Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Solar Slums and Urban Design with Blender

(Image shows AKTC models imported into Blender for proper spatial alignment with Google Earth maps per the instructions in Yorik VanHavre's tutorial "Urban Design with Blender". The Google Earth image was loaded into Blender using the "View-Background Image" command and the view was set to Orthographic Top. A transparent plane was created 250x250 Blender Units large and the image was sized to its maximum of 250x250. Models were brought in as .obj files and snapped to the plane (z coordinate 0) then rotated on the Z axis and moved in x and y space and scaled until they fit the map. )

(Image shows the same screen rotated in perspective mode. Note that the background image from Google Earth disappears, leaving only the three dimensional models, now properly situated in space. The beauty of using Blender and Elder Scrolls Oblivion for Urban Design is that now we can have our avatar walk through the community to buy white goods (appliances) for heating water or to buy glass, copper and aluminum sheet for solar hot water systems in REAL-TIME, demonstrating just how difficult and time consuming it is for the urban poor, most of whom have no transportation, to exercise consumer choice. I hypothesize that the transaction costs, as opposed to merely the financial costs, associated with obtaining materials and goods is one barrier impeding the poor from adopting new and/or more environmentally and economically friendly technologies. The simulation technology of off-the shelf computer game engines can help us model these transaction costs. This is one example of how these tools can aid us in Urban Design and the creation of Solar Cities.)

At Solar C3ITIES the acronym "C3ITIES" stands for "Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems". It's a mouthful, but it reflects our guiding philosophies as on the ground planners in Cairo, Egypt: a) the tools and resources and human capital are all out there, but we have to connect the community catalysts who can mobilize them effectively and b) drawing on the work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart and Egypt's own Salah El Haggar and Salah Arafa, we must manifest ecologically intelligent design and create Industrial Ecology Systems (cradle to cradle recycling with sunlight as the subtending negentropic force) -- and fast.

But the word "C3ITIES" in Solar C3ITIES also reflects our unique concern with urban design and urban issues, because we live in a unique and ecologically delicate time in history when more people live in cities than in any other habitat type. Additionally, as Mike Davis points out in "Planet of Slums" we live in a time when most people live in a slum.

Most of these slums are the byproduct of, as McDonough puts it "an industrial system that takes, makes and wastes."

Industrial Ecology Systems, on the other hand, he points out "can become the creator of goods and services that generate ecological, social and economic value."

When Industrial Ecology Systems are applied to the slums and ghettoes of the world, and are powered by solar energy and its derivatives (biomass, wind, hydro, groundsource heat) it is my contention that these areas will cease being slums.

Our work living among the urban poor of Cairo, living in the slum with them and daily visiting the garbage recycling community of the Zabaleen, has shown us that while pollution is "the right thing in the wrong place at the wrong time" it is not enough to move what we have now discovered are recyclable materials into a "safe place". Even when we learn to see "waste" (production and consumption residuals) as "the right thing" for new industrial processes we must not learn to see the city as "the wrong place" for waste. When we move wastes away from labor (which is concentrated in the cities along with the waste) we also remove opportunity from labor. Let's face it -- the reason the Zabaleen live among garbage is because it is the most efficient way to recycle garbage (lower transaction costs -- no transportation, fewer property rights issues).

What urban designers (including community stakeholders of course, who should be empowered as urban designers) need to do is to find clean, healthy ways to deal with residuals in-situ. And that means putting clean industries into mixed zoning areas where people live, dispensing with the current Egyptian obsession to move factories out into the desert into far off proto-cities like Madinat Badr, where the PrimaPlast factory is located -- an hour or two from the zabaleen who must supply it with shredded plastic bags.

The problem with our Cairo ghettoes is that they are filthy and polluted and their small scale industries contaminate the neighborhoods with toxic chemicals and smoke.

But the answer is not moving the industries and the raw materials out of the neighborhood to remote locations where they can supposedly degrade their environments with impunity! The answer is creating industrial ecology systems within the community itself. And to power these clean industries, we need to make use of the one factor input that Egypt is blessed with more than almost any other country on the planet:


Harnessed solar energy creates no smoke or carcinogenic byproducts, and requires no transportation. Coupled with closed-loop industrial cycles, sunshine can be part of a clean industry soltuion for the urban poor. Almost all the big slums in the world are located in "developing countries" and most of those countries are in the tropical and subtropical regions of the planet which receive the most sunlight, so Solar Slums are a no brainer .

While many planners push for the development of large scale solar energy systems in deserts and fields to get the economies of scale big industry wants, we advocate a more Proudhonian approach - locally scaled industrial ecology systems that make use of local factor inputs and local energy sources.

You can argue that industries' historic push for ever larger economies of scale has radically increased the returns to scale and thus the profits of industry. But we don't see that translating into more liveable cities -- certainly not for the other 90% of the people on the planet. The deadweight losses are enormous, the negative externalities are enormous, the human immiseration is enormous.

Since the urban poor are burgeoning in number even as industry moves out to the hinterlands, can we really see the development of even a clean renewable energy economy that is external to the city necessarily helping improve their lot, even if the basic energy infrastructure of our civilization suddenly gets cleaner?

Do the urban masses really know or care if their electricity and gas come from clean renewable sources and their consumer goods come from factories that have clean and efficient recycling facilities if those factories are far away? If their home neighborhoods are still choked with production and consumption residuals that weren't worth removing and taking to those far off places, what was the advantage to them (looked at through their eyes)?

Part of what makes the slums unliveable are precisely those items that nobody can make a profit off of that are scattered about the landscape. Another part is the decaying or incomplete infrastructure that nobody can afford to fix.

Does it just come down to a lack of money?

I argue no -- money is a liquid carrier of value (that's where we get the term "liquidity") and most value is a representation of some form of energy. When energy is available work is possible. When it isn't nothing can get done.

The thing about urban development in the third world is that solar energy and biomass energy (in the form of city garbage) are ubiquitous. They are availabe to almost everybody. They just aren't captured and transformed and stored efficiently.

We argue that attention to urban re-design with an eye toward capitalizing on the solar and biomass energy that is locally available, when coupled with waste-free recycling (which is easier to achieve at the local level -- i.e. the mess maker is more likely to clean up that mess if the mess taker is nearbye ) will go a long way toward increasing the liveability of what are now slums.

Such solar slums would be the first step toward the creation of integrated solar cities.

And Solar Cities, I argue, are essential for our survival.

Getting to the eutopia I describe is not as easy as all of us simply deciding to "go solar", whatever that means. We have to take a radical BIM (Building Information Modeling) approach where we put our design technologies to work re-envisioning urban slums.

As I keep stressing with every blog I write, the tools are now out there, many of them at low cost, but the "experts" who can apply these tools are rare and usually expensive.

Today's discovery is that two of those experts are generous enough to share their experiences re-thinking urban design using FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and are providing tutorials for us laypeople.

The couple are Yorik and Maira VanHavre, freelance architects
from Brazil who are part of the open source community and have a passion for innovative urban design in developing countries.

Today I am working through Yorik's tutorial on Urban Design with Blender:

It shows how to bring Google Earth maps into Blender to create the foundation of your modelling -- something I need to be able to do to precisely position the buildings in old Cairo for export to the Elder Scrolls Construction Set.

Since Google Earth is probably the best way to visualize the spatial problems we face as we develop the earth, allowing precise measurements of distances and the ability to visualize space in x, y and z dimensions, it is extremely important to be able to use its output as the starting point for interactive modeling and simulation programs wherein we can test our ideas for slum resdesign. How better to see if we can put a biogas facility using urban garbage and pig waste in Muqattam hills than modelling the upwind/downwind impact of site placement first in a sim? And how to relate that sim to the real world if we don't know where it really is? Thus the need to couple Google Earth images with FOSS modeling packages.

I am aware that this process is almost automatic in Google Sketchup, which I love. But since Google Sketchup's free version does not allow those beautifully geo-referenced models to be exported, and the Sketchup Pro fee of $50 is a months salary for a teacher at the Zabaleen school... well, you do the math!

Thanks to Yorik and Maira, with their generous sharing of their Google Earth/Blender solution, we are another step closer to our Solar CITIES dream -- the dream of a true Solar Slum evolving toward its proud emergence into a world of true Solar Cities.


Yorik said...

Hi! Thanks a lot for the kind words in your article, I'm happy you liked the tutorial, I hope it'll be useful to you! Cheers

Maíra Zasso said...

I'm Maíra Zasso, the same who is in your post. You're right, I'm part of the open source community and have a passion for innovative urban design in developing countries.
But, although I work with Yorik in many projects, the tutorials are just his work. So I'd like to say this. Anyway, I'm happy you liked our work is general. Thanks!

T.H. Culhane said...

Hi Yorik, Hi Maira,

Thanks for commenting. I changed the text so that it says "Yorik's tutorials", but continue to thank both of you for your innovative work.
I enjoyed Brazil tremendously when I visited with my UCLA Urban Planning cohort a few years ago, I have a good friend, Theresa Williamson, who runs an NGO in Brazil called Catalytic Communities, so perhaps some time in the future if my wife and I visit her and her husband we can also meet you!