallons split between heavy fuel oil and liquified petroleum gases, and less than 2 gallons of heating oil.

image, U.S. Energy Information Administration

The materiality of heating oil No. 2 requires it to be transported and delivered to customers via truck. In preparation for winter, the first deliveries were made to The New School in early November. Deliveries are sometimes made up to three times a month during the heating season, which roughly runs from November to March. Approximately 150,000 gallons of No.2 oil were needed to heat New School buildings last year, along with 50,000 gallons of No. 4 oil, for a total nearing 200,000 gallons of heating oil per season. Ironically, the trucks that deliver these heating oils run on fossil fuels too. 

At The New School, as with most buildings in New York, the points of entry for heating oil are located outside, often burrowed into public sidewalks. These easily overlooked plugs, like the one pictured below, outside 65 West 11th street, are vital links in the flow between delivery trucks and basements where storage tanks and boilers are housed.

heating oil sidewalk plug outside 65 West 11th street, Eugene Lang, The New School, image FOP, 2011

oil delivery to The New School November 2, 2011, image courtesy The New School Office of Sustainability | Facilities Management, 2011

The two primary heating oil suppliers to The New School are Metro and Hess. These companies have operations around the world, making it pretty much impossible to trace the oil they deliver back to their specific points of origin. But on delivery days, when large hoses stretch from fuel truck to sidewalk, the connection is reestablished between The New School and the vast network of global energy flows.

tank truck delivering oil to The New School, image courtesy The New School Office of Sustainability | Facilities Management, 2011

No. 2 oil burning in boiler at 65 West 11th street, image FOP 2011

Once it leaves the truck, the oil is channeled into the basement and burned in boilers to generate heat that warms classrooms, offices and cafeterias throughout the University.  As the material is combusted, carbon that is been locked up for millions of years is released directly into today’s atmosphere, adding to a current surplus of  CO2. These emissions are geologically and literally “out of time in today’s world. These molecules act like an “invasive species” in the contemporary closed carbon cycle, which is otherwise capable of keeping itself in balance.

from The New School’s Climate Action Plan

Energy Shifts
11.04.2011, 2:31 pm
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Tokyo on March 14, 2011 during the nation’s first ever rolling blackouts, image

Millions of people in Japan are continuing to adapt to a new reality in which, suddenly, electricity is no longer in ample supply. Before March 2011, electricity had been readily available consistently and continuously, invisibly powering high speed trains, keeping modern conveniences running and urban lights blazing 24 hours a day. Eight months ago, it wasn’t yet common global or even national knowledge that Japan produced 30% of its electricity through nuclear power.

Last summer, the majority of Japan’s nuclear power plants went offline.  All Tokyo residents were required to reduce their energy consumption by 16%, virtually overnight. Such a large and abrupt reduction doesn’t come easily. Everyday activities that presume consistent and abundant supplies of electricity are no longer possible.

The recent news that 80% of Japan’s nuclear reactors are now offline, and the increasing probability that by early 2012, 100% of its reactors will be offline for maintenance, has lead Japanese people to search for fundamentally new and different relationships to their nation’s energy generation and consumption. A recent poll by NHK cites 70% of Japanese people want an end to nuclear power in their country.

Consequences and lessons learned from the events in Japan are rippling around the globe.  Many nations are considering more closely how much of their energy comes from nuclear power, and whether to pursue this energy source in the future. France tops the list of nuclear powered nations, with 75% of their electricity coming from reactors. Germany, generating 23% of their electricity from nuclear power, made a remarkable turn and decided to close all nuclear plants by 2022. The United States derives about 20% of its electricity from 104 commercial nuclear reactors. New York City (serviced by the Indian Point reactors) sources 32% of its energy from nuclear power. And the New School, site of FOP’s current The Thingness of Energy project, receives 20.48% of its power from Indian Point as a part of New York City’s electricity generation mix.

Workers move a cask filled with spent fuel from the Indian Point 2 nuclear plant, image Michael Nagle for The New York Times

As part of our research for the Thingness of Energy project, we’ve been following news related to the potential closure of our local nuclear power plant, Indian Point. Messages have been mixed. Governor Cuomo adamantly supports the immediate closure of the plant at the end of the reactors’ licensing periods, 2013 and 2015. At the same time, Mayor Bloomberg has stated the City would face energy shortages if the plants aren’t re-licensed for 20 additional years.

We wonder what would happen if the plant’s three massive generators of electricity were to close. Would the City shutdown? The economy crash? Would the City face rolling blackouts? If so, would New Yorkers, like their counterparts in Tokyo, evolve, adapt, and invent ingenious ways to use less energy— or perhaps begin to use energy more wisely and intentionally?

Takejiro Sueyoshi, an environmental expert and special adviser to the United Nations Environment Program has said, “Without anyone knowing, Japanese came to think that supply of energy will be there if you plug into the outlet … the whole energy setup in Japan was a way of life of the industrial, high-economic growth period … March 11 has posed us a question. Should we maintain the way of the 20th century?”

Here in the United States, for the moment, we have the luxury of making choices outside of crisis mode.  This might be a good time to pursue energy futures that will be sustainable both within and beyond the 21st century. One of the biggest, ongoing problems with nuclear power is that its waste burdens us, and all humans to come, for many millennia. Indian Point, for example, is “temporarily” storing 1500 tons of radioactive waste on site, and it has no where to go.

The events of March 11th in Japan led some countries to hit the nuclear pause button, and experience those events as an opportunity to realistically and creatively consider the scales and effects of current energy consumption and their long-term material consequences. A new report requested by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. and Riverkeeper, Inc. states that New York City could endure the closure of Indian Point without facing blackouts or energy cuts. The full report, Indian Point Energy Center Nuclear Plant Retirement Analysis, can be read here.

The Thingness of Carbon: Burning through the Eons
11.02.2011, 12:55 pm
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300+ million year old plants, insects and animals, reconfigured by the forces of geologic time into what modern humans have come to call “coal”

This piece of coal comes from Kayford Mountain, part of the Kanawha Coal River Field in West Virginia. It is more than 300 million years old and dates to the Carboniferous. It was given to us by our friend, artist Erika Osborne, for inclusion in FOP’s Thingness of Energy project at The New School.

When we lifted it out of the box, its soot quickly transferred to our hands. It was surprisingly lightweight. But, we were most taken by how storied the rock appeared. The lines of strata are tales from a geologic past that far precedes human existence and coal’s “value” today for generating electricity for human convenience. We dismantle this planetary history when we burn coal today:

“The Appalachian coal fields date back about 300 million years, when today’s green highlands were tropical coastal swamps. Over the millennia, the swamps swallowed up massive amounts of organic material—trees and leafy plants, animal carcasses, insects. There, sealed off from the oxygen essential to decomposition, the material congealed into layers of peat. When the world’s landmasses later collided in a series of mega-crashes, the coastal plain was pushed upward to become the Appalachians; after the greatest of these collisions, they reached as high as today’s Himalayas, only to be eroded over the ages. The sustained geologic pressure and heat involved in creating the mountains baked and compressed the peat from those old bogs into seams of coal from a few inches to several feet thick”. – John McQuad, “Mining the Mountains”,

The United States generates nearly 50% of its electricity from coal. Yet, coal accounts for only 7% of New York City’s and 4.48% of The New School’s electricity mix because of the availability of other energy sources. It has become common knowledge that the burning of coal for the production of electricity produces massive quantities of greenhouse gases. But once the object of a piece of coal (or other “carbon intensive” materials such as wood, petroleum or natural gas) vanishes into a cloud of emissions and we can no longer see it with our eyes or hold it in our hands, humans seem to have a much harder time accepting that coal’s materiality still exists, though in a different form.

Invisible gases, like oxygen and carbon dioxide, are composed of actual material things—molecules. And, as we have suggested earlier, there is no “zero” when it comes to carbon footprints.  When molecules of wood or coal disassemble, they reassemble elsewhere, often coupled with other materials’ molecules. In the case of burned coal, the carbon locked up inside goes air-borne, newly reconfigured in the form of CO2.

The New School aims to be a “carbon neutral” university by 2040 (carbon being short for carbon dioxide). For fiscal year 2011-12, the school has purchased the equivalent of a 100% of their estimated electric consumption, 26,428,256 kWh, in 100% wind Green-e certified Renewable Energy Certificates (REC). This equates 12,218,465 pounds of carbon diverted.

Yet, what seems newly important for humans to get our heads around is this: even if we participate in carbon “trading” or carbon “offsetting” while taking international flights, driving cars, or using lots of electricity to heat and cool the spaces we live and work in, the direct emissions that result from these activities—material molecules of CO2—are still generated and released. Regardless of trading or offsetting, that flight or car ride generated molecules of CO2 that exist in material form and alter the climate.

It’s a bit of an imaginative leap, but we might attempt to “thingify” invisible molecules of carbon dioxide emission by visualizing them as hunks of coal-in-transition. The more carbon that humans pump into the atmosphere in the form of CO2, the closer the air above us, and in our lungs, approximates coal itself.

image Climate Lab

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.

The Thingness of Energy
08.15.2011, 4:52 pm
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“At a time when faulty oil rigs pose overwhelming challenges, when concrete barriers continue to brutally define boundaries, when engineered food has forever altered what people eat, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics embarks on a two-year exploration of the material world. In the face of virtual realities, social media and disembodied existences, the center will focus on the material conditions of our lives and examine “thingness,” the nature of matter.

From the fall of 2011 to the spring of 2013, the Vera List Center (VLC) will organize public and transdisciplinary conversations, roundtables, workshops, and on-line programs, involving scholars, artists, policy makers, journalists and cultural workers, around the topic of  “thingness.”” – Vera List Center for Art and Politics

Ravenswood Generating Station in Long Island City, aka “Big Allis” after the million-kilowatt Allis-Chalmers generator inside.
When it opened in 1963 it was the largest electrical generating unit in the world.
It produces 20% of New York City’s energy needs, FOP 2011

It’s not news to repeat readers of this blog that humans are both intimately living with and rapidly using up materials that took scores of millions of years to form.  Or that humans enculturate geologic materials, transforming them into products, life-supporting affordances, architectures, and infrastructures.  Yet, most of us don’t immediately think of geologic things when we pay our electricity bills or surf the internet. Humans rarely connect seemingly immaterial things such as “energy” and electricity with the interminably slow processes, monumental temperatures and pressures, and sheer mass of matter that it takes to compose many of the substances that power our lights and computers. Yet, when we acknowledge the reality of ever increasing energy demand, dwindling reserves, and the precarious nature of many of our electricity generating and delivery infrastructures, it is clear why energy has become one of the most pressing issues humans face.

In an effort to create new contexts for energy to be sensed as a tangible, material—and perhaps even “living” force in our lives—FOP is launching a year-long artist project in collaboration with The New School‘s Vera List Center and the Office for Sustainability, Facilities Management.  In response to the Center’s 2011-13 theme of “thingness,” FOP’s project is entitled, The Thingness of Energy.  We will explore, literally, the “things” that fuel The New School by creating artworks that invite audiences (students, faculty, staff, and the public) to newly sense energy as being composed of materials that result from and contribute to geologic forces and flows.

from The New School’s 2011 Climate Action Plan

The Thingness of Energy will take up a wide-range of energy related topics, including some related to the current draft of The New School’s Climate Action Plan, with its ambitious goal of becoming a carbon neutral institution by 2040. With the support of Security, Systems and Facilities staff, we will use The New School as a case-study for documenting where and how “energy” flows into and through an urban campus, along entry and exit points for wires and cables, electrical outlets and breaker boxes, ventilation ducts—and the carbon intensive spots such as server rooms.  We’ll attempt to untangle and trace local manifestations of the seemingly indecipherable “grid” that supplies electricity to New York City, and in turn The New School, including the Eastern Interconnection and the Northeast Power Coordinating Council (NPCC).

distribution board, via wikicommons

As author Jane Bennett has said,”the electrical grid is a better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood— to name just some of the actants” (Vibrant Matter, p. 25). Working from Bennett’s insights, FOP will also follow the flows and effects of #2 and #4 heating oils, natural gas, nuclear power, coal, hydro power and steam not only through the walls of The New School and around the City, but upriver, upstate—and beyond, considering how these energy “things” are forms of “vibrant matter,” substances in motion that act both with and independently of human actions and desires.

transmission substation via wikicommons

Our approach will be research-based, but the outcomes will be aesthetic.  We will creatively respond to equivalents (such as the hertz, lumen, and kelvin) invented by humans in attempts to grasp and quantify the scales and speeds of the raw heat and light.  We look forward to finding ways to make palpable the monumental scale of difference between a watt and a gigawatt, and to designing ways to actually sense the thingness of the British Thermal Unit (one BTU is equivalent to a single burning match).

We plan to construct five interactive “geo-cache boxes,” tag them with GPS coordinates, and install them throughout The New School during the spring of 2012. These boxes will function both as art installations and as pedagogical provocations for students, faculty, and the public to engage. Updates and works-in-progress related to the project will be posted throughout the next year.

A primary goal for The Thingness of Energy is to render sense-able and palpable the complex, monumental histories of the earth materials that are converted into energy, and then transported along remote and local grids, to power the production of knowledge at urban universities such as The New School.


The Vera List Center for Art and Politics has begun to announce its programming for Fall 2011. The inaugural lecture for the 2011-13 theme of “thingness” will take place on September 13th at 6:30 pm and be presented by Janet Bennett, author of the Vibrant Matter

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